Most of the great coaches in college basketball came from down here, below the Red Line. There are plenty of old friends in the national polls. Bill Self got his head coaching start at the Badlands Conference's very own Oral Roberts. Jay Wright got his current Villanova gig because he was so good leading Hofstra. There's Matt Painter at Purdue, another in the great line of Southern Ilinois graduates. And, of course, Michael William "Mike" Krzyzewski started his illustrious coaching career at his alma mater, the United States Military Academy.
The hoops media perpetuates the idea that this ladder is somehow endlessly fascinating, some sort of stairway to basketball heaven. Being a "national writer"requires full coverage of the coaching carousel, hot rumors, and speculation. Who's going to be the next to make the big climb over the Line? How long will Fran McCaffery stay at Siena? And Brad Stevens... how long can Butler hold on to that
guy? Will this be the summer Steve Donahue leaves Cornell behind and goes for the big money? He does
have a lot of talent graduating, this would be the right time! The iron is hot!
For every Self and Wright, there are a dozen who found the going rough when they made it to the Bigs. Greg McDermott, predecessor of current hot property Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa, has struggled to keep Iowa State relevant in a state currently run by a team that wears gold and purple. It's certainly not the gold and black
team that's in charge there; in Todd Lickliter's three seasons at Iowa, the Hawkeyes haven't been able to crack .500. As a result, he's not even getting .333 of the national attention his former protegé is receiving back east at Butler.
I look at the recent classes of the upwardly mobile, some saddled with NCAA sanctions from previous regimes, or trying to carve out basketball identities at football schools. I wonder how long they'll have to prove themselves, how many wins they'll have to collect to stay off the hot seats. (And who came up with that expression, anyway? Since the cars that only BCS-level hoops coaches can afford generally have heated seat-cushions, isn't that a good thing?)
Some will come back. Some already have. Because of this, there's a popular perception that there are "mid-major coaches" and those that have the skills to hang with the big dogs. To be one of the former constitutes some sort of failure.
But the way I see it, the secret to making the transition is the ability to get the same results in a fraction of the previously available time. When you're coaching in the Valley, or the CAA, or any of these conferences, you spend most of your time being a basketball coach. Up in the higher reaches, you're taking hours out of every day being something else entirely.
Being the bench boss at a big-time school has nothing to do with the sport itself. You're having your picture taken, doing car commercials, talking to Andy Katz, appearing in TV spots, and fulfilling a variety of various sportz engagements. These are generally filed under the "added pressures" of the job. But every minute you're doing those things, you're not with your team, or learning about the next opponent, or getting better at what you're paid for. You're being a celebrity.
I can only speak from my own experience. (My single coaching win was a forfeit
, after all.) When I was 12 years old, I wanted to be famous. I had a defined career path in mind, too: I would be a late-night talk show host, but my talk show would be all about sports. That was going to be my angle; I'd be a combination of Roy Firestone and David Letterman. But then I grew up weird-looking, my nose was all wrong, and my eyes were too far apart to make me telegenic. Or too close together. Lucky for me, I could do other things.
I'll never forget the first time somebody stopped me on the street because they recognized me from my mugshot on a national sports website. "Hey, aren't you..." It should have been the culmination of everything I'd ever hoped for, but it was the most bizarre and awkward moment in my life. I was just trying to eat a candy bar.
I really don't do interviews
of any kind anymore. When I refuse them, most booking agents or producers think it's because I'm self-conscious or shy or something. When I turn down a halftime spot at a game, I'll get something like, "What are you, scared?
," all playful-like. I just don't want to do them. If they're looking for someone with stock answers to "who's hot in the mid-majors" or "is Gonzaga a mid-major" or "let's talk about the increased parity in college basketball" -- which are usually the requests -- they've come to the wrong place. Ask Alcorn State about parity in college basketball.
If they "love the site" and it's supposed to be more in-depth than that, then talking about the interesting things I'm doing cuts into the time I spend doing them, and I've grown to resent that. What I love is traveling, writing, programming computers and drawing silly cartoons, and blabbing about them doesn't get any of those things done. Besides, in that 15 minutes of halftime, I could be reading the media guide or talking to a beat writer. I don't learn anything on the air, and getting better at what I do is more important to me than getting famous.
The freedom from desire, transcendence over want, does not represent a lack of ambition. Contentment is a powerful motivator, and the pursuit of happiness is best defined as the pursuance of a comfortable state. And there's no reason why that place can't be the current one. I remember something that Gregg Marshall told me back in 2006, while we were sitting in his white-walled office at Winthrop University.
"I want to make my current job my next job," he said.
His theory was that if he worked really hard at being the best he could be, things would take care of themselves. And they did. Two months later, he accepted the head coaching job at Charleston, only to return a day later after a scene-survey and a change of heart. The next season, he won his seventh Big South title and upset Notre Dame in an 11-vs-6 NCAA first round game, and now he's building a Wichita State program that will likely be one of the powerhouses of the Valley in the 2010's. He has a beautiful wife and children, a fantastic house, and he's never struck me as the greedy type. I'd guess that he'd much rather earn a BCS-level contract from WSU than cross the Line to get one.
As his MVC compatriot and rival Dana Altman almost did, when he accepted a reported 5-year, $1.5 million contract to from Arkansas, only to turn around and head back to Omaha the next day. Instead of being hired to be fired in the SEC, he might end up surpassing Eddie Hickey as the most accomplished head coach in the history of Creighton's men's basketball program.
Last winter, I went out to Logan, Utah to write a feature story about the Utah State Aggies. They're led by Stew Morrill, who's won 75 percent of his games there, has a decade's worth of 20-win seasons, and has gone to the NCAA Tournament six times during that stretch. As would be expected with such a track record, he's mentioned every summer as a replacement for this coach or that coach. (Perhaps in a couple of months, the media will "connect" him to the Iowa or Iowa State jobs.)
After a game, he and I set up in the Aggies' team room, a stadium-style class space. As we talked, Coach Morrill was fidgety, adjusting his cuffs, looking around the room at the team pictures. He likes being interviewed about as much as I do, I thought. Finally, I threw out my prepared questions and tried to connect with him as an actual human, not a lab project. "Coach, why haven't you left?" I asked. "There are schools in the Big XII and SEC and Pac 10 that would break the bank to get you."
"Money isn't everything," he replied
. "I'm from Utah, my family is all within a few hours' drive, and the school has been very good about taking care of me financially."
I left that interview thinking, "This guy's beat the system."
It's good to live well, and there's plenty of joy to be found in finer things. It's important to accumulate enough resources to pass on to the next generation, especially in an age where such transactions are increasingly rare. But this math is constant: 10 years at $200,000 is always greater than a 5-year, $1 million contract that's terminated after two seasons -- all because the team didn't make the NCAA Tournament. Among the thousands in Our Game who are capable leaders of men, there are only a handful of Hall of Fame legends, the "great ones." But greatness requires a context within which to exist, and there's nothing shameful about being, say, the greatest coach in Utah State history.
Legacy is important; a boat full of small yet substantial victories sails much farther than a vessel of empty and unfulfilled ambition. Many coaches aim for disposable headlines as traveling mercenaries, but some aim for accomplishments that will transcend the time they spent in a single place. Someday, they might even get their name on the floor.