Sunday, June 20, 2010

The State of Coaching (Summer 2010)

Four years ago, Indiana had a chance to hire former Hoosier player Steve Alford as head coach. They passed on the opportunity and Alford eventually moved on to New Mexico. At New Mexico, Alford has won a ton of games and posted fantastic efficiency numbers along the way. Meanwhile, Kelvin Sampson imploded the Indiana program. In retrospect, it seems like Indiana made the wrong decision.

But I still think Indiana made the right decision. As evidence, I point to NC State which hired former player Sidney Lowe in that same summer four years ago. Lowe was supposed to restore the tradition of NC State’s 1983 national title. But while he’s brought back some nice memories for NC State fans, he certainly hasn’t added any new ones.

NC State has played some exciting games against North Carolina, but otherwise remained irrelevant in the ACC race. The team has never finished better than 6-12 in four seasons. And of the remaining four-year coaches, Sidney Lowe has the worst efficiency margin in the ACC.

And yet, NC State is not quite ready to fire their inconsistent coach. Some claim a new recruiting class will save the day, but I doubt it. Lowe has seemed over his head from day one. But I suspect that because Lowe is a former star player, the university boosters are hesitant to make a move. It’s easy to get rid of an inconsistent outsider with failed promises. It is hard to get rid of a respected part of the university tradition.

This year Iowa St. heads down the same road, hiring former star shooter Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg played in the NBA for 10 seasons, and no doubt knows a lot about basketball. But does he know enough to win in a BCS league right away? My extended thoughts about the new hires are listed below.

Inside The Numbers

Before I make comments on various coaches, I’m going to update the efficiency stats. The following tables list the number of years at the current school (YRS), the average adjusted offensive efficiency (AAOE), the average adjusted defensive efficiency (AADE), and the national rank of the efficiency margin (RK). I list the numbers with the “current school” and the average over “all schools” in the last seven years. Averages are calculated using data available on

Keep in mind context when interpreting any number. Steve Donahue’s numbers are not great nationally, but they were great for the Ivy League. The best remaining Ivy League coach is Tommy Amaker whose efficiency margin at Harvard is -5.9 points per possession. On the flip side, Sidney Lowe’s numbers seem pretty good. But in the ACC, they’ve been near the bottom every season.

Also keep in mind that this is a “what have you done for me lately” world. So the simple average is not always the best way to evaluate which coaches are hot and which coaches are in trouble. This past year several coaches were hired to new jobs after making positive changes with their teams. Jeff Bzdelik (Colorado to Wake Forest), Tad Boyle (Northern Colorado to Colorado), and Bob Marlin (Sam Houston St. to Louisiana-Lafayette) were all hired to new positions based on dramatic offensive improvements. Similarly, Tony Barbee (UTEP to Auburn), Ed Conroy (The Citadel to Tulane), and Milan Brown (Mt. St. Mary’s to Holy Cross) were all hired to new jobs based on tremendous defensive improvements. And after Steve Donahue turned Cornell around on offense and defense, he became the hot hire for Boston College.

Because the recent trend matters, I highlight in green and red coaches that were 5 points better or worse than their historical average last season. The point here is to illustrate that not all coaches low on a conference list are necessarily the worst. Scott Drew had a negative efficiency margin in his first two seasons at Baylor. But Drew brought his team to the Elite Eight last year, and the recent numbers have been much better.

Hot Seat

We’ll revisit this topic in-season, but the hot seat candidates are pretty obvious. Sidney Lowe probably won’t get to see his current recruiting class graduate. Ed DeChellis bought some time with his NIT run in 2009, but he and Bill Carmody have done little to warrant serious job security. Doc Sadler might not survive to see Nebraska head to the Big Ten. And while Pat Knight may coach a few more games than Sean Sutton did after replacing his father, it isn’t clear that he’ll coach a lot more games. Mick Cronin is in serious trouble after Lance Stephenson didn’t deliver an NCAA bid. And luckily everyone looks safe in the Pac-10, but that’s only because they are all so new. (It is hard to believe that Herb Sendek is already the third most tenured coach in the Pac-10.) Finally, Andy Kennedy’s off-court activities haven’t helped his job security in the SEC.

New Hires

Now that Tom Izzo is not heading to the NBA, I think we can safely say this was the most boring off-season for coaching changes in some time. I can’t even generate a decent coaching chain.

"Oliver Purnell – Brad Brownell – Billy Donlon" just doesn’t look that exciting on paper.

Sure, there were 51 jobs that changed hands (and one at Chicago St. that remains open). But with Butler’s Brad Stevens staying put, and with none of the elite programs making a change, I’ll do my best to make these comments interesting.

ACC New Hires

-I’m not showing pace in any of these tables today, but I think it is worth emphasizing that the ACC may be getting a lot slower. Last year the ACC added slow-paced Tony Bennett, and this year the league adds three coaches with a reputation for working the shot clock. Jeff Bzdelik and Brad Brownell’s squads have ranked over 300th in tempo on numerous occasions, and Steve Donahue’s Cornell team ranked a not-so-speedy 245th in the nation last year in tempo.

