Thursday, March 25

The Grass Is Not Always Greener In College Basketball

Something that accompanies this time of year is the coaching carrousel. We hear all the time now that winning is all that matters, and that coaches are given a short time to produce results. Sometimes programs can get ahead of themselves but not seeing their forest for the trees that dot the landscape. With that in mind we take a look at one program as an example that made a quick move and how it has unfolded so far.

When Herb Sendek rode into town in 1996 the NC State program was in complete disarray. Herb immediately produced the program's first winning season since 1990. They also made the ACC Tournament final, a trend of doing well in that tournament that he would continue throughout his time there. In a 30 mile radius, let alone a state where the Wolfpack will never be on the same plane as Duke or Carolina, Herb had a good run. From 2002 to 2006 he had a winning season each year and took NC State to the tourney each year. Wolfpack nation was not happy though. They wanted more. While Herb was taking the program places it had not been since the H.W. Bush administration, fans saw Duke and North Carolina win national championships and make Final Fours. In 2005, Herb and company beat defending champion UConn to advance to the Sweet 16. The very next Sendek went 22-10, 10-6 in the ACC and made the second round of the tournament. Due to the harsh criticism from both fans and the media, Herb made the preemptive move and took the Arizona State job before he could be fired.

I can understand that schools and fans get impatient. Herb was in his 10th season and people wanted results. It is not unfounded that after years of clawing away in the middle of the conference and falling short early in the tournament the athletic department gave into the fans and decided Herb had had ample time to build a program. Once Herb was gone the speculation ran wild about who would be brought in. This is where NC State began their mistake; they thought a brand name coach was entitled to them. The green grass they saw on the other side was not their lawn, it belonged to their neighbors the blue bloods.

The pure and simple fact is that while NC State has a rich basketball history, it will always play second fiddle to its neighbors in Durham and Chapel Hill. With two prime recruits coming in next year Sidney Lowe seems to have a one-year coaching life to live. Lowe was brought in after a coaching search that was publicized more for its failures than its final result. Sidney was then hailed as a savior of the so-called mediocrity the program has wallowed in under Sendek. He was on the famous 1983 team, he had experience on an NBA sideline, and he had a shiny red blazer. Four years later the Wolfpack have yet to reach the NCAA tournament and managed only two NIT appearances. Meanwhile, Herb Sendek brought Arizona State to his customary second round exit of the tournament last year. He has also made two NITs in the past four years. Herb did not come out of this looking like the shining white knight, but compared to his replacement at NC State, he has been successful.

The coaching game is one wrought with good intentions and horrible betrayals. The contracts themselves are drawn up specifically for provisions of if and when one side decides to leave the other flapping in the breeze. Yet as we see teams get further in the tournament and get the national attention and perhaps more importantly extra money cash coming in for them and their conference, it is a price both sides are willing to pay.

Look at Xavier, a team with some recent history of success. They lured That Matta away from Butler but lost him to Ohio State. They promoted his assistant Sean Miller(who was an assistant under Sendek at NC State) who continued their success in the tourney but lost him to Arizona. They promote assistant Chris Mack and are playing in the Sweet 16 this year. So Xavier has collected two buyouts and have their new promoted assistant continuing their success. Of course once Chris Mack is without Holloway and Crawford, his talent will really be put to the test but in the interim Xavier has done beautifully by not seeking coaching outside their limits. Consider that they have a great history of developing coaches who went on to achieve success at other places such as Skip Prosser and Pete Gillen.

There is rarely an instant fix for a struggling program, the exception being this year with Kentucky. The grass was clearly greener (though there was also plenty of dirt and BS to fertilize that grass) on the other side. John Calipari left Memphis and there soon-to-be forfeited games behind and brought hope, excitement, and Cousins and Wall to Lexington. The turnaround has been instant and might yet produce a 9th title for the Cats, but the cost could be hefty down the road.

So as NC State, recently ousted from the NIT by UAB, heads into another year of basketball uncertainty it stands as a testament to how important coaching choices are [Ed. note: whether a guy is fired or run out of town]. People want the quick fix, but looking before you leap is never a bad way to go about your business. Operating under the illusion that you can just buy out the new guy if he fails after a few years and it do no damage to the program in the long run is foolish. You never know what is waiting on that other side where the grass looks fresh and green, but it never hurts to look under your feet and see what you are leaving behind before you run off recklessly for what seems like greener pastures.


Anonymous said...

How am I supposed to believe what you say when you don't know that Sendek was not fired?

Anonymous said...

You don't deserve to own a keyboard.

Anonymous said...

Seriously man, I get where you were going but not only was Sendek not fired - he took more money to take another job. Could NC State have countered and kept him? Probably. The point is I was ready to read your story then I got to that sentence and stopped.

ForestRanger said...

You don't have the facts straight; the coach you choose to highlight was the #1 seed in the NIT this year yet lost in the first round AT HOME; and NC State never reached a pinnacle under Sendek any higher than the ACC final his first year. If your goal was to enlighten your audience about the harsh world of college basketball coaches who are paid $500k+ per year, you failed, if your goal was to make us all dumber by dragging us down to your level, congrats are due.

Cleet said...

I corrected the mistake of saying he was fired and I apologize, but the fact is he got out before the hammer dropped.

Forest if you want to make the argument about feeling sorry about coaches that make six figures and up I understand, but that is not the point of the argument.

The point is debating whether NC State is better off after Herb left. I would argue beating the defending Champion and making the sweet 16 in the 2005 was the pinnacle for Herb, not making the ACC tournament final.

Thanks for reading Wolfpack fans.