Jacobs: Outliers Pull the Trigger

Coaches get fired for all sorts of reasons, losing games being first and foremost even if they do everything else right. Just ask Boston College’s Steve Donahue, Virginia Tech’s James Johnson and Wake Forest’s Jeff Bzdelik, who was given a chance to resign. 

Each predictably walked the plank in the past few days, ending unsuccessful tenures of various durations.  

Dean Smith used to say new arenas got more good basketball coaches fired than any other factor. With grander digs come heightened expectations and a lower tolerance for failure. Bob Staak, for instance, was conveniently sent packing at Wake Forest in time for a move into Joel Coliseum in 1989-90. He made it easy by posting a 45-69 record in four years on the job.

Staak’s replacement, Dave Odom, proved a better coach, ushering in an era of extraordinary prosperity at Wake thanks in large part to improved in-state recruiting and a sleeper from the Virgin Islands named Tim Duncan. 

Keep Odom in mind as the latest coaching searches unfold. Choosing him was a bit of a gamble. He was no hot commodity, no up-and-comer, no thriving head coach — the most common targets of athletic directors in hiring mode. Odom was a Virginia assistant immediately prior to landing at Winston-Salem. His previous college head coaching experience was at East Carolina, where he posted two losing records in three seasons.

Smith’s view on the pitfalls of new facilities (or, presumably, refurbished ones) is rather old-fashioned in our trigger-happy times. Most coaches are far more wary of the danger inherent in working for a new athletic director. Having a boss who did not hire you makes it easier for him or her to disavow the association if things go wrong. 

That lack of personal commitment was surely a factor when brand-new Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock fired Johnson and when Brad Bates, on the job for 18 months, canned Donahue at Boston College. Bzdelik’s relationship with Ron Wellman, his AD, was longstanding, predating their time at Wake, which may explain why the coach lasted four years despite winning only two ACC road games in four seasons.

Fans aching for success are apt to welcome these changes in sideline leadership, with the unspoken prospect of better things to come. Still, most of us feel a measure of compassion, particularly when the coaches cut loose appear to be good guys. Coaching purges also affect a platoon of less-visible support personnel, starting with the groups of earnest assistants who crowd every ACC bench. 

Not that it’s all doom and gloom for the professionally departed. ACC head coaches are well paid, even at the league’s most farflung and penurious outposts. Bzdelik, Donahue and Johnson walk away with ample compensation for contracted years which they will now never work. 

The flameout by Johnson, who lacked head coaching experience when he was chosen to replace Seth Greenberg, is apt to reinforce the belief among most power conference ADs that elevating an assistant is a gamble too great to take. Pitt’s Jamie Dixon is the only remaining ACC coach elevated directly from serving as an assistant during this century.

Apparently the ramifications of what seemed Johnson’s precipitous elevation had an effect on Whit Babcock at Virginia Tech.

“We must find someone ideally with head coaching experience,” the AD said at a press conference after jettisoning Johnson. “I really feel it’s critical that they have head coaching experience.” 

Johnson was the sixth head coach in ACC history axed after two years or less on the job and the first in 40 years. None compiled a winning record. All but one was elevated from assistant coach.

Only South Carolina’s Chuck Noe had previously run a major-college program. Noe, gone after two seasons at Columbia (1963, 1964), was head coach for seven years at Virginia Tech before moving south. 

Frank Fellows, Bud Millikan’s long-time assistant at Maryland, got a shot at the top job and was fired after two seasons (1968, 1969). Jackie Murdock lasted a year (1966) at Wake, his alma mater, after working for Bones McKinney. (Murdock added another Wake grad, Billy Packer, as an assistant on his staff.)

Walt Hamrick, a juco coach hired as an assistant because he brought along Grady Wallace, a prolific scorer who led the nation in 1957, was gone following one season (1959) as head coach at South Carolina. Neil McGeachy flamed out after a year running the Duke program (1974) in the wake of Bucky Waters’s abrupt resignation on the eve of the season.

So forget the possibility an unproven assistant will get the job at BC, Virginia Tech, or Wake Forest. Rather, expect a more realistic and popular scenario – Virginia Tech’s Babcock said he wanted to find “an up-and-coming head coach” to rebuild the Hokie program.

Such is the fate of low-profile, low-tradition, low-ebb programs in major conferences everywhere. “I don’t think you need a splash,’’ agreed BC’s Bates, according to The Boston Globe. That’s particularly true when it’s unlikely you can make a splash.

Just for fun, see if you can pick out a ripe prospect before his lower-seeded team gets knocked out of the current NCAA tournament.

Bzdelik and Johnson were choices out of nowhere. Donahue was considered a quietly rising star when he came over from Cornell in 2010-11, replacing Al Skinner, the most successful coach in Eagles history. Other ACC head coaches still marvel at the decision to push Skinner out the door after 247 wins and seven NCAA appearances in 13 seasons at Beacon Hill.

Unfortunately Donahue’s 3-point intensive approach never quite translated into ACC success. Most observers will recall that his fate was sealed by a nonconference schedule that proved too ambitious, resulting in a 4-9 record out of the gate in 2013-14 that shattered his team’s confidence and quickly doomed it to also-ran status. 

Donahue is too good a basketball mind to stay out of coaching for long. Meanwhile his message to his BC players following the last-place finish of 2012, when the Eagles were 9-22, seems relevant to his current situation.

“Part of success, real success, is the guy who gets the failure,” Donahue recalled prior to this season. “You fail. You put in an opportunity, you took the challenge, you fail miserably. You learn from it. You’ll get there.”

Wherever there may be.