Old coaching assumptions are fading
Successful mid-major coaches no longer jumping ship at the first opportunity they get
Asked for the umpteenth time during the NCAA tournament if he would entertain other job offers after his repeat Cinderella run ended, Brad Stevens patiently tried to explain why he probably wouldn't.
"Here's the point," the Butler coach said from the dais in Houston, "I think people always look at their job, and you hear people say this all the time, that the grass is greener somewhere else. Well, I think we recognize the grass is very green at Butler."
And the media, ever cynical after years of being told a coach was staying only to watch him cash in on the greener grasses elsewhere, was forced to accept the startling fact that maybe this guy was the one -- the one who wasn't perpetually stretching for the next brass ring.
But it turns out the media was right: Stevens wasn't the one.
He's one of three.
Stevens, Shaka Smart and Chris Mooney, the season's "It Boys" whose names were on the lips of hiring athletic directors everywhere in the country, did the strangest thing in the past two weeks.
They did nothing.
Given the chance to follow one of the very tenets of college coaching -- thou shalt move on at the first opportunity -- the trio defied the norm, opting instead to stay right where they were.
It isn't reasonable to take the actions of three and apply broad brushstrokes to the whole, especially since a few coaches did grab the brass ring (Cuonzo Martin went from Missouri State to Tennessee and Ed Cooley went from Fairfield to Providence).
But as Miami still recoils after being turned down by the Harvard coach -- not long after another ACC school (NC State) was rebuffed by the Virginia Commonwealth coach -- the trio's non-decisions do seem to speak as much to the current climate of college basketball as anything.
As mid-majors continue to assert themselves as solid programs, Stevens' argument is gaining validity: The grass isn't necessarily greener somewhere else.
"Jimmy V used to say, 'Don't mess with happy,' and I think more and more coaches are realizing you don't have to mess with happy," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who once parlayed his Manhattan gig into a job at St. John's. "And I think more and more universities are realizing that if they make a commitment to basketball, it's going to be better for our university, so they make it reasonable to stay."
There was once was a time when virtually no one stayed.
Typically, the coaching carousel doesn't just spin; it climbs. Climbs faster than a debutante trying to marry up or a society maven awaiting a better party invite before RSVPing on another. The road to basketball glory is a ladder littered with the discarded business cards of smaller schools, making for a wild parlor game of six degrees of separation.
Last season, Fran McCaffery turned a great run at Siena into a job at Iowa. Of course, McCaffery got his job because Todd Lickliter was fired by the Hawkeyes. Lickliter moved to Iowa from Butler, which is why Stevens got the job at Butler.
And honestly it's only because Thad Matta moved to Xavier from Butler that Lickliter got the job at Butler. And then, of course, after Matta moved to Ohio State, that paved the way for Sean Miller at Xavier, which ultimately opened the door for Chris Mack after Miller left for Arizona.
The point is, this is how the profession goes -- onward and upward -- which is why it's so mystifying when the carousel stops spinning and someone says no.
And saying no is, if not yet the norm, becoming easier.
(There are caveats here: The job pool this year was so-so at best. Tennessee is facing potential NCAA sanctions; NC State has proven a difficult place to win thanks to the looming recruiting shadows of Duke and North Carolina; and Georgia Tech is in a similar ACC recruiting bind and a financial stranglehold thanks to a mega payout to Paul Hewitt. And the fact all three coaches said no now isn't to imply that none would jump next season if the right position opened.)
Stevens, Smart and Mooney follow what is becoming a somewhat steadier stream of coaches who have turned down a pot of gold in favor of a decent-sized container of the stuff.
Five years ago, Jim Larranaga could have turned his George Mason Final Four run into a head-coaching job at his alma mater, Providence. He also could've grabbed another Big East gig (Seton Hall) if he'd wanted it.
The reasons were unique and personal but followed the same theme that Stevens, Smart and Mooney shared: He thought he was better off where he was.
