When conference play began in January, the agents, search firms and athletic directors in the college sports industry projected a quiet year for college basketball coaching turnover. There were a few potential openings, but not enough to consider this an unusually volatile year.
In the past six weeks, that notion has changed radically. And with NC State firing Mark Gottfried on Thursday afternoon—a job few expected would open—the speculation of an active job market met the reality of what promises to be a chaotic next six weeks of firings, hiring and the endless drama that accompanies job turnover.
The NC State opening offers a perfect window into what could be one of the most intriguing trends of the 2017 hiring cycle. With coaches like Dayton’s Archie Miller and Xavier’s Chris Mack unlikely to take the job, it sets up perfectly for an established coach at a Power 5 school—or one that pays like a power conference school, like VCU or Wichita State—to make a lateral slide to that role in Raleigh.
Part of this potential trend is a dearth of established mid-major coaches on the market this season. The top-tier of that mid-major market—UNC-Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts, Illinois State’s Dan Muller, Chattanooga’s Matt McCall, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson, Monmouth’s King Rice, Vermont's John Becker and Boise State's Leon Rice—likely lack the résumés to make that big of a jump. Observed one industry source: “There’s not that many names of guys this year that are proven.”
That means proven coaches could end up as hotter commodities. Think of Jamie Dixon going from Pittsburgh to TCU last year or Kevin Stallings bouncing from Vanderbilt to Pittsburgh. While those moves haven’t been overly common in the past, there’s an expectation in the industry of an uptick—or attempted uptick—of those types of moves.
In truth, NC State isn’t a very good job. Sure, there’s a strong history, great facilities and a loyal fan base. But there’s an endless winter in the shadow of Duke and North Carolina. Plus, the Wolfpack also lead the ACC in unrealistic expectations, as Gottfried made four NCAA tournaments in six years and got fired two days after Valentine’s Day. (To be fair, his team played with all the poise and discipline of Marmaduke chasing his tail for most of the season).
The two most obvious targets for NC State dovetail with the potential trend of this hiring cycle: Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Indiana’s Tom Crean. (Yes, Marshall is at a Missouri Valley school, but there’s nothing mid-major about a contract where his base salary will be $3.5 million in 2018.)
Marshall would be a perfect fit at NC State. He’s familiar with the region from his nine seasons at Winthrop (Rock Hill, S.C.), where he made seven NCAA tournaments. Marshall’s boundless self-confidence would make him a perfect foil to aristocratic Tobacco Road neighbors Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. Essentially, Marshall views himself as a peer, and he would certainly not be afraid to rock the boat. Quite frankly, his presence in Raleigh would be rollicking fun.
But, there’s plenty working against it happening. Let’s start with the salary. NC State isn’t flush with cash, and it’s hard to imagine them gathering the funds to pay Marshall $4 million per year. Also, Marshall danced this dance back in 2011 before the school hired Gottfried. Why now?
There is an increasing feeling in the industry that this could be the year that Marshall finally leaves Wichita. He’s gone 254–89 there, reached the 2013 Final Four and appears on track for his sixth straight NCAA tournament. There’s increasing buzz that the American Athletic Conference will make a run at Wichita, which would immediately make it a much more difficult job. There’s also some competition for NC State here, as LSU, Missouri, Washington, Illinois and Arkansas (considered 50–50 to open) could also make a run at him. Compensation is important to Marshall, and someone on that list should be able to compensate him.
Then there’s the captivating case of Crean. Indiana is sputtering to the finish, having lost four straight and having no easy matchups remaining on the schedule. Indiana is 15–12 and 5–9 in the Big Ten, a freefall that can be attributed in part to a season-ending injury to star wing OG Anunoby and leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. missing three conference games with a leg injury.
Crean has won two outright Big Ten titles since 2013, and he’s considered one of the best strategists and development coaches in college basketball. He dragged Indiana out of the depths of probation, but he’s yet to be fully embraced by the fan base despite the recent success.
At a certain point, it’s worth wondering if Crean will get a wandering eye to somewhere his success will be celebrated instead of second-guessed. Could that be NC State? Crean also presents a tantalizing nemesis to Coach K and Ole Roy, as his daily ethos of outworking everyone fits better at an underdog than a blue blood.
Whether Crean would make the move to NC State, or a place like Missouri or Washington, is a fascinating question. He’s entrenched in Bloomington, as his daughter attends school there and his son is committed to play baseball there. But as the years pass and the criticism fails to wane, there’s seemingly less and less of a chance of happy ending for Crean at Indiana. This season offers Crean a chance at a clean break and fresh start. It’s unknown how seriously Indiana is considering firing Crean, as athletic director Fred Glass is loyal and there’s a realistic chance Indiana may not be able to find a sure-fire upgrade. (Miller would certainly be a top target, as would Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Arizona’s Sean Miller and Xavier’s Mack. Don’t dream of Steve Alford unless you want to pay $7.8 million to buy him out.)
Crean doesn’t have to pay anything to leave Indiana. As the losses and consternation pile up, so should the possibility of him exploring other options.
Here are six other brand-name coaches that could emerge as intriguing names in the next few weeks:
Cuonzo Martin, California. He’s led both Cal and Tennessee to the NCAA tournament and holds a career record of 183–115. Martin is from East St. Louis, Ill., played at Purdue and got his start as a head coach at Missouri State. His Midwestern roots make it likely Illinois, Missouri or Arkansas could all swoon for him. LSU could be intrigued as well. Expect Martin’s name to be bandied about a lot the next few weeks, as he fits at too many places.
Scott Drew, Baylor. Drew’s name rarely comes up on the coaching carousel. But with the Bears projected as a No. 1 seed and the Baylor brand toxic in the wake of the football scandal under former coach Art Briles, the time appears ideal for an escape. Drew makes more than $2.5 million, which limits the places he could end up. Perhaps a place like LSU, Missouri or Illinois could be intrigued by the consistent success he’s had at Baylor. But could they afford to give him a raise?
Lorenzo Romar, Washington. There’s a strong chance Romar gets fired. And his failure to make the NCAA tournament for a sixth straight season justifies that. The most intriguing part of Romar moving laterally would be that he could potentially bring the projected No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Michael Porter Jr., with him. Porter’s father, Michael Porter Sr., is an assistant for Romar. (Romar is also Porter Jr.’s godfather). The gamble here would be that Romar, who has 391 career wins and seven NCAA tournament appearances, can use Porter Jr. as a talent magnet and rekindle some of the magic he found earlier in his career. But a more realistic option is that Porter Sr. becomes the most attractive free agent assistant coach on the market.
Frank Martin, South Carolina. He’s a good sleeper name for NC State if the school whiffs on top-tier candidates. Martin signed a deal last year that extended him through 2022 and pays him nearly $2.5 million. But there’s a reason South Carolina has made one NCAA tournament since 1998: It’s not a very good job. That makes Martin susceptible to being tempted by a better situation. His $3.5 million buyout after April 1 makes a potential move this season less likely.
Ben Howland, Mississippi State. It would cost more than $2 million to hire Howland. That’s a large chunk of money for schools that likely have to pay to fire a coach. But Howland could still win the press conference at a place like Washington, Missouri or Illinois. Howland hasn’t had a truly dominant season since 2008, but his three consecutive Final Fours at UCLA still give him cache.
Brad Underwood, Oklahoma State. One of the hottest mid-major coaches from last year’s cycle has the Cowboys poised to reach the NCAA tournament. His anomalously low salary—just $1 million this year—could make him vulnerable to a sweetheart offer from another school. Could the lowest paid coach in the Big 12 get lured away?