Perhaps the only thing Kentucky head coach John Calipari is better known for than his ability to develop future NBA All-Stars is his willingness to speak his mind.
Last weekend was no different, as Calipari took issue with the mounting pressure on Georgia head coach Mark Fox to turn the Bulldog program around and N.C. State’s decision to fire Mark Gottfried at the end of the season.
But as he complains about the tricky nature of his profession, Calipari may not realize that evaluating coaching in college basketball is no easy feat itself.
On one hand, head coaches serve as the face of programs and are expected to recruit the best high-school talent available to fit their respective schemes. Their ability to develop returning players and transform four-year student-athletes is also of utmost importance.
At the same time, coaches are evaluated on how well they manage in-game situations and strategy on the court. If there is one weakness in college basketball, besides the occasional foul-laden affair, it is that too many teams struggle to design plays in the waning moments of games—take a look at the late play-caling in any of Clemson’s five single-possession losses this season and you’ll see what I mean.
The juggling act that defines being a college basketball coach makes giving an overall ranking for coaches nearly impossible. Ask me who the top five college basketball coaches are and I’ll probably have to split my answer into separate lists—one based on development and another on strategy.
Further evidence of how hard it is to pin down a good coach is seen from some of the mixed results when coaches transition from mid-major programs to Power-5 conference schools. One of the clearest examples of this was on display Monday night when Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns fell to No. 12 West Virginia after fans had a chance to watch Jim Larrañaga’s Hurricanes topple Virginia.
Glancing at the standings now, it’s somewhat hard to believe that Smart used to be the talk of the town during his days at Virginia Commonwealth. Seriously, along with his youthful appearance rivaled only by the early days of Brad Stevens at Butler, Smart’s ability to take to the Rams to the Final Four in 2011 painted him as a legend in coaching folklore.
But two seasons under the brighter lights at Texas have been far from ideal for Smart—the Longhorns are almost certain to miss the NCAA tournament this season after being bounced in their first game a year ago. It doesn’t seem likely that Smart suddenly forgot how to coach, which bodes well for a Texas program that badly needs the coach to become the program-leader they envisioned.
Although his dance moves won’t suggest it, Larrañaga is much, much older than Smart but drew similar praise when his George Mason team made a Cinderella run all the way to the Final Four in 2006. Since that time, Larrañaga’s transition to Miami has been seamless, resulting in a pair of recent Sweet Sixteen runs by the Hurricanes and another NCAA tournament bid seemingly on the horizon.
With no clear pattern about what separates a success story from a disappointing one and an emphasis on holistic evaluation of coaches, each program is free to use its own criteria when determining the fate of a coach.
We’ve slowly figured out what this looks like at Washington, where head coach Lorenzo Romar has wooed highly-touted recruits, including the likes of Markelle Fultz this year and Michael Porter Jr. next season. Romar is also about to miss the Big Dance for the fifth consecutive season, but it’s unclear if there is really a tipping point with the Huskies as long as they continue to recruit NBA-caliber talent each season.
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In regards to Calipari’s statement, the Wolfpack are a bit of a trickier situation to evaluate, considering Gottfried has had some degree of success during his tenure and has been to two Sweet 16s. Heck, N.C. State even pulled out a victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season and playing under Gottfried was appealing enough to recruit five-star talent Dennis Smith Jr. But the Wolfpack’s last four games have shown a team that has quit on its coach and after a similar result a year ago, it’s hard to make much of a case for Gottfried.
Of course, for a handful of programs in the country, coaching has never quite been an issue. Although some of this is due to the tradition associated with bluebloods such as Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, there is no real substitute for finding a leader that can mold a program into a perennial contender.
Calipari falls into this group as well and his success has made him one of the highest paid college coaches, and deservedly so. The Kentucky head coach may have been trying to stick up for his peers when he went on his customary rant a week ago.
But finding the perfect formula to judge college coaches on is far from simple math.