First things first: This is not a column about whether two athletic programs should fire their head basketball coaches.
No, this is more an exploration of whether it’s good for young coaches to suffer at high-major programs instead of being liberated from those jobs.
It’s always good to have a sense of boundaries and limitations, to know where you fit in and can make the most impact in life. Yes, we need to push boundaries so that we can test ourselves, but we also need to make sure we can do certain things before forging ahead and tackling larger challenges.
In the realm of professional football, consider the journeys made by the two high-profile coordinators in the Super Bowl, Mike Shula (Carolina) and Wade Phillips (Denver). Both men had to fail in high-profile head-coaching jobs, college or pro, before settling into perfect fits as NFL coordinators. Shula was clearly the best offensive coordinator in the NFC this season, and Phillips is arugably the best active defensive coordinator in football, rivaled only by Dick LeBeau of the Tennessee Titans. Phillips was, on merit, the best defensive coordinator in the NFL this season, a notion cemented by the Denver Broncos’ masterful defensive performance against the New England Patriots.
What Shula and Phillips show is that it’s okay to not be a rock star in the big chair. Lifers in sports or any field of endeavor don’t have to be the king or the kingmaker to fully flourish. Gaining a position relatively high in the pecking order, but not at the very top or in the center of the media spotlight, can provide a very good living and create a situation conducive to long-term professional success.
In college basketball coaching, this means a head-coaching job at a mid-major or perhaps a school in the Mountain West or Atlantic 10 (two conferences which don’t easily fit the high-major or mid-major labels).
Memphis and Minnesota both had Final Fours vacated over the past 20 years (Memphis in 2008, Minnesota in 1997). Right now, though, the programs have vacated the neighborhood called Bracketville. They’re nowhere near the NCAA tournament, adrift in a sea of mediocrity.
This past weekend, both programs were reminded how far they’d fallen. Minnesota lost to a not-very-good Illinois team, as the Gophers continue their plunge to the bottom of the Big Ten. Memphis lost at home to East Carolina. Yes, at home. Morale could not be worse. Recruits might offer cause for optimism in 2017, but with two coaches who are very much in the middle of a learning process, one wonders how much good will come of it.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner has coached Memphis since 2009, when he took over for John Calipari.
Today, he’s still only 38 years old.
Pastner was entrusted with an enormous task — his recruiting prowess was given that much weight and centrality by Memphis when it chose to hire him. However, it’s patently obvious that Pastner has to be able to coach to the level he recruits. The Tigers play hard, but they don’t play smart hoops, and as a result, Calipari’s immensely successful reign last decade is becoming an increasingly distant memory.
The question becomes: Is this good for Pastner’s career? Would it benefit him to have a chance to turn things around in 2017, or is this a moment in which Pastner would be better served by stepping away and getting a crack at a lower-tier job, or perhaps serving as an assistant for a couple seasons with Calipari at Kentucky?
Coaching is an art — always evolving, defined by certain principles, but unique to every season and roster. The larger goals and needs are always the same, but the exact processes of relating to each new (annual) set of players will be different. Pastner has a lot to learn about these arts. Is Memphis the best place for him to realize what he needs to do? Does he need the counsel of a more credentialed coach to re-teach him a few pointers? Does he need the desperation of a mid-major situation to learn how to squeeze more production from his resources?
These are important questions.
The prestige of the Memphis job might be so alluring that Pastner would rightly never want to relinquish the job. Moreover, the pay’s pretty good, which is why you’re never going to see Pastner willingly walk away from his gig. It’s a sweet one, regardless of whether he makes the Sweet 16 or not.
However, is Pastner’s career going to go where it needs to? Would it be better if the 2016-2017 season was spent at a program other than Memphis? It’s worth contemplating those answers.
It’s similar in Minneapolis.
Richard Pitino will soon conclude his third season as Minnesota’s head basketball coach. The most alarming reality for any Golden Gopher fan is that the U of M program is regressing. Minnesota won the NIT title in Pitino’s first season, but it has then failed to make the NCAAs in the next two seasons (including this one — it can safely be said at this point). It wasn’t that unreasonable for Minnesota to have fired Tubby Smith. Expectations were greater than being an 11 seed, even if it meant winning a round-of-64 game once in a great while. However, giving the keys to a coach in his very early 30s did not seem like a recipe for likely success and certain improvement.
Pitino should indeed get a chance next season to make a move up the standings with a new recruiting class. It is patently foolish for a young coach to be given only three seasons at a program which had not been hitting home runs in previous seasons. Pitino did not inherit what Pastner did at Memphis seven years ago, for example. Moreover, even if some people think Pitino should be fired, the constant turmoil in the school’s athletic department makes a quick termination unrealistic.
One has to wonder, though: Shouldn’t the younger Pitino spend 2017 at a mid-major? His father, after all, started at Boston University before working his way up the food chain at Providence and then Kentucky. Florida International was Pitino’s previous workplace, but only for one season. Moreover, FIU didn’t do anything of note; an 18-14 record in 2013 left a lot to be desired. If one believes that Pitino should have stayed in the Sun Belt a few more years to fine-tune his coaching skills, such an assertion has hardly been refuted to this point in time.
The pay is great. The visibility can be intoxicating. The challenge offers a reason to get out of bed every morning. Josh Pastner and Richard Pitino are doing what they want to do. You can’t knock either man for trying.
However, their schools gave them more responsibility than they were prepared for. If they want to be the best coaches they can be, one has to wonder if Memphis and Minneapolis are the cities in which they should be plying their trade right now.