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Miscellany

College Basketball Coaches Have Always Moved Around and Had High Turnover Rates

Frank Martin with a misguided Tarkanian impersonation

Last week, Patrick Hruby had a good piece pointing out the hypocrisy of college basketball coaches complaining about a transfer epidemic. (I wrote about the hypocrisy of coaches whining as well). Coaches have been bemoaning the number of transfers recently, and the graduate transfer rule, while having an amazing lack of self-awareness about their own transfer rates (or the fact that most transfers occur after the coach or school has made a decision to change the circumstances under which the athlete originally chose to attend).

Here is Hruby on that issue:

Yep, I have faith that college coaches understand the real gun-for-hire problem in their sport. Even if they’re not directly talking about it just yet. Moreover, I have faith that they want to do something about it — just like they reportedly want to draft and enact new rules that would discourage players from switching schools just because, you know, it’s a better deal for them and their families or something, and seriously, aren’t these kids ungrateful, entitled little brats? Deep down in their principled bones, coaches know the truth: today, it’s Stevens and Alford lighting out instead of sticking things out and growing as men; tomorrow, it’s literally any coach in what used to be John Wooden’s America packing up the moving van just because there’s something in it for them. 

 Now, that last line caught my attention though. What was John Wooden’s America? Wooden, after all, did not drop fully formed in Westwood, but rather started at Indiana State for a two year stint. There is an epidemic with coaching turnover occurring more frequently than athletes transfer, but just how new of a phenomenon is it?

Using information from sports-reference.com/cbb, I compared schools in the current Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, by looking at coaching turnover since 1990, compared to the pre-World War II era at the same schools. Five of the first six NCAA champions came from these schools, so it is a decent sample of top programs of the era.

Coaches have averaged 6.1 years at the same school since 1990. They averaged 3.8 years at the same school prior to 1941. I’ll note that I excluded seasons that listed no coach, and did not count as separate situations where the same head coach had multiple tenures at the same school, interrupted by other coaches.

In the early days of college basketball, coaches moved around frequently–some because they weren’t good and were quickly replaced, some because they were the early predecessors of today’s coaches, bouncing from opportunity to better opportunity. Back then, that better opportunity often involved coaching other sports as well, and many coaches bounced around to coach basketball, football, and baseball, or moving up to a different position.

Let’s look, for example, at the coaches who won the conferences in 1920.

Lon Jourdet at Penn, via Penn GazettePennsylvania (Ivy): Lon Jourdet — Jourdet would coach at Penn for nineteen seasons, though that was interrupted after the 1920 season. This article makes reference to him retiring after the 22-1 season, and I can find no explanation for what he did in the interim. He did return in 1930-31. Jourdet died at age 70, jumping out of a window, afflicted with tuberculosis.

University of Chicago (Big Ten): Harlan “Pat” Page —  Page left his alma mater after leading them to the Big Ten title, moving to Butler University. The move was likely to get a raise as a coach of both sports, as Page, who had been an assistant football coach at Chicago, also got the head coaching job in football at Butler. Six years later, he would go to Indiana University to serve solely as the football coach.

Missouri (Missouri Valley): “Doc” Meanwell — Meanwell, one of the best coaches of the early era of college basketball and an early innovator of zone defense, had moved from Wisconsin to Missouri a couple of years earlier. After winning the Missouri Valley and going 34-2 at Missouri, he returned to the University of Wisconsin in 1921. He would coach there for 14 more years.

Colorado (Mountain States): Joe Mills — Joe Mills coached four more years at Colorado. Joe Mills has a common name, and I don’t know what else happened to Joe Mills. As we will see, he is the only one to return the following season at the same school.

Texas A&M (Southwest Conference): Bill Driver — Bill Driver had coached football at Ole Miss, before coaching basketball at Texas A&M for four seasons, culminating in a 19-0 record in 1920. The next year, he jumped to conference rival Texas Christian, where he served as both football and basketball coach.

Stanford (Pacific Coast): Melbourne “Fighting Bob” Evans — After moving from Colorado to Stanford, “Fighting Bob” Evans had a successful two years at Stanford. However, he was not retained for the following season. A search reveals this article in the Stanford Illustrated where there was quite a disagreement over Evans between faculty and some alumni on one hand, and the student body that supported him on the other. It even notes that “the nature of the facts brought out in the meeting precluded their being published.” A case of night putting, or pulling a Mike Rice? Hardly.

I had to dig for more details upon seeing that. Fifty-eight different people, it was noted, applied to replace him, including a coach that had gone 13-0 in his only season at Montana State before moving on to Stanford. Evans, meanwhile, turns up coaching the San Francisco Olympic football club two years later–professional football had not come to the Pacific yet, as the NFL had just started in the East. He also became a football official, working several Rose Bowls. Evans’ grandson, Peter Wellington, never talked to his grandfather about his time at Stanford before he died, but according to his mother, the dispute was related to wealthy donors wanting to be in the locker room, and “Fighting Bob” not wanting that to happen.

Well, that’s a story that still rings today (but would be fit to print), a coach getting on the wrong side of the money at a school, with conflicts over handling the coaching versus public relations. In 1920, five of the six successful conference winning coaches were gone the next season. Some moved to other, better jobs, some retired, and some had conflicts with the institution. That sounds like it could come from 2013, and the high turnover rates are not an epidemic, but rather part of the fabric of the profession.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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