They are supposed to be the constants, the anchors holding firm in college basketball's swirling sea of change. In a sport in which players often leave before their eligibility runs out, the stability of the coaches becomes the focal point upon which alumni dollars are raised and television ratings generated.
But that stability is being threatened heading into the 1997-98 season.
More than a fifth of the 306 schools with Division I programs will have new head coaches. The recent reassignment of Liberty Coach Jeff Meyer brings the number of coaching changes to 63 since the end of last season. Many left for better jobs, others were fired and a few, including a legend named Dean Smith, simply retired.
The number of changes -- representing a shade more than 20 percent -- is the second-largest since the NCAA began keeping records on coaching moves in 1950. The only year when there were more changes was 1987, when 66 of 290 Division I teams switched coaches. In contrast, as recently as 1994, there were only 33 changes among 301 schools.
The two winningest programs of all time found themselves in the market after Rick Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics last spring and Smith, in a surprise announcement, left North Carolina for the golf course last month, replaced by longtime assistant Bill Guthridge.
Another high-profile program, Michigan, recently removed Steve Fisher for alleged NCAA improprieties after an eight-year stint that included three Final Fours and one national championship.
This coaching carousel is a trend that seems to afflict programs at every tier of Division I.
Some coaches wound up with better jobs -- albeit interim positions -- despite not being rehired at their former schools. After Brian Ellerbe did not return to Loyola for his fourth season by what was called "mutual consent" with Athletic Director Joe Boylan, he was hired as an assistant at Michigan and later was named to direct the Wolverines this season. Ditto for Don Newman, who went 20-114 in five years at Sacramento State and is now coaching Arizona State after Bill Frieder was fired.
Why are more coaches being fired, particularly at the middle and lower level on which most schools in Division I reside? There are myriad reasons, some as simple as a won-lost record or not adhering to NCAA rules; others are more complex, such as not building the fan support needed to raise money that helps defray the cost of the school's nonrevenue sports, or being perceived as not fitting in with the community or the philosophy of the athletic program.
"Where it has changed the most is at the lower levels of Division I," said Virginia AD Terry Holland. "The pressures that were normally reserved for only the top 60 programs in the country have been passed down. It's a lot easier for athletic directors to hire a new coach and give him an extra $30,000 or $40,000 than fix an entire program for hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Holland, who was previously the athletic director at Davidson, said that he was able to stick with Bob McKillop for several losing years because expectations were not high at the small school outside Charlotte, N.C. McKillop finally turned things around. But others were not as fortunate and their athletic director not as patient as Holland, a former coach at Davidson and Virginia.
Coaches sometimes stay too long. Others leave before they're going to get fired, as was the case with Pat Kennedy's going to DePaul from Florida State after several run-ins with new AD Dave Hart. When a request for a contract extension was turned down, Kennedy left despite having three years remaining.
The man who replaced him, Steve Robinson, left Tulsa despite signing a seven-year contract weeks after being courted by Memphis and Tennessee and three months before Hart contacted him. It left much bitterness among Robinson's former employers and raised the question as to why coaches can leave without much, if any penalty, but players who transfer are usually required to sit out an entire season.
The attraction of big-name coaches is as strong as it has ever been, even if the coach has lost some of his luster. Georgia State and Jacksonville hired Lefty Driesell and Hugh Durham, respectively, and Rhode Island brought in Jim Harrick less than a year after he was fired at UCLA for lying to his athletic director about a recruiting dinner.
Driesell, who was fired at James Madison seven victories shy of reaching 700, was hired to build a program with no tradition. Durham was brought in to revive a program that had gone to the Final Four in 1970, something Durham himself had done at Georgia in 1983. Harrick was given a second chance on a career that had seemingly had reached its height with a national championship in 1995.
Many coaches wind up staying put. It would have made perfect sense for Dave Odom to leave Wake Forest along with Tim Duncan, and he reportedly had the chance to go to Georgia or Tennessee. Ben Braun, who spent 11 years at Eastern Michigan before going to California last year, was offered the Michigan job last month. He turned it down and signed a 10-year contract at Cal.
"I like to get to know the neighborhood deli, I like to get to know the neighbors and I even like to get to know my players," Braun said. "If you get to know your players, you have a better chance to coach them. But like anyone else, when the opportunities are there in your profession, you have to consider them. I take it as a compliment to have my name mentioned. But that's not my motivation for coaching."
Said Odom: "Coaches are like other people. We feel pressure. If we can make a change, we feel that the change is always going to be for the better. What we know is that change isn't always for the better. The problems in the short term (at the current school) you might trade for long-term problems somewhere else. ... At some point, doing something different gives way to stability. Where I live becomes more important than what I'm doing."
Boylan said that the tumult in the coaching profession has a lot to do with the exposure the sport receives. It could be called the ESPN generation, with Dick Vitale as its chief spokesman. (Vitale, of course, reached this vaunted position after getting fired by the Detroit Pistons.) Coaches, players and the media are not the only ones watching -- administrators are, too.
"Basketball is like baseball; everybody thinks they can coach a college basketball team," Boylan said.
And Odom, who is now looking to maintain the level of success he had during Duncan's four years, said that college basketball is merely a reflection of college athletics as a whole.
"College athletics right now is in a state of flux," Odom said. "College presidents, the NCAA, coaches themselves, each as a body is trying to decide what they want college athletics to look like. We've got a lot of different issues to resolve -- Title IX and gender equity being the most visible -- and we're trying to get it all together. Coaches are not the only ones moving around. You see it with athletic directors and presidents, too."
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