Following a Winning College Basketball Coach an Uphill Battle

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Following a Winning College Basketball Coach an Uphill Battle

Just how difficult is it to replace a legend?

 

The expectations are insane. The scrutiny is ultra-intense. No matter what you do, it never seems good enough.

 

The pressure is ridiculous enough when it is a single athlete following in the footsteps of another great athlete. Such as Mantle sliding into center field to replace DiMaggio. Young finally supplanting Montana. Kareem in for Wilt (okay, so there was one year off in between; you get the point!).

 

These are true legends of sport we’re talking about; only one name is necessary.

 

Just imagine how many times over, though, the burden multiplies when you are a head coach taking the reigns of a program that someone else made famous?

 

There’s nothing easy about replacing a legend, or even a coach with a recent run of unprecedented success.

 

Frequently—perhaps even the majority of the time—the first coach to succeed a legendary or highly successful head basketball coach simply cannot live up to the pressure and gets run out of town.

 

Sorry to put the whammy on you like that, Josh Pastner at Memphis, Shaka Smart at VCU, and Chris Mack at Xavier. I’m just reporting what I’ve seen so many times before.

 

 

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The original coaching legend—the “Father of Basketball Coaches”—was Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen of Kansas. He led the Jayhawk basketball program from 1907-’09, himself succeeding Dr. James A. Naismith (basketball’s progenitor), before leaving to take a break from the stresses of coaching.

 

He resumed coaching with a bang, compiling an awe-inspiring 102-7 record at Central Missouri State from 1912-’19.

 

He returned to Kansas and headed the program from 1920 until 1956, except for the first game in 1920 and 14 games in 1947 when Allen was ordered to rest. He retired after the ’56 season to focus on practicing medicine.

 

Allen won 590 games at Kansas (against just 219 losses, a .729 percentage), and 746 games overall, amassing 24 conference titles, three Final Four berths, one National Title and two Helms Foundation titles (awarded retroactively) in his distinguished KU tenure.

 

The Kansas program, therefore, set the precedent for how a new coach was to be hired. They tabbed one of Allen’s long time assistants, Dick Harp.

 

Harp had lettered under Allen (1938-40), starting at a guard spot the last season and helping the ‘Hawks to the final game, where they fell to the Indiana Hoosiers. He coached tiny William Jewel College for two seasons before rejoining Allen as an assistant at KU.

 

Harp had moderate success at Kansas: going 121-82 in eight seasons and leading the Jayhawks to two conference titles and two NCAA tournaments.

 

In 1957, the Jayhawks captured the Midwest Regional and made it to the final game, where Frank McGuire and the University of North Carolina won a heart-stopping 54-53 triple overtime victory.

 

Harp holds the distinction of coaching the legendary Wilt Chamberlain while at Kansas.

 

Did Harp’s (relative) struggles influence the way universities selected coaches to follow successful head men?

 

That’s hard to say.

 

The earliest solution in such instances was typically to hire one of the outgoing legend's loyal assistants (Allen for Naismith, Harp for Allen, Dean Smith for Frank McGuire).

 

As near as I can tell, though, as the 1970s dawned, that rule began to change somewhat.

 

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As with many other trends, John Wooden helped alter the paradigm of college coaching changes when he stepped down from the UCLA job in 1975 after 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons.

 

Wooden could see the handwriting on the wall.

 

Between the years of 1968-’73, at the height of the Bruins’ success, the Wizard of Westwood went 146-4 behind two of the finest centers to ever play the college (and perhaps any other) game, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton.

 

The Bruins lost four games in 1973-74 alone, finishing third in the nation.

 

UCLA recaptured the NCAA title the following year, but went 12-2 in the PAC-8 and finished up 28-3.

 

Perhaps knowing that he had set a standard so ridiculous that he did not have the energy to meet it, Wooden announced his retirement during the postgame press conference of the National Semifinal.

 

Who else would dare pick his successor, except Wooden himself?

 

His selection stunned most everyone: a little known coach whose only claim to fame was a National Runners-up finish to the mighty Bruin machine in 1973, “Clean” Gene Bartow of Memphis State.

 

After all, Bartow was coming off a less-than-stellar 1974 campaign, one in which his Illinois team had gone a mere 8-18.

 

However, the Illini program was a mess when he was brought in, rocked by NCAA violations and racial tensions; Wooden probably cared more that Bartow had recruited well (a high school All American and two junior college studs), re-integrated the program (all of those three recruits were Black), and had kept Illinois from running deeper afoul with the NCAA.

 

Wooden is also said to have been impressed how hard the Tigers had fought his Bruins in the 1973 title tilt. In fact, Memphis State led by two on three separate occasions in the second half, the last time at 45-43.

 

Memphis State had come in with a cogent game plan, played hard, and Bartow had his troops playing with confidence, brashly telling the media on the eve of the final game of 1973:

 

“Someday, somehow, somebody’s going to beat UCLA. We not only think we can do it, we believe it.”

 

Bartow stepped into the breach and, by most normal standards, did well at UCLA. He went 52-9 in his two seasons in Westwood, consecutive PAC-8 titles, a third place finish in the nation in 1976 and a Sweet 16 appearance the following season.

 

His winning percentage (.852) is second-best in UCLA history, and better than the Wizard’s (.808).

 

It still wasn’t good enough; he was constantly second-guessed, and he became frustrated to the point that when one caller on a radio talk show laid into him about strategy, Gene whipped off his headphones and stalked out of the studio.

 

It’s hard replacing a legend.

 

Of course, there was only one John Wooden, and (thus far) only one dynastic program capable of winning 10 titles out of 12.

 

No one is going to have it quite that hard ever again.

 

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But as the first decade of the 21st Century draws to a close, perhaps we are seeing the new prototype for stanching the loss of a coaching great:

 

A young (30-something) coach who cut his teeth under giants of the game; possessing recruiting prowess and media savvy; energetic and not hard on the eye, with a bit of the “rock star” appeal.

 

So following John Calipari (Pastner), Anthony Grant (Smart) and Sean Miller (Mack) is a daunting task, indeed.

 

History tells us that more than likely, perhaps two of those coaches will wash out and fail to meet the expectations set for them.

 

Fans of all three programs can only hope that the young stewards of the hardwood keep their noses clean and steer clear of scandals. At least that way, if and when they depart, the schools involved will not have a stench attached to them or the lingering cloud of NCAA investigations.

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