This is probably smart strategy. Most teams won’t consistently perform at Duke and North Carolina’s level. And if you want to upset Duke and Carolina, you want to minimize the possessions in the game. But for fans used to bragging about the entertainment value of track meet ACC games, this change may not be for the better.

-Steve Donahue’s negative efficiency margin doesn’t look great, but remember that he’s been coaching in the Ivy League. Donahue clearly accomplished something special in building Cornell into a Sweet Sixteen team. I don’t expect Donahue to have Boston College competing for the ACC title next year, but he deserves a chance to build a program. A good projection for Donahue might be Fran Dunphy. Dunphy jumped from the Ivy League to Temple four years ago and after an inconsistent first year, Temple’s efficiency margin has improved three years in a row.

-Jeff Bzdelik’s Colorado team was rated near 300th in the country in 2 Pt FG% defense the last two seasons. So my initial reaction to the Wake Forest hire was that the Demon Deacons were making a mistake. If a team doesn’t play interior defense in the ACC, they are going to get crushed. But when I look at Bzdelik’s overall numbers, and remember what he did at Air Force, the move starts to make more sense. Bzdelik probably has the best efficiency margin of anyone Wake Forest could have hired at this point. And assuming the problem with the interior defense was a lack of quality post players at Colorado, it may be an aberration. In the end, Wake Forest gets a star offensive coach, and Bzdelik resets his tenure clock with a more prestigious BCS team.

-Did Oliver Purnell bolt Clemson because of a lack of commitment from the university? Or does he just like a challenge? There’s no question Clemson experienced serious heart-break under Purnell, but there’s also no question he built the program to levels not experienced since Rick Barnes left. Under Purnell, Clemson was no longer the team projected for the cellar or near the cellar every year. And with Purnell gone, the team adds Wright St.’s Brad Brownell. Brownell isn’t the sexy pick based on big NCAA tournament upsets, star recruits, or even a recent league title. But all he has done is win. In 8 seasons in the mid-major CAA and Horizon league, his teams have finished lower than 3rd only once. The numbers suggest he’ll have a tough-minded defensive team. And if you don’t have the most talent in the league, defense is the great equalizer.

Big Ten New Hires

-Fran McCaffery pulled the ultimate turnaround at Siena. He took over a team that was 273rd in the Pomeroy rankings and raised them to a team that was 59th nationally. His team went from last in the MAAC in 2005, to three straight MAAC titles. Sure, his average efficiency numbers aren’t phenomenal. But that’s only because of where his teams started. They’ve gotten steadily better since he took over. Iowa’s basketball team is a huge rebuilding project, and that is why McCaffery is the perfect fit. He’s rebuilt a disaster before, now he just has to do it again.

Big 12 New Hires

-Besides my concerns about how quickly Iowa St. can fire Fred Hoiberg if he fails, I’m also really concerned about his lack of coaching experience. Can he really motivate and communicate with players in the heat of a dreadful season? While Fran McCaffery can look at his Iowa team and say, “I’ve been here before guys. I know it is bad now, but it will get better.” I’m not sure Hoiberg can say the same thing. But my pessimism is lessened somewhat by Hoiberg’s decision to hire former Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz as an assistant. I never felt like Lutz got a fair shake. He built UNC-Charlotte into a consistent NCAA contender in CUSA, and then when the Big East raided CUSA, he lost all his rivalries with elite teams. His team was put in the A10 and was never able to reform an identity. A lot of people talk about how Memphis was left behind when CUSA reorganized, but Charlotte really got left behind. Hopefully this is the opportunity for Lutz to show what he can do once again, even if he isn’t officially the head coach.

-For this year at least, Tad Boyle is a Big 12 coach. And Tad Boyle should know how to recruit in Colorado, after coaching at Northern Colorado. And his team did win 25 games last year. But the positive vibes end there. Boyle’s teams have never been particularly dominant, and even last year’s 25 win club wasn’t great. They finished second in the Big Sky, and only picked up 25 wins because of an incredibly weak non-conference schedule. I’ll be the first to admit that the stats are not everything. But there isn’t anything in Boyle’s resume that makes me think Colorado won’t be hiring again in a few years.

Big East New Hires

-Sadly Steve Lavin’s last year at UCLA came before we started tracking tempo-free stats, but based on my memory, I have questions about what he can accomplish. He had a much better winning environment at UCLA and his teams often underachieved. But I have effusive praise for this move because of the timing. Lavin inherits a team of seniors with a chance to win right now. And, he has a full year to bring in what should be a critical recruiting class to St. John’s. We should know by next spring if Lavin can recruit St. John’s back to glory.

