- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In a perfect world, every NCAA basketball tournament would be like this last one, with mid-majors busting brackets, crashing the Final Four and making Dick Vitale’s eyes bulge. It would be nice to think we might be inching closer to that now that Shaka Smart has signed an eight-year contract to remain at VCU and Brad Stevens shows no signs of walking away from his lengthy deal with Butler. If those guys stay put, maybe other successful coaches from off-the-beaten-path schools will, too - and the NCAA tourney will become an even wilder party than it already is.

BYOT - Bring Your Own Toga.

Would it be too much to ask? Maybe. For one thing, it flies in the face of tradition, not to mention human nature. The coaching profession, after all, is about upward mobility, about doing well at one job so you can move on an even better job. Gary Williams wins at American, and it opens a door at Boston College. Paul Evans takes Navy to the Elite Eight, and Pittsburgh comes calling. Mike Jarvis makes George Washington a national name, and before long he’s sitting on the St. John’s bench - or at least pacing back and forth in front of it.

But the profession is also about something else: the Peter Principle. These “better” jobs might be swell for a coach’s bank account and general self-esteem, but they also carry greater risk. Or to put it another way: The closer you get to the top, the more slippery the slope.

Take Jeff Capel. He was one of Smart’s predecessors at VCU and showed much promise, enough to get hired by high-and-mighty Oklahoma. But Capel was fired recently after back-to-back losing seasons. At the age of 36, he’s no longer Up and Coming; he’s Here and Gone. Which makes you wonder: Had he stayed in Richmond, maybe one of his teams would have done what Shaka’s did - and everything would be different.

You can play the what-if game with lots of coaches. Dan Monson, for instance, took Gonzaga to the Elite Eight in 1999 - put the program on the map, really - before heading off to Minnesota and eight years of oblivion. Monson is now trying to revive his career at Long Beach State. Meanwhile, his successor, Mark Few, has led the Zags to 12 straight NCAA berths and five Sweet 16s. One of these seasons, you figure, Gonzaga will make a run like Butler and VCU did. So why didn’t Monson just bide his time?

Answer: Because it required a bit more imagination back then to envision a mid-major as anything other than a Nice Little NCAA Tournament Story. In 1999, remember, George Mason, Butler and VCU hadn’t been to the Final Four - and the Bulldogs hadn’t played in the championship game (twice). It had been 20 years since Indiana State and Larry Bird, 20 years since an off-the-radar school shook up the tourney. It took more of a leap of faith in those days to say, “I’m going to hitch my dreams to a program in Spokane, Washington.”

That’s not the case anymore. In addition to the aforementioned, Xavier (twice), Davidson and Kent State have gotten to the cusp of the Final Four, and other mid-majors have made some serious noise. Clearly, an outstanding coach, with the requisite university support, can do great things at a second-tier school - just as great, perhaps, as he can at an Oklahoma, a Minnesota or most anyplace.

Imagine if Stevens and Smart are just the beginning. Imagine if more mid-major coaches follow their lead. Imagine, for that matter, if these wannabe universities, tired of serving as a farm system for the Big Boys, start offering more competitive salaries - so coaches will have less incentive to leave. Stevens and Smart reportedly will make more than $1 million next season; that was unheard of a decade ago for a mid-major coach.

Who’s to say the Atlantic 10 couldn’t have become a big-time conference if John Calipari (UMass), Skip Prosser (Xavier), Jim O’Brien (St. Bonaventure), Jarvis and others hadn’t up and left? Heck, who’s to say where the CAA will be a few years from now if Smart and Mason’s Jim Larranaga insist on sticking around? This much seems certain: What happened in the NCAA tournament this year may, in the future, be no big deal - and that, my friends, would be something to see.



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