The Fallacy of the College Coach as an Expert Coach

Recently, I have suggested that the average college coach is in no way superior to a good high-school coach in terms of coaching ability. Further, I have suggested that running a high-school program is as difficult, if not more difficult, than running a college program because of the constraints at the high-school level and the additional help (SIDs, S&C coaches, DoBs, administrative assistants, assistants, managers, etc.) at the college level. The difference between the high school and college coach is often a difference of choice and opportunity: One chooses one path over the other early in one’s adult life or one is granted an opportunity that may not be available to all often due to a successful playing career. In other words, the difference between a high school coach and a college coach is often not skill, but dumb luck. 

Here is a story to demonstrate luck’s role in coaching success.

Years ago, I was a junior-college assistant coach. There was a local player who I loved. I loved everything about her game. She was a savvy, scoring point guard. I watched her with her high-school team, and I watched her work out with her trainer, as I occasionally trained players in the same gym. I never met this player despite watching her play a half-dozen times. She was one of the best players that I saw all year, and I watched future Pac-10, SEC, Big East, etc. players.

Coincidentally, her mother called the basketball offices one day. My boss – the head coach – had no idea who the girl was and was not inclined to help random people, so she gave me the message. I immediately returned the call.

The mother graduated from a very prestigious academic institution and hoped her daughter would attend the same school. She wanted her daughter to stay relatively close to home. I happened to know the staff at the mother’s alma mater from working their camp during the previous summer, so I emailed the staff and recommended the girl. It was a long shot, but the mother would have been happy with a walk-on role. I also mentioned to the mother a D2 program that had similar academic standards and was closer to home. I told the mother that I would email their coach too.

The D1 program was uninterested in the player. She did not look like a D1 athlete when she walked in the gym, so many coaches overlooked her without even watching her play. The D2 coach said that she would follow up. That was the extent of my role. I introduced a player who I loved and would have loved to coach to a coach who did not do much recruiting and who I had never met, and the player ended up at the D2 program, which had not been overly successful.

After the player’s arrival, the coach retired. A new coach was hired. Before the player’s junior season, another star player enrolled in school. Player 2 arrived on campus to play another sport, but at the last minute, she switched her mind and played basketball. The basketball coach had not recruited her. She picked the school because she planned to go to medical school.

When the first player was a senior and the second player a sophomore, the first player was an All-American and the team went to the NCAA Final Four. The head coach, who had been there for 3 years, left for a D1 job. The new coach inherited a talented team, although one that was missing its star. However, when the second player was a senior, she too was an All-American. After 4-5 years, the second coach left for a D1 job, as recruiting had become much easier after the initial Final Four berth.

Two coaches who moved to the D1 level, and it all started with players who neither recruited. They lucked into the players. One was overlooked because of her size, speed, and complexion, while the other arrived to play a different sport. Now, the coaches had to do something right to reach the Final Four and to maintain the status near the top of the league, but the program essentially was jump-started by two flukes.

The original coach did not win a recruiting battle or identify a hidden gem. The player fell into her lap. The second coach did not identify the second player; she fell into her lap when she decided to play basketball (incidentally, the second player played in the same high-school league and was the same size as another player who played high D1 basketball, and she was the equal of her in high school). That’s luck.

Would these coaches have succeeded without the two All-Americans? Who knows? I don’t want to discount their coaching ability, as I have not watched them enough to evaluate their coaching skills. Would they have ascended to the D1 level as rapidly without those two players? No.

For each coach, there was a happy confluence of circumstances. For the first coach, the original coach retired right as an All-American was matriculating. For the second coach, she inherited a Final Four team who lost only 2 players and returned a future All-American.

If a good high school coach had the same fortuitous situation happen to him or her, could he or she have replicated the success? Probably. When a rash of jobs opened this spring, several prominent high school coaches were mentioned for the openings. Many discounted them as “only high school coaches” as if coaching college basketball is some otherworldly endeavor. I would say a high school coach who can build a program from the ground and maintain its excellence for years is competent enough to coach a college basketball team, but somehow the perception is that ALL college coaches are on some higher plane than ALL high school coaches, as if someone like Bob Hurley, Sr. is not as good as any coach at any level in the U.S.

My point is not to demean the two coaches who benefitted from some good fortune and made the most of their opportunities. Instead, my point is to suggest that there are many unrecognized coaches who are equally as competent, but have not had the same fortune or opportunity.

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