Entering his 11th season of experience in the Big Sky Conference, Eastern Washington University men’s basketball coach Kirk Earlywine is hoping his team makes it over the hump in the 2010-11 season.
And with three starting guards returning, he certainly feels his program is as close as it’s ever been as he enters his fourth season at the helm. It’s even to the point that he believes his team can compete for a spot among the league’s elite.
“I think we are much closer to accomplishing that than we have been,” he explained. “Even a year ago we felt like we were coaching all 13 guys every day. Now we have players -- our three returning guards especially -- doing what you expect returning leaders to do. And that is to help coach the younger players and the new guys as to what we are looking for and what we want.
“This is my first year since I got the job that I haven’t felt like we were playing catch-up in terms of our recruiting,” he added. “We are recruiting better players and winning more recruiting battles because we are getting involved with players earlier -- the summer before their junior year. We haven’t been able to do that up to this point.”
Earlywine, 46, led a team that featured three starting freshman guards to a 9-21 record overall and 5-11 Big Sky Conference mark in the 2009-10 season. Although the Eagles won three of their last six games -- including a home sweep of Montana and Montana State -- Eastern did not qualify for the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
One year earlier, Eastern had a 12-18 record overall and 6-10 Big Sky record. The Eagles started the season 6-2, and later in the year lost a tiebreaker with Montana for the sixth and final league tourney berth.
In his debut year, he led the Eagles to a respectable 11-19 finish that included a 6-10 league mark. Among the team’s triumphs in his first season was a victory over Portland State, which would go on to win the league’s regular season and tournament titles and represent the Big Sky in the NCAA Tournament.
Hired on the late date of June 14, 2007, Earlywine’s first team had six players who had never played in a NCAA Division I game. Earlywine came to EWU after spending one season as the top assistant coach at UNC Wilmington – his 21st as an assistant at the NCAA Division I level. He also spent the 1995-96 season as a head coach at Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C.
His 25-year collegiate coaching career includes seven seasons at Weber State where he worked as associate head coach on the staff of Joe Cravens. The Wildcats won 116 games while Earlywine was there – the most in the Big Sky in that span.
The 2002-03 Weber State team had a perfect 14-0 Big Sky finish. The Wildcats defeated Eastern 60-57 for the Big Sky title, then lost to Wisconsin 81-74 in the NCAA Tournament. The following season, Eastern advanced to its first-ever NCAA Tournament prior to going 38-49 the next three seasons before Earlywine arrived.
Eastern received recommendations from several high-profile collegiate head coaches, including Bruce Weber (Illinois), Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) and Dick Hunsaker (Utah Valley State and formerly at Utah). Earlywine worked with Hunsaker at Ball State when they both served on the staff of Rick Majerus, who then hired Earlywine to join him at the University of Utah. Majerus, Weber, Ryan and Hunsaker have combined to win various national coach of the year honors in eight different seasons at the NCAA Division I level.
“Kirk is one of the best basketball minds I know with a proven record of success,” Weber said. “Having myself struggled to get that first Division I head coaching position, it is wonderful to see a coach of Kirk’s caliber finally get the opportunity to lead a program. He will accomplish great things.”
Former Portland State University head coach Heath Schroyer, now at Wyoming, has coached against teams Earlywine has been with and had this to say about his colleague:
“I coached against Kirk when I was an assistant at Brigham Young and when I was at Portland State,” he said. “He is, without a doubt, one of the best basketball minds in the game and can really evaluate talent.”
Earlywine is a 1987 graduate of Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., where he served as a student assistant coach for two seasons. He went on to coach at Ball State (two seasons from 1987-89), Utah (four seasons from 1989-93), Central Michigan (two seasons from 1993-95), Wisconsin-Milwaukee (three seasons from 1996-99) and Weber State (seven seasons from 1999-2006).
Finishes 21-8 as Head Coach at Pfeiffer . . .
Earlywine’s team at Pfeiffer was 21-8 overall and 14-4 in conference play to advance to the NCAA Division II Championships. It was the school’s first season as a D-II member after playing previously as a member of the NAIA.
He took over the team in July 1995 with only two players returning and picked up a 71-62 first-round NCAA Division II Tournament victory over 12th-ranked N.C. Central. The season ended with a 49-47 loss to undefeated and No. 1 ranked Virginia Union in the regional semifinals.
An Indiana native, Earlywine played one season of college hoops as a point guard for Billy Lee at Pembroke before following Lee to Campbell as a student assistant coach. In 1986-87, the Camels recorded their first winning record in Division I action with a 17-13 mark, finishing 10-4 in the Big South Conference.
Earlywine’s first full-time post came in 1987-88 under the colorful Rick Majerus at Ball State. He worked two seasons for Majerus in Muncie, Ind., including an outstanding campaign in 1988-89 that featured the Mid-American Conference title, a 29-3 record and a first-round victory over Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament.
Earlywine then followed Majerus to Utah in 1989-90 and stayed four seasons. In his second year in Salt Lake City, the Utes went 30-4, captured the Western Athletic Conference title and reached the “Sweet Sixteen” with a sterling 30-4 record. Utah advanced to the NIT Final Four in 1991-92 and captured the WAC championship once again in 1992-93.
His next stop as an assistant came in 1993-94 when Earlywine served on Leonard Drake’s staff at Central Michigan. He spent two seasons with the Chippewas before landing his first head coaching job at Pfeiffer, where one of Earlywine’s assistants was a young Benny Moss.
More than 10 years later, Earlywine’s 21st year as a D-I assistant came in the 2006-07 season at UNC Wilmington where he worked for Moss.
“Kirk is a tremendous student of the game,” said Moss at the time of Earlywine’s hiring. “He’s a very good teacher, motivator and an evaluator of talent. He has worked for some of the best basketball minds in the business.”
Earlywine earned his bachelor of science degree in physical education from Campbell in 1987. He was born July 4, 1964.
“I grew up in a gym with my father as a high school coach,” added Earlywine, a native of Indiana. “So playing basketball and now coaching basketball has always been my passion.”