Tuesday, March 31, 2009

College coaches and commitment to their schools

John Chaney at Temple. Lute Olson at Arizona. Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Jim Calhoun at UConn. Most great college basketball head coaches are historically considered synonymous with their school, spending the length of their career zenith under that one roof and leaving only via retirement. Even Bob Knight at Indiana and Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV departed their schools after many years due to scandal, rather than what leads coaches away from their alma maters now.

Tony Bennett takes over for his father at Washington State… and three years later jumps ship to coach at Virginia. John Calipari, the morally questionable college coach of great success at UMass who recently built a juggernaut program at Memphis… has now agreed to coach at Kentucky. When the Kentucky opening emerged, the media immediately jumped on UCLA coach Ben Howland (who himself took that job after jumping from Pittsburgh) to ask if HE would jump ship to take the Kentucky job.

College coaches used to seek glory by presiding over a winning program, and some still do. Despite his meandering career as a successful coach, it doesn’t appear Rick Pitino is leaving his successful Louisville program anytime soon (though I suppose we can check back in a year). Roy Williams jumped ship from his successful career at Kansas only because his current job at North Carolina, his alma mater, was his dream job. He’s not going anywhere. I mentioned Boeheim, Coach K and Calhoun.

But still we see a growing trend of hit and run repair jobs at college programs by successful coaches who commit long enough to recruit and coach middling teams into winners, and either get quickly bored or see fool’s gold when a high profile coaching opening comes along. My hometown school, UNLV, has a basketball coach who was the king of hit and run program building: Lon Kruger. Krueger presided over rebuilds in: Texas Pan-American, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and now (following an ill-advised NBA coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks) UNLV. Despite watching the Runnin’ Rebels stumble into the NIT this season, Kruger had to fend off rumors that he considered jumping ship to yet another program. To his credit, this was his 5th season at UNLV, the 2nd longest tenure he’s spent at any one program in his 23 year coaching career (to his six years in Florida), so maybe he’s settled down. Maybe.

How must a recruit feel about signing up to play for a coach that might not be around next season if an attractive coaching vacancy opens up? How do the kids at Memphis feel about their coach jumping ship? How about the Cougs at Washington State? No, I’m not talking about the one and done high school superstars who jerk around in class and score 20 points a game as hired guns until they can enter the NBA draft… but the honest to goodness talents a step or two down that are probably going to get an actual degree and stay all four years. I know 18 year old kids recruited for their basketball skills aren’t the most forward thinking, prescient individuals, and that in itself is probably why a Calipari, a Billy Donovan or Lon Kruger can get away with promises of commitment in exchange for the player’s four year commitment despite the coach’s track record for jumping ship.

If not for that, I would think the careers of these coaches would eventually dry up, as top recruits looking for a commitment wouldn’t commit to a non-committal coach, and recruiting top talent is (sadly) a large part of the battle in NCAA Division I college basketball. But since most kids are just looking for a place to play, where they have a chance to get significant minutes in important games and maybe play on a winning team, and many top recruits aren’t planning to commit for more than 1-2 years anyway, the trend of big coach hopping will likely continue in earnest unabated, since kids will continue to place their trust in these hired guns posing as mentors.

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