Coaching Business Makes Assistants Start At Bottom
We were asking Byron Samuels about the precariousness of his new station, noting that 50-odd NCAA Division I head coaching jobs had changed hands between the last two basketball seasons.
“Fifty-five,” he interrupted.
He would know that exactly, of course. He would know what 55 guys got which of the 55 jobs, too, if we’d bothered to quiz him on it.
He would know, too, that 31 more D-I jobs opened this spring - mostly because he got one of them and his deskmate in the Washington State basketball office, Jeff Schneider, got another 24 hours later.
They had spent barely 11 months as Cougars assistants. Gents, we hardly knew ye.
But their sudden and simultaneous mobility speaks glowingly about the Cougars program and the regard Kevin Eastman has been able to generate after just a season in command. It has been WSU’s fate, on occasion, to be a rope ladder to opportunity, but in this case no one minds.
Indeed, for two assistants to land their own programs in the same week may be a precedent - that is, if you don’t count 1987.
That was the spring it was suggested to Cougars coach Len Stevens that he find a more gullible employer - which he did, as head coach at Nevada. Kelvin Sampson was elevated to replace Stevens; the other assistant, Puck Smith, surfaced at Cal State-Chico. That’s two D-I coveted jobs and a D-II position for a staff coming off a 10-18 season.
Good thing they didn’t make it to .500, or else Dean Smith, Bob Knight and Denny Crum may have had been encouraged to take early retirement.
Nowadays, however, an ambitious assistant doesn’t start at the top, or even the middle.
Samuels caught on at Hampton University, a Virginia school which will play its first Division I schedule next season. Schneider was the choice of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, which this past season had the distinction of being the worst of the nation’s 302 major college teams.
“But look around the country,” Schneider said. “UMass had 10 straight losing seasons before they hired John Calipari. Tulane didn’t have a program before Perry Clark came in. Part of the appeal of this job is getting a chance to build it from the ground up.”
You leave them to their visions and wish them luck, hoping they can tiptoe through the booby traps.
Schneider’s assignment will be both abetted and obstructed by SLO’s move into the Big West next year; the 1-26 record the Mustangs compiled this past season wasn’t against that kind of schedule. Samuels, meanwhile, may find the going easier on the East Coast, where the Pirates are expected to join the MEAC home to Bethune-Cookman and MarylandEastern Shore and perennially one of the lowestranked conferences on the NCAA computer.
“They have a year-old 7,200-seat arena and they’re in an area where there are great players,” Samuels said. “It’s a gold mine, potentially.”
It’s also a land mine, potentially. Every new D-I job is. Not long ago, Sampson kicked two assistants out of the nest a year apart. Mark Adams and Don Newman are now a combined 37-151 at Central Connecticut and Cal State-Sacramento.
But if you’re a coach, you go. Samuels and Schneider long ago detected the perils of their profession and reconciled them.
“It depends on how the people who hire you define success,” said Samuels, who at age 31 will be one of the nation’s youngest head coaches. “Sometimes it’s wins and losses - if you don’t win, you’re out - and I’m not going in with my eyes closed to that fact.
“Coaching has changed. George Raveling says all the time that once he left WSU as a coach, it became a business. It’s more than just Xs and Os and the playercoach relationship. But I like fund-raising and dealing with the public - without them, there’d be no need for me. I like recruiting. I like the things that modern coaching entails, and I think Jeff does, too.”
Will that translate into success? Depends on how you define it.
“I would hope I’d have a program,” said Schneider, “where people would want to hire my guys to be their head coach.”
With 31 to 55 openings every year, there’s a good chance.