clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rick Barnes Review: Lessons From Recent College Basketball Coaching Searches

Hiring a college basketball coach isn't easy, and rarely matches fan expectations.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Andy Lyons

"The biggest mistake is that everybody tries to project their own feelings and own thoughts and own values into what you think a guy should do," said [Gonzaga coach Mark] Few. "It comes down to what that individual person wants in life.

"The only people that matter is the coach and the family and what they want and value and where they're at in life," said Few. "Do you want to pack up and move young kids, kids in junior high, high school? That's where it becomes an individual choice and situation."

--"What Shaka Smart Is Going Through,", March 21, 2012

"I'm already making seven figures," [Wichita St. coach Gregg] Marshall said. "You can eat a lot of steak and hamburger and pizza for what we're making at Wichita State... I live on the golf course. We have a beautiful backyard. My wife has four dogs. She gardens. We fly around on private planes to Napa and back to South Carolina. We have a good life, man."

--"Gregg Marshall Is A Reminder...", April 2, 2013

The Fantasy

Fire the coach.

It's the solution to everything. Every problem, for every team. After watching the same coach for an extended period of time, a fan base gets familiar with the coach's strengths and weaknesses. Especially the weaknesses. And these weaknesses get old. And when they do, fans begin to fantasize about other coaches... whose weaknesses they do not yet know.

And so, the coach gets fired, and the fans get excited. "We should go hire [Insert Savior Coach Here]."

But what happens next? Well, reality sets in.


With Texas fans starting to fantasize about replacing Rick Barnes, now is a good time to review recent history to see how coaching searches really unfold. We recently took a look at a number of potential candidates for major college basketball openings; this piece looks at actual coaching searches for four recent and desirable job openings, and tries to understand just why it is so hard to attract the most appealing candidates to the most appealing jobs.

But before we do all of this, let's start off by addressing the one thing that sets expectations so high for a coaching search.

Fan Delusion and Coaching Searches

Coaching searches are entertaining for the outsider. Fan base delusion about the sort of coach that another program's fan base thinks their school can attract is one of the more amusing aspects of following college sports. It turns out that there are probably 40 or 60 college basketball programs that fans consider a "Top 20 job." We hate to single out an individual example, because these feelings are pretty widespread, but here is one that we find to be particularly funny, and that nicely represents fan base delusion:

Let’s be clear, Kansas State [basketball] is a top 20 coaching job. Kansas State’s new 18-million dollar state-of-the-art basketball practice facility is expected to be open and ready for use by this summer. At this point, key Wildcats Rodney McGruder, Jordan Henriquez and Angel Rodriguez are expected to return to the team. Robert Upshaw decommitted from the ‘Cats after the news of Frank Martin’s departure, but Kansas State possibly can get back in the mix if he feels comfortable with the new leader. Laimonas Chatkevicius, a 6-10 center, is still committed and hasn’t indicated that he would go back on his initial word. Not to mention, the electrifying fan base of the Octagon of Doom and the competition of the Big 12.

It is hard to believe that a Top 20 job would be the sort of position that a coach would leave the way Frank Martin did. Having an athletic director that is apparently difficult to get along with, in a school that will always be second fiddle in a state (and region) that produces few top players are characteristics of a Top 20 job?

Notwithstanding the fact that all but a handful of major programs have "state-of-the-art" practice facilities in 2013, the K-State fan above does bring up a great point: not very many play games in a doom-filled geometric figure. So score one there. He was wrong about Laimonas Chatkevicius, though, who ended up following Martin to South Carolina.

We highlight this bit of delusion to try to soften the blow a bit when we say that we, as Texas fans and alumni, have our fair share of delusion in Austin. Within the Longhorn fan base, the delusion all comes down to one word: money. Texas has a lot of it, and like everyone with obscene stacks of money, we think that we can have anything we want.

This leads us down the path of using the word 'should,' as in "Texas should be able to pursue Brad Stevens," or "We should be able to make a play to land Shaka Smart." Why? Because Texas would be able to offer a high salary, and money talks, right? (Sometimes. We'll come back to this in a minute.)

Beyond money, the Texas fantasy often involves talking up the program's other resource advantages: our "state-of-the-art" practice facilities, of course, because everyone picks a job based on how nice the weight room looks, and more substantively, the access to the fertile ground of Texas high school basketball, which has really developed in recent years... and now is at the level of fertility of the regions where Stevens and Smart already coach.

