The hiring process for coaches is somewhat primitive, and it may not matter all that much

(Thinks to himself: "Wait, did he just call me 'Sean'?")

Thinks to himself: “Wait, did he just call me ‘Sean’?”

Tomorrow night Stanford will play Dayton for a spot in the regional final, meaning either Johnny Dawkins or Archie Miller is about to add “Elite Eight” to his resume. Ironically both coaches have been the subject of the time-honored “This Is a Big [Insert Clock Time Here] for Coach X” constructions that some of my friends in the field love to use, albeit from opposite ends of the employment-cycle spectrum.

When the Cardinal played at Connecticut in December it was said that “This Is a Big [Insert Clock Time Here] for Johnny Dawkins,” meaning if Stanford lost that game maybe at the end of the season the coach would be fired due to a perceived lack of quote-unquote quality wins. And, of course, when the Flyers played Syracuse in the round of 32 it was said that “This is a Big [Insert Clock Time Here] for Archie Miller,” meaning if Dayton won the game the coach would possibly be hired by a major-conference program.

Both coaches safely navigated their Big Few Seconds and reached the Sweet 16. We therefore presume that Dawkins’ seat is as cold as ice, and I will state for the record that Miller is unquestionably a hot coaching property.

I too think Miller is a coach to watch, but my assessment of his abilities as a coach has not changed appreciably over the past seven days. By that I mean my opinion of him would be more or less the same regardless of whether Vee Sanford’s game-winner against Ohio State had gone in or rimmed out. Maybe I’m strange.

When we use “This is a Big [Insert Clock Time Here] for Coach X” constructions, we’re exporting what we love about sports — a contrived and fleeting all-or-nothing drama — to a real-world setting. Coaches will be forgiven for thinking to themselves, if this is such a great way to make employment decisions why don’t you all try it with your livelihoods for a change?

There would be some kind of divine and just human-resources redress attained, surely, if just one time a coach stopped in the middle of a game, walked around the corner of the table on press row, stood beside me as I’m hunched over my laptop, and most solemnly and portentously intoned:

This is a big four minutes for John Gasaway. If he doesn’t come up with one really incisive epigram that gets at least 100 RT’s and also develop a new rebounding metric that adjusts for teammate effects, ESPN’s going to fire him.

The challenge is to staff these coaching positions in a manner congruent with what is done by grown-ups unaffiliated with sports. My wife the HR professional will roll her eyes and indict me on one count of a blinding flash of the obvious, but when it comes to human resources for college sports the obvious is sometimes badly needed. Building a better hiring mousetrap here will entail common sense and good stats.

The enemy of a good hiring decision is speed, however in college hoops the need to move quickly is baked into the process itself. If you don’t pull the trigger you lose out on Shaka. So the legwork will have to be done in advance, possibly by the third-party search firms that many schools now use, to be called upon at a moment’s notice.

At a minimum that legwork has to capture how the coach is perceived by current players and current beat writers who — by definition — have seen him at his absolute worst; by prospective recruits who have seen him at his spit-and-polished in-home visit best; and by the parents or guardians of both sets of players. (Talk to the parents of the beat writers too, if you want.) If I’m an AD and 95 percent of my job performance is going to be evaluated by the two hires I make in football and men’s basketball, this is what I will require.

That will be the hard part, but it’s also the most important information to have. The easy and less important part will be getting one’s hands on the most illuminating performance metrics:

The driving forces behind college hoops analysis have traditionally been scouting (trying to beat the next opponent), bracket pools and/or gambling more generally (trying to predict an actual outcome), and reporting (trying to ferret out the truth and grab page views), none of which are a precise fit for what an AD really needs when he or she is hiring a new head basketball coach. What the AD needs is a “predict”-the-past-tested projection of a scenario, namely, how the coach would do if they were hired into this new program. When my alma mater hires me as the AD (it’s only a matter of time), that will be what I ask for, either from my high-priced consulting firm or from the eager youngster I hire as my Senior Executive Vice Assistant Admiral of Performance Measures.

If there is one piece of solace that I would offer fretful ADs at this time of year, it would be to see these stakes for what they are. Tell your school’s president to get off your back, already. Wins are zero-sum, and the big bullies have built-in advantages that are both dispositive and stubbornly consistent across time spans measured in decades.

Call this graphic “major-conference hegemony at a glance.”


These are the seed points I like to tinker with, the ones where on a sliding scale a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is worth four points and a No. 4 seed is worth one. In the 30-tournament panorama shown here, green means your conference had a fantastic and historic year and red means your league received no top-4 seeds.

That sea of red you see is every conference ever, except the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. If you’re a coach your goal is to be hired into one of those six conferences, and if you wonder why in the world anyone would want to take the job at a place like Virginia Tech or Auburn this is why. Coaches don’t need to be shown my nifty little tour de force of conditional formatting because they live it.

The NCAA tournament is a lottery for coaching careers. If you’re a head coach at a conference outside the big six and you make the Sweet 16 you will automatically be talked about for major-conference vacancies. If instead of paying a search firm $75,000 an AD sat down with a bracket and a pencil and generated that list on his or her own each March, here’s what it would have looked like the past five years.

2014: Archie Miller
2013: Gregg Marshall, Andy Enfield, John Giannini
2012: John Groce, Chris Mack
2011: Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, Dave Rose, Chris Mooney, Steve Fisher
2010: Brad Stevens, Steve Donahue, Ben Jacobson, Randy Bennett, Chris Mack

Good coaches and even great coaches have been identified through this decision rule. If you’re not only appearing multiple times on this list but also advancing to the national championship game annually you should probably just move on up to the NBA already. And, to reach a little further back into the mists of time, there’s no denying that Bill Self has won some games since he took Tulsa to the 2000 Elite Eight.

Yet to my eye the coaches named above are, if nothing else, a diverse bunch. If you’re an AD and you elevate a mid-major head coach currently bathed in March glory, you’ve given yourself plausible defensibility. No one can accuse you of making such a hire from out of left field, and in fact you’re following the custom of the profession. But that nagging little voice you hear in the back of your mind is your conscience telling you that for some coaches March glory turns out to be a onetime thing.

Postscript: “I engaged a third party to conduct an exhaustive search of our own sideline.” Do third-party search firms by their very presence subtly inveigh against hiring one of your assistants because such a decision obviates the need for their service? I raise the question because one obvious side-door out of the speed-legwork conundrum, of course, is to ride the horse you already know.

Not that the long-standing preference for mid-major head coaches over major-conference assistants is the doing of nefarious search firms, mind you. ADs have long been somewhat fanatical in their insistence that the new guy be a current head coach. Let’s not forget, however, that elevating that hard-working assistant — even if he does have a funny Upper Peninsula accent — can work out pretty well on occasion:

Just saying.