Monday, May 25, 2020

What to make of Rick Pitino to Iona?

After a couple years in Greece, Rick Pitino is coming back to coach college basketball next year at Iona College, a member of the MAAC. This is a pretty unusual situation, obviously. Pitino is already a Hall of Fame coach, with six* Final Fours and two* NCAA championships. And when he left Louisville prior to the 2018 season, he was still putting together great teams—it wasn't like the game had passed him by and he was put out to pasture. So it's intriguing to think about what such an established coaching legend might be able to accomplish in a one-bid league.

I asked the hive-mind on Twitter for some historical analogues, and here's what we came up with, listed in approximate order of similarity (in my opinion):

Larry Brown to SMU

This is probably the closest analogue in terms of coaching ability and situation. Brown made a Final Four at UCLA and won a title at Kansas before heading off for a successful couple of decades in the NBA (where he won a title with the Pistons).

SMU was a decidedly moribund program when Brown arrived, having missed the tournament for about 20 years in a row. They struggled through one more year of mediocrity under Brown before his methods, such as they were, resulted in Madness. Brown ended up lasting only four seasons, and he left under a cloud of impropriety, but he had tournament-quality squads his last three years.

Could Pitino build a (clean) Brown-at-SMU type program? I think that's optimistic. SMU was in a multi-bid league by Brown's second year, and had considerably more resources than Iona. But I think something just a step below that is achievable. The main lesson is that even in this relatively best case scenario (basketball-wise), there was a transition year before the superior coaching (etc.) turned into more wins.

Jerry Tarkanian to Fresno State

Tarkanian built an indisputable mid-major powerhouse at UNLV, where he went to three Final Fours and won a title. Like Larry Brown, he is legendary for his run-ins with the NCAA, which led to his departure from UNLV just a year after winning that title. After a brief stint in the NBA and a few years in the wilderness (litigating against the NCAA), he returned to coach his alma mater, Fresno State.

He was immediately successful, going 22-11 in his first year—the most wins for Fresno in over ten years. He continued to win 20+ games every year and built the program into an at-large quality team, eventually earning back-to-back 9-seeds in 2000 and 2001. The 2000 team lost, of course, to the Final Four bound Wisconsin Badgers. Unfortunately, these later teams were subsequently the subject of NCAA sanctions.

This is certainly a favorable comparison for Pitino (other than the sanctions stuff). Tark immediately built a contender in the WAC—and this is back when New Mexico, UNLV, and Utah were in the WAC, and the conference regularly sent 3 or 4 teams to the tournament. Like Iona, it was a program with some pedigree (Tiny Grant took them to the Elite Eight in 1982) but nothing like the powerhouse that Tarkanian was coming from. Ultimately, I'd say this is an example in favor of expecting bigger things out of Iona this year.

Rollie Massimino to Cleveland State

It seems fitting to follow Tarkanian with Massimino, who replaced him at UNLV. Massimino had a legendary 19-year run at Villanova, capped by a miraculous run to the 1985 title as an 8-seed.

The UNLV interlude is problematic for our purposes. First, he left Villanova for UNLV after four straight years with at least 15 losses (though he did go to the tourney in two of those years). So his career was already on a downward arc. Second, he had an undistinguished two-year tenure at UNLV that, according to Wikipedia, ended with him being "forced out when it was revealed that he and UNLV president Robert Maxson had cut a side deal to lift Massimino's salary above the figure being reported to the state of Nevada and the state commission ruled that this had violated both state ethics laws, as well as UNLV rules." 

So when he took the job at Cleveland State a few years later, it was less of a giant stooping down than a natural step in a parabolic career arc.

He did okay at Cleveland State. They were coming off a 5-win season, and Massimino won 9 games his first year. Then 12, then 14, then 15, then 19 ... But he never took them over the hump or got to the tournament. Inconclusive at best.

Bobby Knight to Texas Tech

Knight was proposed to me somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the more I think about it the more analogous it seems.