Here's the bottom line: if you think that Texas will hire Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens as its next head coach, you might be suffering from a case of mild delusion. We recommend a hot shower followed by a cold beer, but we're not doctors.*

*Technically, both Jeff (PhD) and Peter (JD) are doctors, but those don't count, since neither of us has stayed in a Holiday Inn Express recently.

Four Recent Coaching Changes

Let's pause from fantasizing about who Texas "should" be able to get and look instead at how some recent coaching changes have actually played out. To do this, we will look at the four most recent high-profile positions that opened up, and how the coaching searches unfolded at Maryland, North Carolina State, Illinois, and UCLA.

None of these programs are exactly the same as Texas, as no two programs are exactly alike. The UCLA job is unquestionably more prestigious, but also carries with it truly unreasonable expectations for performance. There is strong evidence that you can attract the very best recruits in the country to UCLA, and play for and win the national championship. There is even stronger evidence that if you fail to do this for more than a couple of years, you will be fired.

North Carolina State is on the whole a less desirable job than Texas, although this difference is mostly due to how things have played out on the court in recent years. It is easy to imagine a future where NC State is once again considered a better coaching position than Texas.

Illinois seems to be a fairly comparable institution to Texas (both are highly regarded state universities), if not precisely identical. Illinois offers a far less desirable location, but a more prestigious conference. The competitive dynamics in the Big Ten and Big 12 are quite different, with the Big Ten being stronger overall, but the top overall program between the two being in the Big 12 (Kansas). We can spend time debating how much better the Texas job may be compared with the Illinois job, but it is hard to argue this difference is so large as to matter for the purposes of this discussion.

Maryland, another fine institution, provides a head coaching job that is likely on par with Texas, if not a little bit better. Or maybe the Texas job is a little better depending on what you value. Either way, we're splitting hairs.

So while we accept that no single one of these cases is identical to what a coaching change would look like at Texas, taken as a group they should do a reasonable job of setting realistic expectations. Let's look at these coaching changes one by one, to see how they turned out.


The Maryland job is one of the very best in the country. When Gary Williams retired in 2011, Maryland played in the ACC, the most prestigious basketball conference in the nation. (Maryland has since announced that it will move to the Big Ten, which is not much of a step down, if any.) A high proportion of Maryland's games are nationally televised. Maryland has an engaged fan base. The school's coaches are highly paid, despite the fact that the athletic department is more or less broke. (It isn't broke because of basketball.)

Minutes from both Baltimore and Washington D.C., College Park sits in the heart of a geographic region that produces a higher density of outstanding basketball players than virtually any other place on the planet. And while Williams' last season was a mild disappointment when compared with his history at Maryland, the program was basically healthy -- and the next coach would be off to a running start with Terrell Stoglin running the offense.

And despite all of these advantages, Maryland had to compromise in its search for a replacement for Williams. The list of coaches who turned down Maryland included Sean Miller (Arizona), Mike Brey (Notre Dame), Brad Stevens (Butler), and Jamie Dixon (Pitt). Maryland eventually settled on a more realistic and attainable choice: Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, who wasn't entirely happy in College Station.

Turgeon has done reasonably well in his first two years in College Park, but hasn't yet landed his team in the NCAA tournament. It isn't likely that he will be allowed to do that for too many more years, and it wouldn't be surprising if this particular position is once again open in a season or two.

North Carolina State

NC State went through a dark period after the retirement of Jim Valvano, appearing in only one NCAA tournament in the 1990s. But in 2002, coach Herb Sendek got things back on track, taking the Wolfpack to five consecutive NCAA tournaments before he was predictably run off by NC State fans for not taking his team further in the postseason. Sendek's replacement, Sidney Lowe, didn't fare as well, leading NC State through five mediocre years that did not include even one NCAA tournament appearance. By 2011, it was time for a change.

The North Carolina State job may not be quite good as the Maryland job, but it is pretty close, offering many of the same natural advantages. The list of coaches who turned down North Carolina State in 2011 included Sean Miller, Shaka Smart, and Gregg Marshall of Wichita State. (Note that Marshall turned down NC State several years before he had reached the Final Four.) NC State eventually settled on Mark Gottfried, an uninspiring choice who had been forced out of his previous job at Alabama in the middle of the season amid some ugly rumors.

Gottfried has done reasonably well so far, although I am sure that the NC State fan base is disappointed with what happened this season. We don't have a high degree of confidence in his future, as Gottfried hasn't coached many teams that defended particularly well, severely limiting his upside. Unless he suddenly figures out defense in middle age it is hard to imagine him ever living up to the high expectations in Raleigh.


