All college basketball fans have heard of the superstars of coaching, the Hall of Famers like Johnny Wooden, Hank Iba, Dean Smith and Bobby Knight plus more recent ones like Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, and Rick Pitino. These men distinguished themselves through career victories and notoriety.
Most of these coaches would have been winners in the high school ranks and the lower levels of college play, but they had the opportunity to perform at the highest level and excelled. However, there are tremendous coaches who toil today at places few have heard about. They could be successes at the major college level, but no one has given them a chance.
Illinois Assistant To The Head Coach Gary Nottingham has been a head coach twice before, but he moved to Champaign to enhance his resume. He believes he can be successful at the Division I level if given the chance. But the nature of the profession is to hire the one who is "hot" at the moment regardless of his true ability.
"Sometimes, greatness is in exposure and opportunity," Nottingham relates. "There's great high school coaches. I always like that notion of saying someone is the best coach ever. I don't know how you define that.
"Someone can say they got championships. True, but an old coach of mind said, 'Don't tell me about the jockey that wins the race with the fastest horse, tell me about the jockey that brings the third fastest horse home in first place. That's the guy I want riding my horse.'
"For a lot of coaches, it's a 3-4 year hot period, but really they haven't been that many places and done that many things."
Nottingham was a head coach at Glenville State and at Spartanburg. He isn't looking to make a splash at a nationally prominent school. But he believes he has the credentials to help many teams win games.
"For me, it would probably have to be mid level Division 1-A. That would fit my type of makeup. I'm a little bit more opinionated than the run-of-the-mill guys. What makes you happy in any business is consistency.
"When you look at my entire body of work, you're not gonna find a lot of better candidates. I don't know if a lot of school administrations can sit down and actually say what they are looking for. It's a tough environment because of TV and the Internet.
"Everybody wants to win now, be satisfied now. You may occasionally get a one-year guy, a two-year guy. But most programs are built over time. And everybody kind of forgets that. There's a lot of people who come and go.
"It's interesting that everybody wants to win now. The athletic world is a different world. They don't care about all the human aspects of the profession, they just want to win now and they don't care how. You can read about how all sorts of programs that wanted to win now were destroyed."
Nottingham has learned from one of the best in Illinois coach Bruce Weber. But he has had outstanding training throughout his life.
"I grew up in a coal mining town, but I played three sports. I was recruited in all three of football, basketball and baseball, and I played two of them in college. I had great high school coaches. Great coaches from an X's and O's standpoint, great coaches from a human being standpoint, and great coaches from a disciplinary standpoint.
"I played in college for a really good college basketball coach who was the second all-time winner in the school's history. He was a very down-to-earth, fundamental, Navy military guy. So I've always played for people who were very demanding and straight shooters. I think your makeup becomes that.
"And I came out of a very work-oriented, tough community. You had miners, you worked on the railroad and the lumber yard. There was no upper middle class. I don't even know if there was a middle class. It was all lower working class. All of us lived day to day.
"I came from a very poor background. So when you did a bad job, people told you you stunk. If you did a good job, they said you did a good job and come back tomorrow. But that's not very prominent nowadays.
"If you look at the history of this sport, what made this sport was the blue-collar people. It was a way out. Sports paid for my education. There was no way I could go to college without sports. That's how so many people my age got to college. Sometimes today, we've kind of forgotten our roots."
Of course, Nottingham also realizes that coaches can only do so much. You have to have coachable talent to do your best work.
"I've always been considered an X's and O's kind of guy. X's and O's are important, but a guy once said, 'The genius is in the tennis shoes.' The genius of doing what I tell you to do, doing it as a team, doing it together. You can recruit great players, but perhaps they are not coachable. That is the choice you make."
Unfortunately, many colleges hire based on a coach's charisma and recruiting ability rather than his coaching. Eventually, some of those coaches flame out as they cannot make prima donnas play a team game. Administrators need to fill seats in their gyms, and public perception often dictates decision-making rather than a fair analysis of who might do the best job over the long haul.
It becomes a vicious cycle for many coaches. They can't prove themselves at the highest level if they are not hired at one of those schools. But they can't get a prime time job without previous success at that level. They have to get lucky or develop relationships with administrators who want to hire their friends.
Coaches can work their tails off, know all the intricacies of the game and can impart their wisdom efficiently to young athletes. But winning and losing often comes down to intangible factors over which coaches have little or no control.
For instance, media and fans often report the winning team 'wanted it more.' It may seem that way watching the game, but Nottingham doesn't buy it.
"I don't think there's a kid with an ounce of character who doesn't go into a game wanting to win. Fans don't understand this, but other teams want to win too. Let's say you blow a big lead. Fans ask, 'Why did you blow a 14-15 point lead?' So, when you get a lead, the other team's supposed to quit? If we quit, you'd rip us.
"It's the game. Every game is different. I'm a firm believer that momentum changes and builds within a game. I do not believe that momentum carries over from one game to the next. Momentum starts with the next jump ball. Confidence builds from game to game, and more success gives you more confidence. And the more confidence you have, the more shots you make, the more rebounds you get.
"That's what makes the game so competitive. It's also what makes it so tough. It's what makes winning and losing such a fine line."
Watch teams at the lower levels of college ball and study how well their coaches get results from their players. Chances are, you will see sophisticated offenses, clamp-down defenses, consistent intensity and focus from the players, and coaches who can make effective in-game adjustments.
Some are less talented than others, as is true at all other levels. But for the successful ones ask yourself, "Why isn't this coach toiling for a bigger school?" Maybe it is his looks or mannerisms, but it is certainly not his coaching. Is he any less capable than Weber or any other major college coach?
Nottingham hopes some intelligent, aware athletic director will be looking for a coach with credentials, ability and a willingness to build a program from scratch. If so, he will be among the leading candidates for the job.