AUSTIN, TEXAS – The NCAA tournament often becomes a career launchpad for coaches. A spirited run to the Sweet 16 or beyond can raise a coach’s profile and create a financial windfall with a new contract and a fat raise.
March Madness also serves as a de facto job interview for up-and-comers at smaller schools who parlay a few upsets into a better gig in a power conference.
Then there are Tubby Smith and Ben Howland, a pair of grizzled coaches who enter the tournament under a different set of circumstances. Their matchup Friday night appears to be a referendum that likely determines whether they get to keep their jobs.
The tournament selection committee loves story lines, and Gophers vs. UCLA offers two veteran coaches sitting squarely on the hot seat. The grumbling within both fan bases grew with such intensity this season that a change in leadership seems probable for the team on the losing side.
Literally, a one-and-done.
“This is a business of what have you done for me lately,” Smith said when asked about his job status this week. “That’s the way the business operates. That’s the profession we chose. That’s not up to me. We just do our job, do the best we can and go from there.”
The parallels in their situations are striking: Smith has a $2.5 million buyout and probably needs to win two games to feel safe. Howland reportedly has a $2.3 million buyout and needs a similar run to keep his job, according to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke.
Here is how Plaschke framed things in a state-of-the-program piece this week:
“There is talk that the athletic department, for both basketball and business reasons, wants this season to be Howland’s last. There is word that a $2.3 million buyout is already in place. There is a feeling that only a Sweet 16 appearance could save his job, and even that might not be enough.”
The two coaches own résumés that include both success and longevity. Combined, they have coached 41 seasons, won 911 games and made 27 NCAA tournament appearances.
Smith won a national title at Kentucky. Howland took UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours.
But therein lies a critical distinction: Howland has achieved a level of success at UCLA that Smith hasn’t come close to matching at Minnesota. The fact that both are coaching for their jobs underscores the wide gap in expectations between those two programs.
Smith has not finished above .500 in the Big Ten or won an NCAA tournament game at Minnesota. Howland has won four conference titles and went to Final Fours from 2006 to ’08.
The Bruins won 97 games in that span, the highest three-year victory total in school history. That made Howland only the third coach in Division I history to win at least 30 games in three consecutive seasons. The other two: Adolph Rupp and John Calipari.
But the tradition-rich Bruins measure success by championship banners and deep tournament runs, and they have fallen flat in recent years. They missed the tournament the previous two seasons and attendance for home games has dropped sharply.
Early departures for the NBA (Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook) have contributed to the decline, but patience comes in small doses at UCLA.
Howland’s critics cite player transfers, his methodical style of play — though this team operates at a faster pace — and his old-school personality in their calls for change and new direction.
Ring a bell?
Tubby’s tenure in Dinkytown qualifies as a disappointment given the expectations that accompanied his arrival from Kentucky. This season in particular became a billboard of underachievement for reasons that were discussed ad nauseam during a two-month slide.
Athletic director Norwood Teague has remained in the background in recent weeks and won’t address Smith’s future publicly until after the season. That’s understandable because he wants to keep the focus on the tournament.
Any evaluation should consider the future, too — whether there are tangible signs of progress that the program is moving in the right direction. A few wins in this tournament might not alter that or undo all that proceeded it, but it certainly would improve the overall mood around the program.
Both Smith and Howland deflected questions about their job status this week, not that anyone really expected them to open up on the subject. This event is stressful enough. The two veterans have experienced it many times, so they understand the pressure of a win-or-else format.
But maybe never quite like this.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org