Category Archives: HR for athletic directors

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.”

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When “everyone’s back,” improvement skews heavily toward offense

Everyone’s back for Texas this season. (

We trust there will be some semblance of a season in 2020-21, and if that does occur while keeping everyone healthy, including coaches of varying ages, it will dwarf every other consideration. Then and only then will we be able to progress to minute considerations of basketball minutiae, like we used to do in the good old days.

What follows qualifies as a minute consideration of basketball minutiae. Teams like Texas, Richmond, Missouri, UCLA, Utah, Rutgers, Villanova, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Miami, Wisconsin, and Iowa will all have pretty much everyone back this season. All of the above will be expected to perform accordingly, and teams like the Longhorns, Bruins, Wildcats, Badgers, and Hawkeyes in particular can already be found on various preseason top 25 rankings.

In the recent past, major-conference teams that have returned at least 80 percent of their possession-minutes for a new season have tended to live up to high expectations by improving significantly on offense. It has been far more rare, though not unheard of, for a major-conference team that returns just about everyone to remake itself dramatically on the defensive side of the ball.

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College coaches that played in the NBA are not doomed


(David Zalubowski/AP)

Michigan hired Juwan Howard yesterday, and the first two hot takes I read asserted that the odds are stacked against the new Wolverine coach. Howard, of course, played in the NBA, and it is said that coaches that have tried to transition from playing at the highest level to running a Division I program have been notably unsuccessful. Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson, you name it.

In truth, ex-NBA players do face long odds when trying to succeed as college coaches. But so too, of course, do all newly hired college coaches.

Certainly NBA types like Mike Dunleavy and Mark Price took on daunting challenges when they assumed the head coaching responsibilities at Tulane and Charlotte, respectively. The analytic nut to be cracked, however, is that, obviously, any coach trying to breathe life into the Green Wave, whether they have an NBA pedigree or not, would be taking on a herculean task. Continue reading

All coaches are interim



The last push notification of 2018 told me Steve Alford had been let go by UCLA, and it got me to thinking about just how unique his career has been. The ex-Bruin head coach has been nothing if not innovative in his comings and goings.

If you’re looking at college basketball fixtures that have been as famous for as long as Alford, you’re working from a really short list. Jim Boeheim, of course. Plus Mike Krzyzewski, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Danny Manning, certainly, but not too many others. Relative newcomers like Roy Williams and Bill Self, for example, were still anonymous assistants at North Carolina and Oklahoma State, respectively, when Alford won a national title as a player at Indiana.

What’s interesting about Alford in stark contrast to other hoary holdovers from the ’80s is that, to an extent that’s unusual and that far outstrips mere maturation, he seemed to change before our eyes. Continue reading

Coaching, leading, and Rick Pitino


Rick Pitino was a rarity even among the tiny group of elite coaches at the top of the college basketball pyramid. Let’s define that elite as active coaches who have either won multiple national titles or been to six or more Final Fours.

It’s a short list:

                   Titles     FFs
Mike Krzyzewski      5         12
Roy Williams         3          9
Rick Pitino          2          7
Tom Izzo             1          7
John Calipari        1          6

With the possible exception of Tom Izzo, the Louisville head coach appeared to rely less on recruiting top-20 talent than his fellow legends. He demonstrably relied on it less than John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, for example, but he also relied on it less than Bill Self or even a relative youngster like Sean Miller.

I had occasion to make this same point when the Louisville staff was found to be cheating on its recruiting by enlisting the assistance of strippers and escorts. That particular episode had zero measurable impact on recruiting. In point of fact, Louisville hasn’t signed an RSCI top-20 recruit since Samardo Samuels arrived on campus in the fall of 2008. Continue reading

Carousel speed as social-media artifact


With job changes in 2008, 2011, 2014, and 2017, Cuonzo Martin is a one-man (cyclical) carousel. (

It started with NC State. The Wolfpack let Mark Gottfried go way back in mid-February. Then came news of openings at Missouri, LSU, Illinois, Indiana, Washington, and, finally, Georgetown.

