How Do You Judge A Coach?
So often fans and many media members play the game of trying to analyze how good a college basketball coach is merely by his won/loss record or his success in the NCAA tournament. With so many stats and wins and losses being thrown around to make points about any number of coaches being good coaches, we thought it might be an appropriate time to give our take on the subject of judging college coaches. How do you compare one coach to another? In our opinion, much of the discussion we see on the Internet, and in the mainstream media, is done without any real insight or understanding of the subject at hand. It seems to us that many don't seem to understand that college sports is not a level playing field. You'd think that would be fairly obvious - duh, Holy Cross doesn't have the same advantages as North Carolina - but it rarely seems to enter into the equation when the topic of coaches is being discussed. Instead of examining the numerous subtleties in every coaching situation, we often get the most perfunctory analysis. We get stats, records, tournament appearances, etc. Raw data without any context. Here's an example of how numbers and records can be misleading. We'll not reveal the names of two coaches and compare them. Coach A has won 67% of his games, he's been to the tournament every year in the six years he's been on the job and he's advanced beyond the second round in five of those years. Coach B is now in his eleventh year, he's only won 60% of his games and he's only been to the tournament three times. If you're a statmeister, or a bad sports journalist, you would determine that Coach A is the superior coach. In this example, Coach A is UCLA's Steve Lavin and Coach B is Santa Clara's Dick Davey. Despite their records, we believe that if you asked 100 West Coast college coaches which coach they would rather play against, given both coaches had equal talent, you might have a unanimous consensus that they'd rather play against Lavin than Davey. If not unanimous, it would probably be conservatively a pretty strong majority. But Lavin's record is better than Dick Davey's, a statmeister might argue. Davey, though, accumulated his record at a WCC school and Lavin at arguably a top ten national program. Davey has done considerably more with what he has to work with. Davey, though, is almost unanimously considered a very good basketball coach by his peers. So, clearly, you have to look beyond the numbers in evaluating the job performance of coaches and the quality of their coaching. It's all about what is possible, given the unique situation of each particular job. What was the state of the program when the coach took over? Is there a basketball tradition at the school? Is there a talent base from which to recruit? What is the perception of the program, both locally and nationally? Are there academic restrictions? And does he have restrictions while other schools in the league can take anyone they want? What kind of media exposure is there? How is the weather? What about the campus? How are the facilities? Can he take juco players? Does he play in a league full of cheaters? The answers to these questions, and a hundred others, tell you what is possible at a given program. Without knowing the answers to these questions, you truly can't get a good feel for whether or not an individual coach is doing a good job. Ask your average college basketball writer which coaches are doing a good job this year in the west and you'll hear the common names of Olson, Braun, Majerus, and Montgomery. But there are names many might not recognize because they aren't diligent enough to do the work to analyze the context of a coaching job. For instance, take the job being done by first-year Boise State head coach Greg Graham. Graham only has an 8-6 record and his team likely won't be playing in the post season, so he wouldn't get any cursory recognition from the superficial media. But talk to coaches about what Graham had to work with when he took over and they'll tell you that he's done an outstanding job. The Broncos were picked to finish last in the conference in a preseason poll of WAC coaches. Over the last decade, who has been the best coach in the country? Mike Krzyzewski? Lute Olson? Roy Williams? Obviously, all great coaches. And obvious picks. One name that doesn't get mentioned nearly as often as those guys, though, is Stanford's Mike Montgomery. In our opinion, when you examine all the relevant issues, you can make a good case that Mike Montgomery has done as well as all of them. If your analysis starts with the right question - what is a reasonable expectation at this program given its unique situation? - then it's not difficult to come to the conclusion that Mike Montgomery has done as good a job as anyone. The Stanford program was not in good shape when Montgomery took over. There was virtually no basketball tradition. When Montgomery guided Stanford to an NCAA tournament berth in 1989, that was their first appearance since 1942. Think about that. But a far bigger obstacle than the lack of tradition was, of course, the academic restrictions. Of course, we'll concede that Stanford's academic reputation is its biggest selling point. But that academic standard is just as much a hindrance on the program. Virtually every major program in the country recruits from a talent pool of D-1 quality prospects that numbers in the hundreds every year. At Stanford, because of its academic restrictions, it's more like a few dozen. That is a huge disadvantage. In our opinion, it's simply amazing that Montgomery has made the tournament eight consecutive seasons, with a Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four appearance along the way. We certainly don't have all - or maybe, any - of the answers when it comes to evaluating coaches. But we do think the process of judging coaches needs to go beyond "he lost twenty, he's terrible - he won twenty, he's great." So the next time some bald, one-eyed guy on ESPN is screaming at you about coach so-and-so, we suggest you might want to ignore his gibberish and take a deeper look.
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