Southern Illinois letting go of ‘legendary’ Mullins is an odd decision

I read the news release a few times, just to make sure I understood it correctly.

Bryan Mullins was no longer the men’s basketball coach at Southern Illinois University, the victim of an athletic director deciding not to extend his contract.

OK … got it. I’m certainly no expert on Salukis hoops, but I personally thought the 2005 Downers Grove South High School graduate was doing a pretty good job.

Last week’s announcement seemed to agree with me.

“After losing its top two scorers in the transfer portal to Illinois (Marcus Domask) and Purdue (Lance Jones), Southern was picked to finish ninth this year,” the statement read. “Instead, the Salukis were in the hunt for a top seed at the (Missouri Valley Conference) Tournament until the final game of the regular season, when they lost at home to Northern Iowa. Mullins finished third in the voting for the league's Coach of the Year award.”

Wait … let me read the release again. Yep, Southern Illinois parted ways with its fifth-year coach.

I’ll admit to having a dog in this fight. I covered Mullins and his older brother, Brendan, when they revived Downers South’s program about 20 years ago.

As a senior in 2005, Mullins carried the Mustangs to a third-place Class AA finish and was named the Daily Herald’s DuPage County All-Area Captain. The gritty point guard then helped lead SIU to a Sweet Sixteen NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007.

  Downers Grove South graduate Bryan Mullins was the 2004-05 Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area Boys Basketball Captain. Brian Hill/

He’s royalty in Carbondale. Or, as the SIU news release stated itself, he’s achieved “legendary status.”

Point blank — Bryan Mullins may be the best combination of athletic ability and character I’ve seen in more than 30 years on the beat. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of favorite athletes I’ve covered.

Interestingly, SIU athletic director Tim Leonard has similar feelings about Mullins.

In an interview with River Radio 103.5 FM in the wake of the separation announcement, Leonard raved about Mullins being one of the “classiest human beings I’ve ever been around” and how “the young men he’s brought on to this campus have been just tremendous individuals and are all going to go on to successful things in life.

“Bryan should be revered around here and thanked for all that he’s done,” Leonard told host Matt Varney.

Let me read that release one more time … just to make sure it didn’t announce a contract extension instead of a separation.

Leonard, though, also said college basketball is a business about winning and attracting NIL support. Mullins, even with an 86-68 overall record, including 19-13 this season, didn’t win enough for Leonard to merit that extension.

In Mullins’ five seasons at the helm, the Salukis didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament. That pretty much sealed the decision.

“We haven’t gotten over the hump,” Leonard told Varney. “I get it if people are upset, but that’s part of it.”

The question I have, though, is who does he expect to replace Mullins? The MVC plays tremendous basketball — Loyola’s success alone is evidence — but is Bill Self leaving Kansas to take the SIU job?

Leonard may indeed discover the ideal choice to take over the program. I just wonder if they’ll be a better option than someone with “legendary” SIU roots who was doing things the right way.

I’m sure Mullins will land on his feet … perhaps remaining in the MVC at the University of Illinois-Chicago?

Whatever success awaits, it’s a shame it won’t be at SIU.

Bryan Mullins led Southern Illinois University to a Sweet Sixteen berth in the 2007 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Associated Press
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