Every end of every college basketball season offers a monumental decision for a handful of programs. Athletic directors must decide whether to leave intact a head coach that has led their program for the past couple of seasons (some longer than others), or cut ties and begin searching for a candidate capable of carrying out the program’s idealized vision in a more effective and timely manner.
In today’s landscape of Division I power conference athletics, there is increasing pressure on ADs to do the latter, even if change in leadership isn’t completely warranted – even if the incumbent just needs one more season to turn things around, to leave his mark on a group of young men in a way that would convince department superiors to relax their firing trigger finger, survey alternative options on the market and realize the other side of the coaching coin, the post-firing search, is a dark, dark place.
That is the bleak reality facing most programs – this season, Minnesota and UCLA are the most visible examples – that decide to (euphemism alert) relieve head coaches of their sideline duties. There is immense pressure to not only make a prudent and defensible hire, but to generate buzz and win over boosters and own the media spotlight, among other ancillary motivations.
Sometimes getting the big name is more important than getting the right name; such is the warped head coaching employment cycle we currently deal with. It is a culture that demands immediate success and improvement, that massacres the entire concept of job security, that morphs multi-year programs into two-season win-or-your-gone exchanges.
Adding to the public unwieldiness of it all is the general self-aggrandized perception within each program – the logic that allows Minnesota to believe it can make a convincing run to lure Brad Stevens away from Butler or Illinois (last season) to kid itself into going after VCU’s Shaka Smart. Programs believe their situation – their facilities, their location, their players, their alumni – is better than whatever position their targeted replacement finds himself party to. They see an untapped utopia of rainbows and lollipops, whereas the job market sees two average Big Ten programs with idealized and insular viewpoints of their own place in the broader college hoops landscape.
Every now and then, you find a program that executes its coaching change with haste and tact. It fires its head coach, swiftly pinpoints a replacement out of a realistic pool of candidates, conducts a limited number of interviews and, in little time, comes out with an official announcement. We see this less and less frequently these days, as programs rashly dump coaches for failures to meet unrealistic win totals, championship goals and other programmatic demands.
For the few who accept unavoidable limitations and have a self-realized standing of their needs and goals, expectations are manageable, headline resonance is a secondary concern and coaching searches are clean and precise propositions. In and out. Seek, connect, engage, introduce, install. One head coaching era to the next.
I dragged that out far too long, and you’re unlikely to come across a “coaching hires 101” preamble as wordy or tortured as that one, but allow the length to punctuate the message: there are many ways to conduct coaching hires, and Northwestern chose a path most other programs would strive to emulate.
After deposing Carmody less than two days after Northwestern’s opening-round Big Ten Tournament loss to Iowa, the Wildcats moved briskly. First, the official release on Carmody’s firing was planted in the early-morning shadow of the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. There were no resounding rippling effects outside the Northwestern media community; regional and national columnists were zoned in on Michigan State and Ohio State and Indiana and Wisconsin, all of them battling for the conference tournament crown and NCAA Tournament seeding positioning.
Carmody was canned, and any Northwestern writer or student with two eyes and a laptop knew it, but as I walked around the United Center that day, Carmody’s name was raised only sparingly; and when it was, the conversation was brief and merely instructive. People weren’t thinking about Northwestern’s fired coach.
The wheels turned quickly after that. Duke assistant Chris Collins was identified as the program’s “basketball Fitz.” A handful of other candidates were pitched about the Northwestern and Big Ten internet media circuit, and some of those (including Bucknell’s Dave Paulsen, La Salle’s John Giannini and Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew) were reportedly interviewed for the position. But everything kept circling back to Collins.
His ties to the area – Collins was named a McDonald’s All American at Glenbrook North (Ill.) high school and is no stranger to the Chicago recruiting scene, having been influential in sealing prospects such as 2010 Duke national champion Jon Scheyer – were an obvious plus. His history in recruiting academically driven players translated perfectly to Northwestern’s athletics admission objectives. His history working under arguably the greatest college coach of all time, Mike Krzyzewski, was too impressive to ignore.
When you put it all together, Collins was the ideal candidate for Northwestern. He was what the program was looking for all along the moment it decided to get rid of Carmody after 13 seasons. The Wildcats knew precisely the individual it wanted and executed all the necessary steps – interviews, background checks and the like – before coming to a quick and reasoned conclusion on its next head coach. Just 11 days after officially pushing away from the Carmody era, Northwestern has its new program leader, and the path to reach this point was just as tidy and recommendable as the man it hired.