Ahead of the Game

David Ragland’s return to Evansville is more than a homecoming: it’s a chance to build a contender out of the Purple Aces

Grit, perseverance, and dedication drive David Ragland’s approach to his first season at the helm of the University of Evansville men’s basketball program. The latest stop in a 19-year coaching career in college basketball, the Evansville native and standout player at William Henry Harrison High School returns home to guide a new era of Aces basketball that has grappled with the tumult of two head coaching changes in three seasons and a new athletic director.

Ragland, who played point guard for two seasons of college ball at the University of Southern Indiana and led the team in assists both years, comes from strong local roots. His mother, Karen, is an Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation board trustee. His father, Darrell, worked as a technician at Alcoa (now Kaiser Aluminum) for 25 years and served on the Indiana Civil Rights Commission under three governors.

Shocked when their son, quiet and reserved as a child, took on coaching as a career, Ragland says his parents inspired him to be a servant leader. Coaching college basketball, he adds, allows him to positively impact young players and youth in the community.

“Fortunately, my parents taught me to serve others, to work hard, to be respectful and that’s what I believe life is about: How do you help other people?” Ragland says.

Living back on the East Side, Ragland says moving to Evansville has allowed him to show his two children, Ava and Josh, where he met his wife Annie at USI, where they lived in college, and where they worked prior to their current jobs.

“Moving back home has been a great adventure because we moved to a place where we have relationships, friendships, and family,” he says. “My wife and kids now have a more in-depth look at how I was raised, the places I grew up, the places I played, as well as the places that have left lasting memories for me in my journey.”

Ragland landed his first college basketball coaching job in 2004 as an assistant at Frank Phillips College in Borger, Texas, before returning to the Tri-State to coach at Vincennes University for five years, first as an assistant and then as its 27-year-old head coach. His debut in the top job with the Trailblazers netted 44 wins in two seasons.

“I thought I knew it all, and I quickly found out I didn’t,” he says. “But it was a great experience, and I learned a lot.”

At 41 years old, Ragland already has assistant coached for six Division I programs. He landed his first D1 job at Indiana State University in Terre Haute from 2010 to 2014 under coach Greg Lansing, before a one-year stint each at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky, and two years at Valparaiso University.

His last year at Valparaiso, his father Darrell died after a 15-year battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a tough blow to Ragland, who still spoke with his father every day as he was coaching across the Midwest. Wanting to fulfill one of this father’s dreams of living out West, he took a coaching job at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, in 2018 and helped guide the Aggies to two NCAA tournament appearances.

“It was tough,” he says. “He was my best friend. After he passed, I would start to pick up my phone (and remember) … I can’t call him.”

Ragland’s latest coaching stint came at Indianapolis’ Butler University for the 2021-22 season. He expected to stay in the same position this season despite a head coaching change from LaVall Jordan to Thad Matta.

“Next thing I know, Dr. Ziggy” — Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried, who was named UE’s athletic director in April — “calls and asks about my interest in UE,” he says. “For me, this is home. I love the place. It was a no brainer.”

“To come back home to a place that means so much to me. I think about the amount of people that have come to see our practice or visit me or bring their grandkids or kids to camp,” adds Ragland, who interviewed for the UE head coach position in 2018 but was passed over for former NBA player Walter McCarty, another Harrison graduate. “It’s a special place.”

Siegfried says Ragland separated himself from other candidates during the national search through his experience and connection to the city.

Photo provided by the University of Southern Indiana

“David brings a wealth of experience that will help our program in every way, while his familiarity with the Evansville community will help to reengage our supporters,” he says. 

Ragland learned to love basketball attending UE games at Roberts Stadium, the former home court for the men’s basketball team, and remembers a raucous crowd of more than 10,000 fans cheering on the Aces year after year.

“These players deserve that in the Ford Center for us to do the same thing,” he says.

The program will have to make some serious strides to be a Missouri Valley Conference contender. The Aces finished the 2021-22 season with just six wins and ranked near the bottom of the conference in scoring offense, rebounds, and assists under coach Todd Lickliter.

Last season’s disappointment came atop a tumultuous 2019-20 season under McCarty, whose tenure ended in scandal after an investigation into alleged his sexual misconduct and violations of the school’s Title IX policy. UE would end that season on a 19-game losing streak and the program has struggled to recover: The team has totaled just 24 wins in the past three seasons.

Lickliter and his entire coaching staff were fired two months after the Aces’ season ended in March, leaving Ragland, hired May 24, little time to assemble a coaching staff and recruit new players. Ragland quickly has rounded out his coaching staff, hiring the likes of former UE players Craig Snow and Marcus Wilson. Completing the roster likely will be a bevy of transfer players and freshman recruits; only five players are returning from last season.

Photo provided by the University of Evansville

“I want to be transparent with all the players that we brought in to know what our expectations and goals are for them,” he says. “The reality is we’re going to win but it’s going to be tough, and if you’re not ready for tough, you may not want to stay put here, and that’s OK.”

Ragland, who describes his coaching style as honest, open, fair, and tough, says his strategy stresses defense, rebounding, and playing downhill.

“We’re going to play fearless, but not reckless,” he says.

Not daunted by the tough task ahead, Ragland must energize the program and build a strong culture if the team is to return to postseason play for the first time since its 2015 CIT title. 

“I want to recruit good players who are good people,” he says. “Do we have to work a little harder to find them? Maybe, but it’s 100 percent worth it.” 

Home Court

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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