Most of the time, I really enjoy a coaching search. It’s one of my favorite times as a reporter because you get to decipher what’s real and what’s crazy – with the rumor mill usually churning up some truly outlandish things. Lately, I wish I wasn’t reporting on job openings at all.
It’s not going to be easy to replace Chris Sullens as boys basketball coach at Warren County. Few, if any, have had more success than Sullens during his run with the Pioneers (129 wins in eight seasons) and I don’t know if anybody has ever cared more about the program. Sullens is a homegrown marvel, a fiery competitor who coached like he played and made winning – even in the postseason – the new norm at Charlie Dalton Gym.
Just like with last week's announcement that Todd Willmore wouldn't be returning to coach girls soccer, WCHS is losing another coaching legend.
In a time where it’s getting harder and harder to attract good coaches, Sullens openly lobbied for the job for years. He was turned down twice before ever getting the opportunity, then made good on his guarantee that he would win a district championship. He even did a little extra – he went back-to-back in District 6AAA and took the Pioneers to the doorstep of the state tournament.
The phrase, “this hasn’t happened in four decades,” became commonplace when describing Sullens’ teams. Warren County consistently made it a habit to conjure up magic not seen in these parts for years – their region win in 2017, district championship in 2020 and substate appearance in 2021 were all things that happened for the first time in my lifetime (I was born in 1986, for context).
While his fist pumps at home and the deafening crowds that came out to support the Pioneers may be something Sullens will always remember, I’m going to cherish the absolute madness on the court in Sparta in 2020 after CJ Taylor’s buzzer beater gave Warren County the district title over rival Warren County. Fans packed the court, growing louder and louder as players went up the ladder to cut down pieces of the net.
At the end, there was Sullens to deliver the last cut. He grabbed the net, threw it around his neck, turned to the crowd and thrust his hands in the air. He didn’t deliver a speech – just a sentence: “Thank you Warren County.”
It’s our turn to say thank you to Chris Sullens.
So, how do you replace a Hall of Fame coach? I’m not sure. The best idea would’ve been to beg him to stay - and even make the concessions necessary to keep him around if needed - but we’ve gone too far now and there is no turning back. That means it’s time for another WCSA Hot Board. Here’s a list of coaches I’d be looking at if I was running the search for Warren County (to be perfectly clear, I won’t be and won’t get asked, even though I think I should):
1. Adam Wood/Camron Bond/Stephen Glenn
These should all be self-explanatory: The trio of Wood, Bond and Glenn have been assisting Sullens for years and helped cultivate the program’s high standards of excellence on and off the court.
Wood has already been a finalist for the job once, finishing runner-up to Sullens back in 2014 before joining as a lead assistant. He has head coaching experience locally, serving as the leader of the WCMS team for a couple years before moving up to the high school. He’s also been an assistant football coach for WCHS.
Bond, who also serves as defensive coordinator for coach Matt Turner in the fall, has long been viewed as one of the young up-and-coming coaches in Warren County. Glenn is a Warren County lifer who has also been a head coach in AAU basketball and the freshman team in the past.
If any were hired, they would continue a trend of going young with hires. August Palombo is a recent example of the WCHS administration not needing a long resume to hire a coach as long as they’ve been tied with the local program.
From early indication, it may be a full-scale change with all three following coach Sullens out the door. I would be surprised if all three applied – it’s more likely none do (Wood offered his resignation as an assistant coach with Sullens Wednesday).
2. Dustin Sullivan
I’ve made this suggestion before, but I’ll continue to bang the drum: Dustin Sullivan is a good coach and he’d do well at Warren County. Sullivan has done a tremendous job at Van Buren County, a place that is near and dear to his heart. Along with being the longtime boys coach of the Eagles, he also serves as the school’s athletic director.
I don’t think Sullivan would leave the mountain to come to Warren County, but the Pioneers would be lucky to have a coach who has won games in the state tournament and knows how to cultivate talent in small communities.
3. Tyler Hillis
Following the hiring trends of all the other recent moves in Warren County, don’t be surprised if the WCHS administration dips back in the alumni pool for a coach. Turner, Palombo, Phillip King and Erin Blalock have all been hired since 2019 and have the same thing in common – they played the sport they coach at Warren County High School (or WCSH).
Hillis would be in the same mold. He’s cut his teeth as a longtime assistant to the great Eric Mitchell in Sparta, but he learned the game locally. He was a standout at Morrison before becoming a starter in high school under Doug Keil.
