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Coach Shopping During March Madness


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
It was last week Friday that Buzz Williams announced he was leaving Marquette for Virginia Tech, but his departure was far from the only one in college hoops. There are more than a dozen head coach openings in D1 college basketball right now and for fans of those schools, the NCAA tournament serves as a visual supermarket of potential candidates. A few of the national college hoops reporters will stoke the fire by attaching some names as potential candidates for specific jobs, perhaps fed by agents of the coaches or the coaches themselves. From there, the fans will begin the college basketball version of silly season- rumors, speculation, weighing of the pros and cons of each potential candidate, then finally the reaction when the new coach is hired.

It can be the best of times and the worst of times for college basketball fans. Double-digit seeds pulling upsets and moving deeper into the tournament than anyone from that school had done since the Reagan administration, if ever. Fans may be wildly ecstatic over their team's success, however, with that success comes the inevitable attention from other schools seeking a new coach. The better your upstart team becomes, the more likely you're going to lose your coach to another school. 

Dayton fans may breathe a sigh of relief knowing their coach, Archie Miller, just signed an extension through 2019. However, there's a good chance the terms of that contract extension were the direct result of another school's efforts to lure Miller away. Contract extensions don't scare off suitors either. It was just last year that Steve Alford signed a ten-year extension with New Mexico, only to be introduced as the new UCLA coach less than two weeks later.

The break-ups can be difficult and awkward. Fans that were loyal to the point of being self-admitted apologists for a coach can suddenly turn against him, with feelings of abandonment, rejection and a general sense of betrayal washing over them. That's ok and it's actually probably normal. It's that passion for the game that generates and sustains interest, sells tickets, encourages donations, drives TV ratings and makes the game what it is. I suppose I've witnessed this enough to take a somewhat level-headed approach to it.

As I watched Buzz Williams depart my alma mater, I felt disappointed that a coach who had brought so much success on the court to my school was leaving. At the same time, I knew it was the nature of the business. Rare is the coach who is able to depart a hero, like Al McGuire did, retiring after winning the championship in 1977. In most situations, coaches realize if they stick around long enough, they'll end up being cast by someone as the villain and it might be a good idea to beat the posse out of town, even if it hasn't formed yet.

According to D1scource's analysis from last year, Jim Boeheim is the only coach left in Division 1, who was hired at his current school in the 1970s. Perhaps even more surprising is that there were just seven coaches out of 351, who were hired at their current positions in the 1980s and at least one of those, Dave Boots at South Dakota, has since resigned. Just 25 out of 351 coaches (including Boots) were hired prior to 2000.

That makes for a lot of turnover in the coaching industry. So if we have accepted it for what it is, can we move past the emotional loss of a departing coach? Maybe. If we can, are we able to take a measured approach to the arrival of the new coach? That could be more of a challenge.

Surprisingly, many fans are hard to satisfy with the arrival of a new coach. Sometimes their expectations are unrealistic- "How come Coach K didn't drop Duke like a bad habit to coach my favorite team?" Sometimes their opinions are uninformed- "How could Marquette hire a guy like Buzz Williams?!? His only head coaching experience was a cup of coffee at a New Orleans program that seemed destined for D2!!!

In spite of his previous unremarkable head coaching resume, Williams turned out to be a pretty good hire, didn't he? That would seem to suggest the folks who made that call either knew something about evaluating coaching talent that casual fans did not or they were extremely lucky in picking up a relatively-unknown assistant coach, who ended up taking his teams to the Sweet 16 three years in a row just a few years into his tenure. Personally, I don't think luck had much to do with it.

So fans from Wake Forest, MU, Boston College, South Florida and other schools are now forming opinions on potential head coaching candidates based on the relatively small sample of games in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, the administrators and those who actually do the hiring continue observing and gathering intel on potential candidates as they have been doing since hired. After all, their job is to know that industry and be ready to react with a solid base of knowledge when a coaching change is needed. 

Their vision extends well beyond the head coach standing on the sidelines in the NCAA tournament, although casual fans rarely look much further. Maybe they should? Looking at the remaining 16 head coaches in the NCAA tournament, consider what they were doing prior to being hired to those positions-

-Florida's Billy Donovan was the head coach at Marshall and never made the NCAA tournament there

-UCLA's Steve Alford was the head coach at New Mexico and missed the NCAA tournament three times in six seasons

-Dayton's Archie Miller was an assistant coach for his brother, Sean at Arizona

-Stanford's Johnny Dawkins was an assistant coach at Duke

-Virginia's Tony Bennett just came off a 17-16 season at Washington State & a first-round loss in the NIT

-Michigan State's Tom Izzo was an assistant coach at MSU

-Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg had no prior coaching experience at all

-UConn's Kevin Ollie was an assistant coach for just two years under Jim Calhoun before being hired

-Arizona's Sean Miller is the rarity in this group both in terms of experience and success, having four consecutive NCAA appearances at Xavier before being hired

-As successful as he may have been earlier in his career, San Diego State hired Steve Fisher, who was just one year removed from being fired at Michigan in the aftermath of an off court scandal involving booster Ed Martin

-Baylor's Scott Drew had just one season of experience as a head coach at Valparaiso, where he lost in the first round of the NIT

-Wisconsin's Bo Ryan had just two years of head coaching experience at the Division 1 level and a losing conference record in the Horizon league with UW-Milwaukee

-Like Sean Miller, Kentucky's John Calipari also had an impressive resume, with over 400 career wins, Final Four appearances and NBA connections

-Louisville's Rick Pitino also had a stellar coaching resume with an NBA background and plenty of NCAA rings from different schools

-Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin had an 11-20 season, won the CIT and lost in the second round of the NIT in his three seasons at Missouri State before arriving in Knoxville.

-Michigan's John Beilein had 15 years of Division 1 head coaching experience, but only made the NCAA tournament four times and only made it past the first weekend twice.

While it's easy to say I cherry-picked some of the less-impressive elements of these coaching resumes and ignored some of their other impressive qualifications, isn't that basically what basketball fans do when they react to unfamiliar new hires with a healthy dose of skepticism? What about the fans who think Brad Underwood's single season of head coaching experience and brief tournament run at Stephen F. Austin warrants consideration, but have no clue who the top assistants are on Tom Izzo's staff?

Rare is the "home run hire" in college basketball universally evident from day one. Be patient with your new coach and trust the folks who hired him, especially if they've made good hires in the past or recognized that a change needed to be made and were willing to make it.

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