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SEC Coaching Hires: A Study

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How have SEC coaching hires historically worked out? I take a look at SEC coaches over the last 25 years, and see if we can draw any conclusions about why SEC basketball has gone downhill in recent years.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

I was intrigued by this piece by Gary Parrish over at CBSSports.com, about the SEC's recent struggles (outside of Kentucky and Florida, of course) on the hardwood.

The SEC's recent struggles have been played to death, but what a lot of people are forgetting is that before the last few years, the SEC was actually a good (and, at times, great) basketball conference.  What changed?  As Parrish points out, it has very little to do with the schools prioritizing football or neglecting basketball.  Nine of the 14 schools in the conference have basketball budgets that rank in the top 40 of Division I schools.  (The five that don't: Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Tennessee.)

One of the reasons Parrish comes up with is a downturn in the amount of talent in the region.  I may get to that in a later piece, but the reason I want to explore today is Parrish's first point: a lot of coaching hires haven't worked out.  And that's one of the big differences between SEC basketball in the 1990s and early 2000s versus today: as I'll show below, back then, SEC schools were very good at hiring basketball coaches.

So how will we prove this?  I will look at the 43 coaches hired by SEC schools between 1989 and 2013 (*note: two coaches were hired by two different SEC schools during this period and are thus counted twice) and break them into five categories:

  • Major Success: Defined as a coach who won at least 60 percent of his games at the school, made at least one Sweet 16, and won at least one outright SEC regular season championship (divisional titles don't count.)
  • Success: Won at least 60 percent of his games at the school, OR made at least one Sweet 16, OR won at least one SEC regular season championship after his first year.
  • Failure: Won between 50 and 60 percent of his games, and did not make a Sweet 16 or win a regular season championship after his first year.
  • Catastrophic Failure: Won less than 50 percent of his games.
  • Jury still out: Hired since 2009-10 season, still employed by school, and not named John Calipari.

Before we begin, five SEC schools plus Arkansas did not make a coaching change prior to the 1989-90 season.  Those coaches: Wimp Sanderson (Alabama) -- major success; Nolan Richardson (Arkansas) -- major success; Hugh Durham (Georgia) -- success; Dale Brown (LSU) -- success; Ed Murphy (Ole Miss) -- catastrophic failure; and Richard Williams (Mississippi State) -- success.  So four of the ten schools in the conference, plus Arkansas (who would join the league two years later) already had good coaches in place entering the 1989-90 season.  Also note that the three "successes" -- Durham, Brown, and Williams -- all made a Final Four and won a regular season SEC title at their schools, with their winning percentages dragged down by early- or late-career struggles.

The 1990s

SEC schools hired 21 permanent head coaches (i.e., excluding interim coaches who were not retained) between 1989-90 and 1998-99, with two coaches being hired by two different SEC schools.  Out of that group:

  • Five were major successes: Rick Pitino, Eddie Fogler (Vanderbilt), Billy Donovan, Tubby Smith (Kentucky), and Mark Gottfried.  Fogler and Gottfried barely qualify with win percentages narrowly over 60 percent, one Sweet 16, and one regular season title.  I don't think anyone would argue with the other three.
  • Eight were successes: Lon Kruger, Eddie Fogler (South Carolina), Cliff Ellis, Tubby Smith (Georgia), Jerry Green, John Brady, Rick Stansbury, and Rod Barnes.  Tennessee fans would probably quibble with Jerry Green being labeled a "success" in any way, but he did win 71 percent of his games at Tennessee before getting run out of town.
  • Four were failures: David Hobbs, Rob Evans, Jan Van Breda Kolff, and Ron Jirsa.  What, you were expecting VBK to not be considered a failure?  Evans' inclusion is probably unfair considering how bad Ole Miss was at basketball before he came along, so you might consider him a success.  Hobbs won just a shade under 60 percent of his games, but I think it's fair to call him a failure since his win percentage was inflated by his first three years (when Wimp's imprint was still all over the program.)
  • Four were catastrophic failures: the late Tommy Joe Eagles, Wade Houston, Steve Newton, and Kevin O'Neill.  Putting O'Neill here might be a smidge unfair, as he was only at Tennessee for three years and inherited an awful situation from Wade Houston; what's more, at least some of Jerry Green's later success can be chalked up to players O'Neill recruited.

So almost two-thirds of the coaches hired in the '90s were successful, and literally two thirds if you count Rob Evans as a success (which I do.)  One thing that becomes readily apparent is that, in light of the hires Georgia and Auburn would make later, Georgia would have had a much better program if they had been able to keep Tubby around and Auburn probably never should have fired Ellis.  The remaining successes (other than Donovan, obviously) either left on their own (Pitino, Tubby, Fogler, Kruger, and Stansbury) or else the school was arguably justified in letting them go (Gottfried, Green, Brady, and Barnes) -- and for those, the problem was the hire after that.

The 2000s

And here was where things started going downhill.  SEC schools made 13 permanent coaching hires between 1999-2000 and 2008-09.  How'd those work out?

Well, there was one major success, and two successes.  Out of 13.  And those three are currently employed by SEC schools.  The major success was Bruce Pearl.  Andy Kennedy and Kevin Stallings narrowly qualify as successes, though some people would argue that those two consistently do the bare minimum to stay employed.

One thing that's notable, though, is that only two of the thirteen (Dennis Felton and Darrin Horn) were catastrophic failures.  There was just a lot of mediocrity.  Eight coaches -- Jim Harrick, Buzz Peterson, Dave Odom, Stan Heath, Jeff Lebo, John Pelphrey, Billy Gillispie, and Trent Johnson -- were failures.

Another thing that's notable?  Some of the failures had good track records before they got hired.  Jim Harrick had won a national championship.  Dave Odom won 65 percent of his games at Wake Forest and made three Sweet 16's.  Gillispie turned Texas A&M around overnight.  Felton, Horn, and Peterson were hot mid-major coaches.  There wasn't really much to indicate that these guys wouldn't succeed in the SEC.  But there's really no getting around the fact that starting around 2000, SEC schools (with the exception, apparently, of Ole Miss) became objectively worse at hiring basketball coaches.

Since 2010

SEC schools have hired 12 coaches since the 2009-10 season, and obviously, the jury is still out on many of those coaches.  Only two -- Cuonzo Martin (success, if only for a short time) and Tony Barbee (catastrophic failure) -- are no longer in the league, and of the 10 still in the league, I only feel comfortable judging one.  John Calipari has obviously been a major success at Kentucky, but the others could still go either way.

It's a roundabout way of explaining (at least part of the reason) why the SEC has been bad at basketball in recent years.  Most of the SEC schools were whiffing on hiring coaches.  But that's also why things might be looking up in the near future: a lot of the conference now seem to have good coaches in place.  Obviously, Kentucky and Florida are going to be good as long as their current coaches stay, but Arkansas (Mike Anderson), Auburn (Bruce Pearl), LSU (Johnny Jones), and South Carolina (Frank Martin) have also made quality coaching hires in recent years.  Andy Kennedy and Kevin Stallings have been around long enough to know that they won't embarrass you.  Even Mark Fox and Billy Kennedy might still work out.