The Prodigy Theory of Coaching

Bumped on 3/4/11 after thewiz06's comment below about men's NCAA D1 coaches time to championship - NP

Some of those coaches out there are getting old.  One problem with women's basketball at the college level is that there isn't much turnover - since many programs don't make money and since a head women's basketball coach makes less money than her men's college counterpart, there's less pressure for immediate results.  I'm sure all of us can name great coaches who have been coaching for over 20 years - and who have never won anything.

It looks like Geno Auriemma is healthy enough to be around forever and that Pat Summitt will coach into her eighties out of sheer cussedness.  Even so, there was actually a "pre-Auriemma" era before 1985 which lasted until that fateful day that someone at Connecticut gave Geno a whistle and a clipboard and said "run this program".  If you had looked at Geno Auriemma back in 1985 would you have seen *anything* that would have told you that 10 years later he'd bring the Huskies their first women's championship and be putting down the foundation not merely for a successful program...but for a legendary one?

Part of the problem with projecting Auriemma into his present position from the standpoint of 1985 is trying to imagine him shoving the Linda Sharps and Marianne Staleys and Jody Conradts out of the way.  Like any new head coach, he faced competition from a set of old wildcats that had no intention of letting some newcomer shove his way into national championship contention.

But he did it.  And someday, Geno, someone's going to do it to you.  Some young man or woman - they might be holding that whistle and clipboard right now - is going to make a lot of happy fans shout "Geno who?" whenever your name is mentioned.  Someday, Geno, you'll be looking at someone else hoisting that championship trophy while you wonder why you can't win the big one anymore.

The only question is how long does it take for a great coach to start yielding dividends?  Geno didn't build his program up overnight, nor did Pat Summitt.  (Well, maybe Pat Summitt did but she was the only one.)  In Geno's case, it didn't take long at all.  Granted, he had the advantage of Debbie Ryan's and Jim Foster's tutelage, but in six years Auriemma already had Connecticut in his first Final Four - and unlike many other programs, he had no intention of being happy with just getting there.

I'm thinking of Iago's line in Othello: "...and not by old gradation, where each second stood heir to the first."  It might be comforting for a coach to think of winning a national championship as the capstone of a 20 or 30 year career in women's basketball, where finally it's your turn to win it all.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way in real life.  To be a great women's basketball coach is to be more like a prodigy, more a Cassio than an Iago.  Being a great basketball coach requires exceptional talent - you have to show that you're the best program out of a dozen serious contenders, and in many cases you have to build the program up from doormat status to contender level. 

This kind of talent is not the kind of talent that takes twenty years to percolate.  This kind of talent usually shows itself from the very first blowing of the whistle.  With great coaches, things happen and they happen *fast*.  Let's look at the individual coaches that have won NCAA women's basketball championships, and count the number of years from when they first started coaching a Division I women's program until the time they walked away with a championship.

1982:  Sonja Hogg:  started 1974, champion in 1982 with Louisiana Tech  (8)
          Leon Barmore:  started 1977, champion in 1982 with Louisiana Tech (5)
1983:  Linda K. Sharp:  started 1976, champion in 1983 with USC (7)
1985:  Marianne Staley:  started 1978, champion in 1985 with Old Dominion (7)
1986:  Jody Conradt:  started 1969, champion in 1986 with Texas (15*)
1987:  Pat Summitt:  started 1974, champion in 1987 with Tennessee (13)
1990:  Tara VanDerveer:  started 1978, champion in 1990 with Stanford (12)
1993:  Marsha Sharp:  started 1982, champion in 1993 with Texas Tech (13) 
1994:  Sylvia Hatchell:  started 1986, champion in 1994 with North Carolina (8**)
1995:  Geno Auriemma:  started 1985, champion in 1995 with Connecticut (10)
1999:  Carolyn Peck:  started 1997, champion in 1999 with Purdue (2)
2001:  Muffet McGraw:  started 1987, champion in 2001 with Notre Dame (14)
2005:  Kim Mulkey:  started 1996, champion in 2005 with Baylor (9***)
2006:  Brenda Frese:  started 1999, champion in 2006 with Maryland (7)

(*) We only count years since 1971-72, when the first AIAW National Championship took place.
(**) Hatchell also coached at Francis Marion before North Carolina, a non-Division I school.  Only her tenure as a Division I coach is counted.
(***) Mulkey's tenure as associate head coach at Louisiana Tech is counted.

