Coaching Ambition and Folly

As WKU recently endured a humiliating home beatdown by Louisville, my thoughts turned to one of the assistant coaches on the Louisville bench — Ralph Willard — and his coaching journey.  He served as WKU head coach from 1990-94, rehabilitating the program and leading them to the 1993 Sweet 16.  He left the Toppers in 1994 for Pitt, where he went 63-82 in five seasons with no NCAA appearances.   After his dismissal from Pitt, he started over at his alma mater, Holy Cross, where he won 4 Patriot League titles before resigning to rejoin his (younger) benefactor, Rick Pitino.  Willard had earlier served as an assistant with Pitino at the Knicks and the University of Kentucky.

Willard’s two successful successors (with one unsuccessful one in between) at WKU followed his path.  After 3 consecutive NCAA appearances in Bowling Green, Dennis Felton accepted the Georgia job, where he was fired in his 6th season with a 84-91 record and only one NCAA appearance (and that only after an unlikely SEC tourney run).  Darrin Horn went 111-48 at WKU with a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008 before leaving for South Carolina.  Even though he finished first in the East Division in 2009, his tenure may not last a long time.  The East that year was way down and the Gamecocks did not even receive an NCAA bid.  Now in the middle of his third season, he is 45-30 overall with no NCAA appearances and 9-4 this season with a very damaging loss to in-state, small private school Furman.

When is it a good time to accept a new position? Maybe there are so many uncertainties that you take the money and run.  Horn and Felton gained something like $400,000-$500,000 per year more.  That would be very difficult for anyone to turn down.  Yet, continued high levels of success at WKU would not have only extended their WKU stints but would have likely garnered additional, possibly better offers.

Instead, Felton and Horn left for positions where success would be no easy matter.  With Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee as division rivals, mediocrity in the division would seem very likely.  Willard left for a Pitt program that enjoyed success under Paul Evans in the 1980s, but nonetheless, was not operating at that level anymore and faced fierce conference competition.

Coaches and other top level managers frequently overestimate their abilities.   I don’t mean that they have no ability, but that they underestimate the other influences on success such as the historical competitive position of the program relative to rivals or just the confluence of good fortune.  In my estimation, Felton and Horn were good recruiters but not very impressive in games with opponents of equal talent and good coaching.  Most games in the SEC East would be against teams of equal or better talent.  Willard truly had above average coaching abilities along with good recruiting skills and sense, but the highly competitive Big East didn’t permit much room for mistakes.

Of course, this isn’t a story solely about WKU or about accepting jobs at places where it is difficult to win.  The Tubby Smith, and even more so, Billy Gillispie experiences at UK speak to the fact that managerial success is often like a marriage, where the match matters.