Either Die a Hero

Let's try something different today. Here are the Big Ten records for a not-so-random collection of coaches over a six-year span:

  1. 61-43
  2. 60-42
  3. 55-41

You would be forgiven for believing those records are all roughly the same, and that a couple of bounces here and there that accumulate over a 100 or so game sample could easily move 3rd to 1st, and vice versa.

And, to complete the exercise, I should mention that two of those coaches got fired*, and the other's seat is getting very hot. OK, now I'll drop the anonymity:

  1. Tom Crean
  2. Bob Knight (last 6 seasons)
  3. Mike Davis

Of course, the reasons Bobby Knight was fired over were far different than the reasons Mike Davis was pushed out (*OK, technically Davis resigned, but it was a "can't fire me, I quit" resignation). Davis was let go over a lack of performance, while Knight was fired because he couldn't stop assaulting students. Presumably, if Tom Crean is soon-to-be the ex-coach of Indiana, it will be more in line with Davis' exit.

This stretch of Indiana basketball dates back to 1994, with a small bit of Kelvin Sampson, Dan Dakich, and an expensive phone bill sprinkled in. Which is to say, for a 20+ year stretch, winning a little under 60% of its conference games has been the course average in Bloomington. It's difficult to characterize this as a fluke. And yet, Crean is still on the hot seat, just a season removed from winning the conference outright. What's going on?

Well, I suspect this has something to do with it:

  • Zak Irvin
  • Demetrius Jackson
  • VJ Beachem
  • Trey Lyles
  • Trevon Blueiett
  • Caleb Swanigan
  • Jalen Coleman-Lands
  • Isaac Humphries
  • Kyle Guy
  • James Banks
  • Joey Brunk

Those are the top-3 Indiana recruits over the past 4 seasons, minus James Blackmon. After Crean's success with the in-state classes of 2011 and 2012 (highlighted by Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell), the top in-state talent has chosen to go elsewhere. This is the same kind of thing that sunk Davis as well, despite the fact he did pull in talents such as Bracey Wright and DJ White, and found hidden gems such as Armon Bassett and Roderick Wilmont.

Sound familiar? Crean's overall recruiting is not a problem. Thomas Bryant, De'Ron Davis, and Noah Vonleh were all big-time recruits. And he's found underrated gems like Victor Oladipo and OG Anunoby. But those guys are not from Indiana. And that makes a difference with fans, who watched Blueitt win three state titles, becoming one of the all-time greats in Indiana high school history—and going to Xavier. The volume on those misses is a lot louder than when Theo Pinson chooses the Tar Heels over the Hoosiers.

Of course, no one would care about the in-state recruiting if Indiana were 23-4 right now, rather than 15-12. To be sure, winning cures everything. But in-state recruiting goes a long way, too. Particularly, it seems, at Indiana.

Speaking of which, another coach on the Twitter hot seat is Thad Matta. In a lot of ways, that's insane. To wit:

  • Matta has won 66% of his games in Big Ten play
  • The coach before him won 54%
  • The coach before that won 44%
  • He's been to two Final Fours. Those two, along with the vacated appearance in 1999, have been the only Buckeye Final Fours since 1968.
  • He holds the school record for wins and winning percentage among OSU coaches with at least 25 games under their belt.
  • He's won 20 games in every season he's coached at Ohio State (12, but that probably ends this year). Before he arrived, the school had 19 such seasons in its history.
  • He has 5 Big Ten titles. That's more than Bo Ryan, and two fewer than Tom Izzo (who has been coaching in the Big Ten for 9 more seasons).
  • About that 66%, here's the all-time leaders for Big Ten Winning Percentage (since WW2)
    • Bo Ryan (.717)
    • Bobby Knight (.700)
    • Tom Izzo (.686)
    • Thad Matta (.658)
  • Branch McCracken (.657)
  • Ralph Miller (.643)
  • Bucky O'Connor (.637)
  • Steve Fisher (.627)
  • Johnny Orr (.625)
  • Bill Frieder (.614)
    • Gene Keady (.611)

(Apologies if I missed someone, I was doing this manually)

This is crazy list of accomplishments, and none of this stuff is really ancient history. The Buckeyes are one Presidential term removed from being in the Final Four. Sure, a lot has changed since then, but I suspect if I were randomly dropped into the year 2012 and shielded from any breaking news stories, it might take me a full day to notice.

The case against Thad Matta, as best I can tell, is as follows. First, this graph:

2017 wins are projected

Second, this list:

  1. John Calipari ($6,356,756)
  2. Mike Krzyzewski ($6,043,979)
  3. Rick Pitino ($6,004,529)
  4. Bill Self ($4,955,186)
  5. Tom Izzo ($4,006,955)
  6. Sean Miller ($3,484,500)
  7. Thad Matta ($3,372,000)

And third, this list:

  • Omari Spellman
  • VJ King
  • Nick Ward
  • Luke Kennard
  • Carlton Bragg
  • Esa Ahmad
  • Vince Edwards
  • Javon Bess
  • Devin Williams
  • Mark Donnal
  • Semaj Christon
  • Aaron Thomas
  • Kenny Kaminski

(Marc Loving and Jae'Sean Tate were also top-3 Ohio talents that both went to Ohio State in this span)

Once again, in-state recruiting isn't essential, but it helps.

Still, it's impossible to not hear the discontent from Buckeye fans.

I suppose it's possible that Matta decides to retire, but the guy is only 49. Sure, he has health problems, but prior to the season, this is what OSU's Director of Basketball Operations had to say about that: > “His health, right now, is the best I’ve seen it,” Egelhoff says. “There were some times there, back when stuff [Matta’s back surgery] first went down in the summer of 2007, and then times after that, especially in 2011, 2012, 2013, and maybe even into 2014, when I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can physically get him back out to the court after halftime.’ After games, he’d lay on the locker-room floor to try to alleviate his pain, and we’d have to literally pick him up to get him standing again. He was that bad. He’s since been able to figure things out. He’s prioritized his life and he’s gotten healthy, and I think it’s made a big difference.”

That doesn't sound like someone who is ready to hang them up. At 49, Matta is younger than Billy Donovan, Gregg Marshall, Brad Underwood, Gregg McDermott, and Danny Manning. He's two years older than Tony Bennett and Chris Mack. If the Ohio State job were to open tomorrow, at least a couple of those names would be near the top of the short list.

I have no idea what Fred Glass or Gene Smith are going to do after the season, and I doubt either one reaches out to me. But pushing out either Crean or Matta is a risky move. Crean has been shooting at least at par for the course for Indiana basketball, albeit one with significant ups and downs. Matta is rightfully regarded as the best basketball coach in Ohio State history, and not far removed from the top of the mountain. An AD that fires either of these coaches now faces the task of finding someone capable of raising the bar. That's an awfully high standard for "success," and athletic directors are Just Like Us in that they'd prefer to keep their jobs as well.

For example, Mark Gottfried—who owns a 46% winning percentage in conference play over his time at NC State—was recently fired. His dismissal is being mourned by the media. Imagine the outrage if the guy who ranks 4th on the all-time list in the Big Ten gets shown the door, after his first-ever losing season in conference play. Similarly, imagine the attractiveness of a job that earns a coach roughly 11 months of job security upon winning a conference title.

If I'm Archie Miller, I might just sit tight at Dayton until a job with a lower set of expectations comes along. I hear it's nice there.