Monday, April 1, 2013

Home … Where the Hoops Are

By Jonathan Lowe

We are a different generation. When it comes to our working careers, we aren't (for the most part) our forefathers. I'm 33, and I can assuredly tell you that I have worked for two years or more at three different workplaces. That's something my parents, and especially grandparents, didn't really do. Unless there were extenuating circumstances, there is a sense that employees from the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers put 30, 40, even 50-plus years at one company before enjoying their golden years.

Now, there are some industries that have always encouraged stepping up in job stature through hopping from one location to another. College coaching is definitely one of them. Names including Bob Knight, John Wooden, and Mike Krzyzewski are just some of the people that will almost always be seen as "one job" coaches. Thing is, these three, and many more, got their start at another school.

But in today's NCAA, most smaller basketball programs have been no more than a stepping-stone to bigger, brighter horizons. Turn around a team struggling to find victories, get a couple NIT berths, earn an NCAA tournament ticket or two, then cash in your chips for the next step on the hierarchy ladder. The Jim Boeheims, Bob McKillops, Fang Mitchells, and Rick Byrds appear to be a thing of the past, right?

Well ... not so fast. There's a new crop of coaches starting to sink their claws into the annals of college basketball's history books. They're bright, energetic, and resources guys that have helped to carry over and sustain the success of their predecessors, even taking them to new heights.

Now it appears the next mid-major leader to be raised to this level is Gregg Marshall. The Wichita State coach put his name at the forefront as the program prepares to make their first Final Four appearance in 48 years. But this won't be the first offseason that the former Winthrop coach has been on another school's "short list." He signed a seven-year extension in 2011 on the heels of a postseason NIT championship.

If Marshall decides to hold to his promise to stay through 2018, this would only seem to continue a growing trend of captains that aren't leaving their established crews to go steer a bigger yacht.

Mark Few is a mainstay at Gonzaga, having roamed the sidelines in Spokane for 14 seasons. He wasn't the original architect of the program's recent run of success (he WAS there when Dan Monson put this whole thing together), but he has kept the train rolling and stocked it with even more talented than ever before.

Brad Stevens may have become the poster child for the future of college coaching. He hit the ground running after Todd Lickliter turned a Sweet 16 run for Butler into an opportunity at Iowa. Now, two title game runs later, he's sprinted ahead of many seasoned veterans.

Shaka Smart kept a trend going at VCU. He was an assistant at Florida for a season before getting the call to go to Richmond. His predecessor, Anthony Grant, was taken off of Billy Donovan's bench after a successful 10-year stint as a Gator assistant. But Smart has built the program to startling new heights. His trademark "havoc" defense might even burn up those famed Arkansas "40 Minutes of Hell" teams.

These three men have all shown their worthiness to stand among the best coaches in the sport. They could have their pick of any major job in the country. However, these coaches have looked at the "palatial" settings offered to them and thought ‘I can build just as fancy of a mansion right here'.

I'm sitting here in Minneapolis, where the University of Minnesota is conducting their own search for the next coach of the basketball program. I'm sure Marshall will pop up on their list of candidates. But while it would be great for the Gophers to become a Big Ten power, I, for one, hope that it's not done through the Shockers' leader.

I'm a fan of lesser-known, smaller-budget programs holding on to their people and investing in their programs. In my opinion, the parity of college basketball has grown steadily over the last couple of decades, providing a mix of the NCAA's illustrious past and what we could see in the future. The best way to keep expanding that parity is to have stability with the head coaches at those institutions.

Think of it this way. The NFL's popularity is sky-high. Does the effect of the salary cap make it so? Absolutely. The coach of a college basketball program can overcome budget discrepancies and be similar to a salary cap. Consistency is usually the easiest path to sustained success. It's the kind of success the power schools across the country have maintained. But it's the kind of success that could shift the balance of power on the court ... and show everyone that Generation X can be in it for the long haul.

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