-Oliver Purnell is the dream hire for DePaul. He brings an excitement to the program thanks to his full-court pressure and attacking system. And this isn’t just Keno Davis seven-seconds-or-less revolving door at the basket. Purnell’s average defensive efficiency in the last seven years is 90.8. That’s equal to the average defensive efficiency of Jay Wright, and nearly as good at the 90.4 posted by Jamie Dixon. This is a team that will play defense, and be fun to watch. But Purnell brings more than just occassional full-court pressure, Purnell brings instant credibility. Instead of a mid-major coach trying to convince recruits that DePaul may win someday, Purnell knows he has a system that can win immediately. Just like Purnell did when he took over at Clemson, and just like Tubby Smith did when he took over a down-trodden Minnesota program, I expect DePaul will be better immediately. The ultimate question for Purnell is not whether he will win, but whether he can eventually compete for a Big East title. I’m skeptical he can get DePaul to that level. But after the last couple of years, even a .500 team sounds fantastic to DePaul fans.

-Does the “almost” upset count for anything? Robert Morris “almost” upset Villanova in the NCAA tournament this year. Which means by now most of you forgot about it. Just like you may have forgotten that Fred Hill stepped down at Rutgers and that Mike Rice Jr. was hired from Robert Morris. Hey, maybe you never even read that headline. But that’s the problem. Rutgers isn’t hiring a well-known coach. Rutgers isn’t hiring a proven winner, a proven offensive or defensive genius from the mid-major ranks. Rutgers is rolling the dice outside the normal hiring pattern. Robert Morris is hiring the coach of the three-time NEC champ, a league that as recently as two years ago was the third weakest conference in the country. And that’s fine. I’m actually a pretty big advocate for trying out winners from different levels. But if you are going to take a risk on an unproven commodity, couldn’t he at least have a signature victory? Is he supposed to sell Rutgers recruits on the fact that he once “almost” beat Villanova?

-Kevin Willard did little at Iona that would merit getting hired as a coach in the Big East. His team finished 7th, 7th, and 3rd in the MAAC. But Kevin is the son of a former coach who has lots of connections in the business. And while it is easy to criticize this type of hire for the lack of supporting “data”, the truth is that college basketball coaches need connections to succeed. Fair or not, Kevin Willard has access to a much bigger network of recruits than Mike Rice Jr. He’s also spent years on the sidelines next to incredibly smart basketball minds. And even though I can’t point to a single piece of data to tell you why Kevin Willard will succeed at Seton Hall, he has something a lot of mid-major coaches would dream of… an opportunity.

Pac-10 New Hires

-Certain coaches are off limits in the mid-major ranks. Mark Few is not leaving Gonzaga anytime soon. Jim Larranaga is happy at George Mason. And for a long time, Dana Altman has been in that category. But somehow, Oregon made the hire. But for some reason, people want to find negative things to say about this hire. Why didn’t he go to Arkansas a few years ago? Why hasn’t he won in the NCAA tournament? Why has his team struggled lately? Why couldn’t Oregon find someone better after such an extensive search? I find all of these comments ludicrous. No BCS team (other than DePaul with Oliver Purnell) got a coach with a better efficiency margin than Dana Altman. He knows how to coach offense and defense, and recruit to a league that gets multiple NCAA tournament bids. On paper, he is the perfect hire.

SEC New Hires

-The post John Calipari CUSA was supposed to give multiple teams a chance to be good. But probably no one seized the opportunity more than Tony Barbee’s UTEP squad which made the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection. But while part of me wanted to see a little bit more out of UTEP before I was willing to anoint Barbee a top mid-major coach, the truth is in the four year numbers. UTEP’s efficiency margin has improved three years in a row. Barbee is ready for the challenge of a BCS league.

Who's Next?

I suppose the natural question is what coach will be next to jump to a BCS gig. But the MWC and A10 are often as much a destination as a way to get a better job. Steve Alford isn’t getting paid peanuts at New Mexico. Fran Dunphy will gladly tell you he can win a ton of games in the A10 at Temple. But many of the coaches with the best numbers, from Lon Kruger to Brian Gregory, will go elsewhere if the price is right.

-Chris Lowery was once the hot coach with the best numbers, but he’s been trending in the wrong direction. Still, if any of those top MVC coaches has a good year, they could easily be on the move.

-Other people have said this, but it is worth pointing out again. CUSA is definitely a league that likes to recycle former BCS coaches:

Mike Davis – Indiana
Larry Eustachy – Iowa St.
Matt Doherty – North Carolina
Ben Braun – California
Jeff Lebo – Auburn
James Dickey – Texas Tech
Tim Floyd – USC

-I’m expecting Tad Doyle will make me eat my words now, but if Colorado has to make an odd hire, why not someone like Stew Morrill? I know he isn’t young. And maybe he cannot be lured away from a safe, low stress environment. But I find it sad that only people living in the mountains ever get to see how good Stew Morrill is at coaching offensive basketball.

-I’m also surprised Old Dominion’s Blaine Taylor didn’t get a little more press for some of the openings. Defensive coaching will translate to any league.

-Notice that the mid-major coaches with the best numbers tend to be relatively new. They inherited great programs (think Chris Mack and Josh Pastner), and don’t have enough track record to get a BCS job yet.

This last group includes the rest of the coaches with positive efficiency margins. I also list the coach with the worst efficiency margin who has kept his job for 7 years and the coach with the worst efficiency margin overall.