To Tread or Re-Tread

When it comes to finding a coach, sports in general is in what I call the Re-Tread Business.  That means you take someone who may have flamed out somewhere else, or even has been out of the business for a while and put him back to work on the sidelines hoping, just hoping that this will work.  Much like an actual re-tread tire, however, it can easily get the 18 wheeler to its intended destination or it can fall off right on the interstate leaving a hazard for those to come behind.

Professional sports is in love with re-treads.  This year in the NFL alone, the San Francisco 49ers have “retreaded” Chip Kelly to be their head coach.  Kelly is a reported micro manager wanting to control everything in an organization including what his players eat.  Seriously?  You might be able to do that in college, but these are adults and if they can’t handle adult responsibility then you send them packing like any other business would do.  His ways didn’t work in Philadelphia and my guess is that they won’t work in San Francisco.  So, that means Kelly will be a college re-tread sometime in the not to distant future.  In general, the NFL loves re-treads, and has for a long time.  Jeff Fisher is one having been canned in Tennessee and now just an average coach of a below average team that is moving from St. Louis back to Los Angeles.  Those of you who have been around a while may remember the names Marion Campbell and Rich Kotite.  Campbell goes down as one of the worst head coaches in NFL history with a career record of 34-80-1 and no appearances in the post-season. Yet, the Atlanta Falcons hired him twice as their head coach and his second tenure wasn’t any better than the first.  Rich Kotite flamed out in Philadelphia.  No matter, he was then hired as the coach of the Jets.  His career record was 40-56 with 2 post-season appearances.

I say all this because if you look at college basketball, it’s head coaching ranks are full of re-treads.  In all fairness, some of those have worked out, some have not and the jury is still out on whether a coaches’ second (or even third chance) will ultimately work.  Some of these guys have run afoul of the NCAA and had to hold a clipboard in the NBA for a while.  Some of them have certainly seen their better days.

SMU coach Larry Brown is the ultimate re-tread.  He’s the only coach whose ever won both an NCAA Championship (Kansas 1988) and an NBA Championship (Detroit 2004).  He can clearly coach, and let’s be honest, SMU basketball was a dumpster fire until he showed up a few years ago.  He’s won plenty of games, but at the same time has been hammered by the NCAA costing his team (which is really good this season at 23-4) a shot at the NCAA Tournament, and him a 9 game suspension.  Brown has never held one job very long so figure his days in Dallas are probably numbered, but if his career path follows its normal trajectory, he’ll be back in the NBA somewhere, sometime.

Auburn University re-treaded former UW-Milwaukee and Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl last year.  Again, a person who can clearly coach.  For god sake, he took Tennessee (yes, that’s Tennessee) to number one in the country and within 3 seconds of a Final 4.  His downfall in Knoxville was lying to the NCAA about a barbeque of all things at his house where recruits attended.  An NCAA no-no, but likewise, not on the list of the most egregious offenses you’ll ever see.  All he had to do was say “yea, they were there and that’s my fault” and this goes away with the school losing a scholarship and maybe some recruiting visits.  Instead, he lied, counseled his assistant coaches to lie and tried to circle the wagons like John Gotti or something and obstruct an NCAA investigation.  It didn’t work.  It cost him three years out of the business.  As soon as he was eligible to return, Auburn hired him.  This year his Auburn team is a woeful 11-16, but (while I don’t like recruiting rankings and don’t put much stock in it) apparently he has a top 10 recruiting class coming in next year and Auburn will be better quickly.

As for Tennessee, well they also have another re-tread in Rick Barnes.  His first Tennessee team suffers from a major problem and that is that most of their players couldn’t play dead in a gun fight.  They are a below average 13-15 and I’m honestly not sure how they won that many games.  Barnes was at Texas for 17 years and Tennessee touts that he took the Longhorns (like Tennessee, generally considered a football school) to the Final 4.  There is a difference however.  At Texas he was able to coach players like T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant.  Those type players ain’t coming to Tennessee when if they are really good they can play at Kentucky.  In all fairness however, Barnes should get time to try and he might ultimately be a success at Tennessee, but likewise understand success at Tennessee in basketball is a pretty low barrier to jump.  The school has a over-sized 21,000 seat arena which is about half to three-quarters full most of their home games.  Those that are in the arena’s lower bowl are mostly “geezers” who donated money in the late 80s to build the arena and were rewarded with seats close to the court where they can sit on their hands all game.  Among the coaches they have employed are losers like Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neil and Buzz Peterson.  The Hall of Fame ain’t calling their names any time soon.

Some re-treads work out very well (and again Barnes may well do so).  Cliff Ellis took Auburn and Clemson to the NCAA Tournament before landing at Coastal Carolina.  He’s done a great job at the school winning Big South Championships and playing in the NCAA Tournament.  When he arrived, the school played in a high school gym, but quickly upgraded to a better arena and soon a better conference as they are off to the SunBelt next year.  Steve Fisher’s career was left for dead after Michigan.  He recruited the “Fab 5” and played in two NCAA Championship games before NCAA problems forced him out.  He landed on his feet at San Diego State where he’s built a terrific and consistently winning program.  Larry Eustacy was near the top of his profession at Iowa State leading the Cyclones to a #2 seed in the Tournament one season.  Then pictures surfaced of him drinking with co-eds at Missouri.  Oops.  That cost him his job at Iowa State, but to his credit he’s conquered his demons and rebuilt his career first at Southern Miss and now at Colorado State.  Kelvin Sampson ran into NCAA problems at both Oklahoma and Indiana.  Seems Kelvin couldn’t quite grasp the concept of just how many phone calls  you can make to recruits.  The NCAA put him on the bench (an NBA bench that is) with a clipboard for five years.  Houston hired him and his Cougars team is 20-8. They are not likely to win a National Title any time soon, but if you remember the Houston teams of the 1980s, having a Houston team that’s good is good for college basketball.

