Sunday, March 26, 2017

The splashy hire, and other myths

So here came this basketball coach, once upon a time.

He was in his 30s and had been a head coach for only six years, and at a school that was, shall we say,  not one of the marquee names.

In those six seasons at this non-marquee school, however, he'd won 18 or more games four times. His teams played good defense. They were disciplined. And even though his bosses were heartily sick of him (because he wasn't the easiest guy to get along with), Indiana -- a school with national championships and a legacy of greatness in its past -- hired him anyway.

His name was Bob Knight.

He was 32 years old.

He was the basketball coach at, of all places, Army.

And in a few corners of Indiana, diehards who grew up with, and swore by, Branch McCracken, undoubtedly shook their heads, threw up their hands and exclaimed "We hired some guy from ARMY?!"

After which the dialogue, in those same corners, no doubt went like this:

This is INDIANA. You can't hire some guy from Army, some mid-level guy, at INDIANA.

This guy has no experience at the elite level. We needed a guy with experience at the elite level.

We needed a name hire, a splashy hire, to restore the program to the glory days. This is no time to hire some starter-kit coach from Army.

Sound familiar?

It should. It's what you heard yesterday in certain corners -- not many, but a few -- when the news broke Indiana had hired Archie Miller from Dayton.

Archie Miller, who, like Knight in 1971, is in his 30s.

And who, like Knight, has been a Division I head coach for just six years.

And who, like Knight, has won consistently at "mid-level" Dayton -- 20 or more wins five times in six seasons, four straight NCAA appearances, an Elite Eight run in 2014.

Archie Miller.

Who, like Knight, puts sound, disciplined teams on the floor. Who's a proven, winning recruiter. Who is universally regarded as one of the best young college coaches in America -- and who, unlike Knight, was beloved at Dayton, and will be beloved at Indiana if he does what almost everyone expects he'll be able to do.

After all, if you can get Dayton to the Elite Eight, imagine what you can at Indiana, with Indiana's resources.

Look. No one in his right mind is comparing Archie Miller to Bob Knight. That would be enormously unfair to Miller, given that Knight is perhaps the greatest college basketball coach who ever breathed air. Archie Miller is just a young coach with a promising resume. What he becomes, we shall see.

But there is a correlation of circumstance here, and there are lessons to be learned from it. The first is that, like Indiana in 1971, Indiana in 2017 is not the sort of program right now that's going to automatically attract the sort of "names" some people were throwing out there. The second lesson is that, at some point, every one of those "names" was Archie Miller.

Or Bob Knight in 1971.

Or John Wooden, who came to UCLA from Indiana State.

Or Mike Krzyzewski, who, like his mentor Knight, came to Duke from Army.

None of them were "names". None had coached an "elite" program. All are now in the Hall of Fame.

Truth is, almost every great college coach today has been Archie Miller. Tom Izzo had never been a college head coach anywhere before taking over at Michigan State from Jud Heathcote, where he had been Heathcote's top assistant. Villanova hired Jay Wright out of tiny Hofstra, where Wright had, like Miller at Dayton, worked wonders. Tony Bennett, another name bandied about for the IU job, had been a Division I head coach for just three years, at Washington State, before Virginia hired him.

So, you see, this can work.

And it says here it will.

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