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2010 College Basketball Hot Seat: Evaluate Your Up and Comers

See the earlier post: Coaches on the Hot Seat

You, dear reader, have probably come across this post because your school will possibly make a coaching change, and you've been on the message boards talking about what makes for a good mid-major coach. What criteria would you use to evaluate a potential head coach for a basketball team?

basketball hot seatLet's take a quick look at St. John's Norm Roberts (see: When It's Time To Change for more background), Rutgers' Fred Hill, and former DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright as examples as we walk through criteria that should be looked at in a future head coach.

We could call it a Guide to Recognizing Your Coaching Saints (though we won't), and this post will take you through some criteria I think to be important: winning, recruiting connections, an avoidance of program control issues, adversity, and connections.

Tonight, the St. John's Red Storm takes on the Syracuse Orange in what looks on paper to be a gross mismatch.

Coach Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Famer with the #1 team in the country and a well-oiled machine of a team. Meanwhile, his opposite number Norm Roberts has struggled in conference play this season, playing to dwindling crowds. Some rumors indicate he will be fired at the end of the season - though none of those rumors have popped up in the local newspapers.

Let's be fair. Every coach wants to win; but not every coach is able to make their situation a winner. It's why they get the high salaries, and why they also receive the heavy pressure. But the schools who hire these coaches have a wealth of criteria to wade through in picking their coach. Norm Roberts, for example, was picked in 2004 as head coach in part for:

  • his passion for St. John's basketball;
  • a reputation as a high-character guy;
  • an ability to repair relationships with grassroots-level AAU coaches, since he was known as a recruiter for Kansas;
  • and his energy.

Norm Roberts, St. John'sNote that Norm Roberts had been a head man at Division II Queens College (compiling a record of 24-84 in 4 years(!)), and he had been an assistant to current Kansas head man Bill Self at 4 stops. (Personally, I think one should question why he would want to start at his dream job with no further seasoning at the lower levels. Or why none of his earlier colleges wanted to hire him. But I suppose he felt he was ready and honored to be considered for the Big East position.)

Both Roberts and Rutgers' Fred Hill were hired for their connections, their proximity to good coaches (Brian Hill, former NBA coach, is his uncle, and Fred Sr. coached baseball at Rutgers), and for perceived loyalty. All good things.

But none of these facets of their personalities speak to either coach's ability to recruit, develop, and deploy players to win for their programs.

I am not one who thinks Hill and Roberts are completely incapable of winning at some level. But a coach has little leeway to come to high-level basketball and work out the kinks. Winning is already difficult for coaches who have experience with program building (more on that later). The fans expect to win, not to watch a coach to make his inexperienced mistakes with their team.

The losses that a first-time coach can accrue will impair a program's ability to bring in high-level talent - players want to go to places with a "winning tradition" or to have a coach who puts them in situations where they can shine.

On a high level, assistants often won't cut it (although Jamie Dixon's done really nicely for himself). But how to pick a winner in 2010? Just because someone thinks so-and-so is a "home run" or a "legit coach" or "has it in their veins" or "has the heart of a winner" doesn't mean a damn thing. To me, there are some quantifiable questions that can be asked of a future head coach.

And even if those questions are answered satisfactorily, it's hard to say whether a coach will be have a successful record for the school - as in Sweet Sixteens, conference championships, NBA players, and the like.

Even then, those results might not be up to some people's satisfaction, like at Kentucky and Steve Lavin's tenure at UCLA.

And of course, just because those questions aren't answered satisfactorily doesn't mean the candidate won't be a high-level coach. Sometimes, you just can't tell. But there are a lot of bad ideas about who will be a good coach and what makes a sure bet - look at the respected Mike DeCourcy's analysis of coaching hires back in 2006 and see how off he was on Oklahoma's Jeff Capel and Iowa State's Greg McDermott. (Though he was right about NC State's Sidney Lowe.)

The Evaluation Questions for the Head Coach

1. Does He Win 60% of the Time? This is the most important criteria in determining whether a coach is capable of providing a winning product - but not the only criteria.

Fred Hill, RutgersI think winning is generally transferable. I'm a fan of coaches who can win a lot of games in the regular season - at least 60% of their games whether a high-major or low-to-mid major. Let's assume we are looking at a coach at a mid-major level (think non-BCS or Atlantic 10/ Mountain West), and a 30 game schedule with 18 league games and 12-13 out of conference games.

Out of conference games will include some lower-level squads the team should beat, some high-majors on the road who will pay a solid amount to face a lower-level squad, and some teams around the same talent level. Some mid-majors have a hard time scheduling the big boys, or may not be in the bigger round-robin early season tournaments. Some small schools just won't play much high-major competition.

Given the 30 games, 60% amounts to 18+ wins. I prefer a coach with at least one season with single-digit - along with very few, if any, losing seasons. If the teams are getting better every year in terms of their record, that too is a strong plus indicator of a coach who has a strengthening program.

Winning 60% of the team's games means that the squad is at least in the running to win their conference. This is most certainly not the be-all; the quality of the wins and the ability to win (or not) in conference has to be a factor as well. If a coach can win in their conference to the tune of 75% or 80% of their games, they're competing well with the athletes they have. That indicates a good development coach and a good game coach.

