March means madness in college hoops. It also means that some head coaches are on the chopping block. Indiana University’s Tom Crean and North Carolina State University’s Mark Gottfried have already been fired, with more big names likely to come. For historic powerhouses that have recently fallen by the wayside, this is the time of year to start thinking about new leadership that typically falls into one of five categories: bigshots, school-specifics, won’t-leavers, ones-in- a-million and diamonds in the rough.
Crean and Gottfried head a list of big-name college coaches who have had success in the past. They have experience running a program, can recruit effectively and know what it is like to play in the NCAA tournament. But big names sometimes come with big baggage, and their failure to innovate is often the reason they were fired in the first place.
School-specifics are coaches who will only take a new job at a school at which they have personal connections — take Steve Alford and Patrick Ewing, for example. Alford, the current coach at UCLA, is an Indiana grad who could possibly replace Crean and bring glory back to Hoosier hoops. However, he led a successful UCLA squad this year and it is not clear whether he wants to leave. Ewing, a Georgetown hero, is an assistant coach for the Charlotte Hornets. There is speculation that he could return to Georgetown, but for that to happen, current coach John Thompson III would have to be removed.
In the “won’t-leaver” category are coaches who are very successful at small-time programs but do not seem to have any immediate plans to head to a big-name school. Gonzaga’s Mark Few was a perennial on this list, but Gonzaga has become such a big name at this point that it cannot be justified labeling him as such anymore. Now another West Coast Conference coach takes his place — St. Mary’s Randy Bennett. Bennett has coached the Gaels to a winning percentage of over .700 in his 15 years as coach, but he is unlikely to leave the Bay Area.
The one-in-a-million category is my own special grouping for Gregg Marshall, head coach of Wichita State University. Somehow, Marshall has lead the Shockers to six straight NCAA tournaments, including a Final Four run in 2013. Marshall recruits excellent players, develops them over four years and then occasionally sends them on to NBA careers. Marshall likes to keep speculation open by dropping hints about leaving, but it would take a lot to lure him away from Wichita State. If a high-profile school is able to land Marshall, they will have truly hit the jackpot.
The diamonds in the rough are the most interesting coaches on this list, as they coach at schools that do not appear on national television with little to no NBA-caliber talent. They are coaches who have done well, but remain somewhat unknown.
First is King Rice of Monmouth. Rice played his college ball under Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina. Monmouth gained national attention last year when its bench performed such scenes as the “Creation of Adam.” This somewhat obscured a season in which Monmouth secured victories over UCLA, Southern California, Notre Dame and Georgetown. Rice’s teams can play ball, and his fast-paced offenses have won him Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year awards for two years straight.
Next is Chris Collins of Northwestern. Collins brought Northwestern to its first ever NCAA tournament bid this year, thanks to its second consecutive 20-win season. Collins played at Duke and was a long-time assistant under Coach Mike Krzyzewski. He brings Coach K-style discipline to a stalwart defense, but also coaches an innovative offense.
Finally, Scott Cross of the University of Texas at Arlington. Cross has stayed with UT-Arlington since his playing days, taking over as head coach in 2006. His tenure is easily the most successful that UT-Arlington has ever witnessed. He has brought the Mavericks to four post-season tournaments after reaching just one prior to his arrival. Although Cross does not always get them to the Big Dance, he does much with little.
These are the coaches that athletic directors should be targeting as they search for the best leaders to pull their basketball programs back to national relevance.
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