Candid Coaches: The best coaching hire of the 2015 offseason

CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander and Sam Vecenie spent the July evaluation period at NCAA-sanctioned events, where they talked with college basketball coaches from all levels. They asked for opinions on players, coaches and issues in the sport. They'll be sharing those opinions over a three-week period in our Candid Coaches series.

Previous poll questions:

 Which eligible NCAA player would you take over all others?  


Like Monday's question, our survey today is another one of our annual inquiries. Because the sport inhabits and inherits turnover every spring, it's always revealing to discover which hires are considered the best by coaches' peers. And in most years, at least two or three jobs that are considered top 25-good open up. That happened yet again in 2015. But it's not always the big school openings that win the poll.

When we asked this question a year ago, Buzz Williams to Virginia Tech and Bruce Pearl to Auburn were the top vote-getters. The power of personality -- in some cases. Cuonzo Martin, who has a preseason top 15-quality team in Cal for 2015-16, received 6 percent of the vote a year ago. So with that in mind, let's look forward to a new batch of coaches at their new campuses.

We asked ...

Which coaching hire was the best in college basketball this offseason?

  • Shaka Smart to Texas: 41 percent
  • Ben Howland to Mississippi State: 24 percent
  • Rick Barnes to Tennessee: 12 percent

Other hiring decisions receiving multiple votes: Steve Prohm to Iowa State; Steve Forbes to East Tennessee State; Bobby Hurley to Arizona State; Steve Donahue to Penn; Mike White to Florida; Chris Mullin to St. John's.


On Shaka Smart to Texas: "He's got such a terrific culture that he'll bring with him from VCU, just in terms of his ability to relate to his players. Now that he's got the frame and context of Big State U behind him, he'll be hard to stop. It'll be hard to win a recruiting battle with Texas, especially with a Texas kid."

On Ben Howland to Mississippi State: "I think for what he's done at UCLA -- and I know it's UCLA, but when he did it, the Pac-12's resources and what they were -- he's a good coach. ... At UCLA what'd he go to, three Final Fours back-to-back to back? He didn't have a losing record, and he might've rubbed some people the wrong way out there, but he's got players, won everywhere he's gone. I think he knows what he's doing. That's been proven."

On Rick Barnes to Tennessee: "I think it's a perfect marriage because both needed it. Rick needed a new place, where he wasn't being compared to the (Kevin) Durant and T.J. Ford teams; and Tennessee needs a guy to come in and do things above board. This is very much about image, and Tennessee needed a guy to enhance its image. They both needed it so badly."

On Mike White to Florida: "I loved the hire. Always root for guys who are winning at a ridiculous rate at a 'lower' level and get a shot. I appreciate what guys like that do. I always enjoyed watching his teams play."

On Chris Mullin to St. John's: "I might have put this hire low at first but now I may put it on top. Two reasons. First, they are putting player development above everything else and that is what elite recruits want to hear. The comments New York coaches have made about their presentations and plans for getting guys ready for the next level sound a lot like Kentucky. This message works in recruiting. Plus, Chris has the NBA credibility. Second, they are working as hard as anyone at being in the right places and showing their top guys a lot of love. If they can get some momentum in wins and/or elite commitments it can go from there. The first steps may be hardest."


The tricky thing with this question is: How many coaches that we poll have strong ties to either the guys who've been hired or, if not that, have strong relationships with current or former assistants for those coaches. It can adulterate the process, but just know we cast our net far and wide, and the coaches we interviewed were encouraged to be as objective as possible. We are confident that's been achieved here.

Before we began polling, my guess was Smart would win and by a comfortable margin. Fact is, Texas is too big of a job and Smart was still too enticing of a candidate for it to be anyone but him. He has the verve and drive to make Texas what it is on a year-to-year basis: one of the five best jobs in America. A few fellow coaches mentioned the hire to be a little "overrated," so to speak, but no one I spoke to believes Smart will outright fail from an objective perspective in his time -- however long it ends up being -- at UT.

As for our second-place outcome, I wasn't sure on Howland pre-polling, but to see him surge was interesting. There are some guys who are totally on board. Others have cynicism about it, wondering -- as Parrish wrote when Howland took the job -- how much power and influence Adidas had in the pick, and what dividends that will pay for Howland down the road. He's already landed a five-star 2015 shooting guard in Malik Newman, who grew up in-state.

We won't really know for at least four years (a full cycle of recruiting) which hire was really the best. What defines that, anyway? Outside of winning, it's how often you bring in recruits at or beyond expectation; how you engage with the fan base; how you engage with the boosters; how your school is seen overall from a public standpoint with you as the face of the program. Smart is the simple and obvious pick, but there are a lot of compelling hires this offseason. And from a small-school standpoint, take a look at this list. I'm willing to say there are at least four names on that list who will wind up with bigger and better jobs in the next half-decade, if not sooner.

Shaka Smart's competitors voted him the best hire among all others this offseason in college hoops. (Texas Athletics)

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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