Bobby Knight's bona fides as a coaching legend are beyond dispute and need no recounting. Sure, he was not at his apex when Indiana fired him for finally going too far with the "I'm a total psycho" stuff off the court, but he had still taken IU to fifteen fucking tournaments in a row.

The tongue-in-cheek part is really about Texas Tech, in that it was not and is not a mid-major in any real sense. But it was a team that had missed 13 out of those 15 NCAA tourney that Bobby Knight had just taken Indiana to. As far as major-conference programs go, that's bottom of the barrel. (And, by contrast, Iona has been to 6 of the last 8 NCAA tournaments under Tim Cluess, so ...)

Knight was immediately successful at Texas Tech, winning 23 games his first year and going to the NCAA tourney. The next three seasons were also successful (by Texas Tech standards of the time) culminating in a run to the Sweet 16 in his fourth year. Then things turned toward mediocrity, especially by Knight's standards.

Knight certainly turned Tech around in a hurry, showing how important the head coach is in college basketball. Although the program comparison between 2000-ish Texas Tech and current Iona is not really on point, it was certainly a big step down for Knight. So this is an encouraging example for Pitino.

Lefty Driesell to James Madison

I had to be talked into this one, because although Driesell did eventually make it to the college basketball Hall of Fame, I don't think he had that status when he left Maryland. It was really what he did afterwards, at James Madison and Georgia State, that cemented his legacy as "the greatest program builder in the history of college basketball."

This is not to imply that he was unsuccessful at Maryland, where he coached from 1969 to 1986 and went to three Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights. But he never got to the Final Four (much less won a title), which certainly puts him on a different level from Rick Pitino and the coaches already mentioned.

That said, his coaching tenure at Maryland did end "unnaturally" in that he was forced out for non-basketball reasons. And he certainly had some success at James Madison and then Georgia State. At JMU went through the typical transition year and then won at least a share of the CAA regular season title for the next five seasons. After a few down years at JMU, he had immediate success at Georgia State, culminating in a heartbreaking (to me) victory over Mark Vershaw and the Badgers in the first round of the 2001 tourney.

Driesell was not as old as Pitino, and not as great a coach, but his mid-major success is an example for Pitino to follow.

Bobby Cremins to College of Charleston

Bobby Cremins is no Rick Pitino, but he had a long and distinguished run at Georgia Tech, including a trip to the Final Four in 1990. He retired in 2000, but was lured out of retirement by Charleston for the 2007 season.

Iona and Charleston are pretty good analogues in that they were both consistent contenders in their conferences before landing their late-career coaching legend. Tim Herrion, Cremins's immediate successor, averaged over 20 wins in his four seasons but never went to the tourney. But Herrion's predecessor, John Kresse, had fantastic success and dominated the TAAC/Southern in the 90s.

Cremins kept alive this record of decent mid-major success, but never really broke through or returned Charleston to the tournament.

Honorable Mentions with brief summary:

Jim Harrick to Rhode Island

Won a title at UCLA, and had instant success at Rhode Island. Dogged by scandal everywhere, though. Overall, Harrick not on Pitino's level, and Rhode Island clearly above Iona on the pecking order.

Steve Fischer to San Diego State

Steve Fischer was only 52 when he was fired by Michigan as part of the Ed Martin scandal. So even though he had tremendous success at Michigan (including an out-of-nowhere run to the 1989 NCAA title when he replaced Bill Frieder right before the tournament, and two Final Four runs with the Fab Five), his status as a coaching great was not really established until he built San Diego State into a west coast powerhouse.

Also, San Diego State is a clear step or two above above Iona on its own terms and in terms it conference affiliation.

Tubby Smith to High Point

Another coach with an NCAA title on his resumé, but by the time Tubby went to High Point, the shine on his star was long gone.

Mike Dunleavy to Tulane

Dunleavy never had any success in college, but he did have a long and sort of decent career in the NBA. So you might have thought he would do well at Tulane. He did not.

Jim Calhoun to St. Joseph (D-III)

Calhoun certainly is on Pitino's level as a coaching legend. But it's hard to really compare starting up a D-III program to taking over at Iona. For what it's worth, Calhoun is off to a good start.

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