Late February, in the world of college basketball, means that small-conference tournaments are just around the corner.
It means that bubble teams are arriving at crunch time.
It means that the useless bracket projections made by an Italian American in Bristol over the course of a whole season will finally merit genuine interest.
Late February also means that discussions of the college basketball coaching carousel begin to take on added weight and importance.
We’ll tackle plenty of coaching situations in the next several weeks. After this weekend in college basketball, the one a lot of people are talking about is at Boston College.
The Eagles fell behind Wake Forest, 37-4, Sunday evening in Winston-Salem. That’s embarrassing on its face, but what makes it worse — much worse — is that Wake was 1-13 in the ACC heading into that contest. Getting buried by an elite team? That happens. Getting smoked by an opponent with a 1-13 conference record? Yeeeesh.
The fact of the matter is that Boston College not only lies in a ditch, but shows no signs of climbing out of it. Current coach Jim Christian is 4-28 in the ACC as he approaches the end of his second season. Let’s put the matter on the table: Should the Jesuits at B.C. extend some Christian charity, or should they soldier on with a new leader in a couple months?
The first point to make is that if Christian is fired, he would become a rare two-year casualty. That’s the kind of development every coach pays attention to when it happens. In basketball as well as football, one of the continuing dramas of the coaching industry revolves around the average length of a head coach’s tenure. Three years is still seen as the normal minimum length of time a coach receives to revive a program. (Note the detail: It’s not the normal length of time on a general level, just the normal minimum threshold.) If that ever moves down to two, you’ll know it, but the industry hasn’t reached that point just yet.
Generally, a two-year firing ought to occur only when unethical behavior or profoundly poor coaching are in evidence. Clearly, the latter item would be up for discussion in Christian’s case, so let’s unpack what that means for Boston College.
“Profoundly poor coaching” will be defined in different ways by different people. Various observers and commentators will set the bar at different heights. For me, “profoundly poor coaching” involves the squandering of noticeable or abundant talent. If a coach clearly has the resources needed to be successful, and he not only fails, but fails spectacularly, that’s reason to hand a quick pink slip. Consider what Johnny Jones is doing (or rather, failing to do) with this season’s LSU team. When a coach reveals himself to be that inadequate on the job, it doesn’t seem unfair to show him the door.
Is that what’s happening in Boston College? It seems rather obvious that while Christian isn’t making the most of what he has, he doesn’t have very much to work with in the first place. Given that a coach is inheriting a lot of the previous regime’s players in his first two seasons, it’s appropriate that Christian should get a third season. In many ways, Boston College is still paying a price for hiring Steve Donahue from Cornell, a direct consequence of firing Al Skinner in 2010.
The hire of Donahue, viewed in isolation, was not unreasonable. Donahue had reached three straight NCAA tournaments with Cornell, and he guided the Ivy League school to the Sweet 16, something which hadn’t been done since Penn went all the way to the Final Four in 1979. Donahue came across as a highly skilled coach from the Northeast. Given that Skinner had been hired away from Rhode Island in 1997, the idea of a same-region replacement as B.C.’s head coach was hardly unreasonable.
The problem, of course, is not that Donahue was hired; it’s that Boston College felt it had to move on from Skinner.
Boston College has enjoyed good fortune with its basketball coaches. Dr. Tom Davis built the Eagles into a force in the early 1980s. Gary Williams — who eventually won a national title at Maryland in 2002 — made the most of the resources Davis left behind. Jim O’Brien took B.C. to the Elite Eight in 1994, snapping Dean Smith’s streak of 13 straight Sweet 16 appearances at North Carolina.
Skinner, for his part, reached seven NCAA tournaments in 13 seasons in Chestnut Hill. Not only is that a batting average over .500, it’s the highest total of NCAA berths of any Eagle basketball coach. Williams reached the highest percentage of NCAA tournaments in his brief stay in the first half of the 1980s, but Skinner offered more high-quality longevity than any other B.C. bench boss. The decision to hire Donahue was not unsound; it just didn’t work out. The problem was the belief that the program needed to do better.
Should Jim Christian pay the price for an errant decision made in 2010?
It wouldn’t be very… Christian… to pull the trigger on a two-year firing in New England.