Illinois fired Bruce Weber in 2012. Weber had taken the Illini to the 2005 Final Four, and is a coach who pretty obviously knows what he is doing. But Illinois fired him after he only made two NCAA tournaments in his last five seasons.

Illinois was full of hope. The plan was to open up the checkbook in a major way to hire Shaka Smart, but Smart turned down what was reportedly an offer that would pay $2.5 million per year. Brad Stevens turned down a comparable $2.6 million dollar per year offer.

You may remember the odd courtship of Stevens, which started off with unambiguous public denials by the Butler coach:

"There is absolutely no truth to it,'' he [Stevens] said. "I have not been contacted.''

Asked if perhaps Illinois had reached out to someone representing Stevens, he said, "If they have, I don't know anything about it. Nobody has called me. Here's how I spent my day -- I had individual meetings, I went fishing and I was just drawing chalk on the driveway with my daughter. I came in with all this fishing gear on and my wife told me my phone was blowing up."

Of course, not long after this statement, Illinois did in fact contact Brad Stevens, and met with him the following Sunday. Stevens declined the offer.

Illinois instead hired John Groce, a coach who briefly had been on the same staff as Stevens, and was notable for three reasons:

1. He had taken the Ohio Bobcats to the Sweet 16 in 2012, with a mix of tough defense and some hot shooting. Ohio wasn't even the best team in the MAC, finishing behind Akron and Buffalo in the regular season standings, but their hot streak started in the conference tournament.

2. He was a long-time assistant for Thad Matta, following him from Butler to Xavier, and then to Ohio State.

3. No other coach in college hoops more closely resembles Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett.

It remains to be seen if Groce really represents an improvement over Weber. Weber did pretty well at Illinois, so even if Groce is reasonably successful, he is unlikely to be an improvement.

(It is also worth pointing out that Groce's resume looks remarkably similar to Weber's resume at the point where both were hired by Illinois. Both men spent significant time as an assistant to a highly regarded coach -- Weber worked for 19 years under Gene Keady -- and both then spent a few seasons as head coach of a mid-major, where they gained national attention for a run to the Sweet 16.)


The story of the Ben Howland years at UCLA is well known. After winning 69 percent of his games at Pittsburgh, Howland was hired by UCLA in 2004. It didn't take long for UCLA to enjoy the benefits of its new coach, as the Bruins went to three consecutive Final Fours between 2006 and 2008.

But what have you done for me lately? For the next five years, UCLA would never get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Ugly stories, recounted in a highly cited Sports Illustrated piece from 2012, painted a picture of a program falling apart and a coach that had lost control. A wave of transfers followed, and Ben Howland was let go after the 2012-2013 season.

And then the coaching search happened. It had been some time since a position as prestigious as this had opened up. It was time to round up the usual suspects, with a chance this time that one might actually want the job. But they didn't. Shaka Smart didn't want it, Brad Stevens didn't want it, Gregg Marshall was apparently uninterested, and UCLA ultimately settled for Steve Alford -- a once up and coming coach who had presided over the destruction of the Iowa basketball program before enjoying success at New Mexico.

When UCLA hired Alford, the world yawned.

It is hard to say how Alford will do at UCLA. He has strong southern California recruiting ties, which will help. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine Alford quickly developing a contentious relationship with the UCLA fan base -- in fact, it has already begun. If Alford doesn't win quickly, his prickly interactions with the press could turn things ugly in a hurry. And fan expectations at UCLA are absurd -- Howland was fired after a season where he won the Pac-12 championship. Every UCLA coach gets fired; it is only a question of when.

The Takeaways

Every coaching change is different. No one can say if Texas' experience will be similar. But if we want to try to infer some lessons from these four recent coaching changes, we can say:

1. Even really prestigious programs aren't able to hire their top choices.

2. The new hires at these programs, at least initially, haven't set the world on fire.

3. Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens are linked to virtually every job that opens up. They haven't, as of yet, accepted any of them.

Why Is It So Difficult?

There was once a time when it seemed that young and successful mid-major coaches would leap at any major conference opportunity that was offered. There are at least four big reasons why this doesn't seem to be happening as much:

1. Those young up-and-coming coaches started to find that they were quickly getting fired at their new jobs, after landing in what turned out to be horrible situations where they were set up to fail. The examples of guys like Dan Monson, Todd Lickliter, and Keno Davis are just a few of the once bright young coaches who left a very good mid-major position and ended up derailing their careers.