There are strong caveats: Some coaches' best year is within their first 2 seasons, when they are winning with the previous coach's recruits. Other coaches ride a really good player for a few years - here, you have to look at the seasons without said player. For example, Cornell coach Steve Donahue's winning seasons all coincide with star shooter Ryan Wittman's time on campus. Employer, beware.

I will also note that Mick Cronin's gaudy record at Murray State hasn't quite translated to Cincinnati (perhaps because he took over an already-solid team there). But when a coach with no record at all, or a losing record at a lower level comes to coach your program, one has to ask if he has to the chops to improve his coaching to match wits with the best. A number of coaches (not all) have been dominant on the D-III and D-II levels, and have had some of that success translate - knowing how to train, prepare, and adjust is a skill. And if one looks at the coaching record of Jerry Wainwright over the years, one has to wonder just what DePaul was thinking with that hire - did they perceive strong loyalty? That he would have less of a desire to leave because of his age?

2. Does He Have Recruiting Connections in the Area?

A lot of a coach's ability to move up to high-level basketball and succeed will depend on their ability to get comparable, competitive talent. To get to that talent, the Jerry Wainwright, former DePaul coachcoach has to know the AAU coaches, the go-betweens, the high school coaches, and preferably have a connection to them. A coach can gain access by hiring an assistant coach who knows the area, but the Head Coach has to close the deal. And if they have a bond of trust already built, it will be easier to convince a prospective student-athlete to take a chance on a new team and a new scheme.

To illustrate, look at Jerry Wainwright's depleted DePaul roster. It's filled with low-impact kids from all over the US (and Nigeria and Croatia), not from the recruiting hotbed of Chicago. Chicagoland's been picked nearly clean by Bruce Weber at Illinois, Ernie Kent at Oregon (himself on the hot seat), and others. Hiring Tracy Webster - now interim head coach at DePaul - has helped the team secure three commits (ed note: from all over, not from Chicago, as I wrote previously) and get local Chicago recruits intersted, despite their poor record. The commits aren't scrappy remainders, Junior College players, and late bloomers, they are decent high schoolers from the area. But too little too late; Wainwright is long gone.

Both Fred Hill and Norm Roberts, however, had connections that allowed them to bring in some talent. Hill actually has brought in some more highly-touted players to Rutgers, including their first-ever McDonald's All-American in Mike Rosario; Norm Roberts has mended fences with the local AAU coaches. When new coaches comes in to those positions (should the jobs come open), they will need to establish themselves with those coaches quickly. Here, mid-major coaches who are already in the area like Tom Pecora and Kevin Willard have established ties, giving them an advantage over non-local candidates.

3. Has He Had Recruiting or Legal Issues in the Past?

Some schools will look the other way when a coach is associated directly or tangentially with shady dealings, like John Calipari or Kelvin Sampson. Both coaches found themselves recruiting scandals at their previous schools before moving on to the next opportunity. Those issues dog them to this day, though Calipari is, of course, dogged all the way to the bank with his huge contract and top-5 Kentucky team.

Many schools will not. Nor should they; coaches who get caught playing loose with the rules are either: a) unlucky to be caught or b) lucky they were only caught once. Recruiting is a dodgy business, for sure, but many coaches play the game without getting caught.

No college wants to be repeatedly associated with player misbehavior like Missouri was with Quin Snyder and (the Ricky Clemons assault + fallout and more on Clemons here). Or like St. John's was, multiple times under Mike Jarvis. Or like Binghamton was for assault and theft (along with the institutional scandals). Or with drunken coach misbehavior like Billy Clyde Gillispie. That kind of behavior flies in the face of the wholesome "student athlete" vibe the schools want to create. And as such, college presidents are often an unforgiving lot when it comes to the stink of scandal... when the team isn't winning.

4. Has He Dealt With Adversity?

There is something to be said of a coach who has had to build a program from the ground up - it speaks to their ability to build a program's infrastructure, instill a winning attitude, and sometimes, how to win without all the resources the coach might need at his disposal. On the other hand, maintaining a level of excellence at a mid-major such as Xavier, Western Kentucky, or Murray State is also a hard job. That said, some coaches build stellar records on a program that already has the best players in the conference, name recognition in the recruiting area, and a strong support system within the school.

Dealing with adversity is important because the incoming coach moving up to a high-major is usually not taking over a 20-game winner that plays to a packed house every game. Teams change coaches mostly because the team is losing, and the school wants to field a winning product for pride, revenue, and competitiveness. Going into a new situation can be a minefield of administrative agendas, unrealistic goals, unnecessary voices and influences, depleted rosters, and apathetic fans. Building a program is a lot easier when the boosters are support rather than hindrance, and when the players are talented, not dispirited and out of place in the conference.

5. Does He Have Good Coaching Connections?

There is something to be said when a coach comes from a talented coaching "tree" - in other words, the coach has worked for a veteran, successful coach and has presumably gleaned some wisdom. Working with a top-level coach has to confer some knowledge of how to run practices, organize a team, and avoid the tough learning curve that some newer coaches face. And hopefully, it means that the coach knows other talented coaches to help him recruit, game plan, train his players, and build a program.

A coach's connections mean the least in this evaluation process. Some guys are better as assistants than as head men; but knowing that, say, Rick Pitino cranks out many excellent head coaches who once worked for him has to mean something about his ability to confer knowledge and/ or evaluate talented assistants.

What other criteria do you think is important?