The Vanderbilt Commodores conducted their search for a new men's basketball coach with a similar level of secrecy to the CIA. It was so secret, in fact, that some people who cover the team (myself included) were surprised to learn Monday morning that not only had former Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew been offered the job, but he was prepared to accept it.
While secrecy can be frustrating for fans, the absence of a lot of leaks worked to Vanderbilt's advantage. Georgia Tech, who also coveted Drew as its head coach, was blindsided to learn that Vanderbilt in fact was targeting Drew and not another candidate (presumably Wichita State's Gregg Marshall.)
But as the search comes to its conclusion, we have to ask: could Vanderbilt have done better than this? Probably not.
In five years at Valparaiso, Drew compiled a .717 winning percentage (124-49 record.) Among Division I basketball coaches active during the 2015-16 season, that's the 20th-best career winning percentage. Among coaches with at least five years of experience as a Division I head coach, Drew's winning percentage ranks 16th -- just ahead (if barely) of Gregg Marshall, Bo Ryan, and Bob Huggins. You can argue, of course, that Drew has faced a lower level of competition as Valpo's head coach (though not much worse than the competition Marshall has faced.) But if you want to do an apples-to-apples comparison, Drew's winning percentage is higher than St. Mary's Randy Bennett (.688), Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson (.651), VCU's Will Wade (.644), and Davidson's Bob McKillop (.622.)
How predictive is winning percentage? Here is a full list of coaches who have (a) won greater than 70 percent of their games at a non-Power 5/Big East school between 2001 and 2010, (b) had at least five years of experience as a Division I head coach, and (c) took a job at a Power 5/Big East school:
- Mark Fox (.741 winning percentage at Nevada, 2005-09; .550 winning percentage at Georgia)
- Sean Miller (.719 winning percentage at Xavier, 2005-09; .755 winning percentage at Arizona)
- John Calipari (.761 winning percentage at UMass/Memphis, 1989-09; .822 winning percentage at Kentucky)
Short list, eh? Extending it past 2010 would add only Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens (the latter of whom took an NBA job rather than a Power 5 job, but... details.) It doesn't include Gonzaga's Mark Few and BYU's Dave Rose, both of whom hit the 70 percent mark but haven't taken a bigger job.
This certainly isn't to suggest that Bryce Drew is John Calipari or Sean Miller (or Smart or Stevens), but the worst coach on this list is Mark Fox, who's held down a bit by being at a school that doesn't care all that much about basketball. Fox also inherited a program at Nevada that was already in good shape. Bryce Drew inherited a program that had gone 85-80 in the five years before he took the job.
Chances are, if you can win over 70 percent of your games at any Division I school (and particularly at a mid-major, where a decent portion of your schedule is filled with guarantee games against bigger programs) over a period that covers more than one full recruiting cycle -- meaning you're not just winning because you inherited a loaded team -- you probably know what you're doing. But unlike Miller, Calipari, Smart, and Stevens, Bryce Drew doesn't have a deep NCAA Tournament run to his credit -- though he did get to the NIT finals this year. That's probably obscured how good of a job he's done at Valpo. Had Valpo gotten into this year's NCAA Tournament and won a couple of games (which is very possible), he'd be considered a bigger name than he is right now.
And that's before we consider the fit at Vanderbilt. Any basketball coach on Vanderbilt is primarily going to rely on four-year players as a matter of necessity; Vanderbilt simply can't get junior college transfers or even four-year transfers on a regular basis, so the coach here is going to have to bring in freshmen and develop them. Valpo's best player this year, Alec Peters, was a high school recruit. So, too, was redshirt senior big man Vashil Fernandez. Valpo did benefit from a pair of transfers in Keith Carter (St. Louis) and Shane Hammink (LSU), but this isn't a team that simply brought in a bunch of players who were way too talented for the Horizon League. Valpo has won the Horizon League in four of Drew's five seasons by beating the rest of the league with a similar caliber of players. Drew certainly isn't going to have to get accustomed to scouting and developing 18-year-olds, because that's what he's been doing at Valparaiso.
So that brings us back to the question, and the answer seems fairly obvious. You can make an argument that, if Gregg Marshall was seriously considering the Vanderbilt job, he might be a better coach than Drew -- but I'm not sure that he's a better fit for Vanderbilt. Certainly the difference between Marshall and Drew -- particularly when it comes to upside (Marshall, at 53, probably wouldn't be at Vanderbilt long enough to see through a full-scale building process, while the 41-year-old Drew very well might) -- isn't enough to justify paying Marshall a couple extra million and making a few other concessions that Marshall might have been demanding. Some of the bigger names floating around the darker corners of the internet might be better, but probably were never realistic candidates for Vanderbilt.
On the other end, comparing Drew to other mid-major head coaches whose names were floating around, there's really no comparison. You could maybe make an argument for somebody like Will Wade or Matt McCall having more upside than Drew, but that difference isn't very big, and both Wade and McCall have shorter resumes that might just be smoke and mirrors. Other candidates whose names were floated have been nowhere near as successful as Drew at that level.
The short answer is: this is, realistically, the best hire that Vanderbilt could have made. In Bryce Drew, Vanderbilt has another Kevin Stallings in the worst-case scenario -- and before you complain about that, remember that that's the worst-case scenario, and Kevin Stallings won 60 percent of his games as Vanderbilt's head coach. The best-case scenario is that Bryce Drew becomes the first man to take Vanderbilt to the Final Four. If you don't like this hire, you either think we could get someone who wasn't a realistic candidate for the job or you haven't done your homework on Drew. This is absolutely the best man Vanderbilt could have gotten for the job.