Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Big Ten Coaching Carousel

Minnesota fired a shot across the Great Lakes that could prove to be somewhat a double whammy for Michigan. I was as stunned as anyone when I read that Tubby Smith was leaving Kentucky for Minnesota. Smith obviously felt his job security and sanity at Kentucky was poor at best so he struck first before he had to add “fired” to his resume. The real coup here is for Minnesota. The Gophers, like every Big Ten team besides Northwestern and Penn St., feel that their rightful place is in the upper half of the Big Ten basketball standings. A quick look at the last 27 years of the Big Ten reveals why that might be the case. Michigan St., Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Iowa have all made the Final Four over that time. All nine of those schools have also made at least one Elite Eight appearance in the last 20 years in addition to the Final Four appearances. Any one of those schools can reasonably claim that it deserves to be considered a “basketball school” in the Big Ten. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Minnesota reeled in such a big-time coach even though it was widely suggested that the Gophers would have to wait for Michigan to act before it could begin it search.

So while Minnesota has struggled mightily recently, it clearly (and rightfully) views itself on par with Michigan. Hiring Smith not only keeps Michigan from hiring him (something that seems even more likely to have happened now that we know Smith was looking to leave Kentucky), but it also creates an even more high-profile opening than Michigan. Now, Michigan has to play second fiddle to the Kentucky coaching search. That probably won’t hurt Michigan as much in terms of who it brings in as much as it steals Michigan’s thunder. Three days ago, the college basketball world was focused on the NCAA Tournament and the Michigan job search (I was initially surprised at how much attention the Michigan opening received considering how irrelevant the program has been but you can chalk that up to Amaker being a Duke disciple). Now? Not so much. Even more important, the incessant talk of Flip Saunders going to Minnesota might—and I emphasize might—actually die down.

Kentucky will likely be looking for a bigger name than what Michigan is looking at. I suspect Billy Gillispie and Rick Pitino will be the hot names right away. Michigan likely doesn’t have to worry about Kentucky going after Chris Lowery. Nonetheless, any luster that the Michigan job seemed to have picked up from being the only high-profile job available has been squashed by the gaping opening at Kentucky. Well done, Minnesota.

Now, Iowa finds itself in the exact same situation that Minnesota was in just a few days ago. You will be hard pressed to find a university less distraught about losing its coach than Iowa is right now. Steve Alford is the kind of coach that is hard to fire since he’s young, somewhat accomplished, and endorsed by Bob Knight. Yet, Alford has virtually nothing to show for his time in Iowa other than a couple of miracle runs in the Big Ten Tournament. What is shocking about the Alford situation (and the Smith situation too) is that you don’t often see coaches leave a more high profile job for a significantly less prestigious job when their not named Frieder. Both of these instances happened within hours of each other. I do think that Alford and Smith probably saw the “writing on the wall” which aided in their decision.

The problem that Michigan has now with Iowa is that Iowa will probably be satisfied with bringing in a mid-major coach like Lowery. Minnesota was looking for a bigger name. Iowa and Michigan are probably fishing in the same pond at this point. Now that Lowery is out of the NCAA Tournament, you’ll probably see the Michigan coaching search heat up big time. S. Illinois’ departure from the tournament was likely the domino that needed to fall before Bill Martin went full bore on his search. The good news for Michigan fans is that there isn’t one “must have” candidate out there which is why Smith going to Minnesota isn’t such a big deal. Even if Iowa secures Lowery in the next day or two, Michigan should be fine as long as it makes a smart choice.

It dawned on me a few months back that the Big Ten will likely be the premier conference in America in 2-3 years. With Matt Painter bringing in a top five recruiting class at Purdue, the revival of Indiana basketball under Kelvin Sampson, the Oden-izing of Ohio State to go along with Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Illinois, the Big Ten is going to be ultra-competitive. That was before Minnesota hired Tubby Smith and Michigan hires someone better than Tommy Amaker. Let’s assume Iowa makes a solid hire; we’re looking at nine Big Ten programs either on the fast track to success or in a holding pattern of stability. The only school out of the bunch that could see its profile weaken over the next few years is Illinois. Bruce Weber is a good coach but he’s having a difficult time selling the Illinois program to recruits. This sets up for a rare phenomenon where all nine schools (AD, fan base, media) are elated with the direction of their programs. Simple mathematics tells us that nine programs cannot thrive in an 11-team conference all at the same time. This will set up the ultimate “survival of the fittest” in the Big Ten over the next five years. This should be good for Big Ten fans but a nightmare for its coaches. This should also spell the end of the ACC’s dominance in the ACC/Big Ten challenge within the next 2-3 years.

With likely upgrades at Michigan and Iowa, and the arrival of Tubby Smith, the Big Ten now boasts what is arguably the most impressive collection of coaches in the country. Given the importance that coaching plays in having a successful basketball program, this should foreshadow big things for the conference. Here is the list:

The Coaches in the Big Ten

Tom Izzo Michigan St.
Kelvin Sampson Indiana
Tubby Smith Minnesota
Thad Matta Ohio St.
Bruce Weber Illinois
Matt Painter Purdue
Bo Ryan Wisconsin
Bill Carmody Northwestern
Ed DeChellis Penn St.
Chris Lowery Michigan ???
Iowa ???

P.S. Does John Calipari actually teach his players to shoot as many 3s as possible when they’re down by one with less than ten seconds to go or, is that something they came up with on their own?

1 comment:

Brad said...

Should be an interesting offseason. I've heard whispers that Iowa is talking with Dana Altman at Creighton, and Bruce Pearl may even be interested in coming back. Minnesota certainly stepped the UM and Iowa searches up a notch!


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