Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Stress test

The surprising resignation of UNLV basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour for stress-related health reasons has the school and its boosters scrambling for a successor. Finding a coach with the bona fides to meet the expectations of the boosters in advance who can then deliver a top-tier program on the court may be impossible. Spoon did a fine job restoring the program -- if not to prominence at least to respectability. After all, when he took over, the team was under NCAA sanctions and scholarship limits, and now the program appears to be clean for the first time ever. And each of his two teams won 20+ games. But fans who think a return to the glory years of Tark and the Shark Tank are a mere hire away are fooling themselves.

Listen, the Mountain West Conference is awful. It was lucky beyond belief to have landed and kept coaches of the caliber of Utah's Rick Majerus (who also resigned earlier this year for health reasons) and Jerry Tarkanian. The schools aren't good enough to attract the sort of talent who would normally go for a top-flight program. They don't offer anything approaching the academic and big-time college sports experience you get at schools like Stanford, Duke, Cal, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA, Notre Dame, Michigan. Nor do they offer the sort of immersion in campus life you get at the next tier of schools: Wisconsin, Miami, Florida State, Ohio State, Indiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, NC State. Instead, you're competing with other "mid-major" schools -- the Louisvilles, Daytons, Memphises, Charlottes. And the schedules you play will reflect that. You may be able to convince a school from a major conference to play you once or twice a year, but chances are, it'll be a second-tier program in that conference (Missouri, Cal). Most of the time, you'll play your conference foes and a bunch of other mid-level schools, or worse. That doesn't get you on national TV often; nor does it make an NCAA berth easy to obtain. So the top recruits, unless they're local (see Utah, BYU, who competed for the Mormon talent pool), or have academic or other off-the-court concerns, will typically pass you by. (Another reason Majerus's record is so astounding; at one point, Dean Smith had hopes Carolina would name Majerus his successor. Looking back, we Tar Heels are lucky that didn't happen.)

That's also most likely why, before Spoonhour was hired, big names such as Rick Pitino and Bob Knight demurred. Why not instead choose a school with Louisville's storied traditions, or try to build a legacy at an unknown program (Texas Tech) in a monster conference?

Some boosters talk of luring Steve Lavin or Lon Krueger, currently out of coaching, to UNLV. Could happen. According to my neighbor Rich, who's a UCLA fanatic, Lavin would be a mistake. He's a latter-day Bobby Cremins: Great recruiter who can't teach his way out of a wet paper bag; players never improved under his tutelage. Krueger might be an excellent hire, if he'd take the job. But if I were involved in the selection process, I'd look for a young guy from a mid-mid major who's successfully dealt with those recruiting challenges and might be willing to stay for a number of years as he builds his own program. (Carolina bias: What about Jeff Lebo at Tennessee-Chattanooga?) Another option would be to pluck a top assistant from a top program and let him build a reputation here. (Coach K has several on his bench, but it's unlikely the locals would ever welcome a Dukie; Rebel fans have memories longer than elephants). My guess is, if the university picks a big name, he'll either flounder and be forced out after a handful of seasons ... or he'll succeed and take a better job after a handful of seasons.

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