Troy Basketball: Phil Cunningham fired after 6 years as head coach

Let’s look at Phil Cunningham’s coaching career and consider how Troy will replace him going forward.

After six seasons, Phil Cunningham has been relieved of his head coaching duties by the Troy Trojans. Cunningham led the Trojans to the NCAA Tournament back in 2017 but could not win enough games this season to save his job. A longtime assistant, he entered the year at 230th on our early season head coach rankings, but his Trojans were a disappointment in 2019.

Cunningham played collegiately at Kentucky Wesleyan and Campbellsville and got his start in coaching at his alma mater. He had a brief term as head coach of the former Sue Bennett College before embarking on a long run as a D-1 assistant. He spent 12 years under Rick Stansbury at Mississippi State and a season at Western Kentucky before Troy hired him in 2013. This position was the first big coaching job for someone once named one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the country.

The Trojans hired him to replace longtime coach Don Maestri, inheriting a squad that had been struggling since joining the Sun Belt Conference. Cunningham’s first three seasons had few bright spots, but year four was a step in the right direction. The Trojans tied for sixth in the Sun Belt and caught fire at the conference tournament, winning the whole thing and making the NCAA Tournament in 2017. The season ended with 22 wins and a loss to Duke, but it certainly put the Trojans on the right track.

Unfortunately, that success would not last for Cunningham. The following season would bring a tie for fifth place but a worse record. Greater things were expected for the team this season, but they really struggled, finishing just 12-18. At twelfth place, the Trojans didn’t even qualify for the Sun Belt Tournament, and decided enough was enough for Cunningham’s tenure. He leaves with an 80-111 record, which includes a less-than-successful 39-73 record in Sun Belt play.

The next head coach will have some work ahead of them, as the Trojans will graduate three starters, including their best player. Jordon Varnado (21.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg) dealt with injury issues at the end of the year while fellow senior forward Alex Hicks (12.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg) led the way with 15 points in the team’s season finale victory over Coastal Carolina. Unfortunately, this team struggled mightily on defense, dropping ten of their last twelve games.

The Sun Belt is a league that has the ability to produce exciting teams, and the next head coach of Troy will have this opportunity. While Georgia State has been great for several years, these Trojans can get back to the NCAA Tournament in a few years if they nail this hire. Nabbing another talented assistant coach might be the way to go, but giving a chance to a D-2 or D-3 head coach with relevant experience could be a wise move.

Cunningham may have lost control of this past season, but his six years were not a complete failure. He led the Trojans to their first Sun Belt title and just their second NCAA Tournament bid. There wasn’t enough winning or consistency down the stretch, but he did good things with these Varnado-led teams. Unfortunately, these departures means that the next head coach has a lot of work ahead of him, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. There’s potential for big things in Troy as long as the Trojans nail this next hire.