The professional hazards of coaching

Peck Hickman left Louisville at a time entirely of his choosing, a professional norm that’s eluded subsequent occupants of the job.

Louisville dismissed Chris Mack as head coach of its men’s basketball team today. In-season sackings are comparatively rare, but this one did call to mind Steve Alford’s exit at UCLA three years ago.

In each case a storied program gradually and then suddenly lost all patience with a fourth- (Mack) or sixth-year (Alford) coach after a run of losing in the dead of winter. Two such episodes occurring within a relatively short span of time perhaps reminds us that being handed the keys to a blue-chip program is not only the aspiration of just about any coach. It’s also a demonstrable occupational hazard.

Denny Crum won two national titles at Louisville, but 15 years after the second championship he announced, on March 5, 2001, that he was stepping down with two years left on his contract. The decision came as a surprise inasmuch as Crum had previously stated his intention to return for another season and had even touted his incoming recruiting class. But Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich had been quoted that January as saying he couldn’t guarantee that Crum would be back. It appeared the writing was on the wall.

When Crum stated that it was his intention to depart, his team was 11-18 and had posted a 61-61 record over its last four seasons. “It was time for Denny Crum to step away,” Digger Phelps wrote at in reaction to the news. “Certain things happened that he just couldn’t control.”

Seen from 30,000 feet, the Rick Pitino era at Louisville was more of the same. The Cardinals burnished their status as a blue-chip program, won a national title, and the head coach was once again ushered out the door, this time in the form of an affirmative firing.

Assistant coach David Padgett was promoted to the head job on an interim basis for 2017-18. He started strong, at least on paper, leading the Cards to 15 wins in their first 19 outings. But Louisville had lost by 29 at Kentucky, and thus even at 15-4 Padgett was found wanting. By the end of the Cardinals’ 22-14 season, Mack was viewed as such an obvious choice for the full-time job that he was named as such in the newser on Louisville not retaining Padgett.

While Mack’s hiring at Louisville was seen as almost a fait accompli , such was not the case when UCLA got around to replacing its interim coach (Murry Bartow) in the wake of Alford’s dismissal. The Bruins approached John Calipari, Jamie Dixon, and Rick Barnes before coming to terms with Mick Cronin.

Mack and Cronin are about the same age, they both grew up in greater Cincinnati, and they both played for area Catholic high schools in the late 1980s. If we could run five or 10 thousand simulations on coaching careers the way we can with basketball seasons, one suspects we would find a far more diverse range of outcomes in the professional realm than we do on the court.

Certainly we could find a fair number of simulated outcomes for Mack that are worse or at least more static than Louisville sacking you midway through your fourth season. For starters, what if the Cardinals had made the 2018 NCAA tournament under Padgett? It almost happened. If Louisville wins one or, especially, two games in that bracket, does the administration really jettison a former UofL player and assistant coach who’s just given the program its best showing in three years?

Conversely, it doesn’t require any great leap of imagination to envision things going far smoother for Mack and the Cards. In that vein, consider the same question as above only with a different season. What if Louisville had made the tournament last year? It almost happened.

To be sure, Louisville’s profile constituted one very odd case in an intrinsically odd pandemic year. The Cardinals arrived at Selection Sunday last March having played just 20 games, as many as Auburn, Baylor, and Villanova have already played this season. Mack’s group looked like a solid No. 9 seed to win proxies, clocking at in No. 35 in terms of strength of record. Then again a team that lost by 37 at Wisconsin and, incredibly, by 45 at North Carolina was always going to appear far more shaky at KenPom (No. 54). In the end, the committee sided with Ken, the bid was given to Utah State, and Mack’s team was the only program in the SOR top 38 that didn’t play in the 2021 NCAA tournament. Coaching tenures can ride on such turns of fate.

None of which is to minimize any coach’s responsibility for their own choices or, more specifically, for the manner in which they respond to turns of fate that don’t go their way. On the contrary, any fan of the game can cite chapter and verse from prior cases — some quite notorious, actually — where coaches responded to adverse circumstances by digging their own holes much deeper than said holes otherwise would have been.

Possibly that’s what happened, to some extent, in Mack’s case. Surely we can acknowledge the role of the coach in these instances while also recognizing the peculiar structural givens within this particular profession. In a sport where Tony Bennett lost by 20 to a No. 16 seed one year and won the national title the next, the correlation between coaching performance and basketball outcomes is less than perfect.

Mack is out. His contemporary and fellow Cincinnati product Cronin occupies John Wooden’s chair and appears to have a decent shot at reaching a second consecutive Final Four. Of course, we’ve already seen UCLA go to back-to-back national semifinals this century. That coach was fired, and Alford was brought in. It’s a hazardous profession.