The Hardest Job in College Basketball: Head Coach at a Struggling BCS Program

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMay 19, 2014

In this Friday, March 22, 2013, photo, UCLA coach Ben Howland talks to his players during the second half of a second-round game of the NCAA college basketball tournament in Austin, Texas. UCLA announced Sunday, March 24, 2013, that the university has fired Ben Howland as basketball coach after 10 seasons that included three Final Four appearances, but culminated with another early-round exit from the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

Last week, former UCLA coach Ben Howland took his name out of the running for the opening at Oregon State.

Howland had already been passed over by Marquette, Tennessee and Missouri, but he was thought to be the favorite at Oregon State. This was very likely his last chance at landing a head coaching job for the 2014-15 season.

By saying "no thanks," Howland chose unemployment instead. And honestly, it makes a lot of sense.

The most difficult coaching job in college basketball is the one at a BCS school that has not had recent success and has little to no tradition but expects to be in the NCAA tournament within the next five years.

This sounds like a ridiculous expectation, and when you study the hiring and firing trends of BCS conference schools, there's plenty of evidence that it's the standard.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 08:  Head coach Darrin Horn argues with an official during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first round of the SEC Basketball Tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 8, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Pho
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

"There's no question that all over college basketball, it is all about that tournament," says Darrin Horn, who went from Western Kentucky to South Carolina where he got only four tourney-less seasons before getting fired in 2012. "And it doesn't really matter what your program does before (you get there)."

Howland was in a unique position that he would even consider the Oregon State opening, but he had to think outside the box just like Oregon State does.

It used to be that mid-major coaches would line up for an opportunity to move up to a big league and cash a big check, but the game is changing. Coaches are getting smarter about when they leave and about evaluating the risk.

Athletic directors have also had to widen their search, and even though their patience levels are questioned, there are numbers that back up why they're in such a hurry to move on.


Mar 23, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Wichita State Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall yells from the sideline against the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half in the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at Scottrade Center. Mandatory

If you're an athletic director at a BCS school looking for a head coach these days, most fanbases expect that at least one call will be made to Wichita State's Gregg Marshall.

Bleacher Report's Jason King reported weeks ago that Marshall turned down an offer from Missouri worth approximately $3 million annually. He was also one of the dream candidates for California and Tennessee this offseason.

Marshall is not a newbie to this game. He told Bleacher Report that he estimates he's had conversations with 16 BCS schools through the years and at least five of those were before Wichita State when he was at Winthrop. Several have offered. He almost ended up at Arkansas in 2007 when he was the runner-up to John Pelphrey and ended up leaving that April for Wichita State.

It's understandable why somewhere like Oregon State would not be desirable to Marshall—and those programs aren't even wasting their time—but why not leave for a bigger school that has had success?

Mar 23, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Wichita State Shockers forward Cleanthony Early (11) slaps five with Tekele Cotton (32) against the Kentucky Wildcats during the second half in the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship at Scottrade C

A year ago, Marshall even turned down a chance to talk to UCLA

Marshall's logic and that of other mid-major coaches: Why leave for the unknown when you have job security and know you can win where you are?

"You don't know what their patience level is," Marshall told Bleacher Report. "You don't know what their commitment level is. You don't know what players are going to want to transfer. You don't know what recruits will want out of their letter of intent. It's just the great unknown.

"I've put myself in a situation here now where I really don't want to have to do a rebuild job. I like winning too much."

This line of thinking is an evolution in the coaching carousel. Back in the day, almost any mid-major coach would have jumped at the chance of a pay raise and more exposure no matter the situation.

But the money part of the equation is not quite as lopsided as it once was.

Wichita State, for instance, is one non-BCS program that has ponied up to compete when it comes to dollars. Marshall made $1.79 million this past year, according to USA Today. That's on par with what Roy Williams makes at North Carolina or Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. For Marshall to even consider leaving, it's believed his price tag is the $3 million that Missouri was offering.

Shaka Smart, another coach who has had his chances to leave, will make at least $1.5 million each season going forward at VCU. 

Nearly all of the mid-major coaches who became hot candidates during the NCAA tournament this past season by winning at least one game (Dayton's Archie Miller, Stephen F. Austin's Brad Underwood, Mercer's Bob Hoffman) all made the same decision. They got chased, and they stayed put. Miller and Hoffman both used the chase to get contract extensions as well.

"Mark Few started it," new Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told Bleacher Report. "The whole pay structure has changed at high mid-major or those programs. Gregg Marshall is making more than most SEC coaches. Those programs have made investments in their coaches and their programs." 

Pearl also pointed out how it's easier to get on television for those programs than it was 10 years ago. Combine that with the financial commitment, and schools like Wichita State or Gonzaga are actually considered better jobs than a lower-tier BCS program.

A case study like Marshall is similar to the path that John Calipari took to eventually land at Kentucky. But even Calipari was confused years ago why Marshall had been so patient.

"Why have you never moved?" Calipari asked Marshall back in 2006 before Memphis played Marshall's Winthrop squad.

