The Secret To Building A True College Program

It’s that time again.  Nebraska, Illinois, and Duquense have all fired their men’s basketball coaches already (Nebraska’s already hired a new one), and more firings are sure to follow.

Like an annual rite of spring, college basketball programs ask themselves if they’re happy with the proverbial “direction” of their teams, and whether the coach is contributing positively or negatively to that end.

Surely, hiring and firing a basketball coach typically revolves around wins and losses.  But the game is changing, and wins and losses always don’t tell the whole story, especially in today’s college game.

So it’s worth asking: should a coach get the axe just because his team doesn’t win x amount of games?  Or should there we change the way we understand a successful college basketball coach?

Head basketball coaches at Division I schools have a heck of a job description.  In some ways, they have more responsibility than even their NBA counterparts.  Namely, recruiting; it’s no secret the amount of time, money and energy that goes into recruiting, specifically by the head coach.

And it’s no secret that recruiting is generally loathed by college coaches.  But it’s more than just round-the-clock travel and seemingly endless recruiting pitches, or even the stiff competition between schools and their coaches.  Their aversion to it might just have more to do with the fact that these coaches are dealing with high school boys, for crying out loud.

There are many differences between the priorities of teenaged boys and middle-aged basketball coaches.  A prized recruit is thinking NBA and how he can get their quicker.  If all goes well, that would mean one year at college before entering the draft.  Which presents an undeniable tension: Coaches are seeking commitments from players and players are hoping to get out as soon as possible.

Kentucky’s John Calipari proposes an apparent solution: forget winning as a barometer for success. “We’re a players-first program,” he says.  And isn’t it in the players’ best interest to set them up for NBA success?

When a record five Kentucky players were drafted in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, Calipari called it, “The biggest day in Kentucky basketball history.”  And impressive it was.  But what about those seven national championships Kentucky has won?  Chopped liver?

Maybe what he meant was that it was the biggest day in his own coaching career.  Is it possible he has put professional player development on a pedestal to distract us from the fact that he has never coached a team to a national championship?

Perhaps.  But we can at least say he’s honest about his recruiting tactics, which just so happen to make him the best recruiter of five-star athletes in the business.  To him, it’s no longer about winning national championships, at least primarily.  It’s actually no longer about winning at all.

According to Calipari, and, frankly, to most basketball players, the most important thing a college basketball team can offer is to serve as a waiting room for entry to the NBA.

The next question, then, is how far that logic will take a team.  Can Kentucky win with rent-a-players?  So far, that answer has been yes, in terms of SEC championships and a few NCAA tournament games.  But is that enough for a team that routinely carries lottery-level talent?

Perhaps more intriguing a question would be whether the powers-that-be at Kentucky, including a rabid fan base, would measure the success of Calipari’s teams the same way he does.

Now, it’s very possible that Calipari’s recipe for success will actually net a national championship, perhaps as early as next Monday.  Might Calipari crown it the new “biggest day in Kentucky basketball history”?!

Regardless, it’s still an undeniable tension that coaches have to deal with: how do you build a team with players that are hoping to get out as soon as possible?

The answer to that question very likely spells success or failure for a particular coach and his basketball program.  Rare is the NCAA champion without pro prospects on the roster, and nobody’s claiming here that top-tier talent isn’t necessary for success.  But perhaps more important is what kind of talented players you have.

Perhaps more than ever, college coaches must play general manager, putting the pieces of a successful team together.  And often that doesn’t mean recruiting the hottest prospect, but a player who will stay longer and develop, perhaps more slowly.  For instance, would you rather have a player like Kemba Walker for three years or John Wall for one?

Another undeniable part of the equation is managing personalities, or perhaps more succinctly, egos.  For players with NBA aspirations at the forefront of their minds, taking on a lesser role for the good of the team sounds to them like a non sequitur.  What can result, then, is a dysfunctional team at best, or an exodus of transfers at worst.

Take Minnesota, for instance.  In the past two years, Tubby Smith has granted the releases of Royce White, Devoe Joseph, Justin Cobbs and Colton Iverson, all starters or potential starters.   Three of those four specifically cited a desire for more playing time and/or a larger role, while White complained of not feeling wanted or trusted.

White had one year with Iowa State, and guess what: he’s turning pro.  Meanwhile, Joseph was willing to sacrifice part of his senior season for a chance to show pro scouts he’s worthy of a look.  What Joseph wasn’t willing to sacrifice, however, was his own aspirations for the sake of a team.

And there’s the rub: what really is in the players’ best interest, becoming a pro as soon as possible, or learning how to play on a team and win games?

For now, coaches are, for the most part, evaluated by the latter, how well they are at winning games.  But it seems clear that there is more to the equation of coaching success, much of which has to do with that delicate balancing of teenagers’ egos and the best interests of the team.

It’s enough to give new meaning to the phrase, “It’s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.”