armchairquarterblog

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on November 9, 2013 at 4:30 am

The Richmond Spiders bowed out of the NCAAs after cracking the NCAA Sweet Sixteen but the campus is still celebrating.

Coach Chris Mooney surprised the college basketball world by signing a contract extension at Richmond through 2020. With ACC coaching vacancies at Georgia Tech and N.C. State, somehow Mooney and his Princeton-style offense remained in the Atlantic 10

Now if Shaka Smart can stay at VCU – busy this week with an affair called the Final Four – it’ll be a coup for the Commonwealth’s Capital.

In the past five years, Mooney and George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga chose to stay at their Mid-Major venues instead of stepping onto the “coaching Broadway.” Coach L said “No” to his alma mater – Providence – after leading the Patriots to the 2006 Final Four. Maybe life in Mid-Major Land isn’t so “middle of the road.” Let’s see, you have job security, you’re assured of 20 wins a season, courts are named after you and your team is likely to reach the NCAAs year after year.

In Larranaga’s case, maybe it was the blustery Rhode Island winters that kept him in sunny Fairfax. Jim and his wife can grill out in early March, whereas in New England, you don’t retrieve the patio furniture from the garage until June. Plus, it’s easier to outrecruit ODU, VCU and James Madison that it is Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse and St. John’s.

When Winthrop’s Gregg Marshall shunned the Friars for Wichita State, it branded the Mid-Major level anything but “mid.” He averaged 22 wins a year for Winthrop and continued the pace, winning an average of 20 a year in Wichita. I don’t think he’d have the same winning percentage at PC, NC State or Georgia Tech.

Mid-Majors have the coaching but not the publicity. The Bracketbuster – featuring clashes between the Mid-Major giants, lasts one weekend in February. League commissioners should stage a 3-4 day event (like the ACC-Big East Challenge), where every game is televised – nationally. Games involving Butler, UAB, Rhode Island, Cleveland State, Tulsa, Creighton, Murray State, Bucknell, College of Charleston, Northern Iowa, Bradley, Xavier, Dayton, Southern Illinois, Wichita State, Mason, VCU, Old Dominion and Siena would be seen by athletic directors who huddle on the NCAA selection committee – great exposure while programs tweak their postseason-hopeful portfolios.

The Colonial had TWO different teams in the Final Four in the last five years — proof a Mid-Major can compete with any league in the nation. Only problem is the nation isn’t aware of it until they’re shocked by what Mason and VCU accomplished.

And consider Wichita State (under Mark Turgeon), Southern Illinois (under Bruce Weber), Southwest Missouri State (under Steve Alford) and Northern Iowa (under Ben Jacobson) each have reached the Sweet Sixteen in very recent years.

In their Final Four runs, Mason and VCU knocked off SIX former national champions: North Carolina, Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova, Georgetown and Kansas.

VCU’s athletic director should be huddling with Richmond’s athletic director right now on “how to keep your coach.” The alternative is calling Florida Coach Billy Donovan, who provided the Rams their last two coaches – Anthony Grant and Smart.

Though big money can be guaranteed at the big time, success isn’t. Consider these coaches who left their Mid-Major posts only to fail on the bigger stage.

Siena lost Mike Deane to Marquette and Paul Hewitt to Georgia Tech. Both are now jobless.

VCU lost Jeff Capel to Oklahoma but was fired after failing to elevate the Sooners to the glory days under Billy Tubbs (Elite Eight) and Kelvin Sampson (Final Four and Elite Eight).

Western Kentucky lost Dennis Felton to Georgia. Once in Athens, Felton was 84-91 with only one NCAA appearance in six years.

Butler advanced to a pair of Sweet Sixteens under Todd Lickliter before he left for Iowa. In Iowa City, Lickliter was 38-57 and a putrid 15-38 in Big Ten games.

Xavier lost Pete Gillen to Providence and later, Virginia but he failed to achieve the same success in the Big East or ACC. Like others, he is now out of coaching.

Richmond lost Jerry Wainwright to DePaul, which was his last stop in coaching.

George Washington made the Sweet Sixteen under Coach Mike Jarvis, who left for St. John’s. With the Johnnies, he advanced to an Elite Eight and won an NIT before being fired after six games in 2003-04 when the NCAA learned he paid a players for four years. Jarvis is now at Florida Atlantic, where he lost 42 games in his first two years before he took the team to the NIT this year.

Kent State’s Stan Heath was lights out with the Golden Flashes, winning 30 games and landing a berth in the 2002 NCAA Elite Eight. When he left for Arkansas, it took him three years just to muster a winning record. He since has moved to South Florida, where he’s 41-54 after four seasons. Looking back, Heath’s Mid-American Conference schedule included Toledo, Northern Illinois, Miami of Ohio and Ball State. Now, the menu features Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Marquette and Louisville – all of whom have national championship trophies. And his league’s “weaker“ teams – West Virginia, Notre Dame, Providence and St. John’s – have all advanced to Final Fours in their histories.

Remember Duke’s Tommy Amaker? He had success at Seton Hall before taking the Michigan job. When he failed there, he ended up in the Ivy League at Harvard. So much for the big-time.

Conversely, consider coaching “giants” who never left their Mid-Minor venues. Pete Carril coached at Princeton 29 years. Jim Phelan spent his entire 49-year career at Mount St. Mary’s. Don Haskins coached little ol’ Texas Western to a national title during his 38-year stay in El Paso.

Maybe these coaches savored success more than most – even if the masses never heard of their schools.

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