At that time, Marshall was midway through his eighth season at Winthrop and had already taken the school to five NCAA tournaments in his first seven years. A year later after his seventh tourney trip, he finally felt like he'd found the right fit at Wichita State.

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 23:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats shouts to his team against the Wichita State Shockers during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 23, 2014 in St Louis, Missou
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"(Calipari) said to me what you have done is effectively what I did at UMass and Memphis, and that is to make where you are your next job," Marshall said. "And there's a lot of truth to that. Winthrop was a helluva lot better job than when I took it."

Marshall's point is if you want more, such as more pay and better facilities, don't chase that elsewhere; make yourself so valuable to your current school that they'll give you those things.

When he arrived at Winthrop, his contract was for $65,000. When he finally left Winthrop, the school offered him a 10-year contract worth $400,000 per year.

Seven years in at Wichita State, he's made similar progress.

"The job is a much better job in every way," he said. "We've redone our locker room. We've gone to a Final Four. We've been a No. 1 seed. Talent level has certainly been upgraded. There's just been a lot of positives. So we've made this job the next job."

If Marshall had followed a different path and taken a rebuilding project in a big league years ago, here are the odds he would have faced:

There have been 90 new hires at BCS schools (that includes the old Big East) since 2004—not including new hires this offseason. Thirty-one of those coaches have been fired or forced to resign.

No matter the history or the magnitude of the rebuilding project, the standard is: Get to the NCAA tournament at some point in your first five years on the job or get out. A lucky few get a sixth year.

Some job security, huh?

Out of that sample size of 90 coaches, there were 23 who either failed to reach the tournament in all of their first five seasons or didn't get to stick around long enough to have a shot. Six of those 23 lived to see a sixth season, and we'll look at what happened to them shortly.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 02:  Head coach Craig Robinson of the Oregon State Beavers reacts to play from his team during the first half against the UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion on March 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

But to really see the thought process of an athletic director, consider the case of Oregon State and Craig Robinson.

Robinson finished his sixth year at Oregon State without a tournament appearance, and he somehow made it through the firing period of March and April. He appeared to be safe until his roster took a couple of hits.

The Beavers had Eric Moreland leave early for the NBA draft, and starting guard Hallice Cooke decided to transfer. With the three other starters graduating, that meant Oregon State had zero starters returning and little hope for next season.

Robinson lost his job on May 5, becoming the first BCS-level coach to get fired after the end of April during the offseason since Ohio State terminated Jim O'Brien in June 2004 because of NCAA violations.

There are essentially two recruiting jobs as a head coach: getting guys to your campus and recruiting them to stay there. When Robinson had his roster almost completely turn over, there wasn't any reason to keep him around.

As Horn says, every coach at that level has two goals: "Recruit well and get old."

Horn left a safe place to take the South Carolina job in 2008. He had taken his alma mater, Western Kentucky, to the Sweet 16 that year and won 20-plus games for four straight seasons. But to his credit, Horn left for a place where he saw the opportunity to win quickly.

Horn inherited a roster with talent and experience that was only lacking in success, and he had a promising first year. The Gamecocks won 21 games, went 10-6 in SEC play and won a share of the SEC East for the first time in 12 years.

The next season, South Carolina's second-leading scorer suffered a season-ending knee injury five games in, and a second starter was kicked off the team in early January.

Horn had always played an uptempo style that included a lot of pressing. Without the depth to do so, he had to adjust. The results weren't good, and he never recovered. South Carolina went 39-53 over his final three seasons.

"I think that's part of the challenge; can you play the way you want to play at that school?" Horn said. "Honestly, looking back, we would have had to adjust our recruiting a little bit in terms of the places we were going and the scope that we did it with to be able to do that.

"... At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the reasons are. We didn't win enough games. It's a business."

Pearl, like Horn, also inherited a talented roster that had underachieved. The Vols went 14-17 the year before he arrived, and his first team was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. That's one thing that separates Pearl and Horn. Getting to the NCAA tournament as a high seed instead of the NIT was something that really resonated with recruits and kept the momentum rolling. 

That also allowed Pearl not to settle in recruiting. Not only is he a really good salesman, but he had results to sell as well, and that's his greatest challenge at Auburn. 

"Young people have got very short memories, and for the last 10 years Auburn hasn't been in the NCAA tournament, and so the young prospects coming up, they don't hold Auburn basketball in high regard," Pearl said. "Now, do they hold Auburn football in high regard? You better believe they do. Do they hold Auburn University, the Auburn athletic program? Yes.

"This has been an amazing place for student-athletes to come train, be student-athletes, be champions. It's just that it hasn't happened in basketball in a while, and I'm trying to get that rekindled." 

That's a great pitch, but look at what he has to overcome. Pearl does not have the luxury of taking over a talented roster this time around, and he has the added challenge of a show clause from his Tennessee violations that make it so he cannot touch recruiting in any capacity until Aug. 24. 

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 18:  Head coach Bruce Pearl of the Tennessee Volunteers reacts in the first half while taking on the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 18, 201
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"It's really been difficult," Pearl said. "While there's a lot of momentum, I can't deliver that message. There are still high school coaches and prospects and AAU coaches that don't know I can't talk to them. That don't understand why they haven't gotten a phone call or a letter or why I can't come to their clinics."

