Coaching hires and coin flips

Can an athletic director who was merely repeating what Vanderbilt had just done still serve as trailblazer for college basketball hiring decisions? Absolutely. (AP/Paul Sancya)

On May 13, 2019, John Beilein announced that he was leaving Michigan to become head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Beilein’s exit came almost a full month after that year’s college coaching carousel had closed for business.

Nate Oats (March 27), Kyle Smith (also March 27), Mark Fox (March 29), Fred Hoiberg (March 30), Buzz Williams (April 3), Jerry Stackhouse (April 5), Eric Musselman (April 7), Mike Young (also April 7), Mick Cronin (April 9), and Mike Anderson (April 19), had all accepted new positions. Eight of those 10 guys were either current Division I head coaches or, in Fox’s case, on garden leave from being one. Hoiberg was a former Iowa State head coach who subsequently served an ill fated stint at the helm of the Chicago Bulls.

Conversely, Stackhouse’s head coaching experience consisted of two seasons in the NBA G League. Today if you enter “Vanderbilt hires Jerry Stackhouse” into a Google News search for calendar year 2019, the first result on the page is a headline from The Tennesseean: “Vanderbilt makes untraditional hire in Jerry Stackhouse and there are plenty of questions.”

On May 22 of that year, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel elected to follow the Commodores’ untraditional path. Manuel’s selection of Miami Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard was somewhat less surprising than Vanderbilt’s choice in the sense that Howard was and is a Michigan basketball legend. It was perhaps slightly more aberrant than Vanderbilt’s path, however, in light of the fact that Howard had not yet served as a head coach in the G League or anywhere else.

That lack of previous experience is yet to surface as a problem for Howard. The Wolverines are coming off a 23-5 season in which they earned an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed and reached the Elite Eight. Now every program with an opening would love to hire its own Howard, a development which heralds a welcome qualitative expansion in what has long been an excessively insular if not incestuous hiring market.

The biographical model for a major-conference head coach used to be and to a large extent still is that of a white guy who as a college player was a fiery, tough-as-nails point guard with more passion than talent, one who was either bypassed entirely by the NBA or could only get a cup of coffee there. Then followed an assistant gig at a major-conference program, a head-coaching stint or two at a mid-major, and, voila, a shot as a head coach in one of the six best conferences in the nation. Such a coach is often known as an “Xs and Os guy” who “loves the chess match” yet is also praised as a “charismatic” leader.

That biographical model can work, of course. Kansas seems pretty happy with its decision to hire Bill Self in 2003. Purely as a matter of talent acquisition, however, any such model becomes a restrictive barrier if it congeals into the only one in use. Howard’s success over the course of two seasons, by contrast, represents the emergence of an entirely different biographical model as a viable alternative where “viable” connotes simply that which athletic directors will actually consider.

You will have to forgive those athletic directors for being excessively risk-averse. Of the 230 coaching hires made by 76 major-conference programs since 1999, 93 of those tenures have, so far, ended in a firing. A 40 percent firing rate sounds grim enough, but even that number underestimates the hazards facing ADs when they make a hiring decision. It’s rare for a coach to be dismissed after three seasons or fewer, so it’s perhaps more instructive to subtract the 31 hires made since 2017 from this discussion. Then we’re left with 93 firings out of 199 hires made between 1999 and 2017.

History suggests that for every hopeful major-conference press conference introducing the new guy, there’s a 46.5 percent chance that the coach will eventually be fired by that very same school. It’s virtually a coin flip. The coaches are doomed to fail very nearly half the time, and so too are the athletic directors who hire them.

In other words, when we applaud the arrival of new biographical and professional models in the hiring market what we’re really endorsing is more opportunity to fail within what will always be an unforgiving zero-sum endeavor. Wins, like NCAA tournament seeds, are a fixed quantity and blue-chip programs enjoy legacy advantages stretching back decades. Any number of different backgrounds can produce a head coach who should be given the opportunity to fail or possibly even succeed within these forbidding constraints. So, sure, look at that current D-I coach while also considering that NBA guy or even, most especially, an assistant coach.

The strange 20-or-so-year fixation on Duke assistant coaches to the near-total exclusion of all other assistants was itself eloquent testimony to the incorrigible irrationality in the hiring market. There are other elite programs, after all, that stand comfortably beside the Blue Devils in terms of basketball results.

North Carolina’s won as many national titles as Duke in the Coach K era, UConn has won more of them over the past 25 years, Kansas has won more NCAA tournament games this century, and Virginia has won more ACC games over the last decade. Yet somehow there was never any particular mania among major-conference athletic directors for hiring assistants from Chapel Hill, Storrs, Lawrence, or Charlottesville. It is or at least was Duke assistant coaches alone who exhibited this extraordinary upward mobility. Why was that, exactly?

We will leave that for the puzzled and incredulous anthropologists of the future. For now it is sufficient to remark that the lion’s share of the 76 major-conference head coaches in place today reached their positions through similar means.

How to become a major-conference head coach
Position held when hired: ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC head coaches

Division I head coach      53         69.7
Division I assistant       14         18.4
NBA                         6          7.9
TV                          2          2.6
Semi-retired                1          1.3

Note however that this collective view of the major conferences does not capture at least one historic occurrence.

It’s possible that the Big Ten in 2021-22 is the first conference in the history of the sport where a majority of its head coaches were not D-I head coaches at the time of their hiring. Chris Collins, Greg Gard, Fred Hoiberg, Juwan Howard, Tom Izzo, Ben Johnson, Micah Shrewsberry, and Mike Woodson, I salute you. Truly, you are an an elite corps of varied-path trailblazers.

(No, don’t @ me about Matt Painter. The hoops hiring market analysis gods consider him a Southern Illinois head coach brought to West Lafayette to succeed Gene Keady on a one-year timetable.)

The presence of multiple accepted biographical and professional models is a good thing, and one day these models will make provision for hiring women as head coaches of men’s basketball teams. It is only a matter of time.