Risky Decisions with Some Recent Coaching ExtensionsPosted by EJacoby on July 12th, 2012
In the past few days alone, three power conference schools have provided their head coaches with multi-year extensions after seasons that showed solid progress. South Florida head coach Stan Heath received a new six-year contract last Friday, California rewarded Mike Montgomery with a two-year extension on Monday and Iowa provided Fran McCaffery with a massive seven-year deal yesterday. Notice a trend here? Cal has won just three NCAA Tournament games since 1997, never entering the Dance higher than a #6 seed. Iowa hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001 and has qualified for the Tourney just twice in the past decade. And USF hadn’t even qualified for the Big Dance since 1992 before last year. Yet each team made enough strides in 2011-12 that was apparently enough to convince school administrators that each coach was deserving of several more years of service. Is there a risk that comes with locking up a head coach after a limited track record of success? These three schools are taking a solid gamble in hoping that relatively small sample sizes are enough to suggest a trend of future success.
California, Iowa, and South Florida have all struggled with various levels of mediocrity over the past two decades and been largely overshadowed by their football programs. Cal would appear the biggest name of the three, having produced some exciting teams going back to the days of Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray in the early 90s. But the Golden Bears have surprisingly never received better a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament nor advanced past the Sweet Sixteen since 1980. Iowa has actually had better historical success, receiving a top-four NCAA Tourney seed five times since 1980, though advancing past the Sweet Sixteen just once with a subsequent loss in the 1987 Elite Eight. USF, meanwhile, had never won an NCAA Tournament game in program history before last year’s two victories, making it just twice before in the early 90s as low seeds.
All three schools were also struggling mightily prior to their current head coaches signing on, and that’s why it doesn’t come as a huge shock to see each coach locked up for the future. Cal underachieved last season under Montgomery, failing to win the Pac-12 regular season or tournament titles even as league favorites, but an at-large selection to the Big Dance and a solid foundation of young talent was enough to convince the Berkeley higher-ups of his continuing value. Should it have been? Cal made the Big Dance just once in the five years before Montgomery signed on in 2008, but the Bears have been back in three of his four years of tenure. Montgomery also had a solid extended run as the Stanford head coach from 1986-2004 that included a Final Four appearance in 1998. He’s 65 years old, though, and has won just one NCAA Tournament game at Cal. He’s now signed on through 2016.
Iowa has been a mess since the team lost in the first round as a #3 seed in 2006, finishing below the top half of the Big Ten standings ever since. At this point an NCAA Tournament appearance is the goal, and at least McCaffery has his team on the right track. Though the Hawkeyes struggled mightily in his first year in 2010-11, the team improved by seven overall wins and four conference wins last season, finishing a respectable 8-10 in the country’s top league. Leading scorer Matt Gatens graduates, but six of the other top eight players from last season return, and a solid recruiting class enters. After several years bottom-feeding in the Big Ten, Iowa at least looks more competitive and hopes for much greater success in the near future. McCaffery got Siena to the Big Dance in three straight years before he left there in 2010, including two Tournament wins, so he knows how to get it done in the postseason. Iowa has the 53-year-old coach locked up for seven more years.
South Florida had virtually no choice but to extend Heath after its coach guided the Bulls to their first NCAA Tournament wins in program history – notching two victories last season as a #12-seed. But Heath’s success is truly judged on a one-year sample size — he’s been the USF head coach since 2007 and has compiled a poor 73-91 overall record. His Bulls finished 14th or worse in the Big East in three of the past four seasons. But last year’s sudden emergence as league contenders with a 12-6 record was enough to warrant Heath six more years on campus. The 47-year-old is signed on through 2018.
Can each coach continue his recent success into the extended future? Their sample sizes of success aren’t much. The one coach with the greatest track record for success is now 65 years old and may not stay in the coaching business past his new extension. Nonetheless, the “what have you done for me lately?” mentality in college hoops rules again with these recent decisions. Schools don’t have the luxury of waiting out another year for players to develop or coaches to implement a system. Who even knows how long South Florida will remain in the Big East, given so much movement through conference realignment, especially with that league? Stuck with mediocre or worse teams of the recent past, California, Iowa, and South Florida felt it was appropriate to extend their current head coaches despite their limited track records at each school. Those fan bases just have to hope for the best and talk themselves into the moves the same way the administration did.
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him on Twitter @evanjacoby.