Spring is the season for blooming flowers, greening woods and head coaches jumping to take better-paying, more prestigious jobs. Or, getting ushered out the door. Where one coach leaves, an opportunity beckons for someone else. But as the game of musical benches slows down, some ACC coaching veterans are again wondering when and if their chance will come.
This off-season has seen more than the usual share of odd shuffles of the coaching deck. Chris Mullin and Avery Johnson, former NBA players with no college coaching experience, were hired to run major college programs. Mullin, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, took over at St. John’s, where he’s an alumnus. Johnson, the pick at Alabama, at least coached in the NBA.
Dave Leitao and Ritchie McKay were rehired to direct programs they forsook years ago at DePaul and Liberty, respectively. Both were serving as assistant coaches when invited to retrace their steps. McKay was at Virginia, where he’d worked for six years under Tony Bennett, Leitao’s successor with the Cavaliers.
Rick Barnes, a former Clemson head coach, was fired after 17 seasons at Texas and hired three days later at Tennessee, with a consulting firm picking up $50,500 to facilitate the move. Rick Ray, a former Clemson assistant, was canned at Mississippi State after three losing seasons as head coach, then hired three weeks later at Southwest Missouri State.
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Assistants were promoted at Buffalo and Utah State when the men who hired them moved on. Long-time Jim Larranaga assistant Michael Huger left Miami to become a first-time head coach at Bowling Green, his alma mater.
Through it all, a sprinkling of Huger’s colleagues on ACC benches watched and wondered what they must do to get noticed. Two of the best, Florida State’s Stan Jones and N.C. State’s Bobby Lutz, hold well-compensated positions as associate head coaches in a premier league working for men they respect. But as veteran assistants, it’s a matter of balancing appreciation for what they have with a sense the clock is running out on aspirations to be their own man.
“I certainly would like to do it one time,” Jones, 55, says of serving as a college head coach, “to see if what I believe about myself can manifest itself.”
Jones, the genial son of a “fire and brimstone” minister in Memphis, has worked beside Leonard Hamilton all but one year since the 1995-96 season at the University of Miami, with the NBA’s Washington Wizards, and at FSU. Before that he was a successful head coach at private high schools in Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi.
Over the years Jones has turned down a few head coaching jobs at what he calls “lower-level” schools. Pick the wrong spot, and what appears to be a position with growth potential can become a career dead end. Fail once and you’re damaged goods, the possibility of getting another chance significantly reduced.
“If you’ve never been a head coach, I think that you’re incredibly anxious and eager to get a head coaching job,” offers Lutz, previous a head coach at two different schools. “Head coaching positions are incredibly difficult to get. I don’t blame or second-guess any young coach who takes one. Because unless you’re one of the privileged few, most guys struggle to get that first head-coaching position. You may have to take a really tough job in order to prove that you can do it.”
Luck and timing
Far from a youngster, Jones patiently awaits a time when FSU’s oncourt success coincides with an opening at a competitive program suited to his strengths. “It’s about luck and timing,” he says. “It’s kind of like recruiting. That’s crucial: the team’s got to be good and the job’s got to be in an area where you fit.”
Lutz, like Jones, believes he’s best-suited for jobs in the Southeast, where he has a wide network of contacts. At 57, the Catawba, N.C., native previously was a head coach for 21 years at Pfeiffer College (1987-95) and at UNC Charlotte (1999-2010), his alma mater. He also served as a high school coach and as an assistant at Clemson and Charlotte, where he moved up when Melvin Watkins went to Texas A&M.
Lutz won 218 games at Charlotte, more than anyone else in school history, but was fired after failing to reach the NCAAs for five straight years. “I think knowledgeable ADs understand that it’s part of the business,” he says of his past. “However I don’t think it helps you to get a job, for obvious reasons.”
Since 2011-12 Lutz has been part of a remarkably stable corps of assistants that started at N.C. State with Mark Gottfried, remaining at his side through four straight trips to the NCAA tournament. “My philosophy has always been to do your job and never to let anything distract you from doing that,” says Lutz, a finalist last summer for the head coaching position at College of Charleston. “I think the more success -- even though Mark is the head coach and certainly deserves all the credit – I think it helps all four assistants here.”
Lutz, a noted strategic analyst, says he misses serving as a head coach “less every year,” yet retains the services of an attorney who helps to gauge mutual interest when suitable jobs do open up. “What I’ve learned, in most cases, if they don’t contact you, you don’t stand a chance, anyway. Most athletic directors and search firms already know the group they would like to have in their process.”
The mysteries of securing inclusion in those pools of candidates are a source of consternation among those looking to join the head coaching ranks. Traditional techniques, like relying on the good word of a patron or networking at the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention at the Final Four, have been eclipsed by the use of search firms and the need for professional representation. “It’s certainly changing, and it’s very, very fluid,” Jones says of penetrating the job market. “And assistant coaches have to tread very carefully.”
Search firms play an increasingly prominent role in facilitating the hiring of athletic directors and coaches. The work can be quite lucrative – one firm received a reported $265,000 last year to place Charlie Strong as football coach at Texas.
Headhunters do much of the legwork and shield the selection process from pesky reporters and fans. They also protect those making the hires from taking the full heat should decisions go wrong. Worse, critics contend the firms promote a sort of insider trading, with ADs turning repeatedly to the same consultant for their hiring needs, knowing they will be taken care of when and if they desire a different job.
Meanwhile, aspirants like Lutz and Jones labor diligently in support of others even as they seek a path to greater professional autonomy. “You have to keep believing that if you keep working hard an opportunity will come your way someday,” Jones says, sounding like he’s exhorting a bench reserve to hang tough.