Examining Ed DeChellis: Why Are Some Coaches Trading Down?

Posted by rtmsf on May 26th, 2011

Monday’s announcement by Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis that he was resigning from his position in order to take another job isn’t the kind of thing that normally surprises anyone.  After all, fifty or so Division-I head coaching jobs change hands in a given offseason, and DeChellis is coming off one of the best seasons of his coaching career.  His Nittany Lions finished fourth in the Big Ten last season and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade (losing by two points to Temple in the Second Round).  That he’s taking another job isn’t buzzworthy in itself; it’s that he’s not moving on to greener pastures as the new guy at Miami (FL) or Missouri, to name a couple prominent openings this year.  It’s that he’s resigning from a Big Ten school to take the head coaching position at Navy.  As in… the US Naval Academy, a Patriot League program that hasn’t been relevant since the Reagan Administration (and a gangly center named David Robinson was enrolled in Annapolis).

DeChellis Isn't the First Coach to Move Down the Ladder

It’s certainly an open secret among Penn State faithful and Big Ten watchers that DeChellis, despite PSU’s run to the NCAAs this season, was already on rather thin ice.  His eight-year career in Happy Valley resulted in more losses than wins and his relationship with the Penn State AD, Tim Curley, had reportedly deteriorated to a breaking point.  Still, by walking away from a Big Ten position — even one in the basketball wasteland known as central Pennsylvania — to take the helm at a struggling mid-major, he’s leaving at least a half-million dollars or more on the table, and essentially giving up on every coach’s dream to win and win big at the highest level of college basketball.  We’re not about to sit down and perform an analysis of the last couple of decades of coaching changes to test the theory, but in at least the last couple of offseasons, there seems to be a growing trend of coaches moving laterally or even downgrading themselves for one reason or another.  Here’s three who instantly came to mind.

  • Sidney JohnsonPrinceton to Fairfield (2011).  Johnson’s abrupt exit from Princeton to take the Fairfield job was at best a lateral move, but despite the increase in pay and the strong potential of a good team the next couple of seasons, we still believe that Fairfield basketball will never hold the cachet that the Tiger program does.  The Ivy League nearly got two teams into the NCAAs last year, and there’s no reason to believe that both Harvard and Princeton couldn’t have become twin titans in this league over the next five years.
  • Greg McDermott – Iowa State to Creighton (2010). McDermott’s situation in 2010 wasn’t totally dissimilar to DeChellis’, as he was one year away from getting canned after four middling seasons in Ames beginning in 2006.  Instead of waiting out the inevitable, he jumped ship to a solid mid-major program that provides him an opportunity to continue to cash head coach paychecks for several more years (he’s making roughly the same yearly salary at Creighton as he was making at ISU).
  • Oliver Purnell – Clemson to DePaul (2010). Purnell wasn’t in any danger at Clemson whatsoever, but he made a clear downward move in coaching status by chasing the dollars.  His annual raise was reportedly in the half-million range annually, but there’s some question as to whether Purnell (or anyone) can turn the once-proud Blue Demon program back into a contender. 

As we said, there were different reasons for the coach to make a move in each case, but it’s an interesting development.  As anyone who’s worked a day in their life already knows, it’s much easier to get a job when you have a job, so DeChellis and McDermott’s decisions are reasonable from a  long-term cost/benefit perspective.  Johnson and Purnell, on the other hand, appeared to be primarily motivated by short-term financial incentives, but they both took a chance by leaving programs they’d already built on the chance of doing likewise in a significantly tougher environment.  It’s difficult to draw bright-line conclusions from such a small sample size, but one thing we’re sure we can say is this — the conventional wisdom that a coach will only leave his existing situation for better status and/or money does not  seem to be as conventional nor as wise as it once was.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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4 responses to “Examining Ed DeChellis: Why Are Some Coaches Trading Down?”

  1. Chris says:

    Perhaps there are things we are not deigned to know. Perhaps Purnell wanted to work in Chicago.

    Maybe DeChellis’ family has relatives in Annapolis.

    Maybe McDermott is related to Warren Buffett.

    It’s not always about money and prestige, though I submit those are usually the two main motivators.

  2. rtmsf says:

    Yeah, those are fair observations, but the kind that to me are sorta “cherry on top” characteristics when the other two are in place. For most coaches, at least.

  3. Andrew says:

    I always thought the Purnell move made total sense. I would argue that you have a better chance at building a consistent winner at DePaul than at Clemson, even if the Blue Demons recent history has been underwhelming. Bigger city, more fertile recruiting ground, less immediate significant competition for those recruits than at Clemson. And, because you’re coaching in a pro town for a smaller school, you’ve got less pressure on you to win fast.

    And, like you allude to, the DeChellis and McDermott moves seem like guys getting out of town ahead of the coming pink slip.

    But the Sidney Johnson move still seems odd.

  4. rtmsf says:

    Andrew – my take on that is a little different, obviously. In theory, Chicago is a better recruiting ground, but plenty of good to great players come out of the GA/SC/FL area and Duke/Carolina can’t get all of them. Plus, in Chi-town you have to deal with the very difficult AAU/CPL system, and as we know, Purnell had almost no experience with that going into this job. As for the pressure, it’s still Clemson, a football school. All those types of schools really want is a coach who can take them to NCAA tournaments on a consistent basis — they typically couldn’t care less how deep you go so long as you get there and win a game every few years.

    DePaul is a sleeping giant in many ways, but it’s a school that’s been on Rip van Winkle mode for damn near 25 years now, and I wonder how much longer it is until we can say that the nap has turned into a full-fledged coma.

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