Monday, May 11, 2015

Louisiana Tech a stepping stone? Yes and no

     The search is on for the next head coach in men's basketball at Louisiana Tech University. This will be interesting.
      Here is another situation where we see if Tech, as has been the case so often in the past, is a "stepping stone" place for head coaches. Take the job, have some success (or not) and move on to a supposedly bigger, better job.
      Frankly, because it is the place where I went to school and whose athletic program I've paid attention to since the early 1960s (although I am not a die-hard fan like I was way back) --  I don't like the "stepping stone" perception.
      Unfortunately, it does have merit.
      Michael White built an exciting, conference championship-level men's basketball program in four years at Tech. We all sensed he would be moving on soon, and last week he was announced as the new head coach at the University of Florida.
      With that, he joined a long line.
      In the "modern" era of Tech athletics -- the post-World War II era -- I count a dozen head coaches in football, men's basketball and women's basketball who took off and (immediately or eventually) became head coaches at "bigger" programs.
       In football, Sonny Dykes (to Cal), Derek Dooley (to Tennessee), Gary Crowton (to the Chicago Bears as offensive coordinator, then Brigham Young head coach), Carl Torbush (to North Carolina as defensive coordinator, then head coach), Billy Brewer (to Ole Miss).
       In men's basketball before White, Jim Wooldridge (to Chicago Bulls-NBA as an assistant, then to Kansas State head coach), Tommy Joe Eagles (to Auburn), Andy Russo (to U. of Washington), J.D. Barnett (to Virginia Commonwealth), Scotty Robertson (to the NBA).
       In women's basketball, Kurt Budke (to Oklahoma State) and Sonja Hogg (eventually to Baylor). (And that's not counting Kim Mulkey, the assistant coach who couldn't reach terms on the head coaching job succeeding Leon Barmore and then went to Baylor.)
       Mulkey, by far, is the most successful of that group, with national-title fame and fortune. Others had only moderate success ... if that.
       Yes, money is an issue to keep coaches at Tech -- maybe the most important issue.
       But prestige is a factor, too. Football bowl bids and at-large NCAA Tournament spots are hard to come by for the "mid-major" schools.
       As fine a university as Louisiana Tech is, and I don't want anyone telling me differently, it does have its financial limitations. I'm not versed enough on the subject to write with authority on the overall university needs, but it's obvious that meeting a budget for athletics is always going to be a challenge.
       The days of receiving state-government to fund athletics is decades past; once upon a time fund-raising was not a need. The powers-that-be at Tech have done a commendable job raising financial standards.
       Moving to Conference USA two years ago was a necessary and positive step for Tech. It is a good fit there, in my opinion, better than its years in the old Gulf States Conference and then its wandering -- in sports other than football -- through a maze of conferences -- Southland (1971-87), American South (1987-91), Sun Belt (1991-2001) and the wide-spread, travel-weary Western Athletic (2001-13).
        C-USA is a fit; the level of opponents is a fit. Tech teams can win, and win big, in this league. The football team played for the conference title last season; Mike White's basketball team won the regular-season title.
       And yet -- and I don't have the figures -- but Tech probably ranks low in the league in athletic finances -- operational expenses, recruiting budget, coaching salaries.
       It's called a "mid-major" conference for a reason.
       The Louisiana Techs of the world are not equal to the so-called "majors" -- not in facilities, not in attendance, not in financial status, not in prestige. 
       I know Tech people hate seeing that in words. They don't want to be "less than," say LSU. Great ideal ... but not realistic. 
       I use LSU because I have friends -- good friends -- who chide me for being an LSU fan. And last week, after my previous blog post, I heard from a couple of Tech faithful that I don't know. 
       But it's the same unreasonable view people have from the pretentious school in Lafayette, La., which is not the University of Louisiana. UL-L people are dreaming, too.
       LSU plays before 92,000 people every time it tees up the football in Baton Rouge. Tech, or UL-L, are happy to draw 30,000 at home ... when that happens. Basketball, baseball, track-field, I'm sure LSU attendance -- and interest -- far surpasses the mid-majors.
       And then there's this, from the financial standpoint: If La. Tech or ULL have 15 big-money boosters -- and I'm just throwing out numbers here -- LSU has triple that. And Texas, Florida, even Tennessee and Oklahoma might have double what LSU has.   
       Sure, a team from Tech can beat a "major" team and can compete with the majors. White's teams had a good number of significant victories over majors. Tech beat a Big Ten team in its football bowl game. But to do it year after year, that's tough.
       We have seen football programs located in small towns or playing at mid-major levels rise to power status; Clemson and Virginia Tech come to mind. We've seen mid-major basketball programs -- examples are Gonzaga, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State, George Mason -- reach "elite" status. Some stay there; some fall back. 
       Could it happen for Louisiana Tech? Reaching a BCS football game or an NCAA Tournament Final Four? I would never say never, but I would say highly unlikely. Competing well with the majors is the desirable goal.        
       Point is, when it comes to matching coaching salaries for a successful coach such as Michael White, there is a ceiling for La. Tech. So in this case, it became a stepping stone.
       For Leon Barmore, Louisiana Tech was not a stepping stone; it was home. Certainly as one of the nation's greatest women's basketball coaches, he had chances to move. But he grew up in Ruston, played basketball at Tech ... and he never left. He retired after 25 years of coaching at Tech.
       Joe Aillet coached football at Tech for 26 years, stayed four more years as athletic director. Maxie Lambright coached football at Tech for 12 years. Cecil Crowley was the men's basketball coach for 21 years, Scotty Robertson for 10 years. Jim Mize was a football assistant and head track coach for nearly three decades. Berry Hinton and Pat Patterson each coached baseball for 23 years. 
       You could say the days of the longtime coach at Tech are long gone, except ... Gary Stanley has been coaching track and field at Tech for three decades, and still is.
       Tech has had head coaches with some tenure, such as Jack Bicknell and Joe Raymond Peace, eight seasons each in football, Keith Richard (nine seasons in men's basketball) and most recently Teresa Weatherspoon (six seasons in women's basketball).
The common denominator: Each had moderate success, but not great success, and eventually their contracts were not renewed.
       There are those who feel that having a Tech graduate -- and ex-player -- as coach is an advantage, that the home ties will help keep them in place. But it didn't keep Eagles or Wooldridge from jumping from the basketball job.
       Now Skip Holtz has the football job, preparing for his third year. Is this a stepping stone for him, too? He's 51 and he headed up three "major" programs -- Connecticut, East Carolina and South Florida -- before Tech.
       The hope is that his tenure will be a lengthy one; that success, such as last season's vast improvement over his first season, won't bring other offers or that he won't go looking for them. We'll see.
       So where does Tech turn in men's basketball?
       Move up the top assistant coach, bring in a highly recommended assistant coach from a major program; find a successful coach from a smaller school or a junior college coach with a great record; bring back one of the school's great players; try a high school coach making the immediate big jump?
       I can cite examples of each type in Tech's major sports. Some worked out well;  some only worked short-range, then their programs faded rapidly; and some were outright disasters.
      If athletic director Tommy McClelland, Tech president Dr. