Stephenson on Coach K and late-career slumps

This email from Insider Tom Stephenson is worth posting in full. Great observations on how many coaches tend to underachieve as they near retirement. Tom mentioned some legends who retired at the top of their tourney game. I’ll add Rollie Jim Calhoun and Rollie Massimino.

Tom followed up this email with another great observation: “There will now be at least four Rookie coaches in the Sweet 16: Archie Miller, Kevin Ollie, Johnny Dawkins, and  Cuonzo Martin. Brad Underwood could make it five, though it doesn’t look likely. At least one coach (either Miller or Dawkins) will make the Elite Eight.”

Thanks Tom!

Coach K certainly isn’t the first legendary head coach to endure a late-career slump.  Look at the following career arcs (obviously, I’m using some pre-1985 tournaments here, so there’s no way to calculate PASE): 

  • Bob Knight, through 1987: 11 trips, 27-8 record, 6 E8, 3 CH
  • Bob Knight, 1988-93: 6 trips, 11-6 record, 2 E8, 0 CH
  • Bob Knight, since 1994: 11 trips, 7-11 record, 0 E8

Knight basically averaged an Elite Eight every other trip up through 1987, and a championship roughly every four trips; that’s about as good a tournament record as any coach not named Wooden.  Starting in 1988, the program began to slip (one of the Elite Eights was a loss as a 1 seed and was technically underachieving), then he really started to struggle in the tournament after 1993.  Knight was 53 in 1993, or four years younger than Coach K when he began slipping.

  • Denny Crum, through 1986: 12 trips, 27-12 record, 6 E8, 2 CH
  • Denny Crum, after 1986: 11 trips, 15-11 record, 1 E8

Like Knight, Crum was averaging an Elite Eight every other year up through his second championship season.  But he only made one more Elite Eight after that.  The overall record isn’t awful, but Louisville was never really a championship threat after 1986 and toward the end of Crum’s career started struggling to make the tournament (much less make deep run.)  Crum was 49 in 1986.

  • Adolph Rupp, through 1958: 10 trips, 20-6 record, 4 CH
  • Adolph Rupp, after 1958: 10 trips, 10-12 record, 0 CH

I’m not going to bother with Rupp’s Elite Eights since the tournament was so small back then (in fact, in Rupp’s first four tournaments there were only eight teams.)  And if you exclude the famous 1966 championship game run, Rupp only went 7-11 after his final national championship.  What’s more, Rupp’s teams started struggling to win the SEC; after winning or sharing 13 of 14 SEC championships from 1943-58 (in 1944 no champion was crowned, and Kentucky didn’t field a team in 1953), the Wildcats only won three from 1959-67; they made two more tournament appearances in 1959 and 1961 as a result of SEC champ Mississippi State being barred by state law from playing in the tournament.  They did recover to win the SEC in Rupp’s last five years but didn’t make the Final Four in that stretch.  Rupp was 56 when he won his last championship.

Those aren’t the only examples; there are probably plenty more, and there are also probably some who struggled to even make the tournament late in their career.  And of course some legends (like Dean Smith, for example) don’t go through a late career slump, or like Jim Boeheim they’re as up and down as they’ve always been.  But what Duke is currently going through is hardly unusual for a program coached by an all-time great nearing retirement.

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8 Responses to Stephenson on Coach K and late-career slumps

  1. Tom says:

    As a followup to this… what makes Coach K unusual is that his late-career struggles seem to be limited to the tournament. Duke is still an elite program in the regular season (hence why they keep getting high seeds) but doesn’t make very many deep runs any more, 2010 excepted. Knight and Crum both saw their programs slip to the point where they were getting middling seeds and so less was expected of their teams. Rupp, in those one-bid-per-conference days, started having trouble getting to the tournament, much less making deep tournament runs.

    I think a broader point is that some coaches have weird career arcs. Bob Huggins started his career on fire, making three Elite Eights in his first six appearances… and has 1 in 14 tries since. Steve Fisher made the Elite Eight in four of his first five trips, and is 0-for-9 since then. On the flipside, Gary Williams needed 11 tries to make his first Elite Eight and then won a national championship the next year. In 1996, would you have guessed that at this point Gary Williams would have a national championship and Bob Huggins wouldn’t?

  2. Tom says:

    And, illustrating the flipside:

    Dean Smith, through 1984: 14 trips, 28-15 record, 8 E8, 1 CH
    Dean Smith, 1985-97: 13 trips, 37-12 record, 7 E8, 1 CH

    Those two look almost exactly the same. Fewer wins pre-1985 (largely because the tournament field was smaller), but Dean was consistently good throughout his career. 1984 is kind of random (Michael Jordan’s last year in college, Dean was 53 that year) but it was the midpoint of his tournament career.

    Calhoun, yes. Massimino, no… Rollie didn’t retire, he just stopped making the tournament (his last tournament appearance came in 1991, but he coached until 2003, mostly in anonymity at Cleveland State.)

    • ptiernan says:

      Tom – Good point on Rollie. Wow…I didn’t know he was at Cleveland State. Little known fact: if you don’t account for appearances, Cleveland State owns the second best PASE of any schoole (+1.284). Only Florida Gulf Coast’s is better (+1.931).

      • Tom says:

        Rollie’s move to UNLV to replace Tarkanian ranks as one of the strangest coaching career moves of all-time, to this day. Villanova wasn’t as good by 1992 as they were in Rollie’s heyday, but they probably would have let him hang around as long as he wanted. Instead he got canned after two years in Vegas.

  3. Tom says:

    And actually, I’ll amend my previous statement. Rollie is STILL coaching — at age 80. He’s been at NAIA Northwood in Florida for the last eight years, and has a 227-48 record (including a NAIA runner-up finish in 2012.) Wow.

  4. Bullets-and-Blazers says:

    So that means the following coaches will never win another title:

    Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) <- this one shows
    Roy Williams (North Carolina)
    Steve Fisher (SDSU) <- on his way to retirement
    Tubby Smith (Texas Tech)
    Rick Pitino (Louisville)

    I am not sold on these coaches:

    Coach K (still has a shot)
    Tom Izzo (too young to retie)
    John Calipari (will win one more)

    • Tom says:

      It doesn’t mean anything.

      It happens to some, doesn’t happen to others. Happened to Knight, happened to Rupp, seems to be happening to Coach K. Didn’t happen to Wooden or Dean Smith. Didn’t happen to Calhoun (hell, he actually got better as he aged — look at his career arc.) It doesn’t look like it’s happening to Pitino.

  5. Brian says:

    Hey Peter,

    Love your work, really helps me out picking my bracket. I’m actually doing some research on the history of the tournament and was wondering if you have excel sheets of data for previous years. It would tremendously help me out. Thanks so much for your time.

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