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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Hiring Your Next Head Coach (College Hoops)

I had given this issue considerable thought (and blogged on this point before in the context of picking a successor for Coach K were he to leave Duke for the Lakers) for a while, and it took Dick Vitale to bring it home on Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio yesterday morning.

Dickie V. was waxing eloquent on some of the coaches who made the Elite 8. With his usual exuberance, he elevated Rick Pitino into the upper pantheon of college hoops coaches (ever, and not just current) because Pitino now has taken this third school to the Final Four (the two others being Providence and Kentucky), and he talked for a bit about the accomplishments of Roy Williams and Tom Izzo, both of whom are in the current pantheon. Most of the points he made about these coaches were obvious ones, yet worth making because we shouldn't overlook how hard it is to achieve the status that these coaches have.

The more important point that Dick Vitale made, though, was about certain other coaches, particularly Bruce Weber of Illinois and Bo Ryan of Wisconsin. Weber was an assistant for 18 years before getting his first head coaching job, and Ryan's curriculum vitae had him paying his dues for a long time, as a HS coach, in various college assistants' jobs, 8 years thereafter as an assistant at Wisconsin before spending 15 years at Wisconsin-Platteville, where he led his team to four DIII national titles, and then, in his early 50's, to Wisconsin, where he's done a great job in the past four years. After going through these facts, Vitale brought home the great point -- that college ADs might be looking for their next head coaches in all of the wrong places.

Vitale said that ADs sometimes won't look at coaching candidates unless they've done their apprenticeships for the big-name coaches, the Dean Smiths, Coach Ks, Rick Pitinos, Bob Knights, Tom Izzos, Jim Calhouns, you name it. In so doing, Vitale argued that many ADs could be overlooking outstanding coaches and could be hiring the wrong guys. He further contended that there's nothing that says just because you apprentice for a big name that you're going to be a great coach or that you won't because you don't.

These are excellent points for several reasons. First, it doesn't strike me that head DI men's hoop coaches put the effort into scouting out coaching talent the way they do college basketball talent. That probably happens for two reasons -- you win with the talent you have on the floor much more so than the talent on the bench (great coaches can't turn bad talent into champions) and it's much easier to gauge excellent HS hoop talent than it is future outstanding coaching talent. You can watch kids on film forever and compare their performance against elite players, but how can you tell whether a 22 year-old recent college grad who played college hoops is talented to be a good coach? Sure, you look for enthusiasm, intellect for the game, ethics, hard work, ability to break down tapes, willingness to stay on the road recruiting, but how do you know that the young man has the talent to do that job and to grow? I doubt a head coach has the same confidence in recruiting assistants that he does in recruiting top talent. That's not to say that they don't put solid effort into picking their assistants, but it's probably not as time-honored an art as recruiting your next point guard.

Denny Crum and Roy Williams are great examples, though, of assistants to great coaches who became great coaches in their own right. Crum was John Wooden's top aide at UCLA for years, and Williams was an assistant to Dean Smith at North Carolina for ten years before getting the Kansas job after Larry Brown took his gypsy coaching act elsewhere. Yet, there were more Wooden assistants who didn't become successful head coaches than did (and Gene Bartow also became a successful head coach, building the UAB program from scratch, but Larry Farmer and Gary Cunningham, to name a few, were not especially successful). Bill Guthridge had success as Carolina's head coach after spending his career as Smith's top aide, but Eddie Fogler couldn't find success ultimately at South Carolina after stops at Wichita State and Vanderbilt. He had a good career, but not the "great" career that a few ADs probably had hoped for when they hired him.

Bob Knight mentored a bunch of future head coaches, including Coach K, who clearly is one of the all-time best, but many of his other proteges -- Tom Miller, Dan Dakich, Jim Crews, Bob Weltlich, Don DeVoe, Mike Davis, Bob Donewald, Dave Bliss -- didn't become staples at any particular schools at which they coached. Many had pockets of success, but none to my knowledge built a ten-or-more-year run at a high-end DI school. By the way, that's not to suggest that Knight was a failure as a mentor; it appears that he was an excellent one and helped get his assistants outstanding opportunities. It's just that with the exception of Coach K, none became close to being another Bob Knight.

That's a tough standard to meet -- helping all of your assistants become as successful as you -- no, it's impossible. That Wooden mentored a Crum, Knight a Coach K and Smith a Williams speaks volumes for them. Perhaps that's a lifetime of mentoring achievements right there, in terms of developing coaches for the next generation, and we shouldn't ask for more -- I would argue that it is. Which means, then, that if you're a DI school looking for the next great coach, you have to think hard about going to the same well all of the time. After all, that well might provide but one future great coach, but not a cornucopia of them. Naturally, all ADs will think that this particular Coach K assistant will be the one, so they'll keep on hiring them, but the odds are that that particular Coach K assistant won't be the next Coach K (and, so far, Quin Snyder at Missouri and Tommy Amaker at Michigan haven't proven that they'll be the next Coach K). Still, it could be worth a shot -- if you get the right one. After all, if the three coaches I named each mentored a future superstar, the odds are that there are current and former assistants of Coach K, Rick Pitino and Jim Calhoun who are en route to the same status. But perhaps "only" one apiece.

But, for all of those guys, there are the guys in DIII, DII and out-of-the-way DI schools who could take a team to the national title if given the chance. Who will argue that John Bellein isn't a great coach after what he did with his West Virginia squad? Ditto for Ryan at Wisconsin and Pat Flannery at Bucknell, not to mention Tom Brennan at Vermont? Yes, there are many ways to find great coaches, and I agree with Dickie V. that ADs should think outside the box when looking for the next great coach.

Because it could well be that while he may not have the pedigree of the great assistantships, all he has done is win with integrity everyplace he has been.


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