Perhaps no re-tread has been a better hire than Tubby Smith at Texas Tech.  Smith won an NCAA title at Kentucky in 1998.  In all fairness he did so with players left over from Rick Pitino, but you still have to coach them and that’s always been his strong point.  His career eventually took a down-turn at Kentucky and he left for Minnesota.  That’s not an upward career move.  Minnesota ran him out and he landed in Lubbock, Texas.  The knock on him has always been that he’s not a great recruiter.  I understand that’s a major part of the job, but the man is a brilliant coach.  I’ve never seen anybody better at designing a play to score coming out of a timeout.  That to me is a sign of a great coach.  Someone who can draw something up in the dirt, get the players to run it without having ever practiced it,  and get points out of it.  This year his Texas Tech team is 18-9 and 8-7 in the brutal Big 12.  He’s beaten Oklahoma and is on his way to an NCAA Tournament appearance with yet another school.  He’s taken Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota to the tournament and now he’s set to do that at a 5th school.  The pressure cooker in Lubbock, Texas is a lot less than that in Lexington, Kentucky so at his age can you blame him for cruising to the finish line there.  I can’t.

As good as a re-tread hire as Tubby Smith was at Texas Tech, you can make a case that the best one ever is West Virginia hiring Bob Huggins.  Huggy-bear as he’s called led Cincinnati to the Final 4.  He probably could have remained at Cincinnati for the rest of his life, but was felled by his own demons.  A DUI cost him his job, a heart attack nearly cost him his life and West Virginia (his alma mater) gave him a third chance after a one year second chance stop at Kansas State.  He’s made the most of it and then some.  I don’t know the man, but there has to be more below that gruff facade that everyone sees.  I expect he’s got a gigantic heart and would do anything for anyone.  You got an idea of what type of person he was the year he took West Virginia to the Final 4.  In the second half, his best player shredded his knee in front of a full arena.  There was Huggins on the court holding and comforting his player.  I’m not saying that every coach wouldn’t do that because I’m sure some would, but Huggins facade creates a fascinating example of it’s what’s inside that matters.  Huggins has transitioned West Virginia from the Big East (where they won a championship) to what is arguably the best league in the country.  This year in the Big 12 the Mountaineers are 21-5 and 10-5 in the Conference and play a unique style that can give anyone fits, although I recommend that his players not piss out someone like they did Kentucky last year before an epic beat down in the NCAA Tournament.  And again, he’s taken West Virginia to a Final 4.  This is a school that for about 20 years employed a clown named Gale Catlett as head coach.

Some re-treads are about out of tread.  Bruce Webber at Kansas State made his name at Southern Illinois where frankly he did an amazing job.  He probably should have just stayed there.  Instead he jumped to Illinois where he took a team recruited by former coach Bill Self to the NCAA Championship game.  That was the high point.  He was eventually fired and landed at Kansas State where – while he’s had his moments – the program is largely now mediocre and Webber may soon be unemployed.

Jeff Lebo is a curious coach.  Lebo – a former player at North Carolina (and I hated him for that) – turned his success at Chattanooga into a job at Auburn where he was promptly canned.  He landed at East Carolina (not exactly a basketball factory), but even at ECU they have to expect more than 10-18.

There may not be a bigger disaster right now than the case of James “Bruiser” Flint.  Bruiser was a former John Calipari assistant at U-Mass and took over as head coach there after Calipari went to the try the NBA.  He was fired at U-Mass and landed at Drexel in Philadelphia.  This year the Dragons are one of the nation’s worst teams at 5-23 and you can just about bet your 401k that even at Drexel that won’t do.

Then there’s what I like to call the most mediocre big name coach in the business.  Steve Alford is one of the most revered players in Indiana University history and was part of the school’s 1987 NCAA Championship team.  He moved into coaching.  His first Division 1 job was at Missouri State where he pulled an upset in the NCAA Tournament and promptly jumped to Iowa.  He failed at Iowa and was fired landing at New Mexico.  Again, in all fairness he did a nice job at New Mexico in a place where they love their basketball.  He parlayed that into the job at UCLA.  Last year he did take UCLA to the Sweet 16, but this year frankly the Bruins peaked out when they beat Kentucky in December.  They are just 15-13 and 6-9 in the PAC-12 ahead of just Arizona State (which is rebuilding) and an awful Washington State team that has one just one game in the PAC-12.  Alford is going to get some equity at UCLA because of his pedigree, but if UCLA has shown one thing over the years since the Wooden days, they’ve made some curious hires and then had an itchy trigger finger with those hires.

Life is all about second chances and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m a big believer in second chances because God knows I’ve gotten a few myself.  However, in the case of re-treads sometimes it is the name that gets them a certain opportunity.  If they take advantage of it, great.  If they don’t, then some athletic director is going to have to start by moving the old tire out of the middle of the interstate.

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