Again, Hillis’ odds of being the next Pioneer coach is low. I know he’s very happy in his current position, so it would shock me if he even submitted a resume.
4. Raymond Shutt
If you scan the Sullens’ coaching tree, there aren’t a lot of branches that reach out far. His staff has remained largely unchanged over his tenure and they stay home, but there are a few guys who came and went. Shutt would be one of those few.
Shutt is back in the ‘Boro now and, as of the last time we chatted, is happy with what he is doing. Maybe he would be drawn to the allure of taking the top spot on the bench, but he’s another guy who I think would say “thanks, but no thanks” to an offer from Warren County.
5. Anthony Lippe
I know, I know – we already have a good spot for coach Lippe in local basketball. He’s been excellent as the Lady Pioneer coach, taking the program to new heights just this winter. What he’s built should continue to grow next year too, so don’t expect him to try to start all over by walking across Charlie Dalton Gym and entering into the boys locker room.
Still, it shouldn’t be dismissed off-hand. Lippe is another former Sullens assistant who definitely knows the game. He would be worthy successor and somebody who could help steady the program that may have had one down year, but it just a season removed from back-to-back district titles and 20-win seasons.
I’d put the odds of Lippe applying at 1 percent – he loves the Lady Pioneers and I don’t think he’ll bail on them to stay in the same building.
6. Dustin Curtis/Kyle Cannon/John Bryan O'Connor
If you want to stay local without grabbing an alumnus, WCHS could turn its attention to local elementary coaches with lots of success. Curtis and Cannon have taken turns collecting titles at the elementary level over the last decade, dominating at Dibrell and Morrison/Eastside, respectively. O'Connor is a relative newcomer, but he's already hoisted some hardware at Irving College.
Of the three, I’d lean to Curtis due to his full-time attention to boys basketball (Cannon may be one of the best girls coaches in the county). He also has experience – albeit one year – of assembling the county talent together and winning some games. Curtis coached a WC all-star team a few years ago, even beating the Warren County Middle School team along the way.
O'Connor would be higher up on my list if I didn't think he already had a gig lined up for next year.
For the first time, I feel confident in saying we’ve gotten to people who I think check one important category: Willingness to do the job. I don’t think it would take much coaxing to get Curtis or Cannon to step up and take over the Pioneers (O'Connor, on the other hand, would probably have to be swayed hard).
7. Lynus Martin
How about a past rival as the next coach? Lynus certainly fits the bill as a former heel who could be a hero if he won big in Warren County. Martin, currently coaching at Monterey, was with the DeKalb County Tigers for a long time and had his share of success against the Pioneers (at least until Sullens took over).
I like Lynus, but I know some probably wouldn’t. He’s an intense guy and I know there were some people clutching their pearls in Charlie Dalton Gym watching him work his sidelines in the past. I’m OK with intensity – it’s not like Sullens was Ghandi anyway.
Running the risk of being a broken record, I don’t think Martin would leave his current gig for Warren County. I’m pretty sure he’s from the Cookeville area, so he’s close to home now.
8. Isaiah Phillips
If you're looking for somebody who has roamed the sidelines recently in Warren County, Phillips wouldn't be a bad place to start. He was part of Malcolm Montgomery's coaching staff from 2010-13 and would later go on to coach at WCMS. He was a pretty respected tactician - and a good point guard in his playing days as well.
The best part of bringing Phillips back to Warren County would be hopefully turning off the pipeline of kids from the county being pushed toward Blackman - where Phillips currently coaches.
9. Bobby Maze
Just to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep, I thought I’d throw in a crazy curveball. This is purely a pipe dream, but one I think would be hugely beneficial for Warren County if it ever happened.
If you don’t know Bobby Maze, then let me take a second to explain. Maze is a former college standout at Tennessee, but he’s better known now for being one of the biggest AAU coaches in Tennessee (and the Southeast). While I wouldn’t mind at all for somebody from my college alma mater to take the job, I’d want Maze more for his talent connections.
Wherever Maze coaches, talent would be sure to follow. For an area that sometimes draws from a shallow well, it wouldn’t hurt to have a coach that kids would move to play for (not that I’m condoning recruiting).
10. Nick Pelham
Let’s stay crazy – somebody give former Pioneer Nick Pelham a call and see if he’s interested in getting into coaching in Warren County. I have no idea if Pelham has ever coached before, but he knows the game. He also has the luxury of being an alumnus, something I’ve already noted as being a major plus for any candidate.
