Thursday, March 24, 2011
Update (3/27/11): Cuonzo Martin is out of the running for the head coaching position at Missouri, as he has accepted the position of head men's basketball coach at Tennessee.
In a move that was rumored for at least a week, Arkansas has hired Missouri head basketball coach Mike Anderson to take the reins of its once-proud men's basketball program. Anderson has proven himself to be a successful high-major head coach; between his five year tenure at Missouri and his previous four years at Alabama-Birmingham, he's compiled a 200-98 career record. The move to Arkansas amounts to something of a homecoming for Anderson, as he spent seventeen years there as an assistant on Nolan Richardson's coaching staff. And since Anderson implemented Nolan Richardson's notorious tip off-to-buzzer running, trapping, full-court pressing, "40 minutes of Hell" style of basketball at UAB and at Missouri, he promises to return the Arkansas basketball program to the style of basketball that made it famous all those years ago.
Anderson's move to the Fayetteville, AR, school appears to be the right fit. It makes all the sense in the world for both parties. After spending the greater part of the last decade in the college basketball wilderness, Arkansas now has a proven head coach who resurrected the basketball program at a historically good basketball school (Missouri) in a power conference (the Big 12), and who will provide a direct link to the Razorback basketball program's early-mid 1990s glory days (Anderson having been on Nolan Richardson's coaching staff when the "40 minutes of Hell" Razorbacks won the National Championship in 1994). Coach Anderson gets a big payday -- he goes from his $1.5 million per year salary at Missouri to $2.2 million a year at Arkansas -- and he gets to direct a history and tradition-rich basketball program that just happens to play in a less challenging conference than the conference in which his previous school played (Kentucky always dominates the SEC, but beyond UK and Florida, the league is often wide open). What's more, he gets to go home.
As for Anderson's former employer, rumors abound as to which coaches are on Missouri's wish list. There's been much speculation in the St. Louis and Kansas City media about Missouri's interest -- or purported interest -- in Purdue head coach Matt Painter, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner, Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin, Virginia Commonwealth head coach (and hot name du jour) Shaka Smart and Oral Roberts head coach Scott Sutton.
Drive and Dish doesn't traffic in rumors. But we note the coaches' names who have been "mentioned" with regard to the open men's head basketball coaching at Missouri for the reason of illustrating how the sports media reports on coaching searches. We know of an Athletic Director at a Division I institution who is currently involved in a search for a new men's basketball coach and who advised individuals closely tied to the coaching search and hiring process not to pay attention to media reports regarding their institution's coaching vacancy. He said that roughly between 75% - 90% of the information that would be reported by the media (and dissected ad nauseam on internet message boards devoted to men's college basketball) would be uninformed speculation, misinformation or complete fiction.
Newspapers are in business to sell papers, after all. And since nobody buys papers anymore, they're in business to garner as many hits on their websites as possible. Sports articles deliver hits, and gossipy articles about coaching searches in football and men's basketball at high profile universities deliver hits from the young, college-educated male demographic almost as reliably as gossipy articles about Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga or Brad and Angelina deliver hits from similarly situated young females. Whether or not the information contained in those types of articles happens to be true, or is based on solid information and concrete leads, is oftentimes largely beside the point. Sure, there are sports writers who have a pretty good handle on what's really going on. And yes, there are sports writers who take their craft seriously enough that they prefer not to throw various coaches' names around for the sake of, well, throwing names around. But there's always pressure on writers to start naming names.
Hardcore fans want names! Regular fans want names! Even casual fans want names! Really, just about everybody wants names!
So writers deliver names.
We won't speculatively throw names around for the sake of throwing names around, but we will talk about the nature of the Missouri men's basketball coaching position. Missouri is a very good job, but it may not a "destination" job for most coaches. Missouri has produced many good basketball teams over the years, but Kansas is the big dog in the Big 12 conference. Missouri is a solid basketball program, but the Tigers are perpetually among the cluster of Big 12 teams -- Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor and sometimes Iowa State -- that scrape and scrap to get a shot at 3rd place, behind powerhouse Kansas and upstart Texas (which has become something of an accidental basketball power in recent years).
Respectable though it may be, Missouri is simply not a glamor program. It's definitely good, but it's not top-tier. And while Columbia, MO, is a decent college town, it's relatively small, isolated and rural. The proprietors of Drive and Dish have spent a great deal of time in Columbia. We like Columbia. But we'd never confuse it with Ann Arbor, Austin, Gainseville, or Chapel Hill. As college towns go, Columbia can seem pretty button-down and folksy. From the perspective of a coaching candidate considering the suitability of a potential move to Missouri, Columbia would probably look like a good place to raise a family, but anyone looking for the bright lights and the city is likely to be disappointed. In other words, it's a safe bet that Rick Pitino, John Calipari and Steve Lavin aren't fighting each other over the chance to jump ship to Mizzou.
Norm Stewart was the head coach at Missouri for 32 years. Stewart was a folksy, plainspoken, no-frills native son of the Show Me State. His persona fit the Missouri basketball program and Columbia like a glove. In 1999, Stewart was pushed out the door in favor of then-Duke associate head coach Quin Snyder. Snyder's hiring was seen as a coup for Missouri. He was probably the most in-demand young assistant coach in college basketball at the time. And he was the stylistic yin to Stewart's staid yang: the dynamic, young, Hollywood-esque Snyder was the polar opposite of salt-of-the-Earth Norm Stewart. Snyder was articulate, smart (he earned a J.D. from Duke Law and an M.B.A. from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in 1995, and as an undergrad, he carried double majors in Philosophy & Political Science while starting at point guard for Coach Krzyzewski's Blue Devils) charismatic, and good looking -- with his tasseled hair and perma-pout, Snyder looked like he could have been the late River Pheonix and Joaquin Phoenix's older brother. And as the lead recruiter on Mike Krzyzewski's Duke coaching staff, Snyder had been widely hailed as the man who delivered top-flight recruits to Duke's Durham, NC, campus -- Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Chris Burgess, William Avery, Casey Sanders and Shane Battier were among Snyder's Duke recruits. Prior to Snyder's recruiting efforts, Mike Krzyzewski had been known as a great coach who won with players who fit his system. After Snyder's recruiting hauls, Krzyzweski became known as a coach who prepared players for the NBA.
