J.R. and Henry's Sports Column: How to seek the right coach | Rock Candy

Saturday, April 15, 2006

J.R. and Henry's Sports Column: How to seek the right coach

Posted on Sat, Apr 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM

J.R. and Henry: N.C. State Coaching Search a Lesson for the Razorbacks

When University of Memphis head basketball coach John Calipari turned down $2 million a year earlier to become the head coach at North Carolina State, few were surprised.  Calipari has never been on our short list of favorite coaches, long before he cancelled the entertaining Arkansas-Memphis series saying that he favored playing “national” programs like Villanova and Purdue, instead of “regional” teams like Arkansas and Tennessee (UT pulled the football card and Calipari was forced to keep playing the Vols). 

Come on, John. You quit playing Arkansas to lessen the Razorbacks’ recruiting presence in talent rich Memphis. That’s fine. Just don’t take us for idiots.

Calipari turned down more money and a chance to coach in the ACC because he didn’t want to play third fiddle to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams. His ego wouldn’t allow it. Better to be the man in Conference USA than to take a chance at doing something truly special at N.C. State, a lesson Calipari learned after leaving UMass for the NBA. 

Enough about Calipari, that’s not the lesson here. For Arkansas, the lesson from N.C. State comes from examining the way the athletic director Lee Fowler conducted the coaching search.

There aren’t too many ways to hire a new coach. Promote an assistant, hire an up-and-comer, or open the wallet and go after a proven winner who has succeeded at another school in a major conference. By choosing the third option, N.C. State showed that the school is tired of battling Charlotte for third in the state. The Wolfpack want to play for championships. In the words of one of our old professors, “kudos to you, Mr. Fowler!” 

Ever since Frank Broyles has been in charge of hiring at Arkansas, he has routinely sought out young coaches at small schools to lead his money programs, finding more success in basketball than football. Obviously, Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson could coach, although the latter was still fired, deservedly (even though the blame for the poor relationship between Broyles and Richardson that clearly affected the program should be shared by both men). The verdict on Stan Heath is out, and hope springs eternal especially considering the team’s steady improvement.

Broyles’ football hires speak for themselves. Whether deservedly or not, all save Houston Nutt were forced out, and all came to the school relatively cheap. Ken Hatfield and Nutt from smaller programs, Danny Ford and Lou Holtz were unemployed (though Holtz would eventually, after his instant success, rise to rank in the top five of all college coaches in pay), and Jack Crowe was promoted from within. Meanwhile, had Arkansas been willing to open the Razorback Foundation’s vault in 1983 (after Holtz) and 1997 (after Ford), Jimmy Johnson and Tommy Tuberville could have been hired from other major conference schools. They’ve both done pretty well. But neither of these men would have come cheap.

In fact, the last time Broyles spent money to hire a coach away from a major conference school was when he brought baseball coach Dave Van Horn from Nebraska. Van Horn, only in his fourth year, has already led Arkansas to the College World Series, the baseball equivalent of a BCS bowl or the Elite 8 in the NCAA tournament. Stunning coincidence?

But while Arkansas has never won an SEC championship in football, the Razorback Foundation continues to prosper. New construction of sports facilities on campus is more common than a keg stand. Broyles and company may wonder why they should pay top dollar for big time coaches when donations continue to roll in.

We’re reminded of the Kansas City Royals plight under owner David Glass, of Wal-Mart fame, who bought the team in 2000. Many forget that in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, the Royals were a consistent winner, including a World Series title in 1985. After another losing season, Glass angered Royals’ fans by noting publicly that the team turned a profit for the year. Glass can be forgiven easier because the Royals are a professional organization and at least a business. But this is the University of Arkansas, and the end goal of Razorback athletics is not to make money. Razorback fans are not shareholders. They don’t get a dividend check every quarter. The payoff for their contribution is the pride that comes from championships, and for the last 10 years Razorback stock hasn’t exactly been blue chip.

Coaching is not an exact science. Success at one school, no matter the level, does not guarantee success at another. But schools willing to pay for proven head coaches from major conferences stand a better chance at succeeding than schools who take flyers on cheaper alternatives. Take a look at the SEC West and ask yourself which two schools have been the best over the last few years in football (LSU and Auburn are the answers, in case you didn't know). Now ask where they got their coaches.

Money talks. Arkansas has it. People who argue that a proven coach from a big conference won’t come to Arkansas underestimate the university’s programs, its facilities and the power of the dollar. The question is not can it be done. Rather, the question is, when the opportunity arises will Arkansas sit by and watch accomplished coach after coach end up walking the sidelines of a competitor? 

The last time we checked, Frank Broyles was a proven winner in the world of college football. So why won’t he pay for a proven winner to coach at Arkansas?

J.R. and Henry are a couple of sports fanactics frustrated with the same ol' song-and-dance sports columns in the statewide daily, and they blog their thoughts here on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

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