Ranking the AAC Coaching GigsPosted by Mike Lemaire on December 17th, 2013
Last week, Sports On Earth‘s Will Leitch let everyone know that he had so much fun putting together his top 25 coaching jobs in college football that he wanted to repeat the process for college basketball. Similarly, we here at the microsite had so much fun reading and debating his list that we figured we would get even more granular and rank the 10 AAC coaching jobs from most to least desirable. For the most part, we used the same rules and criteria as Leitch did, and we took a little bit more time to explain our reasoning for the order. Enjoy!
- Louisville — It seems mildly unfair to even include the Cardinals in this list since they are merely squatting in the AAC for a single season, but they are technically in the conference as of now, so they lead the group and it isn’t particularly close. Louisville has great tradition, new facilities, and the most profitable basketball program in the entire country. The fan base is generous ($20 million in donations from alumni), and loyal (the Cardinals average more than 20,000 fans per game), and the notion of working for a renowned athletic director like Tom Jurich is probably pretty appealing. The Louisville job is not only the best job in the conference, it is also one of the top 10 jobs in the entire country and that’s not at all debatable.
- Connecticut — Picking between UConn and Memphis for second place was difficult because, while Memphis has a fertile local recruiting ground and a rabid fan base, the Huskies have more tradition, an equally passionate fan base, and deep-pocketed donors who love to spend money on the program. The fan base loves their Huskies so much that both the men’s and women’s basketball programs are profitable and the school’s relative proximity to New York City and Boston nullifies most of Memphis’ local recruiting advantage. Splitting home games between two arenas isn’t desirable for any big-time program, but a fancy new basketball facility is scheduled to be completed in the spring, and it also serves as an indication that the program doesn’t struggle to find willing donors and fundraisers, meaning it won’t struggle to remain competitive.
- Memphis — Memphis doesn’t have the same recent success that UConn has had, and the Tigers’ fan base somewhat aggressively believes the program is one of the game’s elite, but the move to a bigger and better conference should pay financial dividends and few cities love their local college basketball team more than Memphis. It’s not like Memphis doesn’t have a long history of success on the court, because it has, and as John Calipari proved, the Tigers have legitimate national appeal. Plus, the city has proven to be a consistently excellent recruiting resource for Memphis coaches, but in the end it falls just short of the Connecticut job in terms of desirability.
- Temple — Leitch said it best when he pointed out that Philadelphia is one of the best basketball cities in the country and, with apologies to St. Joseph’s and LaSalle, the Owls are the city’s most popular team (Villanova, of course, is in the suburbs). John Chaney helped the mid-major program build more tradition than most teams from power conferences have, and Fran Dunphy has done an excellent job carrying the torch that Chaney left behind. The move to a bigger conference should help line the athletic department’s empty pockets and the Owls will never lack for loyal fans and interested local recruits which makes the Temple gig one of the better ones in the country.
- SMU — Yes, SMU has absolutely zero history of basketball success and not much tradition to speak of, but at least the university and athletic department seem committed to changing that. A coach like Larry Brown doesn’t take on a rebuilding project like this unless the athletic department has promised to give him the resources he needs, and judging by the salaries his assistants are commanding, that promise is being fulfilled. The bar has been set so low that the fan base is willing to be patient and any future success will be looked at in a positive light. Plus, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has recently emerged as a must-visit recruiting destination and Brown has already proven that local ties can be stronger than national prominence for some local blue-chippers.
- Cincinnati — On the surface, Cincinnati has far too much history of success and basketball tradition to rank this low, but that success is what makes this job so risky. Bob Huggins and Kenyon Martin spoiled Bearcats’ fans by leading them to believe that this program is among the country’s best, and while more rational fans have lowered their expectations, a vast portion of Bearcat Nation still expects the team to consistently compete for a national championship. The program is profitable and the fan base is supportive, but outsized expectations combined with no firm recruiting pipelines means that Cincinnati coaches have their work cut out for them just to keep the program successful.
- Rutgers — We have started to reach the dregs of the list, the places where coaches would seriously think twice before accepting even lucrative job offers because of the barriers to winning there; but believe it or not, Rutgers can be an appealing place to coach. It doesn’t have much basketball tradition to speak of, but the school clearly cares about its athletics, the program is marginally profitable, and New Jersey produces plenty of worthwhile Division I basketball players. It’s still a difficult place to win consistently, especially considering it is a football school first and foremost, but it’s not a job without upward mobility and the facilities are nice enough to build a competitive squad.
- Houston — If the Cougars still played in Conference USA, from where it is significantly easier to make the NCAA Tournament, this job would probably be more desirable than the Rutgers job because there is a foundation from which to build upon. The Cougars have plenty of tradition but an understanding fan base that isn’t expecting Phi Slama Jama to walk through the door again any time soon. They also have a fruitful local recruiting scene to utilize and an older on-campus basketball arena that is usually crowded, at least as long as the Cougars are winning. It’s a job that highly sought-after mid-major coaches are going to flock to, and it can be a perfect launching point for the right coach looking to trade up.
- South Florida — The Bulls have a relatively new basketball center, so there’s that, but otherwise this job remains mostly unappealing. It’s a football-first school located deep in the heart of a football-crazy part of the country and it’s hard to imagine anyone building a consistent winner at the school. Stan Heath has done an admirable job, but the program has had just two winning seasons since 2003 and is actually in a less appealing basketball conference than the one they were just in. Let’s not say it’s a black hole that will chew coaches up and spit them out, but Robert McCullum was the coach before Heath took over and when is the last time anyone talked about him?
- Central Florida — The Golden Knights have been a Division I program for fewer than 30 years and have been to the NCAA Tournament just four times and not once since 2005. They have a relatively new 10,000-seat arena, but less than 4,000 folks were in attendance for the team’s most recent home win against Howard, and even that number might be inflated. The football team has risen to prominence in a football-mad part of Florida, and because of that, the Golden Knights’ basketball program has taken a clear back seat. The move to the AAC will be a positive one for UCF in the long run, but it’s still the coaching hinterlands and doesn’t offer a lot of upside for someone taking the job.