But Quin Snyder turned out to be a disaster for Missouri basketball. Recruiting improved exponentially (as expected), but the Snyder era of Missouri Tigers hoops was riddled by one scandal after another. Some of the scandals were related to recruiting. Others were related to players' off-court behavior. Still, others were related to Snyder's own off-court behavior.
With its basketball program in shambles, Missouri dumped Snyder and replaced him with then-UAB coach Mike Anderson. Anderson was an excellent hire for Missouri, and his tenure in Columbia was a success. But his fast-paced, frenetic style of basketball always seemed better suited for the SEC than for the Big 12. And he was never able to successfully recruit elite basketball players to Missouri, as Snyder had. So it's no surprise that Coach Anderson left Missouri for Arkansas. He built up his resume at Missouri, but it was a good time for him to move up.
So now Missouri is left to conduct yet another coaching search. If Tigers fans were restless after 32 years of Norm Stewart's "boring" old coaching style, perhaps they're nearing their fill of fast lane excitement after 12 years of Snyder and Anderson (Anderson's teams played basketball in the fast lane; Snyder and several of his players lived in the fast lane).
Ultimately, Missouri would probably be better suited by hiring a strong Xs & Os coach who has strong Midwestern ties and has a solid history of head coaching success at the Division I level of college basketball -- no matter button-down and staid he may be -- than by hiring a hot, young, up-and-coming, flavor of the day coach; a recruiting whiz; or a coach who runs a gimmicky system (no matter how exciting the product on the court may be). A coach like UNLV's Lon Kruger or Oregon's Dana Altman would be perfect for Missouri. They're both great basketball coaches who have low-key, salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern personal styles, but they run clean, perennially successful basketball programs. Unfortunately, neither Kruger nor Altman is likely to leave his current position. Purdue's Matt Painter would be a home run hire for Missouri (he fits our criteria for an ideal Missouri basketball coach to a tee), but it's difficult to understand why he would have interest in leaving Purdue for Mizzou. Painter is a Purdue alumnus who was the hand-picked successor of legendary Purdue coach Gene Keady. He's enjoyed a tremendous amount of on-court success in the relatively short time he's been at the helm of his alma matter's basketball program. Why would Painter make what would be, at best, a lateral move to Missouri when the future looks bright for Purdue basketball?
In our opinion, Missouri could be a great fit for a successful, highly-regarded Mid Major coach like Wichita State's Gregg Marshall or Richmond's Chris Mooney. Both coaches currently have great jobs -- Wichita State and Richmond are among the better Mid Major programs in college basketball -- but Missouri would constitute a big step up. Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart is currently THE flavor of the month, and will be a likely target for Mizzou. But 2011 NCAA Tournament success aside, Smart hasn't been a successful head coach for very long, and his climb through the coaching apprenticeship occurred primarily at institutions in the Southeastern United States (Clemson & Florida, respectively). As such, Smart's coaching learning curve took place in the ACC and the SEC, and the majority of his professional and recruiting ties are, no doubt, in the Southeast. He will almost certainly be pursued heavily by ACC member institution Georgia Tech, and he may ultimately feel more comfortable coaching in that region than in Columbia, MO, or in the Big 12 in general.
Missouri is in an unenviable position. It's one thing to mount a coaching search when you fired the previous coach; it's an entirely different thing to undertake a coaching search when your previous coach walked out on you to take a perceived better coaching job. Schools fire coaches when things are heading south. Hence, there's always a great deal of excitement that accompanies a post-firing coaching search. After all, the new coach always promises to be better than the bum who just got shown the door. Fans are excited to start anew. Everybody's buzzed from the promise of hope and change.
It's a different story when a coach unexpectedly leaves a program. It's akin to getting dumped by a girlfriend. Athletic Directors often find themselves reeling as they scramble to fill their unexpected coaching vacancies on the rebound. Mid Major programs have practice at conducting such coaching searches. Athletic Directors at that level actually expect to lose their successful coaches. If a Mid Major coach is considered a hot coaching prospect for high major programs, he's likely to leave. It happens all the time. That's why a school like VCU can recover from losing a coach like Anthony Grant to Alabama by replacing him with someone like Shaka Smart. It's why Tulsa once recovered from losing Nolan Richardson by replacing him with Tubby Smith . . . and later recovered from losing Tubby Smith by replacing him with Bill Self.
Such coaching searches, however, are rare at BCS conference schools like Missouri. For Missouri, getting dumped by Coach Anderson in favor of a perceived "sexier" basketball program is nothing short of a shot to the body. Everyone associated with the Missouri basketball program -- from the administration, to alumni, to the players, to the fans -- has just been served with a blow to the ego. And everyone associated with the Missouri program will be on pins and needles until the program can move forward with its new coach.
Drive and Dish wishes Missouri and its fans all the best. But don't expect Brad Stevens, Matt Painter or Shaka Smart to swoop in to the rescue, and allow everyone in Columbia to forget about losing Mike Anderson.