A few years back a popular major-college basketball coach who makes a lot of money at a successful program said privately to me and a couple others that he thought Ohio State was one of the four most desirable coaching jobs in college basketball, joining North Carolina, Texas, and a fourth school I can no longer remember. North Carolina’s inclusion on that list is obvious. Ohio State’s and Texas’ are less so.
But that’s because fans and reporters don’t think like coaches. Basketball coaches enjoy tradition, full arenas and natty-or-bust ambition as much as the next guy, but they also look across the landscape and have thoughts like, “Is there a natural, geographical recruiting base nearby?” along with, “How likely am I to be fired after one bad year?” and, “Did the greatest player of all time, who has a massively popular line of shoes and athletic gear, play there?”
Obviously, Ohio State and Texas are not among the top four college basketball programs, and whenever a coach is privately making statements like that to journalists, you have to wonder what he might be up to.
It was an interesting take nonetheless, and now that Thad Matta has been run off, the Ohio State job is open and will surely attract the attention of some of the sport’s best and brightest coaches. But where, exactly, does it really fit in? What are the most desirable coaching jobs in college basketball? Not “best programs,” mind you. We’re talking about, “Jobs coaches would envy.”
There’s a difference.
1. North Carolina
Michael Jordan played there.
Still a Cinderella after all these years. You’re not actually expected to win national championships at Gonzaga, but you nonetheless can roll up an astonishing win-loss record, make gobs of money, and probably have a statue made in your honor in a beautiful part of the country. This could be the cushiest coaching gig in all of sports.
Not the best program in the world, but pretty good, I guess.
This entry should really say, “Mike Krzyzewski,” because Coach K is Duke and Duke is Coach K. Hard to say what will happen to this program once Krzyzewski leaves. It now has name-brand recognition with two or three generations of fans, one of the most iconic arenas in sports, and a fertile recruiting base on the eastern seaboard. On the other hand, it’s mostly one man’s doing, and the undoing usually comes a lot easier than the doing.
Similar to Kentucky in that it inhabits a small, landlocked state with little nearby talent and relies almost completely on tradition to sustain the program. On the other hand, tradition is highly effective at sustaining college sports programs, and Kansas’ tradition, like Kentucky’s, is potent.
Unlike Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, Florida has no tradition at all. Its first NCAA Tournament appearance didn’t come until in 1987, but it has been to five Final Fours since 1994, winning national championships in 2006 and 2007. What it has is a large and supportive athletic department, membership in the SEC, and the state of Florida, which has more good athletes in it than anybody knows what to do with. You can accidentally recruit a national championship roster there. But if you don’t, it’s not that big of a deal because football.
7. Michigan State
This program is tricky to evaluate for the same reasons Duke is. How much of the fruit that has grown at Michigan State over the last 20 years is really just the work of a singular man, Tom Izzo, and how much is the natural result of a nutrient-rich program? At what point does one become the other?
If you were born in the 80s or 90s, there’s a good chance you can’t remember a world in which UConn was not one of college basketball’s premier programs. It is a bit of a Johnny Come Lately that boasts no conventional recruiting advantages, but what can you say against four national championships since The Slim Shady LP was released?
No, not really.
Arizona is a great example of a program that was elevated from obscurity to national prominence by a great coach (Lute Olson) but which did not really miss a step when he left. It’s the sort of program you expect will be preseason No. 1 every now and then, and it enjoys plenty of fan support, yet there is nothing like the Big Blue Nation breathing down the coach’s neck.
Theoretically, this is a place where you can regularly get Top 10 recruiting classes and compete for national championships. Then, sports aren’t played in theory, and Texas has made exactly one Final Four since Harry Truman was president. This has resulted in mild irritation among some UT fans, who tend to keep themselves busy putting brand-new football coaches on the hot seat. It’s a pretty good situation for a roundball man.
There is some tradition here, but mainly we’re talking about Rick Pitino’s Louisville, where you don’t expect to contend for national titles every year, but often enough.
My guess is that every college basketball coach secretly harbors a fantasy of returning UCLA to glory. UCLA is forever on the verge of being “back,” without really ever getting there. This has been the case since 1995, when the Bruins won their first non-Wooden national championship. The Kevin Love-Russell Westbrook years were fruitful, although those teams saw their seasons ended by Florida and Memphis, respectively. Between fleeting moments of glory, UCLA has worked in giant heaps of mediocrity and outright lousiness. Its arena is old (not in a charming way) and its name doesn’t mean what it once did, but you can still get yourself fired there pretty quick.
13. Ohio State
It’s a big school with a huge fan base and more money than it knows what to do with. Its general geographical area is full of great players every year. So you can recruit great teams and sign huge contracts, but because it isn’t a basketball school, pressure to win big takes longer to boil over.
Oregon’s grip on national relevance is more tenuous than that of most of the other programs on this list, although it is the Nike school, and the Pacific Northwest does not lack for available talent.
Whether OU is at the top or bottom of the Big 12 standings, most people will shrug and go, “Sounds about right.”
Indiana always gets ceremonially placed on these lists. I don’t think it’s among the best 20 programs in college basketball anymore, but it does still seem to be among the most alluring programs to up-and-coming coaches.
This is the list, once and for all, and don’t you dare disagree with me.