If I’m being honest though, I really just want Nick to take over at Warren County so he’ll bring his family (and his very, very talented daughter) back to town from Woodbury. It could be a win-win for both basketball programs: the Pioneers get a local in charge on the sidelines and the Lady Pioneers get a star center as the missing key to a potential state run in 2022-23.
11. Joe Pat Cope
This isn’t a crazy suggestion – I think Joe Pat Cope is a very good coach. If he was ever interested in getting back into boys basketball, then Warren County should make a move on the man of many coat colors.
We’re back to suggestions of people who I don’t think will take the job though. Cope has built a powerhouse girls program in Manchester that could only get better in the coming seasons. Sad though – the WCSA Podcast would stay wild with the Notorious JPC.
12. Tyler Sapp
Here’s a guy who is a good coach and, most likely, needs a new home. I’m not saying Sapp is going to get dumped in Van Buren County anytime soon, but the school superintendent did try to can him for being a guy coaching girls back in November (and probably would’ve succeeded if not for WCSA reporting).
Sapp is young, a winner (he just took the VBC girls to the state tournament) and is well respected by almost everybody (except, as noted, the VBC school superintendent). If he’s looking for a change of scenery and less drama – but still some, undoubtedly – then he’d be a good fit on the Warren County sidelines.
13. Robert Hubbs III
Hubbs is just a more realistic Bobby Maze: A UT grad who could potentially attract talent with his name and connections. Hubbs is more attainable because he already coaches in District 6-4A – he’s an assistant in Shelbyville.
As an aside, the Pioneer coaching staff would need a coach who could dunk if the full staff is gone. Before you start calling around asking if Sullens has some unreal hops you didn’t know about, it’s Adam Wood that serves as the current rim rattler (Sullens has serious speed though).
14. Ryan Smith
A blast from the past! Could Ryan Smith get a second chance at Warren County? I think they’d have to listen if he applied at this point.
Smith didn’t enjoy much success in his first stint with the Pioneers – winning just 17 games in four years. In his defense, he was also the last coach in Warren County who had to face Murfreesboro teams as district opponents. The current schedule (and District 6AAA) isn’t easy, but Smith would sleep easier at night prepping for the Raiders and Rebels than the Warriors, Stars, Blaze and Patriots.
I think Smith really grew as a coach during his time at Covenant. He grew that program from the ground up, guiding young kids year-by-year and taking it step-by-step until they were all way to the top by the time he left the Lions. The Pioneers could do a lot worse than a guy with that kind of patience and persistence.
15. Doug Keil
Another BLAST FROM THE PAST! Keil was the man when I was in school who really brought some energy back into the program. Everybody loved the guy with the suspenders who believed in playing fast, faster and fastest (there’s a reason I “retired” before I headed up to the varsity program).
This isn’t going to happen, for a few reasons, but I couldn’t help but list coach Keil. He’s a great guy and good coach who I wished stayed a little longer back in the 2000s.
16. Tim Page/Chris Perry/Johnny Smith
Could Warren County try to private school to public school route again? There are a few options. Page (girls basketball) and Perry (boys) are currently at Boyd, while Smith leads both programs at Covenant. Page, who also is the Boyd athletic director, looks right at home while assembling a growing giant with the Lady Broncos and Perry always struck me as a guy who only would want to lead the Broncos.
Smith is a former Pioneer (soccer and football), so he could throw his hat in the ring. I don’t think it would go far though – he was just named Covenant’s athletic director and basically coaches every team in the school.
If I had to make a bet right now, I’d say the next Pioneer coach is nobody on this list. More likely, Warren County gets somebody in the mold of the previous two hires before Sullens – Malcolm Montgomery and John Dillard. The basketball trend in District 6-4A has been grabbing a college coach and hoping for the best – Shelbyville struggled this year with it, but Franklin County won the regular season. That feels prophetic for that kind of hire, a 50/50 chance it works.
Sullens, through his own blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices, made the odds 100 percent in one aspect – everybody knew the Pioneers had a leader who lived to be on the sideline at Charlie Dalton Gym. It’s going to be hard to find that kind of loyalty again.
Could there be another private school to public school jump to replace Chris Sullens? Chris Perry, Johnny Smith, Tim Page and Ryan Smith have all had recent success at Boyd and Covenant.