Since 1999, the University of Connecticut has won four national titles in college basketball. It has won two of those in the past eight years, with the latest coming just four years ago.
But with the firing of Kevin Ollie and UConn essentially entering the open market for a coach for the first time since 1986, a legitimate question arises that would have seemed confounding five years ago: Is Connecticut still an elite basketball job?
The history, fan support and devotion to basketball in the state haven’t changed. But college athletics has been disrupted significantly in the past decade, with the evolutions not kind to schools that favor basketball but still have aspirational football. UConn’s meager revenue from the American Athletic Conference, a lack of resonance from its geographically disparate league (i.e. home games with East Carolina) and the flopping of Ollie (post-national title) have left administrators there pondering how UConn can resuscitate its brand nationally.
UConn’s top target for its basketball job appears to be Rhode Island’s Danny Hurley. (Other names include former Indiana coach Tom Crean, St. Bonaventure’s Mark Schmidt, Nevada’s Eric Musselman and Vermont’s John Becker.) Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell’s buyout of $5 million makes him untenable. The only person who thinks Jim Calhoun’s return to UConn is real is Jim Calhoun, as he’s not being considered as a viable candidate by administrators.
The perception of the Connecticut job will be especially crucial for Hurley, who is expected to also be weighing interest from Pittsburgh. (And even more intriguing is which one will wait for him if No. 7 URI makes a run in the NCAAs, as opposed to hiring a coach like Crean who is immediately available.)
Opinions vary on the Connecticut job. But former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese points back to the titles, saying that in the past 25 years only Duke has won more national titles (5) than the Huskies.
“If you want to look at the UConn situation and make excuses for not winning, there are valid excuses,” he said. “I’ve seen people go to jobs that aren’t very good and win. The thing Connecticut has, they have this incredible fan base. It’s a state school, UConn basketball is the most important thing to the state of Connecticut.”
Have the changing dynamics impacted UConn’s ability to lure a top coach?
“On one hand, maybe it’s not as attractive as when they were winning national championships,” Tranghese said. “I’d be stunned if they weren’t able to hire a good coach.”
Hurley is in Pittsburgh for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, simultaneously attempting to lead his team and juggle his future. Hurley told reporters there Wednesday that he hasn’t “thought one second” about coaching at Pitt. That statement is as necessary in that moment as it is untruthful in reality. It would be stunning, with two prime jobs in the Northeast open, if Hurley is back at Rhode Island next season. He’s considered a top candidate for the open Pittsburgh job, and one of the things he may mull is whether the more stable revenue stream from the ACC – more than $20 million annually in league revenue – outweighs UConn’s richer history and more fertile recruiting area.
Pitt also has a strong basketball fan base, recent winning tradition and showed an extraordinary commitment to football coach Pat Narduzzi once he proved a strong fit there. But the biggest sell is the ACC and stability that comes along with it. (Plus, after 0-18 in league play, it can’t get any worse.)
One thing Pitt doesn’t have is the specter of Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach in both basketball acumen and cantankerousness who ended up clashing with Ollie. (The firing of former assistant Glen Miller was a big issue.) Politics is a much bigger part of the UConn job, and ring kissing isn’t exactly a defining Hurley family trait. (Calhoun was also caught cheating, and it’s always hard to follow a cheater and win at that level without, well, actually cheating. Ollie also leaves the program under NCAA investigation, continuing the tradition.)
The other looming issue at UConn is that a pedestrian football program is serving as an anchor to a once-great basketball program. UConn faces a philosophical decision of whether it needs to de-emphasize football for the sake of the future of basketball program. This is easy to write and much more difficult to execute. UConn would need an invitation to the Big East, and that league would be foolish not to add it. (The addition of UConn would go a long way in the league keeping Madison Square Garden for the league tournament past 2026, when the current contract expires.)
More than 90 percent of UConn’s fan base would gladly cannibalize football for the sake of better basketball. (That would mean either eliminating it or reducing levels to allow basketball and other sports to compete in the Big East.) Whether the donors, administrators and stakeholders would want to take that step is another thing. There are stadium contracts, millions of dollars in facilities and major political implications involved.
Landing a strong coach is the first step. UConn is still a good job, but it’s not the premier perch it used to be. Is it a better job than Pittsburgh? Danny Hurley may well have a chance to answer that question.
Pittsburgh – The pool is shallow for the three major jobs open right now. UConn, Pitt and Georgia are all essentially fishing from the same group of candidates. So Pittsburgh must judge taking a run at an available candidate or waiting for the NCAA tournament to end before swinging at Hurley or others with competition. Schmidt from St. Bonaventure would be a good fit here as he’s a proven builder and excellent tactical coach. He’s also got Pittsburgh ties from his days at Robert Morris in the Pittsburgh area, where he coached from 2001-07. Crean is a name being bandied around, as he’s familiar with Pitt from his time in the Big East at Marquette. (ESPN, his employer, has reported they’ve met.) The dynamics of these schools eyeing these candidates simultaneously is fascinating.
Georgia – Athletic director Greg McGarity gets a black eye for targeting Thad Matta, letting him string Georgia along and then publicly turning him down. That’s about as poorly as a search can start for an athletic director, as McGarity looked naïve and unprepared. Now he’s swimming in a deep pool, as Ole Miss has already (essentially) hired a coach and Pitt, UConn and Louisville are all in the same pool. The only winner here is Matta, who can tell suitors next year that he turned down Georgia. Who do the Bulldogs go after? Crean has been on their radar, but both Pitt and UConn are circling. Did McGarity miss his window there? Mid-major names include Charleston’s Earl Grant, ETSU’s Steve Forbes and UNC Asheville’s Nick McDevitt.
Louisville – The Cardinals will not be retaining David Padgett, which has been evident for a while. (Expect him to try and get involved at Eastern Kentucky and Missouri State, as he’s proven that he deserves a chance to be a full-time head coach this year.) The Cardinals job still appears to be centered on Xavier’s Chris Mack, who has the No. 1 seed in the NCAAs and could be locked in for a long run. Shaka Smart was a dream name here, but that’s not happening. If it’s not Mack, expect Louisville to revert to scramble mode. UCLA’s Steve Alford is a big name with some regional ties. Purdue’s Matt Painter could be worth a run, but it would be hard to uproot him from his alma mater.
Ole Miss – The Kermit Davis deal at Ole Miss is all but done. There was a distinct lack of anyone denying him heading there after Middle Tennessee’s game on Tuesday night. “We love Murfreesboro and Middle,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “But sometimes maybe there’s an opportunity like a Power Five opportunity. And, like you said, you try and maybe not have to be perfect and finish seventh in your league. It does go in your decision.” Credit Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork for identifying a candidate and locking him up, saving Ole Miss from flailing like Georgia.
Colorado State – Becky Hammon is still a live name in Fort Collins, as the San Antonio Spurs assistant is an alum and overqualified experience-wise for the job. (She’d obviously need to address recruiting, as that would be unfamiliar space.) A curveball name has emerged here – former NBA coach George Karl. There are some qualified mid-major candidates like Drake’s Niko Medved and South Dakota’s Craig Smith who have ties to the school. Would Tim Miles, after staving off the posse at Nebraska, ponder returning to the school where he made his name?
Federal investigation – This is hanging over a number of jobs, especially Auburn and Arizona. Will those schools decide to keep their coaches or part ways after the NCAA tournament? Don’t expect the job movement to fall under a conventional timeline, as the information has come out in dribs and drabs.
(Yahoo Sports college columnist Pat Forde contributed to this story.)
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