April 7, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The naysayers can be loud, but as Marshall’s search for a new men’s basketball coach continues, they should not drown out the potential.
Yes, it’s been more than a quarter-century since the Thundering Herd went to the NCAA Tournament, and 280 different schools have played in the Big Bracket in the seasons since (1987) the 13th seeded Herd fell to TCU in Charlotte, N.C.
Think you feel bad because Marshall has a Big Dance drought longer than Yous Mbao’s inseam?
How about those who follow never-been-dancing’s Northwestern, Army, William and Mary, The Citadel and St. Francis (N.Y.)? Or maybe Rice (1970), or former Herd conference brethren Bowling Green (1968), VMI (1977), Toledo and Furman (each 1980)?
What this column is about, however, is copping a better attitude.
Last Wednesday, during my weekly guest shot on “SuperTalk Sportsline” with host Paul Swann, we got a phone call from a Herd fan who said Marshall men’s basketball could never have success because it would always be a stepping-stone program. Coaches will come and go, was the opinion, so no success can be sustained.
The caller was correct in one way. Marshall is a stepping-stone program, and will be, because the Herd doesn’t play in a power conference (there are about eight of those now). So, coaches who win here always will leave for the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, maybe even an Atlantic 10 or American gig.
It’s the money – in salary, in budgets. It’s playing in arenas that seat 12,000 and up and are mostly filled. It’s being on ESPN on Big Whatever Night It Is.
However, as Athletic Director Mike Hamrick is on the search to replace Tom Herrion, the Herd should not dwell on how long that successor will stay. There’s nothing wrong with finding the right coach, that guy winning and leaving, and then adding to that success.
That’s how Marshall has to play the game. It has to follow the “right guy” with the “next right guy.” If the right guy wins, it’s a better job, and the next pool of candidates is deeper. And fans have to support the program if it wins, because that’s a piece of the puzzle, too.
It has happened elsewhere. It has happened in the Herd’s Conference USA. It has happened at a school that is joining the Herd’s conference. And it has happened at schools with FBS-level football programs below the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12.
The example I used in responding to the caller’s opinion – while agreeing with his stepping-stone premise – was Tulsa.
Let’s go back to 1980. The next Tulsa coach -- to replace Wake Forest-hired Danny Manning, the Conference USA Coach of the Year – will be the Golden Hurricane’s 10th (not counting a partial-season interim) in that span.
Only three have been fired, and one of those was Wheeling native Doug Wojcik, who was 140-92 in seven seasons with two NIT bids and a CBI championship. Wojcik is now at College of Charleston. You may have heard of some of the others since 1980 …
Nolan Richardson, J.D. Barnett, Tubby Smith, Steve Robinson, Bill Self, Buzz Peterson, Manning. Three of them are NCAA championship coaches. Barnett was fired. None of those others stayed more than five seasons (Richardson).
The point being, however, is that Tulsa has been in different conferences and has won, and has different coaches and has won … even as a stepping-stone program. The aforementioned coaches besides Barnett left the Golden Hurricane for Arkansas, Georgia, Florida State, Kansas, Tennessee, Wake Forest.
Sense a trend here?
But since 1980-81, Tulsa has only four losing seasons (in 34). It has 20 seasons of at least 20 wins and three others with 19. It has 14 NCAA bids and 13 wins in the tournament, including a regional finals (2000, Self) and two other Sweet Sixteen trips (Smith). It has seven NIT bids and two titles.
And Tulsa is a basketball mid-major with an FBS program as it leaves Conference USA, a champion that won’t defend its 2013-14 title as it heads to the AAC. In those 35 years, it has moved from the Missouri Valley to the WAC to C-USA and now the AAC. It has been the ultimate stepping-stone post with major college football … and it has sustained success in hoops.
Using mid-majors like Wichita State, VCU, Butler, Gonzaga, etc., as examples of the Herd getting where it wants to go is an apples-oranges deal. Those schools don’t have the steep FBS football line in the budget. That makes a huge difference.
One reason Tulsa has had sustained success as a stepping stone is the school’s budget for men’s hoops. According to federal government-filings for 2012-13 (Equity in Athletics Disclosure), the Golden Hurricane men’s basketball expenditures were $3.92 million – or about $1.55 million more than Marshall spent.
Tulsa’s budget for men’s basketball was the highest – by about a half-million over No. 2 UTEP – of the teams currently in C-USA. Marshall’s budget of about $2.4 million is right at the C-USA average, which will drop without the Golden Hurricane.
Another of the schools that has sustained success in hoops despite a coaching stepping stone existence is the team arriving in C-USA next season – Western Kentucky. Since the Herd last played in the NCAA Tournament, the Hilltoppers – steeped in hoops culture – have made 11 NCAA appearances under seven coaches, and won eight games in the bracket, too.
Another school with FBS football below the power conference realm that has been a consistent “Big Dancer” is New Mexico.
The thing is this: The Herd could hire favorite son Mike D’Antoni, and if he didn’t win, well, then he wouldn’t be so much of a favorite. Winning is what matters ultimately to fans, no matter whether you do it with one or two coaches -- or six -- in a 20-year span.
What Marshall hopes to do is find a way to put some more oomph in the basketball budget. Filling more of the 9,054 seats in the Henderson Center will help, as will the revenue-generating arena reseating plan, but that’s not enough.
When Hamrick arrived back at his alma mater as AD, one of his first moves was to create a Football Enhancement Fund, with designs on a five-year commitment of $10,000 annually from 40 donors. That is providing $400,000 annually ($2 million over five years) to Coach Doc Holliday’s program.
Maybe that’s an avenue to explore with some basketball-centric supporters, but timing is everything, and getting the Indoor Athletic Facility funded through the Vision Campaign in recent years has had Hamrick already dipping into the deepest depths of the Herd’s contribution well.
But stepping stone? Yes. “We Are …” that, too. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you can keep getting the right guy from the right place at the right time to coach in “The Cam.”
Maybe Hamrick hires the next Billy Donovan. You never know. The point is you can get there from here. Stepping stones can provide a path, too, as Tulsa has proven over and over again.