College hoops coaching carousel: Did a crazy shot save Shaka Smart’s job at Texas?

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The malaise that’s covered this college basketball season appears destined to transition to the coaching job market. The market is trending toward one of the quietest cycles this century, with few market drivers and big-name openings. If you were setting an over-under on the firings in the power leagues this spring, it’d be around four.

“There’s three issues,” said an industry source. “Schools don’t want to pay big buyouts, they’re scared of FBI issues and I think people are risk averse. Can I hire someone better than I have? There’s a lot of kicking the can down the road.”

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Barring some surprise retirements or out-of-cycle movement from the federal basketball scandal, things should be fairly quiet.

“Every now and then it has to slow down,” said another industry source. “There’s always corrections in any market. This may be a year there’s a slowdown correction. Football can absorb those big buyout numbers easier than basketball can.”

With the regular season closing and conference tournaments beginning, here are the four biggest factors looming over the market.

Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart in the second half of the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center. (USA Today)
Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart in the second half of the game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center. (USA Today)

Shaka Smart’s job at Texas

Texas has long loomed as the biggest potential opening. The job has projected all season as the only true market driver. Other than jobs tied to the federal basketball scandal, Texas has been the lone focus for high-end jobs in the coaching carousel.

But along came a five-game winning streak that unexpectedly launched Texas squarely on the NCAA bubble. Matt Coleman’s banked-in 3-point buzzer-beater to win at Oklahoma on Tuesday night bolstered Texas’ status as one of the hottest teams in the country, as it is now 19-11 and third in the Big 12 at 9-8.

And it may be the shot that saves Shaka Smart, one of those mind-bending moments that changes the directions of millions of dollars, the ripple of a handful of jobs and many lives. Reaching a third NCAA tournament in five years is respectable, as there’s been some bad luck with injuries and illness for Smart’s team.

There are three potential outcomes here. The first is that Longhorns athletic director Chris Del Conte decides that Smart’s 90-77 record and no NCAA tournament wins – at least not yet, thanks to a Northern Iowa half-court shot – have created an apathy around the program. It would cost Del Conte nearly $10.5 million to fire Smart. While it’s easy to typecast Texas as a wealthy blue-blood program, that’s still an enormous amount of money for a basketball expenditure at a school that’s never cared much about basketball. (There’s a new $338 million arena on the way, about a decade overdue.)

Hiring Chris Beard away from Texas Tech would be the clear preference for Texas administrators and fans, but that would cost a $6 million buyout. (So that’s potentially $16 million total in dead money before having to pay Beard more than his current $4.2 million. Again, this is basketball at Texas.)

The second option is that Smart attempts to bounce to a lateral job. There are obvious places like Wake Forest, Boston College or Clemson, where he’d offer an upgrade. (And he could potentially return to his Havoc roots at VCU, too.) Smart is cheap to lure away, as he’d owe just the money to his assistants if he departed on his own. (An estimate: There is less than a million.)

The third option is that he sticks around, which looks a lot more likely today than it did two weeks ago.

Where the ACC stands

The ACC loomed a few weeks ago as the most volatile of the major leagues. Boston College and Wake Forest still have the highest probability of opening, though neither are sure things. Things have quieted at Georgia Tech and Clemson.

Boston College was trending toward one of Jim Christian’s best seasons but it has slumped late, losing four straight games to put him back in his seemingly perpetual limbo. BC is 13-17, 7-12 in ACC play and snakebitten by injuries.

BC isn’t flush with cash, but the hiring of former football coach Steve Addazio by Colorado State saved Boston College significant buyout money. That makes this potential move more financially tenable. This could go either way over the next few weeks.

Christian will be 0 for 6 in NCAA appearances if BC doesn’t pull off a miracle in Greensboro. He’s 75-117 for a winning percentage under 40 percent. The argument to keep him is that BC has a strong core of freshman, including guard Jay Heath (13.1 ppg), and have recruited as well as at any point in his tenure. BC has two top-100 talents eligible next year — Providence transfer Makai Ashton-Langford and his brother, incoming freshman Demarr Langford.

Danny Manning’s time at Wake Forest is more complicated. He’s owed north of $15 million, which is an astoundingly bad contract that former athletic director Ron Wellman gifted current AD John Currie. Manning has just one NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons and at 13-16 appears likely to finish under .500 for the third straight year. This is a financial decision more than a basketball decision. But basketball truly matters at Wake Forest, which makes a move here expected despite the ugly financials.

The other two ACC jobs expected to be in flux have quieted. Georgia Tech is expected to keep Josh Pastner, and the school announcing its NCAA self-sanction is in line with giving him a chance to bring back the core of his team for a shot at the NCAA tournament next season. Clemson’s Brad Brownell has won four of his past five games, including an upset of Florida State, which has given him some breathing room. (The arrival of a pair of top-100 recruits has aided Brownell’s case as well.)

The other power conference job squarely in the crosshairs is Dave Leitao’s at DePaul. He’s 15-15 and trending toward his fourth losing season in five years. To lure a strong candidate, DePaul would likely have to change athletic directors as well. That’s a lot of movement for a university that’s seemingly embraced its status as lords of the Big East basement. The Blue Demons finished in the bottom two of the league standings in 11 of the past 12 seasons.

John Beilein looks on from the sidelines while coaching against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 11, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Matthew Stockman/Getty)
John Beilein looks on from the sidelines while coaching against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 11, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Matthew Stockman/Getty)

Will John Beilein return to college ranks?

The biggest personnel question looming over the coaching carousel is the potential return of John Beilein to the college game. Certainly, the schools with expected openings are likely to do their due diligence. The early read is that Beilein, 67, isn’t eager for an imminent return.

Beilein is one of this era’s most respected coaches, having won at every collegiate level and accomplished essentially everything in the sport aside from winning a national title. His NBA failure will matter little to athletic directors.

Considering the lack of quality and quantity jobs expected to open, he may be wise to be patient and see how he feels in the upcoming months. The biggest question athletic directors are facing is Beilein potentially bringing his son, Patrick, as an assistant coach after his resignation at Niagara for “personal reasons.”

Will scandal fallout impact this coaching carousel?

The best reason for the patience of Beilein is the expected fallout from the federal basketball scandal. Certainly, the NCAA’s slow movement on the cases and the organization’s fickle track record of punishing cheaters have many skeptical that day will come. But any skepticism should be tempered by reading Kansas’s notice of allegations and digesting the severity of three Level I allegations. The NCAA has its credibility at stake, which makes it reasonable to expect multiple high-profile job openings in the next calendar year.

That list starts with Kansas coach Bill Self, who should be savvy enough to pull a John Calipari — UMass edition — and leap to the NBA to avoid the NCAA paddy wagon. Self has enough winning and experience to transition to the NBA, even if it means a year or two as an assistant. People who deal in NCAA cases think Kansas has little chance of escaping serious sanctions, which means an escape hatch for Self is the smart move.

From there, things get murkier. Arizona still hasn’t received its notice of allegations, which leaves Sean Miller and the school twisting in limbo. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl’s has a rich history of NCAA issues and finds himself squarely in the crosshairs again. Can the NCAA find enough on LSU’s Will Wade? Self, Miller, Pearl and Wade loom as the coaches expected to be most directly implicated. But there are others. How much blowback will coaches at USC, TCU and Creighton get for the actions that happened under their watch? The NCAA’s head coach responsibility rules are about to be tested like never before.

These cases will play out on the NCAA infractions timeline, which we’ve learned operates at slow, slower and inert. The coaching industry remains in general disbelief that coaches like Miller, Self, Pearl and Wade still have jobs. But here we are, three seasons later.

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