Tide Must Think Top Caliber In Search
Skeptical supporters with historical perspective reigning in their faint hopes of optimism may ask, can Alabama ascend to such heights or are thoughts of deep annual March Madness journeys delusions of grandeur. Nineteen selections leading to a single Elite Eight run in the 2004 NCAA tournament, 8 Sweet Sixteen appearances and a brief soiree as number one in the 2002 AP poll represent the Crimson Tide's collective national basketball distinction.
Alabama's program is at a critical juncture considering the lavish television contracts guaranteeing expanded coverage of all conference games. Attendance next season at Coleman Coliseum likely to mirror the team's performance will be scrutinized by a national audience as well as potential recruits. Coaching candidates considering the competitive landscape must be aware the Southeastern Conference's Western Division is ripe for a dominant team to emerge. Observation of two universities faced with pivotal choices forever changing the perception of their programs revealed polarized results.
The University of Arizona located in the desert southwest town of Tucson had minimal success as a basketball program when then athletic director Cedric Dempsey selected Iowa's Lute Olson in the spring of 1983 to rejuvenate a team coming off of Ben Lindsey's one year disastrous coaching tenure of 4-24. The two universities share more than an interlocking UA logo as Alabama and Arizona won their first NCAA tournament game coincidentally in 1976 when the Crimson Tide defeated first round Mideast regional opponent North Carolina.
Speaking of the Tar Heels, which team is threatening their record 27 (1975-2001) consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with 25? If you said the Wildcats, you're correct as they have captured one NCAA Championship in 1997, one runner-up spot in 2001, 4 Final Fours, 7 Elite Eights and 12 Sweet Sixteens in the last quarter century of tournament action. Not only did Olson, the superb architect, make Arizona a candidate for the Mount Rushmore of basketball programs through national success, he supplanted the king of the west UCLA Bruins by capturing 11 PAC-10 regular season titles. Has there been a more consequential athletic hire in the last two and a half decades?
Arizona's basketball tradition courtesy of the herculean efforts of Lute Olson rose like the phoenix from the ashes of the Wildcat program's disarray.
Contrast the executive level judgment administered in Ruston during the transition from legendary Louisiana Tech Head Women's Basketball Coach Leon Barmore to the hiring of his successor in 2000. Under the auspices of being groomed as the heir apparent, the Lady Techsters favorite daughter Kim Mulkey seemed destined for school immortality. After completing her point guard playing career where the four-year letterwinner won two national championships and Olympic gold she became an assistant and reached the status of associate head coach at her alma mater. Although impressive, the impeccable 19-year tenure as a player and staff member was not enough to earn Mulkey the reciprocal loyalty. The administration balked at her request seeking a five-year contract as their four-year counter offer proved a fatal miscalculation.
Baylor University, devoid of participation in the NCAA's big dance began courting the services of the shunned future Hall of Fame coach. Ironically in the year 2000 Mulkey was being inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame as a player, she accepted the challenge to become the Lady Bears head coach. Her first year proved historical as Baylor went from a 7-20 record and last place Big12 finish to a 21-9 sixth place finish and their initial berth in the NCAA tournament. By the fifth year, Baylor astounded the women's basketball community by winning an NCAA championship with players not recruited by any of the major powers. Perennial NCAA tournament participant Louisiana Tech has since been relegated to the WNIT the past 3 seasons. Lured out of retirement, Barmore in a role reversal joined the Baylor staff last spring as an assistant while two coaches have been at the helm for Louisiana Tech since Mulkey's departure nine years ago.
Alabama needs a championships coach bold enough to recruit talent hell bent on being challenged not coddled and unafraid of competition from quality players being signed at every position. Find a coach whose winning seasons are not solely dictated by favorable circumstances where the stars are aligned producing a plethora of in-state high-school All-Americans. Although no boundaries should prohibit his recruiting pitch to insure depth and program consistency, cordoning off state borders to dissuade potential suitors from other schools must be a priority. The next coach should be able to explain the value of team success outweighing individual showcasing tendencies prevalent on the AAU circuit. Once the talent reaches campus, development of each player should be paramount.
Just as the economy has trended towards globalization, basketball has followed suit as schools from other regions have recently cherry picked Alabama's top high school talent. Achieving an elite status means competing nationally in every phase of the program beginning with the selection of the chief executive officer of the team. National programs transcend their own conference by establishing a reputation beyond those competitive parameters. No individual should be considered unless the traits and actions displayed in their past has demonstrated they are thought of as a championship caliber coach.
Schools sprinkled across the country tattooed with the football factory only insignia have dispelled the myth by achieving national prominence with their basketball teams playing in the Final Four – Ohio State, Texas and especially SEC foes Florida and LSU. Alabama at historical intervals has been on the cusp with highly ranked regular season basketball teams but unable to breakthrough the glass ceiling of the Elite Eight. Embracing the football program and the frenzied Crimson Tide faithful should be a condition of employment for the next hoops leader as harmony renders mutual benefits.
If you doubt one coach's capacity to influence a program, contact the administrations in Tucson and Ruston for their divergent opinions. Perhaps those long distant locations are too remote, so stroll through Tuscaloosa's hallowed ground amidst the four bronze figures on the north side plaza of Bryant-Denny Stadium where the people of Alabama genuflect at the statues commemorating extraordinary leadership. They know better than most that one person can make a difference. Hopefully the wisdom of Alabama's brain trust will lead to a statue outside Coleman Coliseum celebrating the individual who made the difference for Crimson Tide basketball.
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