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College Basketball: The Most Secure Coaches in the Game Today

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2017

College Basketball: The Most Secure Coaches in the Game Today

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    Calling a coach secure is as much of an oxymoron as anything I can think of when it comes to modern college sports.

    Was there ever a coach who seemed to have more job security than Joe Paterno? Or Jim Tressel before him?

    And it doesn’t only have to be off the field/court issues that bring down a coach. Terry Francona was the Boston Red Sox manager who finally conquered the Curse of the Bambino. Theoretically, a Francona statue should have been built in every city in Massachusetts.

    But guess who’s currently working for the worldwide leader instead of sitting in the Fenway Park dugout?

    Given the precarious nature of the coaching profession, this list includes just as many honorable mentions as actual candidates. However, don’t be shocked if some of these coaches are shown the door one day.

    Crazier things have happened.

Honorable Mention: John Calipari

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    Wait, what?

    You may be asking yourself how can the current king of college basketball only be an honorable mention?

    Well, we have seen this movie before in Lexington.

    Tubby Smith won the NCAA championship in his first season at Kentucky. He was beloved by Big Blue Nation and was going to keep the Wildcats on top of college basketball for years to come.

    But not even the up-and-coming (at the time) Smith could live up to the unreachable standards and expectations at Kentucky. It is Final Four or bust every season, and the fans grow restless if it doesn’t happen.

    That’s not to say Calipari will follow in Smith’s footsteps and struggle to maintain the level of excellence expected of him. There’s certainly a chance the Wildcats will play in the next five Final Fours and win another championship or two. Nobody is better at convincing the nation’s top prospects to play for his school.

    However, at a place as demanding as Kentucky, no coach can ever truly be considered safe.

    Not even Calipari.

Honorable Mention: Thad Matta

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    The Ohio State basketball program could not have asked for anything better than what it has received from Thad Matta.

    Once forever buried in the overpowering shadow of the football team, the Buckeyes have officially become a two-sport powerhouse. Two trips to the Final Four and five Big Ten championships in the past seven seasons will do that.

    What’s more, Matta has gradually shifted the culture in Columbus. Basketball is no longer merely a way to pass the time until spring practice starts. The student section has been moved to the sidelines, a top-notch practice facility is in the works and attendance continues to improve.

    So why the honorable mention?

    It is certainly nit-picking (and by no means my opinion), but Matta will probably always be an honorable mention until he brings home the elusive national championship trophy that has evaded Ohio State since 1960.

    There have been quibbles about the way he utilizes the bench and concerns that he is more of a recruiter than a solid game manager.

    Nevertheless, Buckeye fans should be thankful they have Matta. He’s the best thing that has happened to the program in nearly half a century.

Honorable Mentions: Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams

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    There’s a reason these coaches are all lumped together, and it has nothing to do with their impressive coaching credentials.

    There have been varying degrees of off-court issues (and guilt levels) in the past couple years for each of these coaches, and that is always a dangerous proposition when it comes to job security for a coach.

    Starting with Jim Boeheim, it is important to note that I am in no way alleging or even implying that he had any knowledge of or anything to do with the Bernie Fine situation. Unfortunately though, the scandal still hovers over the Orange basketball program, and Boeheim will never truly be secure until that cloud passes.

    Rick Pitino, on the other hand, was guilty of let’s just say a moral slip-up. There were certainly those in the national media who called for his resignation or firing. However, he remains at Louisville and has the Cardinals primed for another run to the Final Four.

    As for Roy Williams, the jury is still out on the current situation at North Carolina. While the academic fraud concerns that plague the Tar Heels have primarily been a football issue so far, there were a handful of basketball players enrolled in the classes in question as well. It should be interesting to see how it plays out.

    Any off-court issues are always tricky for a coach and, for the time being, prevent these three from shedding their honorable-mention moniker.

Honorable Mention: Bo Ryan

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    Bo Ryan is almost as secure as it gets for a coach, as long as the Wisconsin faithful are alright with never really contending for a national championship.

    Ryan has never made a Final Four in his tenure in Madison, but he has built a consistent winner and has the ability to take less-talented teams and players and constantly finish higher in the standings than those better on paper.

    The Badgers almost always rank near the top of the country in the “fundamental” statistics, such as free throw percentage and fewest turnovers per game. The Bo Ryan formula works, and there’s really not much of a reason to change it.

    Unfortunately for Wisconsin fans, though, the formula can only go so far. It’s hard to imagine the Badgers beating the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world in March based on fundamentals alone.

Tom Izzo

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    There is no honorable mention for Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.

    Izzo has won an impressive seven conference championships, three Big Ten Tournament titles and a national championship in his time in East Lansing. What’s more, he has made more Final Fours (six) than the majority of basketball programs in the country.