"Getting Monsoned" is a real worry for the current generation of coaches. Monson now coaches at Long Beach State; it seems that it might have been a better career move if he had stayed at Gonzaga. Davis is at Central Michigan after burning out in three years at Providence, and is only six years removed from being named AP Coach of the Year at Drake. Lickliter now coaches at Marian, an NAIA program in Indiana, after being unable to clean up the mess at Iowa. Since he left, Butler has twice played for the national championship.

But think of it another way: it should be hard to convince someone who is otherwise happy to leave a secure job that pays something in the neighborhood of $1 million annually for a job that will pay more, but could be gone in three years. To make this more tangible, let's take the example of a popular coach who every fan base wants: Butler head coach Brad Stevens.

Stevens is paid pretty well. Schools like Texas and UCLA could pay him more, but can't offer him the job security that he presently enjoys. And, if we view the decision as a purely rational financial decision, that difference in job security is a big deal. If Stevens can comfortably expect to be able to coach Butler for the next 20 years at his present salary, a more risky position will have to offer substantially more to make up for the potential loss of earnings.

It wasn't always this way. Not many years ago, mid-major coaches weren't nearly as well paid as they are today, making the financial incentives different(*). For example, Garry Parish recently pointed out that long-time Memphis coach Larry Finch made $182,000 as the head coach of the Tigers in 1997, while Josh Pastner currently earns more than $2 million per season.

(Major conference salaries weren't what they are today back in 1997, but the gap between majors and mid-majors was substantial. In 1997, Tom Penders was paid $550,000 to coach at The University of Texas, more than twice what Finch made at Memphis.)

2. Mid-major coaches are finding they can have success, and even reach the Final Four, without leaving. There is clear evidence that a strong mid-major program can compete on the court with the big guys, which takes away some of the non-financial incentive to trade up in jobs.

Monson's successor Mark Few, and Lickliter's successor Brad Stevens seem particularly uninterested in leaving their current positions for the major conferences. And there aren't really any competitive reasons to leave. Their success has shown that they can compete at the highest level against major conference teams. Their teams have good facilities and get to fly charter, just like the major programs.

Brad Stevens doesn't need to move to UCLA to coach in the Final Four or compete on the court with major programs like Indiana and North Carolina. He has already coached in the Final Four. His Butler teams are good enough to compete with Indiana and North Carolina, which is something that they showed as recently as last season. (Butler beat Indiana in a thrilling overtime game several weeks after they had wiped the floor with UNC.)

3. For a coach running a successful program, it might not be particularly attractive to pick up and start over. Maybe it will take too long to figure out how to recruit at the new school. Maybe the new position will include distracting "political" aspects that are unappealing. Maybe the athletic director at the new university will turn out to be an asshole. For a successful coach who knows how to succeed at his particular institution, there is a lot of inertia that has to be overcome in order to leave.

Again, let's use the example of Stevens. He has been at Butler for 13 years, and presumably knows the ins and outs of how the place runs, and how recruiting works in Indiana. He has spent years building up to this, and his team will soon be competing in the new version of the Big East.

Moving on to another university would mean that he would have to start from scratch, no longer reaping the rewards of the well-oiled Butler machine that he has helped to create for more than a decade. And by all accounts, it is one hell of a machine.

4. Then there are all of the other factors that go into a decision to change jobs -- the same sort of factors that you or I might consider when looking at a new job offer. Someone like Stevens is presumably happy living in Indianapolis, where he grew up idolizing Reggie Miller, and where his wife practices law and his parents can spend time with their grandchildren. He probably likes his house, neighborhood, and lifestyle. Perhaps he enjoys taking strolls in the fantastic sculpture park just a few blocks from campus. He's clearly happy with his life:

"The most important thing and the advice I always give to somebody is that you have to make a decision that is for you and your family,'' said Stevens. "And that may not be the same for everybody.

"There is usually a long list, and happiness is on there,'' Stevens said. "People that you work with every day and where you live have to factor into everything. I would also say, don't take the advice of someone that's not impacted by the decision.''

If you are a happy and successful 36 year old millionaire living in a place you enjoy, why mess with it?


Hiring a new coach isn't as much fun as it seems. Schools and their fan bases rarely land the guy they want, and almost always end up with someone else. This is largely because schools and their fan bases are extremely unrealistic about these sorts of things. Most job offers just aren't attractive enough to draw the most desirable candidates, who are unwilling to leave for a host of practical reasons.

Does that mean Texas should never look for another new coach? Of course not.

Just that it shouldn't do so thinking it can hire [Insert Savior Coach Here].