Top 20 young coaches with early tourney success

Career advancement in the NCAA basketball coaching ranks often comes from one or two surprising tourney runs. Think about the coaches who’ve parlayed March Madness overachievement into better jobs:

  • Rick Pitino was 35 when he took six seed Providence to the Final Four in 1987. That run convinced the New York Knicks to make him their coach…then after his helter-skelter pressure defense didn’t translate to the pro game, he wound up with the Kentucky job.
  • Tubby Smith was 43 when he took 12 seed Tulsa to the Sweet 16 in 1994. That win helped him jump to Georgia in 1995. A year later, he took the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 as an eight seed. After three overachieving runs in four tries, Kentucky came calling.
  • Bill Self was 38 when he took seven seed Tulsa to the Elite Eight in 2000. That surprise run helped him land the Illinois job. And despite two underperforming tourneys in three tries with the Illini, Kansas hired Self in 2003.
  • Tom Crean was 37 when he took three seed Marquette to the Final Four in 2003. He stuck around with the Golden Eagles for another five years, won an opening round game as a six seed in 2008, then took the Indiana job.
  • Sean Miller was 40 when he took three seed Xavier to the Elite Eight in 2008. The next year, his four seed Musketeers reached the Sweet 16. After that, Arizona snatched him up.

This is just a handful of the coaches who’ve improved their careers with a couple tourney wins. Just last year, John Groce ascended to the Illinois position after making two Cinderella runs with Ohio in 2010 and 2012. And Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart have been on the short lists of nearly every major coaching opening since their improbable Final Four runs. Not only have Stevens and Smart proven that they can lead teams to overperformance in the tourney, they’re also young men with years of coaching ahead of them.

So if the equation for coaching advancement is youth and Cinderella tourney achievement, who are the coaches that fall into these categories? Here’s a chart of the top 20 coaches, plotted against their median age and PASE. The coaches in the top left quadrant are the most promising. Those in the lower left are younger and the coaches in the lower right are older. The vertical spread represents their tourney PASE:


Some of these coaches, like Groce, Scott Drew and Buzz Williams, are already at relatively big-name programs. Others are still toiling away at smaller schools. This top 20 list isn’t necessarily ranked by who I think is most promising, but more by their position on the chart above. Here’s a rundown on the coaches, along with likelihood that they would make a jump to a marquee program:

1. Shaka Smart, VCU (Age 35, +1.969 PASE) – Smart decided to stay at VCU after getting an offer from Illinois. But did he stay to build something long term with the Rams, or is he just waiting for a bigger school to come calling? I don’t think he’ll move unless he gets an offer from a marquee program.

2. Brad Stevens, Butler (36, +1.938) – Stevens also turned Illinois down last year, and Maryland the year before that. He’s consistently maintained that he wants to build a tradition at Butler—and he’s a local guy. My guess is that nothing short of a brand-name program will be able to shake Stevens loose. If Coach K or Roy Williams retire, Stevens could be their heir apparent.

3. John Groce, Illinois (41, +1.290) – Groce parlayed two surprise runs at Ohio into the Illinois coaching job. Never mind that he was, by some accounts, the sixth choice for the Illinois job. Before he takes a step to the next level, he’s going to have to prove himself in Champaign.

4. Anthony Evans (39, +0.946) – Can one stunning upset lead to a better coaching gig? Evans may give us an answer to the question in the coming years. There aren’t many coaches who’ve slayed a giant in their first dance with a team seeded higher than 12. And Evans’ Norfolk State did it against Missouri as a 15 seed. Of the 16 other coaches who’ve led longshot seeds to upsets in their tourney debut, only John Groce moved on to a bigger school. But most of those coaches weren’t as young as Evans. My guess is that Evans will have to make another dance before a more prominent school comes calling.

5. Scott Drew (42, +0.580) – Drew didn’t make this list like a lot of the other promising young coaches. Yes, he paid his dues at a smaller school, coaching Valparaiso in the 2002-03. But his Crusaders didn’t even make the dance—and bowed out in the first round of the NIT. Apparently, that was good enough to get Baylor’s attention. They hired Drew when he was just 33. It took him five years to get the Bears past celebrated off-court troubles to the dance, where they promptly lost their first game in 2008. In both 2010 and 2012, however, Drew has taken three-seeded squads to the Elite Eight. Is that good enough to get bigger programs knocking on his door? Drew has rankled rival Big 12 coaches with his aggressive recruiting practices. Is he Calipari Lite?

6. Brett Reed (40, +0.473) – Reed is the other 2012 coach to lead a 15 seed past a two seed. His Lehigh Mountain Hawks shocked Duke last year. They also gave top seed Kansas a good fight in 2010 as a 16 seed. Of course, Reed’s impressive tourney resume happens to coincide with the emergence of star guard C.J. McCollum as an elite player in the college ranks. Whether the bigger schools ignore that coincidence and come after Reed remains to be seen. It certainly hasn’t been a deterrent in the past.

7. Ben Jacobson (42, +0.460) – Remember that Northern Iowa squad that shocked top ranked Kansas back in 2010? Does the name “Ali Farokhmanesh” ring a bell? After that win, Jacobson was a hot commodity. Texas A&M came calling, but he turned them down. So is he still a contender for a coaching raise? The Panthers haven’t been to the tourney since their Cinderella run three years ago. My guess is that Jacobson will have to get Northern Iowa back to the dance before another school as big as Texas A&M gives him another look.

