Tom Izzo was never a collegiate head coach before he came to Michigan State, and he led the Spartans to a national championship. Andrew Helton doesn’t see why he couldn’t do the same thing at Eastern New Mexico University.
“I’m never going to be in the position to have success until somebody gives me a chance,” said Helton, who has spent the last two seasons coaching post players at the University of South Alabama. “I’ve been an assistant for 16 years, the last seven or eight years with a chance to have input. But I’ve never had a chance to be head coach.”
He’s seeking that chance, as one of three finalists to coach the men’s basketball squad at ENMU. Either Helton, Richard Davis of St. Joseph’s (Indiana) or Greg Young of Jacksonville College (Texas) is expected to replace Shawn Scanlan, who was let go after a 4-23 campaign in his ninth season at the helm.
Helton, a longtime assistant at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said ENMU provides an opportunity to build a championship contender because it’s unheard of for a Division II school to recruit a roster full of NBA players in waiting — something top Division I schools can do year in and year out.
But he sees the infrastructure at ENMU and in the Lone Star Conference to build competitive teams.
“ I’m very interested in Eastern,” he said. “You have a very good community. There’s a great facility. You can really generate a lot of excitement in the area.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, the 39-year-old Helton said. The work would begin the minute he sets foot in the basketball office at Greyhound Arena.
“We need to win quickly,” Helton said. “It may be 15 wins, then 20 the next year; I don’t know what the ceiling is. But we need to win right away and build on that.”
Helton said in recruiting, he would seek a mix of junior college and high school players, but stressed the need to think locally and long-term.
“To me,” Helton said, “why can’t you sign a really good in-state player every year? I think it’s important for your community. I think it’s important for your program.
“The trap you fall into is you have to recruit from here and here, and nobody local is good.”
Helton started at St. Francis, a small Division I, and had an administrative assistant position at the University of Miami (Fla.) before he moved on to Corpus Christi for the bump in salary, with a son on the way.
While there, he moved as high up as associate coach for the Islanders, who went 107-64 during his time. But when the vacancy was open, he said a new athletic director went with a national search, and he took an opportunity with the Mobile, Ala.-based Jaguars. South Alabama has gone 46-20 in his two seasons, with a national tournament berth in 2008.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed to be in good situations with good people,” he said, “but at the same time I know I’ve (had something to do) with the success.”
Now, two years later, he hopes he can follow in the footsteps of Izzo, a long-time assistant and one-time high school coach who has since gone 336-137 and led the Spartans to five Final Four appearances and a title in 2000.
“I think they hired the right guy,” Helton said.