Mid major coaches staying put? Get used to it.

Brad Stevens has iterated multiple times that he is committed to building Butler basketball.

2011 was very unique in college basketball. Two mid-major programs made the Final Four. But more importantly, both of the coaches chose to stay with their programs by passing up an opportunity “to move up the ladder” within the college hoops landscape. Was this year just an anomaly or could this be a recurring trend?

Thoughts by DJ

Wikipedia, a very reliable source of information (right?) defines the term “Cinderella” as the following:

“In American and Canadian sports, a Cinderella or “Cinderella Story” refers to a team or player who advances much further in a tournament or career than originally anticipated. Cinderellas tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the championship game at the end of the tournament.”

The definition above has become a little bit outdated in college basketball. Every March, ESPN and the other major media outlets list the potential Cinderella candidates. As soon as CBS releases the bracket on Selection Sunday, every hoops fanatic identifies the potential upsets and the Final Four teams. Here is how March goes for these Cinderella teams:

1. The mid-major program starts with a low seed. Historically the 5-12 matchup yields the most upsets.
2. The program ends up in the Sweet 16 or go further in the tournament.
3. There will be multiple coaching vacancies in middle tier power conference programs such as Georgia Tech or Arizona State and the mid-major coach with the best March ends up taking one of those gigs.

This routine is almost mandatory every April after the tournament ends. In fact, athletic directors across the country might even push certain coaches out if they believe there is a younger or “hotter” coach out there for grabs. Until March/April, these smaller programs were only known for their funky team names but weren’t always known to retain their talent.

The landscape has been changing over the years but 2011 showed that this recycling of coaches through the mid major programs might be slowing down. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has been sought out for years out in the west coast for a coaching vacancy but he stayed put. He however has been an exception to the rule. There have been other coaches who stayed put after a great run but their age might have hindered their job opportunities – Jimmy Larranaga (G’Mason 2006) and Bob McKillop (Davidson 2008). But if you are a younger coach, chances are that you will take the next best gig.

Other than Mark Few, nobody has mucked this trend. But April 2011, three coaches have followed his footsteps – Brad Stevens (Butler), Shaka Smart (VCU) and Chris Mooney (Richmond). Stevens is not a novice to the April hype b/c he went through the same scrutiny in 2010 but stayed put. Smart and Mooney might be onto something as well … these coaches won’t be the first ones to stay put on campuses.

Why? Here are a couple theories behind this transformation of the mid-major or the traditional definition of the “Cinderella:”

Media Attention

There are a handful of programs in the country that will ALWAYS separate themselves from rest of the pack regardless of the times. Not because they have more money, not because they pay more, not because they get more media attention but simply b/c basketball just means more to their fans than the other fan bases.

In no particular order – Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, UNC and UCLA

Other than these programs who attract media attention even during their down seasons, rest of the programs rely on outlets such as ESPN and CBS to cover their program. Program coverage expands the recruiting base and of course brings in the revenue. During a time when college basketball aired only 10-12 games a week on CBS or ESPN, TV coverage for a program wasn’t widespread. The team had to earn it … on the court … consistently.

The “Cinderella” teams used to be on air for a couple of weeks but once the coach took the gig at another program, they were back to the usual the season after. The new coach builds them up for 3-4 years and then the cycle repeats again. Not any more.

ESPN finds a way to show basketball during the week to fill up any non-NFL related airtime from January through March. Every conference has their own TV network to air the games that don’t make ESPN. Some of them make a genuine effort to expand their viewership by hiring quality talent (Big Ten Network hired Gus Johnson) and some of them don’t quite have the base yet (Big East Network). The mid-major conference programs make it to ESPN3 or other web-based outlets.

As far as written coverage goes, there is no dearth of that in a world of blogs or 24 hour Internet cycle. If a coach decides to stay at a middle tier program, the decision is analyzed consistently and the media keeps coming back to that decision during the following season, resulting in more media coverage!!

Brad Stevens in Butler is a prime example. Butler isn’t off to the greatest start heading into conference play so everybody piles on questioning his decision to stay. Butler will end up just fine. Even during their last two non-conference seasons, they faced adversity but the team comes together by the end of the conference season. Hinkle Fieldhouse is a huge home court advantage during the Horizon League tournament and that should get them into the postseason again this year. Gone are the likes of Mack and Howard but it isn’t like the recruiting pipeline is empty around where Butler is located. And that brings us to the next issue, which no longer is an advantage just for the power conferences.

