The 15-Year Curve: How Outsiders Have Finally Made It
A key talking point in Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book Outliers is the theory, initially proposed in the early 1990s, that a person needs 10,000 hours of practice to become "expert" in any given craft. Whether you want to believe the exact number as gospel or use it as a comparative mark to set against less-accomplished people in any chosen field, the point is that elite performance requires what's known as "deliberate practice" over a long period of time. There are no shortcuts to becoming great, regardless of what kind of natural gifts you have in a particular discipline. You have to put in the work.
Evidence of a similar curve seems to be growing in the modern college basketball world. Last week, reports surfaced that Xavier and Butler were going to be invited to join the breakaway component of the Big East, stamping both programs with hard-earned, big-boy legitimacy. Yesterday came official word that Gonzaga, long the bellwether for so-called mid-major upward mobility, had made it to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time in school history.
Whether you believe the Musketeers and Bulldogs will succeed at this higher level or whether you think Gonzaga is the best team in the nation is irrelevant. These pieces of news are data points at the end of the "deliberate practice" curve that has landed these schools in these spots. The lesson we're learning: You can make it to the top and join the establishment as an outsider. It's just going to take you a heck of a lot of effort, money and good fortune.
It should hearten college basketball fans to see athletic programs that don't have (scholarship) football succeed to this extent. While the focus of many in the industry is on gross revenues generated, especially from the relentlessly bloating cash cow that is football-related TV, schools without such football expense have been playing a different game for awhile, pouring an abnormally high percentage of their overall athletics budgets into men's college basketball.
Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier don't have budgets anywhere close to the Texases and Ohio States of the athletics world, but in 2011-12, the schools invested 31 percent, 27 percent and 29 percent of their total budgets to men's hoops. The Zags put over $6 million into men's hoops last season, more than a lot of brand-name major programs (like Ohio State and Michigan). All three schools, according to data from the Office of Postsecondary Education, pay their head coaches in the seven figures annually. They are competing with a smaller pie by cutting bigger slices of it rather than the more genteel portions allocated at schools that play major-conference football. In comparison, Duke, the top-spending basketball school in D-I at over $15 million in 2011-12, spends only 20 percent of its athletics budget on men's basketball.
This wasn't always the case. Dan Monson told me earlier this season that he made less than $100,000 at Gonzaga in 1998-99, the year the Zags went to the Elite Eight, and that was a major reason why he jumped for the money at Minnesota. But it's been the case for awhile at each of these schools. Xavier invested in opening the $46 million Cintas Center in 2000. Gonzaga debuted its $25 million McCarthy Center in 2004. Butler is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to improve a lot about historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. All three schools have also invested in, and generally kept, good coaches by bumping salaries as needed.
The results? Gonzaga has won at least one NCAA tournament game in 12 of the last 14 seasons, and almost certainly will extend that run this year if it gets the 1- or 2-seed that everyone expects. The program has made five Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight (albeit much of that coming in 1999-2001). Butler was the 1- or 2-seed in the Horizon League in eight of its 11 seasons, has made two national championship games and made two other Sweet 16s since 2003. Xavier has made five Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights in the past decade while being the 1-seed in the A-10 in four of the last six years.
All three of these programs have earned their way to the top in every way possible. They have shown financial commitment, astute hiring, strong marketing and top-level performance on the floor. Despite a market that remains clearly stacked against outsiders in almost every way, they made it, and other schools like VCU are tracking them up the learning curve. The glass ceiling has been broken, and it will be exciting to see how many other schools are willing to try to push through it. The rapidly changing conference landscape and proliferation of broadcast platforms may help shorten the path to the top for some of the most ambitious. So what comes next for the not-so-nouveau chic? Butler and Xavier will reload with the expected (relative) riches of the pending Fox TV contract for the new Big East. With several more million in revenue a year, expect these teams to do what they have done every step of the way: Quickly adjust to new environments and keep winning. As for Gonzaga? Well, the Bulldogs will just have to settle for being considered the best team in the country this week. Fifteen years ago, I'm guessing the school would have signed for that.