"When Providence offered me the job, there was quite a distance between one salary offer and what I was making at George Mason, but I wasn't comparing Providence to George Mason," Larranaga said. "I was comparing Providence to other Big East schools and George Mason to other programs in the CAA. I felt like we had the support for our program here to be competitive and to succeed."
The most critical part of that argument is Larranaga does have a good job, as do Mooney, Smart and Stevens.
Mooney was weighing his options this offseason when Richmond offered him a 10-year extension. VCU extended Smart and also made significant increases to his staff's salaries in order to make sure he stayed. And in 2010, Butler gave Stevens a 12-year extension, the equivalent of a lifetime deal in basketball.
VCU also is renovating its fairly new Siegel Center and Butler is spending $25 million to update historic Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The money is critical, but more it's what the money signifies -- a commitment to basketball and a recognition from the university that the program is important.
Not every mid-major -- heck, not every major -- program is like that.
"Someone once said to me that good jobs come in all shapes and sizes," Smart said. "If you're in a low-major conference, but you have the best facilities, the best pay, that's a good job. It's the same here in the CAA. VCU, Old Dominion, George Mason, those are the best in the league and even though you're not in a BCS league, you're in a very good basketball situation. That gets lost in the carousel. Everyone assumes bigger is better."
That's always been the case, though -- even back when most coaches left their really good mid-majors for really average (or worse) rebuilding majors.
What's changed? For starters the one-and-done rule has leveled the playing field. Since the rule's inception five years ago, 26 non-BCS programs have advanced to the Sweet 16 and five have reached the Final Four. In the five years prior to the age-limit rule, just 13 reached the Sweet 16 and only one (a Marquette team that would join the Big East shortly thereafter) appeared in a Final Four.
"Those that advance have that maturity, the maturity of the players, the maturity of the experience," said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who remained at his tiny North Carolina school even after his Stephen Curry-led team made it all the way to the Elite Eight in 2008. "The coach has been in place. The system has been in place. People understand that dynamic today more than ever. Maturity for a mid-major can get you to the Sweet 16."
It can get you there, presumably, without the all-encompassing pressure and the baggage that can come with the bigger programs. Smart is convinced his team beat Kansas because the Rams played with no pressure while the top-seeded Jayhawks toted an unbelievable burden.
Plenty of coaches have assumed that burden and succeeded -- speaking of Kansas, Bill Self once turned success at Tulsa into a good run at Illinois into his current spot at KU -- but there are just as many cautionary tales as success stories. And there is nothing quite like the wet-fish smack of reality to open eyes.
A national coach of the year in 2007, Lickliter was fired in 2010, given all of three years to make a go of it at Iowa.
Three years ago, Darrin Horn took Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16. Now at South Carolina, he's already on some people's hot-seat lists.
John Pelphrey went to the postseason in each of his final two seasons at South Alabama, grabbed a brass ring at Arkansas, recruited arguably one of the best classes in the country this season, and now won't have the chance to coach those players. He was fired after only four years.
"There aren't usually any easy transitions," McKillop said. "You either are following someone who was a legend who retired or someone who was fired. Who's to say with the volatility of our profession you survive the rebuilding process? You might make more money, but if in three years you aren't in the NCAA tournament, you're out on the street."
Certainly a run of failure would doom all three of these guys to a pink slip, too, but all have built up equity with their universities and will be granted a few more mulligans if needed.
The real risk with staying is whether opportunity will knock again. The trouble with being this year's It Boy? Next year's It Boy. Coaching love affairs last about as long as Hollywood heartthrobs. The notion to strike -- or at least cash out -- while the iron is hot runs rampant in coaching circles.
"I've been told that all the time by a number of people," Stevens said. "And with all due respect, it's none of their business."
Stevens then told a story about the first contract Butler gave him. His wife, Tracy, a lawyer, parsed every word and pored over every sentence until her nagging husband finally insisted she stop.
"I said, 'I don't care what the lingo says, I'm just signing it. Who cares?'" Stevens said. "To me it was like, is this really happening? Is someone offering me this job? I think it's important to remember that feeling and not get caught up in what's better or what's out there or what's being said. It's all fleeting and it's not why you got into this in the first place."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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