Average time from first Division I head coaching job to championship
: 9 seasons (130 years/14 coaches, rounded)
Mean time from first Division I head coaching job to championship:  8 to 9 seasons

Some of the outliers are worth mentioning.  It could be argued that Carolyn Peck simply inherited Lin Dunn's groundwork and that she doesn't deserve much credit for Purdue's championship.  As for the first coaches on this list - like Jody Conradt and Pat Summitt - it could be argued that they are penalized for coaching parts of their career during a time when the championship system and format were essentially underdeveloped, and that they would have won sooner if women's basketball had been a better developed sport.

In the modern era, the outliers seem to be coaches like Marsha Sharp and Muffet McGraw, who didn't see national championships until their second decade of coaching.  Given our small data set, we develop the Prodigy Theory of Coaching.

Prodigy Theory of Coaching:  Coaches who have been head coaches at Division I women's basketball programs for over fifteen years and haven't won NCAA championships will never win an NCAA championship.

It could also be called the Logan's Run Theory of Coaching:  "When the red crystal in your palm starts flashing after fifteen years, it's time to report to Carousel." 

We shall now create a list of ten coaches that *might* win a Division I championship.  Creating the list has now been made easier:  we sort out everyone with a tenure of more than 15 years as a head coach in Division I who hasn't won a national championship.

Joanne P. McCallie?  Out.  (Head coach since 1992.)  Gary Blair?  Out.  Jim Foster?  Out. (Maybe out sooner than he thinks.) This 15-year filter turns out to be a very strong filter that might leave very few coaches standing. 

Sherri Coale - Oklahoma - 14 years (1997)
Sue Semrau - Florida State - 14 years (1997)
Suzy Merchant - Michigan State - 13 years (1998)
Sharon Versyp - Purdue - 11 years (2000)
Mike Carey - West Virginia - 10 years (2001)
Joanne Boyle - California - 9 years (2002)
Kevin McGuff - Xavier - 9 years (2002)
Rick Insell - Middle Tennessee State - 6 years (2005)
Jeff Walz - Louisville - 4 years (2007)
Tonya Cardoza - Temple - 3 years (2008)

I chose these ten coaches because these coaches belong to successful programs.  Some of these programs were built to their present level of success by those coaches; others inherited a program that a predecessor built to prominence.

Even so, the list doesn't fill one with confidence.  Coale and Walz have challenged for a national title but no one else has.  Xavier is a great mid-major but can it really challenge the likes of Connecticut or Tennessee?  Should Tonya Cardoza even be there at all?  The rest of the list doesn't strike me as listing coaches possessing some nascent ability that's ready to explode.

But then again, that's the nature of the beast.  If someone had created a list with Geno Auriemma on it in 1988 and said "this guy might be an elite head coach" who would have bought it?  Probably not many people.  Successful head coaches might start slow but they peak quickly.  Kevin McGuff or Jeff Walz might indeed be the next Geno Auriemma.  After all, hasn't Xavier's rise to prominence been meteoric? Walz seems to be doing something right at Louisville; who's to say that his program might not move up to even a higher level?

Elite head coaches can indeed be compared to explosives - they cause a great impact on their surroundings, they "blow up" quickly, and you usually don't know that they're there until the dust clears and everything around them is rendered a smoking ruin.  I'm sure that there are some who think that the idea of a Kevin McGuff or Jeff Walz winning a national championship is pretty funny.  Those coaches might indeed be duds, but if I were an enemy coach, I'd handle them very carefully - and at a safe distance.  Ask those coaches in 1985 who chuckled at UConn ever amounting to anything.