Cinderella runs in the NCAA Tournament are no longer surprises to college basketball fans. The question no longer is will there be a Cinderella, but how many teams will try on the slipper in a given year. The deep run in the tournament not only brings attention to the school and its players, but the coach as well. With the high rate of turnover in college basketball, the NCAA Tournament has become a pseudo-audition of sorts for many coaches of mid-major programs.
It is an interesting concept. Many NBA scouts complain that GMs put too much stock into a three-weekend tournament when evaluating talent. Everyone is captivated by the NCAA Tournament, and given that the games are on a national stage, it makes sense as to why a talent evaluator could fall in love with a guy who gets hot at the right time and leads his team to the second or third weekend.
Take a guy like Gordon Hayward, for example. Hayward was smart because he realized that after leading Butler to their first National Championship appearance, and being the driving force behind that run even though Butler very much played with a team-basketball concept on both ends of the floor, his stock could not get any higher than it was at that point. Hayward is a fine player, and probably will become a solid rotation player in the league, but ask the Utah Jazz whether they would change their minds if they could do it over again and you’d likely get a pained look and a head nod.
Well, this is not a unique concept just to players. Coaches of mid-major programs are beginning to use the tournament as a spring board into the off-season, where a successful March can translate into major bargaining power with their current schools or an opportunity to move on to a more high-profile gig. The point is, guys who lead an underdog to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond may not necessarily leave a Naismith trophy, but they won’t leave empty handed.
It used to be that the mid-major coach was as good as gone once they led their team to the second weekend, but that paradigm took a big turn after the ’05-’06 season when Jim Larranaga chose to take a big extension at George Mason rather than bolting for one of the many higher profile programs that had expressed interest, including his alma mater Providence. Instead, Larranaga took a pay raise and a whole bunch of extra years on his contract and stayed put…
Well, until this past off-season, when he signed with Miami.
Larranaga seemed to start a bit of a trend. Look at this past off-season–three mid-major coaches who made runs in the tournament decided to stay put and took raises. Butler’s Brad Stevens (for the second year in a row), VCU’s Shaka Smart, and Richmond’s Chris Mooney all took raises and extensions at their current jobs rather than testing the open market. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis noted that this was surprising given the opportunities each had available to them in a recent column.
My question is whether Larranaga’s surprising decision to bolt five years after making the same decision that these guys made changes whether the likes of Mooney or Smart in particular would have done things differently. (Note: I tend to keep Stevens separate in this conversation because he is on almost every team in the country’s wish list after leading Butler to back-to-back title appearances. He was raised in the Butler tradition and just generally seems like he could be there for life.)
Make no mistake: despite getting fairly substantial raises at their current jobs, Mooney and Smart could have made more money on the open market. Whether they could have gotten the years on the contract would be a different conversation, of course. Still, you wonder if the coaches are effected by the adrenaline of their Cinderella runs in the tournament as much as the Athletic Directors jumping to hire them thereafter. I am all for loyalty, but taking Larranaga’s path since 2006 as an example, these runs do not happen every year. I am sure Shaka Smart’s confidence in his team and his own ability was at an all-time high after making the Final Four, but maybe that gave him some irrational confidence about how far he could take VCU’s program going forward. If anyone wants to make a wager about whether either Richmond or VCU will make another Final Four in the next five years, please give me call.
I’m treading a thin line here, I know this. I’ve always been someone who has admired guys who realize that their own happiness and job security are major factors in a decision, and if they are happy where they are, why mess with it? At the same time, coaches are as competitive, if not more so, than any athlete out there. Each one of them has the goal to make it to the pinnacle of their profession. When opportunities come, as they did this past off-season for Stevens, Smart, and Mooney, it is hard not to tell them to take a shot.
Yes, it is a risk. You look at what happened to Jeff Capel this past season–getting fired two seasons after taking Oklahoma to the Elite Eight–and you think, “I don’t need that kind of pressure.” But, isn’t the pressure what fuels competitive drive? I think Larranaga may have realized that when he decided to make his move to Miami. Is “The U” a prime basketball job right now? Obviously, not. But, when you consider the money and the league, there is not much a contest between Miami and George Mason for which job would be more desirable. The same comparisons will be made with NC State and VCU, or Georgia Tech and Richmond, in five or so years. Mark my words.
After a while, the buzz wears off for these guys. It happened with Larranaga. He rebuffed the original onslaught of opportunities thrown his way, and then you didn’t hear his name that much. Five years later, when an mid-level ACC basketball program came calling, Larranaga jumped at the chance. I wonder if Shaka Smart or Chris Mooney’s careers will follow the same narrative.