Sports

In Coaching, It’s Sometimes About Who You Know and Where You’ve Been

NEW ORLEANS — Just before his senior season at Oklahoma State, Bill Self injured a knee while working as a basketball camp counselor at the University of Kansas. Each time he saw Larry Brown, who was then the Jayhawks’ coach, the limp got worse.

Brown felt so badly for Self that when the camp ended he told Self that if there was ever anything he needed, he had only to ask. So Self did.

“I said ‘I want to be your graduate assistant next year,’” Self said. “And he said, ‘You’re hired.’”

It was not much of a job. Self read USA Today and passed along any articles he thought might interest his boss. He made sure a lane was reserved at a local bowling alley on game days, in case Brown wanted to blow off steam. And, mostly, he stayed out of the way.

But during that year, Self built relationships — with an assistant athletic director, with a publicist, with the basketball secretary — and maintained them well enough that when Kansas’ head coaching job opened 17 years later, he had a small army of fans within the athletic department.

“That probably played a role in me being able to come back here,” Self said.

Taking advantage of those early connections hardly makes Self an outlier in college basketball, where it is increasingly common for former students, team managers, players and low-level assistants to have triumphant homecomings as head basketball coaches.

Just look at the Final Four, where Self is joined by Villanova Coach Jay Wright, who caught the eye of Rollie Massimino when he worked his camps and returned to the Wildcats after building Hofstra into a N.C.A.A. tournament team. There’s also North Carolina’s Hubert Davis, who starred for the Tar Heels from 1988-92, then returned to Chapel Hill as an assistant after a lengthy N.B.A. career and dabbling in broadcasting. The other team here, Duke, will be coached next season by Jon Scheyer, a former captain of a national championship team and a current assistant who will succeed the retiring Mike Krzyzewski.

Jon Scheyer, right, a captain on a Duke national championship team, will lead the Blue Devils after Mike Krzyzewski retires.Credit…Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Similar stories have dotted the entire bracket.

Texas Tech’s Mark Adams, a 65-year-old basketball lifer, and Michigan’s Juwan Howard, a member of the fabled Fab Five who went on to have a decorated N.B.A. career, took their teams into the second weekend of the tournament with one thing in common: They were doing it at their alma maters.

In all, 14 of the tournament’s 68 coaches were working at schools they either attended or began their coaching careers at. And the trend shows no sign of abating: Shaheen Holloway, the architect of St. Peter’s miraculous run to the East regional final this year, was hired on Wednesday by Seton Hall, the university where he starred as a slick point guard and later spent eight years as an assistant coach.

Louisville, which has not won an N.C.A.A. tournament game since 2017, turned to Kenny Payne — a Knicks assistant and a reserve on Louisville’s 1986 title-winning team — to reverse the Cardinals’ fortunes. And at least six other people are taking over as head coaches at schools where they either played or served as an assistant.

“I find myself watching the coaching carousel in all the sports, asking, ‘What’s their tie to the institution? Have they gone their before?’” said Nina King, the athletic director at Duke. “I think it’s something that we look at.”

King said that while coaches who had no connection to Duke were discussed as Krzyzewski’s replacement, it was important to turn to someone from “the brotherhood,” where there was no shortage of possibilities, including the college coaches Bobby Hurley (Arizona State), Tommy Amaker (Harvard), Johnny Dawkins (Central Florida), Jeff Capel (Pittsburgh), Chris Collins (Northwestern), Kenny Blakeney (Howard) and Steve Wojciechowski (formerly of Marquette), or Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz.

Ultimately, Krzyzewski put his considerable thumb on the scale for Scheyer, who has continued to gain commitments from top recruits.

“To be able to sit in a kid’s living room recruiting him and say ‘I’ve lived this — come throw in with me because I’ve lived Duke for X number of years,’ I think it’s important,” King said.

Kenny Payne won a national title with Louisville as a player and left his job with the Knicks to try to revitalize the program.Credit…Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

An increasing number of coaches can pitch more than a familial tie: They can cite N.B.A. experience. Often, though, that pro experience has not translated to the college game, where having connections to youth basketball power brokers are essential to recruiting elite talent. The job also requires glad-handing boosters and, more recently, navigating the transfer portal, duties that aren’t part of the N.B.A. ecosystem.