8. Rob Jeter (43, +0.455) – It’s been six dances since Jeter’s eleventh-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers sprung a first-round surprise. While he did get consideration for the Penn State job in 2011 (he wound up declining a potential move), his Cinderella magic may have worn off.  I’ll bet that he won’t get a serious look from another Power conference school until be makes more tourney noise.

9. Tad Boyle (49, +0.455) – Boyle is the oldest of the promising coaches, but his successes are more recent than most. Just last season, his Colorado Buffaloes pulled a 6v11 upset. And they’ve already pulled off a surprise this year, beating 16th ranked Baylor on November 16. Boyle turned down the Texas A&M in 2011 and his name was linked to the Nebraska and Kansas State jobs last year. He has said he wants Colorado to be his last job. Maybe that’s true, given his age. Or maybe he’s just waiting to land a bigger whale. It that’s the case, another nice tourney run would help. Time is running out.

10. Tommy Amaker (47, +0.415) – No other coach on this list has had a weirder career arc than Amaker. His first job was at Seton Hall, a relatively prominent Big East school. And in his only tourney appearance with the Pirates, he reached the Sweet 16 as a 10 seed. That was impressive enough for Michigan to hire Amaker, never mind that he left some turmoil behind Hall. Ironically, his big job with the Wolverines was to clean up a program still struggling from the Fab Five scandal. He never did make the dance with Blue and left for Harvard after eight seasons. Some might consider that a step down. But the Crimson did make their first tourney last year. However, the future is certainly cloudy after a cheating scandal took away Amaker’s two best players. Where does he go from here? I can’t imagine another big program giving him a chance.

11. Stan Heath (48, +0.404) – Heath is one of the older coaches on the Promising Coach Quadrant. He’s also had more tourney experience than most, having gone to the dance four times. A Sweet 16 run with 10 seed Kent State led to a bigger job at Arkansas, where he made the dance twice in five seasons, losing in the opening round both times. Mediocre results prompted his firing and a step down to South Florida, where he’s toiled for five seasons. He finally got back to the dance last year and pulled off a 5v12 upset. But there’s probably too much water under the bridge at this point to attract the attention of a bigger school.

12. Donnie Tyndall (42, +0.371) – Tyndall has already cashed in on his Morehead State Eagles 4v13 upset of Louisville in the 2011 tourney. He’s now the coach at Southern Miss. He’ll have to prove himself there before taking another step. Here’s a thought: since he jumped from the Eagles to the Golden Eagles (that’s Southern Miss’s nickname), maybe Tyndall’s next move should be to Marquette.

13. Billy Kennedy (48, +0.343) – It’s probably stretching it to call Kennedy a promising coach. After all, he’s likely gone as high up in the coaching ranks as he’s going to get. He just parlayed a 4v13 upset win in 2010 with Murray State into his new job at Texas A&M. I see him staying with there for three to five years—and not getting a better job unless he takes the Aggies on a  stunning tourney run. Even then, he’ll be over 50.

14. Chris Mack (43, +0.336) – He’s young, he’s coming off a nice Sweet 16 run as a ten seed, and he’s been at Xavier three seasons. Chris Mack seems ripe to make a jump somewhere. He had been talked about in the last couple years for the North Carolina State and Tennessee jobs. But he’s yet to be snatched up. If Xavier makes another strong showing in the tourney, look for the Mack buzz to get louder.

15. Chris Mooney (40, +0.326) – In his eighth season at the helm of the Richmond Spiders, Mooney would seem to be a solid candidate for a coaching promotion. He’s only 40 years old and he’s coming off a 2012 tourney that saw the 12 seed Spiders reach the Elite Eight. Mooney has a contract with Richmond through 2021, but you know how those contracts work. If a big program comes calling, he could be gone.

16. Fred Hoiberg (40, +0.304) – One win as an eight seed in his first dance, and Hoiberg is suddenly a hot coaching commodity. He has strong ties to Iowa State and a new eight-year contract. But if he gets to the tourney again and doesn’t flame out, we’ll be hearing his name thrown around for job openings at the next level of Power conference schools.

17. Frank Martin (46, +0.295) – The age and PASE numbers say that Martin belongs on this list of promising coaches. The odd downward move from Kansas State to South Carolina says otherwise. By the time that Martin makes something happen with the Gamecocks, he’ll probably be over 50…and how many elite programs will bite on a hyper-intense coach with limited years left to establish consistent success?

18. Larry Krystowiak (48, +0.241) – The Other Coach K scored his only win in the tourney way back in 2006 with Montana. Last year, in his first season at Utah, the Utes were a dismal 6-25. At 48, Krystowiak needs a quick turnaround and an overachieving dance to get in the conversation for a better coaching position.

19. Buzz Williams (40, +0.065) – Williams hasn’t exactly taken the tourney by storm. In his four trips, he has one surprise run to the Sweet 16 as an 11 seed, a disappointing second-round loss as a three and two ho-hum six seed performances. But the Buzzman is young and he’s already coaching a big-name program. Could he take the next step to a marquee school? His name was bandied about for the SMU job, but I don’t think he’ll move unless something much better comes along. And that won’t happen without another strong tourney.

20. Mick Cronin (41, -0.004) – To round out a top 20 list, I had to include one coach whose PASE is actually negative. Don’t think for a minute though that Cronin’s record of slight underachievement will get him passed over for big-name openings. He was rumored to be a candidate for both the North Carolina State and Illinois jobs—and he’s coming off his most impressive tourney performance, reaching the Sweet 16 as a six seed.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Cronin was a candidate for more Big Six conference coaching jobs.

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