Coaching Carousel – Mid-Majors enjoying the other side of March Madness

Coaching Carousel – Mid-Majors enjoying the other side of March Madness

As the college basketball celebrates the final weekend of the season, several schools are spending March Madness searching for new head basketball coaches.  Year after year, many high profile programs fire their head coach in search of a new savior.  Historically, schools from power conferences could seemingly hand-pick a coach from the best mid-major programs to take the reins of their program.  These schools are discovering that the trend is changing.   No longer is it automatic for high profile schools to get their main man.

It was widely reported that UCLA, the “creme de la creme” of college basketball programs, offered their head job to Shaka Smart (VCU) and Brad Stevens (Butler) after firing Ben Howland.  Eventually, Steve Alford from New Mexico became the main man in Westwood.

Minnesota is experiencing the same difficulties as UCLA.  After firing Tubby Smith, one of the most respected head coaches in the profession, the Gophers have reportedly been rejected by four candidates including Shaka Smart, who showed little interest, and ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach Flip Saunders.

Butler, VCU, Gonzaga and others have retained their highly desired coaches because they find the right fit and secure them through building loyalty:

Right fit: Often times, universities will hire the most well-known name that shows interest in their head coaching position.  Although this strategy occasionally sees short-term success, these big name coaches rarely stay in the mid-major level for long (i.e. Steve Alford at New Mexico).  Programs sustaining long-term success in non-power conferences tend to hire coaches that are a right fit.  The right coach will have qualities and beliefs that align with those of the University, the local community, and the leadership within the Athletics Department.  Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, and Mark Few consistently site these areas as reasons they stay in their positions.

Security: The most heralded mid-major Universities will take long-term risks to retain the right men’s basketball coach.  Much like the successful personnel model used by the Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers to secure the right talent with lengthy contracts, mid-major schools are concentrating resources to secure the right leader with long-term deals.  Butler, VCU and Gonzaga know they cannot offer comparable compensation to the UCLAs of the world, but they can offer better stability and security.  That is a major reason why Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens and Mark Few have stayed loyal to their respective programs.

It will be interesting to see how long hot coaches at the mid-major level can ignore high-profile jobs.  In the meantime, look for more mid-major Universities to follow suite and build a program with long-term success.


Daniel Spiegel is the Assistant Athletics Director for Sports Marketing at Columbia University.  In addition to sports marketing expertise, he is an avid recreational athlete and proud alum of the University of California, Berkeley. 




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