Jerry Palm updated the CBS Sports Bracketology Page early Thursday, at which point Illinois fans celebrated seeing their team suddenly projected to make the NCAA Tournament thanks to Wednesday’s 73-70 victory over Michigan State. And Kansas State? The Wildcats are now the “first team out” after Wednesday’s 75-74 win at TCU, meaning KSU also has a realistic chance to make it. So it was a good night for the Illinois coach and the former Illinois coach. And who’s going to have a more interesting and pressure-packed next 10 days than John Groce and Bruce Weber?
That’s because Groce and Weber aren’t only bubble-team coaches. They’re also hot-seat coaches — i.e., men who are both in their fifth years at their schools and reportedly coaching for their jobs. They have passionate fan bases who have, at one time or another, and definitely recently, called for a change. But those same fans woke up Thursday with those thoughts on hold. For now, most seem happy to dream about what one more big win and no more bad losses might mean.
Which is stupid, of course.
I hope you realize the stupidity in play.
The idea that coaches who have been employed by universities for five years could have their futures decided by what happens over the next 10 days — especially when luck will likely play a big role in what happens over the next 10 days —is as dumb as it is common. And I’ve been wanting to write this column for a while.
My questions: Why do fans, not to mention athletic directors, often connect keep-him/fire-him bars to the NCAA Tournament? Does that seem reasonable or smart?
I don’t think so.
Because here’s the truth: After five years, if you believe your coach is the right person for the job, you should keep him. If not, you shouldn’t. And that decision should have nothing to do with whether he guides a team within a game or two of the right or wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, which is what Groce and Weber will spend the next 10 days doing, one way or another.
Both could make the NCAA Tournament.
Both could miss it.
It’s up in the air — not unlike Wednesday’s games that sparked all of this. If Tum Tum Nairn makes a 3-pointer at the end of regulation, perhaps Michigan State beats Illinois in OT. If TCU makes 27 field goals instead of 26, the Horned Frogs beat Kansas State. And then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Which kind of proves my point.
Is it really sensible for a man’s career at a specific school to be extended or ended by such situations that could’ve easily gone either way? Think about it logically. Should Nairn making or missing a 23-footer have anything to do with determining whether Groce is the right or wrong man for Illinois? Should KSU winning or losing a one-point game really be the difference between Weber getting or not getting a sixth year? Should multimillion-dollar decisions hinge on these types of things?
I don’t think so.
What I think is that all athletic directors should take luck -- the bad variety of which Groce specifically has had so often over the years -- out of the equation and judge coaches in more intelligent ways. Because bad coaches make the NCAA Tournament every year while good coaches miss it, and those realities are often determined by things coaches barely control. To end a man’s career with a multimillion-dollar buyout, or extend it with a multimillion-dollar contract, based on little more than the outcomes of a few games in the final weeks of a regular season seems ridiculous.
That’s what I think, at least.
And, just so we’re clear, I don’t mean this solely as it relates to Groce and Weber, both of whom I like and consider quality men and coaches. I’m not writing about them as much as I’m writing about an industry in which coaches are hired and fired annually based on the results of a handful of games determined by hot shooters, foul trouble, injuries, bad calls or some combination of all four and countless other things.
That’s never made any sense to me.
So I beg you, athletic directors and fans, think bigger. It’s always better to evaluate coaches with a wider lens. Because when you directly and strongly tie a pass-or-fail line to good or bad news on Selection Sunday, there’s a decent chance you’ll make the wrong decision whether your bubble pops or not.