Why college basketball teams look to alumni for coaches
NEW ORLEANS — Just before his senior season at Oklahoma State, Bill Self injured his knee while working as a basketball camp counselor at the University of Kansas. Every time he saw Larry Brown, who was then the Jayhawks coach, the limp got worse.
Brown felt so bad for Self that at the end of camp, he told Self that if he needed anything, he just had to ask. So Self did it.
“I said, ‘I want to be your grad assistant next year,'” Self said. “And he said, ‘You’re hired.'”
It wasn’t really a job. Auto read USA Today and forwarded any articles he thought might be of interest to his boss. He made sure a lane was reserved at a local bowling alley on game days, in case Brown wanted to vent. And, above all, he stayed away.
But over that year, Self built relationships — with an assistant athletic director, with a publicist, with the secretary of basketball — and nurtured them enough that when the Kansas head coaching job opened its doors gates 17 years later, he had a small army of fans within the athletic department.
“It probably played a role in my ability to come back here,” Self said.
Profiting from those early connections hardly makes Self an outlier in college basketball, where it’s increasingly common for low-level former students, team leaders, players and assistants to have triumphant returns in as head basketball coaches.
Just look at the Final Four, where Self is joined by Villanova coach Jay Wright, who caught the eye of Rollie Massimino when he worked in his camps and returned to the Wildcats after putting Hofstra on a team. NCAA Tournament. There’s also North Carolina’s Hubert Davis, who played for the Tar Heels from 1988 to 1992, then returned to Chapel Hill as an assistant after a long NBA career and tried his hand at broadcasting. The other team here, Duke, will be coached next season by Jon Scheyer, a former national championship team captain and current assistant who will succeed Mike Krzyzewski, who is retiring.
Similar stories dotted the entire installment.
Texas Tech’s Mark Adams, a 65-year-old lifer, and Michigan’s Juwan Howard, a member of the legendary Fab Five who went on to have a decorated career in the NBA, took their teams into the tournament’s second weekend with a thing in common: They did it at their alma mater.
In all, 14 of the tournament’s 68 coaches worked at schools they attended or started their coaching careers at. And the trend shows no signs of slowing: Shaheen Holloway, the architect of St. Peter’s miraculous run to the Eastern Regional Finals this year, was hired by Seton Hall, the university where he played, on Wednesday. the role of skillful playmaker and then spent eight years as an assistant coach.
Louisville, which hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2017, turned to Kenny Payne — a Knicks assistant and reserve on Louisville’s 1986 title-winning team — to turn the Cardinals’ fortunes around. And at least six other people are taking over as head coaches at schools where they either played or were assistants.
“I find myself looking at the carousel of coaches in all sports, wondering, ‘What is their connection to the institution? Have they ever been there? said Nina King, Duke athletic director. “I think that’s something we’re looking at.”
King said if coaches unrelated to Duke were being discussed as Krzyzewski’s replacements, it was important to look to someone from “the fraternity,” where there was no shortage of opportunities, including college coaches. Bobby Hurley (Arizona State), Tommy Amaker (Harvard), Johnny Dawkins (Central Florida), Jeff Capel (Pittsburgh), Chris Collins (Northwestern), Kenny Blakeney (Howard) and Steve Wojciechowski (formerly of Marquette), or Quin Snyder of Utah Jazz.
In the end, Krzyzewski put his considerable thumb on the scales for Scheyer, who continued to secure commitments from top rookies.
“To be able to sit in a kid’s living room recruiting them and say ‘I’ve been through this – come join me because I’ve been through Duke for X years’, I think that’s important,” said King.
A growing number of coaches can present more than a family connection: they can cite the experience of the NBA. Often, however, that professional experience hasn’t translated to the college game, where connections to youth basketball brokers are key to recruiting elite talent. The job also requires happy boosters and, more recently, navigating the transfer portal, tasks that are not part of the NBA ecosystem.
That’s why former NBA players like Clyde Drexler (Houston), Chris Mullin (St. John’s), Eddie Jordan (Rutgers) and Kevin Ollie (Connecticut) didn’t have lasting success at their alma maters, although Ollie won a national championship before fizzling out. And that’s why Patrick Ewing has struggled in Georgetown, where his team has lost its last 21 games this season.
“Most guys who’ve been in the NBA, they’ve made so much money, they didn’t really care about coaching,” said Roy Williams, who retired as a coach last year. North Carolina coach after winning three national titles and cheered on Davis in Philadelphia last weekend.
The Final Four of the men’s and women’s tournaments
National semi-finals. March Madness is limited to the top teams and will culminate with the Final Four teams competing in the women’s and men’s tournaments on April 1 and 2, respectively. Here is a preview of the semi-finals:
More recently, however, there are signs of success.
Mike Woodson in Indiana, Penny Hardaway in Memphis and Aaron McKie in Temple, as well as Howard and Davis, have their alma maters headed in the right direction. Only Woodson, a distinguished NBA coach, had much experience as a head coach.
Memphis has only appeared in the NCAA Tournament once out of three tries under Hardaway, but its impact on the school was immediate: attendance jumped 7,840 in its first season, the biggest increase college basketball in 25 years. He surrounded himself with NBA veterans – former players Rasheed Wallace and Mike Miller were on his team, as was Brown, the only coach to win both an NBA and NCAA championship. But last week, the NCAA accused Memphis of four major recruiting violationsincluding refusing to cooperate with investigators.
When Montana State athletic director Leon Costello was looking for a basketball coach to rejuvenate a languid program, he couldn’t turn to a roster of former NBA players.
But he could turn to Danny Sprinkle, a freshman star on the Montana State team who made it to the 1996 NCAA Tournament. Sprinkle also had experience as a school assistant.
“We needed a spark,” Costello said. “When we hired Danny so many people came up to me and him saying they were in the arena and they remembered him as a player and they hoped he would have a chance to coming home. At a middle school like Montana State, that can be a powerful tool.
So, too, can win. Sprinkle, in his third season, guided the Bobcats to a 27-7 record — their best in nearly a century — and their first appearance in an NCAA tournament in 26 years. Later this year, he will be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, a homecoming that seems complete.
The same goes for Holloway.
An all-American high schooler, he brushed aside overtures from Duke in 1996, opting to stay close to home and attend Seton Hall. He was an accomplished, if not utterly transformative player – and his career, which seemed poised for a storybook ending, ended with him in street clothes on the bench after badly spraining his ankle during of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.
On Thursday, Seton Hall launched what amounted to a parade to welcome Holloway back. He walked into Walsh Gym in South Orange, NJ, to a standing ovation, and another was given to his St. Peter players, who were seated in the audience. A video traced his basketball career.
“Dreams come true,” Holloway said as he stood on a stage, speaking for himself, but increasingly for others.