It’s why former N.B.A. players like Clyde Drexler (Houston), Chris Mullin (St. John’s), Eddie Jordan (Rutgers) and Kevin Ollie (Connecticut) did not have enduring success at their alma maters, though Ollie did win a national championship before fizzling. And it is why Patrick Ewing has struggled at Georgetown, where his team lost its final 21 games this season.

“Most of the guys that have been in the N.B.A., they’ve made so much money, they didn’t really care that much about coaching,” said Roy Williams, who retired last year as North Carolina’s coach after winning three national titles and cheered on Davis in Philadelphia last weekend.

The Final Four in the Men’s and Women’s Tournaments


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The national semifinals. March Madness is narrowing down to the top teams, and will culminate with the Final Four teams facing off in the women’s and men’s tournaments on April 1 and April 2, respectively. Here’s a closer look at the semifinals:

Men’s: Duke vs. North Carolina. The Duke Blue Devils, which beat Arkansas to clinch a spot in the Final Four in New Orleans, will play against their fiercest rival, North Carolina, after the Tar Heels made short work of underdog St. Peter’s.

Men’s: Villanova vs. Kansas. After trailing at halftime, the Kansas Jayhawks dominated the second half of their game against Miami to set up a matchup against the Villanova Wildcats, which outlasted lower seeded Houston.

Women’s: South Carolina vs. Louisville. The top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks proved too tough for Creighton and advanced to its fourth national semifinal under Coach Dawn Staley. They will face the Louisville Cardinals, which beat Michigan in their fourth straight regional final.

Women’s: Stanford vs. Connecticut. After injuries, losses to unranked teams and a second-round scare, the UConn Huskies advanced to their 14th straight Final Four, where they will face Stanford, the reigning champion. The Cardinal bested Texas to reach the national semifinals.

More recently, though, there are signs of success.

Mike Woodson at Indiana, Penny Hardaway at Memphis and Aaron McKie at Temple, along with Howard and Davis, have their alma maters trending in the right direction. Only Woodson, a distinguished N.B.A. coach, had much experience as a head coach.

Memphis has been to the N.C.A.A. tournament just once in three tries under Hardaway, but his impact at the school was immediate: Attendance jumped by 7,840 people in his first season, the biggest spike in college basketball in 25 years. He has surrounded himself with N.B.A. veterans — the former players Rasheed Wallace and Mike Miller have been on his staff, as is Brown, the only coach to win both an N.B.A. and N.C.A.A. championship. But last week, the N.C.A.A. charged Memphis with four major recruiting violations, including failure to cooperate with investigators.

When Leon Costello, the athletic director at Montana State, was looking for a basketball coach to rejuvenate a languishing program, he could not turn to a list of former N.B.A. players.

But he could turn to Danny Sprinkle, a freshman star on the Montana State team that reached the 1996 N.C.A.A. tournament. Sprinkle also had experience as an assistant at the school.

“We needed a spark,” Costello said. “When we hired Danny, so many people came up to me and him, saying they were in the arena and they remembered him as a player and they were hoping he’d get a chance to come home. At a mid-major school like Montana State, that can be a powerful tool.”

So, too, can winning. Sprinkle, in his third season, guided the Bobcats to a 27-7 record — their best in nearly a century — and their first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance in 26 years. Later this year, he will be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, a homecoming that seems complete.

Shaheen Holloway was introduced at Seton Hall on Thursday after helping St. Peter’s reach the round of 8.Credit…Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The same is true for Holloway.

A high school all-American, he brushed aside overtures from Duke in 1996, opting to stay close to home and attend Seton Hall. He was an accomplished player, if not quite a transformative one — and his career, which seemed set for a storybook ending, ended with him in street clothes on the bench after severely spraining his ankle during the 2000 N.C.A.A. tournament.

On Thursday, Seton Hall threw what amounted to a parade to welcome back Holloway. He entered Walsh Gym in South Orange, N.J., to a standing ovation, and another was bestowed on his St. Peter’s players, who sat in the audience. A video recounted his basketball path.

“Dreams do come true,” Holloway said as he stood on a stage, speaking for himself, but increasingly for others.

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