Cuonzo Martin took the job at Missouri, creating an opening at Cal, and Brad Underwood elected to take the helm at Illinois, leaving behind a vacant chair at Oklahoma State.

That makes nine major-conference head coaches who will be rookies in their positions next season. Naturally, that number could go higher still if one or more of the remaining openings (Indiana, Cal, Oklahoma State, Georgetown) were to be filled by a candidate who’s presently a major-conference coach somewhere else.

It feels like an unusually active carousel this season, and by “feels like” I refer not to any silly conventional wisdom out there in the world at large but to my own real-time reactions. The past 10 days it’s felt like I can’t write two paragraphs without my phone chirping at me about yet another coaching move.

Well, it turns out my real-time reactions are slightly misleading. This isn’t even close to the most active carousel season we’ve seen this century.  Continue reading

Notes for a lively five-month Markelle Fultz discussion


This season Markelle Fultz will turn out to be brilliant, disappointing or something in between, and of course Washington either will or will not make the NCAA tournament. But I for one promise not to brand Fultz as a disappointment simply because the Huskies don’t receive a bid. In fact, I think it rather likely that Fultz will live up to the hype, and that Lorenzo Romar’s guys will not go dancing. There may be far less friction between these two scenarios than we’re inclined to assume.

In the one-and-done era, there is precious little precedent for a freshman single-handedly and dramatically altering the trajectory of his non-blue-chip program’s season. Yet for some reason, a decade in, we’re still talking like this should indeed happen simply as a matter of course.

We talked like that last year with Ben Simmons despite a preseason chorus of smug pre-Trump laptops saying that LSU, even with the best freshman in the country, was likely to be a bubble team. We may talk like that again with Fultz this season (though yesterday’s loss at home to Yale certainly won’t get any bandwagons rolling).

This gap between the observed performances of the past and our expectations for the near-future has come to constitute something of an esteem tariff that a coach like Romar chooses to pay when signing a one-and-done-track player like Fultz. What a terrible coach, we say. He can’t even do what’s hardly ever been done by anyone else before. It’s a vein of criticism that dates from the widespread disbelief that Kevin Durant could end his freshman season anywhere except the Final Four. It’s been a hearty perennial ever since. Continue reading

The four structural hazards of any coaching search

This March the hot young coach generating all the buzz is 52.

This March the hot young coach generating all the buzz is 52. (Getty/Jamie Squire)

The coaching carousel is turning rather slowly this March, with major-conference openings currently available at Alabama, Arizona State and DePaul and nowhere else. Perhaps there’s another shoe or even two that will drop on this front, but for now the salient characteristic of this season’s job market is not only the small number of openings but also the fact that none of these vacancies were created by voluntary coach exits. To really get the carousel going you need a series of guys jumping by choice to greener pastures.

Still, even in a slow year for hirings we will likely see all the traditional characteristics that make hiring a college basketball coach a uniquely challenging endeavor. To my eye these are the four structural hazards in any coaching search:

Tournament warp
Great coaches tend to do well in the NCAA tournament, eventually, but not every team that does well in the NCAA tournament necessarily has a great coach. Not to mention “doing well” in the tournament is by custom defined as making the Sweet 16, but most of the coaches who make the second weekend in any given year aren’t looking to change jobs. Continue reading

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.

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Perception and Josh Pastner


Today at Insider I’ve written about Memphis and why I think the Tigers will be a force to be reckoned with in this year’s American race. And by “force to be reckoned with,” I mean “about as good as if not better than any other team that we think will still be in the league next season.”

Having zeroed in on this season’s team, I want to take a step back and consider Josh Pastner’s career and specifically what his example may be able to tell us about how college basketball is customarily narrated. (Something like a person facing backward on a train and describing the terrain as it goes by with feigned “I knew this was coming” omniscience. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)  Continue reading