    But there have been plenty of coaches with on-court success (although not plenty with that much). What separates Izzo is that he has become a type of institution at Michigan State, as evidenced by his celebrity status and the student section, titled the “Izzone," that makes life difficult on opposing teams.

    While Ohio State has made a recent charge, Michigan State has been the most successful team in recent memory in the Big Ten, and it has Izzo to thank.

    As long as he is around in East Lansing, the Spartans will always be a Final Four threat.

Shaka Smart

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    Perhaps no coach has sprung into the national consciousness as quickly as Shaka Smart.

    The dynamic Smart has only been at VCU for three short seasons and has probably done more for the school’s basketball program than anyone else.

    He has an impressive 84-28 record, has made the NCAA tournament twice (no small feat for a Colonial Athletic Association team) and famously made it all the way to the Final Four as an 11th seed.

    Anytime a coach leads a program like VCU to the Final Four, the fans are more concerned with him bolting for a higher profile job than they are with the possibility of a firing. Alas, rumors swirled that Smart was a candidate for the Illinois job this year. However, he elected to stay at VCU.

    Throw in that Smart’s success in only three years was enough to earn the Rams a bid to the more prestigious Atlantic 10 conference, and he has likely permanently endeared himself to the VCU faithful.

Brad Stevens

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    Much like Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens finds himself on this list because he has by far surpassed expectations at a mid-major program.

    In fact, Stevens has lapped those expectations and then some.

    In only five seasons as the head coach at Butler, Stevens has led the Bulldogs to four conference championships, three conference tournament championships and an incredible two Final Fours. That means that Stevens' teams have made the Final Four in 40 percent of the seasons he has been at the helm.

    A 40-percent clip would almost be an acceptable rate with fanbases in Kentucky and North Carolina, so you can imagine how endearing it is to the Butler brass. Just think how secure Stevens’ job would be if Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave at the buzzer against Duke in the national title game had found the basket.

    Now, just like Smart and VCU, Butler has parlayed its success under Stevens into a slot in the more prestigious Atlantic 10 conference. Don’t expect the level of success to change.

Mark Few

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    Perhaps you see a pattern developing.

    The reality is that if a coach takes over a mid-major program (although calling Gonzaga and Butler mid-majors at this point may be a bit off) where the demanding expectations aren’t always wearing on his back and succeeds, he will be fairly secure in his job status.

    Mark Few and Gonzaga were the original Cinderellas before it became the cool thing to do and the George Masons and Butlers came around. The ironic thing is, Few has actually never made the Final Four while a solid handful of those schools he paved the way for have.

    Nevertheless, few coaches, if any, have been as consistent as Few. He has led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament in each of his 13 seasons in Spokane and has 11 conference championships and nine conference tournament titles. Few has also won at least 20 games every year of his career.

    A resume like that will secure your job in any conference, let alone the WCC.

Mike Krzyzewski

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    Be honest, when you read the title of this article, was Mike Krzyzewski not the first name that popped in your head?

    There are plenty of Duke haters out there, but you can’t take away from what Coach K has accomplished. He’s been to the NCAA tournament 28 times, has 12 conference championships, 13 conference tournament titles and has led the Blue Devils to the Final Four 11 times.

    That would put Krzyzewski sixth all time in Final Four appearances if he was his own school. By the way, he also has four national championships.

    It actually says Coach K Court right on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium, perhaps college basketball’s most famous arena. If the school is going to make the effort to write your name on the court, it’s probably safe to assume your job is fairly secure.

    After all, how many college basketball coaches have enough job security that they can take a month out of their summer preparation and recruiting time to coach the national team in the Olympics?

Tom Crean

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    Indiana fan or not, you have to tip your cap to what Tom Crean has accomplished in Bloomington.

    He took over a program riddled with off-court issues and penalties thanks to Kelvin Sampson’s texting tendencies. It was a rebuilding project if there ever was one, even if it was at one of the most prestigious programs in the history of college basketball.

    Crean has demonstrated the patience and persistence that was needed for each of his four seasons at Indiana, and he is now being rewarded for it. In his first season, the Hoosiers suffered through a 6-25 campaign, but there has been a gradual increase in wins every season from there.

    Now the Hoosiers are primed to challenge for the national championship and are ranked No. 1 in most preseason prognostications. The only people more patient (and loyal) than Crean were the Indiana fans, and they are finally getting the winner they deserve.

    Anyone who doubts Crean is as secure as they get in today’s college basketball climate should go back and watch the scene that unfolded on the floor of Assembly Hall after the Hoosiers knocked off Kentucky last year.

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