HOUSTON -- Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart are young head coaches.
You've heard, right?
Butler hired Stevens when he was 30; now he's 34. VCU hired Smart when he was 31; now he's 33. Together, they're the young guys of this Final Four while Kentucky's John Calipari (52) and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun (68) are the old guys -- or at least the older guy and even-older-than-that guy. But what's interesting is that Calipari and Calhoun began their head coaching careers at a younger age than even Stevens and Smart, and that's not something I'm sure the average person realizes.
Calhoun was 29 when he got his first head job.
Calipari was 29, too.
|Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, 68, was 29 years old when he got his coaching start at Northeastern. (AP)|
Take the Cal State-Bakersfield search, for instance.
The school this week hired Rod Barnes -- a 45-year-old veteran who has been fired from Ole Miss and Georgia State in the past five years. He's a gentleman, sure. But -- and I ask this in the nicest way possible -- how many Division I jobs does Barnes have to not be good at before he stops getting new ones?
"I previously stated that we were going to be a major player in Division I," Cal-State Bakersfield athletic director Jeff Konya said upon announcing the hiring of Barnes. "Today we took a giant step in that direction by hiring a former Naismith Coach of the Year that has over 180 Division I wins under his belt."
Took a giant step in that direction?
With all due respect, Jeff, no you didn't. What you did is hire a man whose last eight years as a head coach have produced zero winning seasons. Yes, Barnes is a former National Coach of the Year, but that was 10 years ago and more situational than anything else. (Larry Coker was college football's National Coach of the Year that same year, by the way.) Yes, Barnes has "over 180 Division I wins under his belt," but he has more than 180 Division I losses under his belt, too. His career record is 185-187.
Are the Ole Miss and Georgia State jobs hard jobs?
But they're not that hard. Or at least they shouldn't be. And, regardless, neither job is as hard as the Cal State-Bakersfield job, which is why I can't think of a single reason why a Southern man who couldn't win in Mississippi or Georgia is going to suddenly start winning in California. Still, I understand exactly why Cal State-Bakersfield's athletic director hired Barnes; it's all in that silly quote. If this doesn't end well, Konya can always argue that he hired a former National Coach of the Year with more than 180 wins. You know, somebody with a rérsumé. The alternative would've been to gamble on a young coach, and athletic directors aren't usually into gambling as much as they're into making a move that's perceived safe.
"They try to cover their butts," Calhoun told me Thursday. "If you have verification that a guy has just gone to the NCAA tournament two or three times, then you in turn have just made a good hire for your university. But if you take a chance -- it's hard to take a chance. It takes an AD to have some strength and some strength about himself. Internal strength. At many universities, the [hire] you make may determine your career. So you need to have some safeguards or built-in evidence that this guy is going to be successful. That's why it's difficult [to hire a young coach.]"
This Final Four should prove that it can also be wise.
Northeastern gambled in 1971 when it hired a 29-year-old Calhoun, and it worked. UMass gambled in 1988 when it hired a 29-year-old Calipari, and it worked, too. Nearly two decades later, Butler gambled on Stevens, then VCU gambled on Smart. Now all four men are here at Reliant Stadium in need of just two more wins to claim the 2011 national championship, and it reminds me of the quote Butler athletic director Barry Collier provided four years ago about his decision to hand his storied program over to a 30-year-old Stevens.
"Age wasn't a factor," Collier said. "I'd seen his ability shine through."
None of this is to suggest every AD should hire a 30 year-old man.
Clearly, it doesn't always work.
My only point is that a good athletic director should be able to examine candidates, find the right guy for his job and pull the trigger. In some cases, the right guy might be a 50-year-old veteran. But I've long believed great coaches are often identifiable at a young age, always admired athletic directors with the you-know-whats to take a chance on one. With any luck, this group of coaches at this Final Four -- who were all 31-or-younger when they got their first head coaching job -- will help push more athletic directors to do the same, to take a chance, to worry less about what somebody's done and more about what somebody's built to do.
"I hope so, too," Smart said. "I love young coaches and I think there are a lot of terrific guys out there in their late 20s and early 30s who could do just as good a job as I could."