Over the course of observing the college basketball hiring practices for the last 2 decades, here are some of the most common causes that produce hiring mistakes (please keep in mind that these are rules of thumb, not hard and fast rules, as each person and each situation is different than the next).
Chasing the Wrong Prize
Way too many AD’s focus on winning the press conference rather than focusing on winning basketball games. Athletics Directors who have “making a splash” as their main goal invariably prioritize their own selfish interests well above the interests of the institution or the student-athletes, which is an alarming but growing trend.
For some reason, many AD’s (and boosters and members of the local media) set their sights way too high and waste time chasing someone they were never going to get. In addition to killing time, this also alienates some viable candidates, and makes an AD look like a jackass. Sorry, Eastwestern Huckabuck State, but Brad Stevens isn’t leaving the Celtics, no matter what your egos may convince you.
Laser Focusing on Just One Person
Unless it’s an internal hire, focusing your entire process on just one person rarely serves the best interests of the school. Let the process play itself out, see what other candidates emerge, properly research the candidates you like the best, and go from there. You can still hire the person you had in mind from the beginning, but a decision as important as hiring a men’s basketball coach deserves a thorough, non-rushed, and comprehensive operation. Not to mention, sometimes the single target isn’t even interested but needs you to believe he wants the job so that he can leverage your interest into a better deal at his current school- when this happens, the AD and the search firm (if there is one) both look like complete clowns.
Inadequate Backup Plans
Due to a failure to understand getability and the tendency to laser focus on just one person, schools often seem to wind up with a process that goes on forever. When this happens, fans, boosters, alums, and members of the media go crazy, which causes AD’s to feel like they’re living in a pressure cooker. The stress associated with striking out on one or more top targets and having a media storm brewing causes AD’s to panic and rush to judgment, which leads to mistakes. Most human beings do not think clearly or perform optimally when they’re under enormous pressure, but if an AD will formulate an exhaustive list of properly vetted viable candidates, this situation can be completely avoided.
The Logical Fallacy of False Equivalence
I learned this lesson as a teenager in 1992 when the Houston Rockets drafted Robert Horry. I was beyond livid with the pick, as the Rockets had JUST DRAFTED another inside player from Alabama and tried to convert him into a small forward, and that experiment had not gone as well as we needed it to go. Well, of course, that pick was a stroke of pure genius, and Robert Horry went on to become one of the great clutch shooters in postseason history. So, due to Big Shot Bob’s incredible career, I was forced to recognize something that should have been obvious all along- Robert Horry is a completely different person and basketball player than Buck Johnson, and the fact that they had certain similarities should have never caused me to assume that they were the same.
AD’s seem to regularly commit this logical fallacy in the hiring process: “last time, we hired a Tom Izzo assistant coach and it worked great, so this time we’ll hire another Tom Izzo assistant.” It makes sense to think this way, at least initially, but if this reasoning actually made logical sense, there wouldn’t be a famous logical fallacy named after it. The simple fact is that some of Coach Izzo’s assistants have had success, and some did badly, because each of Coach Izzo’s assistants is his own individual person and each of these individuals has a lot more to do with his own success or failure as a head coach than Tom Izzo does.
Overprioritizing the Interview and Underprioritizing the Body of Work
It’s normal for people to “trust their gut” when hiring a head coach, and that’s OK, but the gut instinct should influence a decision, not make a decision. Instead, an AD should rely mostly on exhaustive research into each candidate’s entire professional and personal history. It’s important to remember that a self-promoter or bullshit artist is going to be a lot more likely to crush an interview than a humble servant leader, which is why the interview should be a piece of the puzzle rather than the puzzle itself.
Jumping the Gun
Success and failure both have substantial lag times before a coach rightly deserves credit or blame. With this in mind, it’s often a mistake for a large D1 school to hire a sitting head coach at a smaller D1 school until the small D1 coach has established a legitimate body of work. Remember, unless there was a total housecleaning, a first or second year head coach is coaching a team that he had very little to do with assembling, which means that the previous head coach might rightfully deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the current head coach’s success.
Recycling a Higher Level Coach for a Lower Level Job
As a general rule, if a guy can’t win with every imaginable resource at his disposal, there’s no real reason to think that he will be able to win with no resources. With this in mind, I don’t understand why AD’s at smaller D1 schools often get so giddy about a chance to hire a fired coach from a higher level. Were I an AD at a smaller D1 school, I’d be reticent to hire a recycled higher level head coach who had been fired, with the following exceptions:
1. The circumstances surrounding his dismissal were scandalous, meaning that coach has a chip on his shoulder with something to prove and will likely be particularly grateful for receiving another opportunity (see Jim Harrick at Rhode Island or Todd Bozeman at Morgan State or Steve Fisher at San Diego State or Bobby Knight at Texas Tech and yes Texas Tech is a lower level than Indiana even though they both play in high major leagues).
2. The coach is still a younger man and had initial success at a lower level before failing at a higher level (see Dan Monson at Long Beach State).
NOTE: I’d be especially skeptical of hiring a recycled coach who is over the age of 60, as those guys a lot of the time bring at best mediocre energy and work ethic to the table, instead just hanging on trying to cash a few more checks before heading into retirement (Cliff Ellis being a notable exception, as his teams at Coastal Carolina have been very good).
Ignoring the History and Culture of the Program
If a school has had success in the past, an AD should study the previous road maps to success to analyze any potential trends and common threads between the winning eras. Often times, AD’s hire outstanding coaches who are bad fits, and this rarely goes well. For example, Brad Stevens was an amazing coach for Butler, but I’m not so sure he would have fared as well at Cincinnati or Memphis. And John Calipari was an incredible hire for Memphis and Kentucky, but perhaps not the right fit at Stanford. Basically, if a school has had good teams in the past, they should think about hiring a new coach who possesses the vital skill sets that previously successful head coaches possessed, and “fit” should be a high priority.
Failing to Value the Character of the Coach
College athletics is a business, and the object of the business is winning games. So I would never argue that winning shouldn’t be the top priority. However, it shouldn’t be the only priority, or even the only high priority, as character matters a great deal as well. Particularly in today’s times, when young people and society at large seem substantially less tolerant of a coach who behaves like an abusive tyrant, an AD should work overtime to identify coaching candidates who will both win games and treat the student-athletes well. While it’s a fact that many selfish and psychopathic bullies have won a lot of college basketball games over the years, it’s also been proven from John Wooden and Dean Smith to Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart that it’s plenty possible for a coach to be both a winner and an excellent mentor. To me, this should be every AD’s goal, and AD’s who only value winning without considering the character of the head coach run the dual risks of bringing embarrassment to their schools as well as sabotaging their own careers.