Earlier this season, the Director of Basketball Operations at a well-known Division 1 university emailed and asked about coaching in Europe. As I wrote last summer, I am asked frequently about landing a job in Europe. Many young coaches, it seems, have the same thought that I had when I was a young coach: coaching in Europe would be a great experience and would move my coaching career forward. In my experience, it has been a great learning experience, but it has not always been a great experience, nor has it furthered my coaching career.
When the DBO replied a couple months later, again seeking some advice and assistance, I asked about his goals. From my perspective, if his goal was to become a head coach at the college level someday, his best route was to stay in the college game and work up the coaching ladder. When I was 25, I thought that I had found a short cut to climb the ladder and leap ahead of other coaches. Instead, it turned out the short cut led me astray.
When I left for Sweden in 2002, I thought that one year of head coaching experience in Europe would help me to get hired as an assistant coach at a good program because of the diversity of experience, the head coaching experience, and the new recruiting connections. I was so confident that I would land a job that I left early from my contract.
My contract ran through June, and I wanted the club to guarantee a second season if I was going to remain until June. Otherwise, as the season was winding down, I felt that I should return to the U.S. to seek a new job around the Final Four in April. Despite coaching in the All-Star Game and taking a team picked for last to a 5th place finish (the National Team Head Coach said in the newspaper that we had “no talent, but played hard”), they would not decide on my second year until the summer (probably budget-related, as I have learned in my European experiences). Rather than collect two months of pay for doing virtually nothing, I left because I felt that there were a couple assistant coaching jobs that I could get. I was wrong. I could not even get an interview, though several coaches were happy to ask for my assistance in recruiting a couple of the players who I knew from the All-Star Game (signed at LSU and Miami).
The problem, as I have learned over the years, is that coaching decisions are based on networks. For a head coach to hire someone as an assistant, the head coach must know the new hire personally or the new hire must be recommended by someone who the head coach knows well.
My network at the college level is virtually nonexistent because I have been away from the college game since 2002 (though college coaches email and ask for assistance with their recruiting, offseason workouts, and player development ideas), which means that I cannot get a job as a college assistant. By leaving the college game in 2002 to go abroad, I moved further away from the network of coaches, and that made it hard to get back into the game, and even harder as time has passed.
Therefore, I advised the DBO not to pursue a job in Europe if his goal is to be a college coach. Instead, I advised him to use his head coach’s network and move up the ladder. Find someone from his head coach’s network who has a vacancy and ask the head coach to push him for the job. From what I have seen, that is hiring in sports.
The hiring process for head coaching positions is not dissimilar. In academia, the hiring process involves a phone interview, checking references, and an on-campus interview that requires the candidate to teach a class, present his or her research, meet with the faculty, and meet with interested students. In athletics, it appears that hires are based on endorsements. I have heard of one school in 15 years that had coaches do an on-court practice as part of the interview process. How do you determine a coaching hire based on a standardized 10-question, 15-minute phone conversation? You don’t. You hire based off the recommendations of someone with name recognition or someone within the athletic director’s network. When I interviewed for a high-school head-caching job when I was 22, the interview lasted almost an hour (I was one of five finalists), but I know some universities narrowing their final pool of candidates with 15-minute phone interviews!
If being a college coach is the goal, working for different college coaches when starting out is advantageous, as you can get into more coaching circles. The more circles, the bigger one’s network, and the better one’s opportunity to move up in the coaching game. My first boss at the college level had worked for eight coaches in the nine seasons before he was hired as a head coach. Whereas that may seem problematic to some, it meant that he had a lot of supporters to call for him and to push him for jobs.
Moving abroad to gain experience has value intrinsically and professionally, but not in terms of getting the next college job or moving up the ladder. If the goal is to coach abroad permanently, it might be a tougher path to pursue than coaching college basketball, especially for someone like the DBO who has his foot in the college door.
There are not many full-time entry-level coaching jobs in Europe. Therefore, you have to be pretty lucky to find one, know someone who knows someone, or have a big enough name to land a non-entry-level full-time coaching job in one of the better leagues. Nearly every American coach in Europe whom I have met has been a former player who married a local and never returned to the States. There are not many coaches who were hired directly from the U.S. to Europe specifically to coach. The one who I met had worked for a college coach who was friends with a club manager in Europe. Again, you have to be lucky or connected (or a former player who never leaves).
In coaching, hiring is about connections and your network. The bigger (and more famous) your network, the better chance that you will have to land your next job, whether moving up the assistant’s ladder or landing the first head coaching job. Competence and merit have almost nothing to do with getting jobs because the interview process is hardly sufficient to establish competence. Coaches and athletic directors rely on personal relationships, which means that the best way to move up in the college game is to create a network that reaches more coaches and athletic directors. Moving to Europe to coach for a season or two shrinks the access to college coaches and narrows one’s network at a time when someone like the DBO should be cultivating a bigger and broader network, like my first boss.
Now, for my interests, coaching in Europe was the best decision. I like being a head coach. I like the lifestyle. I learned a great deal. However, I also make less money than I did in my first job out of college, and I have never worked with more than a 9-month contract. The only time that I have been settled in my adult life was my three years in graduate school. There are definite compromises in lifestyles that one has to make to coach abroad. It is not for everyone, and if the goal is to be a college coach, it is a diversion, not a short cut, and one that may never lead back to the original goal.