Even if he could recruit, it can still take a few years to turn over the roster, and that's why you would think most coaches in his situation would ask for patience. Yet when Pearl hears that sort of logic, his answer is telling in that he knows a patient approach rarely equates to winning. 

"I've not asked our AD to be patient, nor have I asked our fans to be patient," Pearl said. "I'm going to ask them not to quit, and I'm going to ask them to be a part of the solution, let's do this together. But I won't ask them to be patient. They've been too patient. They have not gotten a return on their investment."

That brings us back to the five-year rule. A quick return on investment, as Pearl puts it, is required. Remember, six BCS-level coaches in the last 10 years have survived five tourney-less seasons, and it was pretty clear in nearly every situation that the sixth year was a true do-or-die season.

Johnny Dawkins got a sixth season at Stanford, was considered on the hot seat and then saved his job with a tourney bid and Sweet 16 appearance.

Three of the six who didn't make the tournament in Year 6—Auburn's Jeff Lebo, Nebraska's Doc Sadler and St. John's Norm Roberts—all got fired shortly after the season ended. Robinson made it until May.

Feb 18, 2014; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Andy Kennedy during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Tad Smith Coliseum.  Kentucky Wildcats defeated the Mississippi Rebels 84-70. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss was the only one to survive six NCAA-less seasons. What separated Kennedy, however, is he had consistently been close. In every one of his first six seasons, he never finished more than a game below .500 in the SEC, and that was just good enough to keep him around.

Kennedy made the NCAA tournament in his seventh season, and he's now entering his ninth season at Ole Miss.

For Horn, he's had a tough time landing another head coaching job because of the stigma that comes with getting fired. Coaches realize that. So what have they done? They make the jump before it's time.

Frank Haith has done so twice—first from Miami to Missouri and now Missouri to Tulsa. Cuonzo Martin was on the hot seat at Tennessee until he made a Sweet 16 this year, and he still left for California, which a coach like Horn can understand.

"Look at Tennessee this year," Horn said. "Cuonzo is in Year 3 and they're itching to be back in the tournament. They're talking 'I don't know if we have the right guy.' I really think in Year 3 if there's not perceived progress, whatever that means relative to where you are, it becomes a real slippery slope."

It's difficult to separate who will win and who will fail based on the hire alone because almost every coach who gets one of these jobs has been successful throughout his career. That's why it is so hard for a guy like Horn to get the next gig after he's fired.

If success is simply getting to the tournament, then on average, about half of the hires at the BCS level are successful.

Out of the 90 coaches hired by BCS-level schools, 46 of those coaches have gotten their teams to the tourney in at least one of the first three years.

You could argue that the first three years are telling enough for whether a guy is going to succeed, because it's rare for a coach to make the tourney after Year 3 if he hasn't already.

In fact, only three more coaches out of that group in the study took their team to the tourney for the first time in his tenure in Year 4, and only two others made it for the first time in Year Five.

And even when a coach finally gets there in Year 4 or Year 5, that doesn't mean the tide is permanently turned.

Stan Heath got South Florida to the tournament his fifth year at the school and then had back-to-back 12-win seasons, leading to his firing. Haith took Miami to the tournament in his fourth season, then missed three straight tournaments before he took himself off the hot seat by bolting for Missouri back in 2011.

Fran McCaffery at Iowa and Tom Crean at Indiana are the two others to make it in Year 4, and it's too early to say how that will turn out. Iowa's tourney bid was this past season, and Crean needs to show some consistency before the IU faithful are convinced that he warrants a long stay in Bloomington.

Mick Cronin is the one who has continued to deliver after taking some time to get in the tourney. He made it in Year Five, and the Bearcats have now been to four straight NCAA tournaments.

The logic behind hiring any of these guys is always, "They've never not succeeded, so they'll succeed for us."

Mar 18, 2014; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head basketball coach Bruce Pearl is welcomed by athletics director Jay Jacobs during his introductory press conference in the Auburn Arena on Tuesday.   Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

That's why a coach like Pearl is viewed as a great hire at Auburn despite his NCAA troubles at Tennessee. Pearl was fired in 2011 because of multiple violations and lying to the NCAA. But Pearl has always won—eight trips to the NCAA tournament in 10 seasons as a Division I head coach—and that other stuff is not as pertinent.

There's still probably more risk there for Pearl than he would like, but he had to be willing to take a chance because of his baggage.

That's not the case for someone like Marshall. If and when he ever jumps, it's going to be a place where there has been recent success and a history of success.

"Every job has its challenges," Marshall said. "You've just got to be savvy enough to try to avoid not stepping in the pitfalls that each job presents."

In other words, try to be in a place with the least number of pitfalls.  

What happened at Tennessee made it so Pearl had to take some risk. Howland might also have to bite the bullet and take a job like Auburn instead of waiting for more of a sure thing.

The reality of it is for Pearl or any other coach at a fill-in-the-blank rebuilding job is that it's anyone's guess whether it will work out. And they've got about five years to figure it out.

Good luck, fellas. You're on the clock.


C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.