Recruiting

Butler is in Indianapolis. VCU and Richmond are in the DC area. Both of those areas produce a significant amount of basketball talent in the country. Mid majors in prime areas of recruiting have the ability to reload IF they show consistency with their coaches. Once again, let’s use Gonzaga’s Mark Few as an example. Until Ben Howland got busted three straight final fours in the middle of last decade, Gonzaga’s program was arguably the best in the entire west coast. Despite sub-par NCAA tournament showings by the Bulldogs during the last two years, they have been a in the upper echelon out in the west coast.

Butler’s Brad Stevens is following a similar formula. Two straight years of deep tournament runs will give him consistency in recruiting and can actually establish a “Butler pipeline.” There is PLENTY of talent in Indiana to go around for Purdue, IU and even Notre Dame. Butler has no reason NOT to recruit the 3 star players consistently and occasionally pull the 4 or 5 star guys to continue build on their recent success. Stevens’ players this year are a tremendous improvement athletically over his last year’s squad. Now it will take some time to get back to another Final Four but it is by no means impossible. Gonzaga’s recruiting is throughout the country now but early in the ‘00s it circled just around Oregon/Washington area. Compare Jeremy Pargo’s talent level to Derek Ravio … exactly, consistent coaching, recruiting and postseason appearances is bound to improve the talent that flows through these smaller programs.

Shaka Smart is the most recent "hot coach" to pass up on coaching at bigger programs.

Similarly, Shaka Smart can build a good pipeline for recruits in the DC area. Maryland is going through a rebuilding process and Mark Turgeon’s style of play is very different from Smart’s. Once again, there is enough talent in DC for both of these programs, AND Richmond too! If Smart can have a good recruiting pitch available and there is no reason to believe that he won’t, they can continue to pull 3 star recruits and snatch a stud once in a while. Last year’s VCU run was historical but the program isn’t a complete novice to fame in March. Anthony Grant and Jeff Capel had successful runs in March. Remember when Eric Maynor drilled a floater at the buzzer to knock of Duke in the 1st round of the tournament about four years ago?? Once Smart establishes some consistency, the program should continue to be a force out in the east coast.

Another recent trend that helps these programs is transfers. The transfer rate has been at record high recently. Programs such as UNLV have benefited from guards leaving bigger programs b/c of their lack of playing time. For instance, a 4 star guard goes to a program like Illinois or Minnesota. For whatever reason, he doesn’t get along with the coach and realizes that his role in the offense will be limited. Players pull the trigger quicker than ever nowadays as they head to mid majors to earn more playing time. UNLV’s squad this year is a poster child for such a scenario. Two of their best players are transfers, one of them coming from UCLA. As the Bruins go through a rough season, the Running Rebels look like a force in the Mountain West.

Not only are the high school players looking at mid majors as a reasonable possibility but existing players from larger programs want to transfer immediately because they can get more media attention and playing time.

Overall, what does this trend mean for college basketball? It is moving the game in a positive direction b/c the fan bases have more hope. Competitive parity has been a topic beaten to death over the summer during the NBA labor negotiations. Superstars or in general any talented player wants to play where he will be noticed and has the best chance to compete. With the airtime not just limited to the power conferences, the smaller fan bases have some hope as the decade turns. Does this mean that we can expect Butler to compete for Final Four every year?? Not really. Not yet at least. But if younger coaches like Stevens and Smart stick around their schools and continue to build on their recent success; it sends a message to the players. They aren’t going anywhere and are committed to their programs. It starts with the coaches. And it continues with wins. Both of them combined means that there will be more parity in hoops and that is not such a bad thing for the sport.

2 Comments to “Mid major coaches staying put? Get used to it.”

  1. Nice work. I still think Stevens replaces coach K when he’s done.

  2. Stevens might leave Butler at some point but definitely won’t be Duke I think. Duke won’t go out of their “family” for the next hire. Wojo, Chris Collins, Capel and Johny Dawkins (Stanford’s HC) are still out there. Coach K has the next one lined up amongst them. Stevens is an outsider.

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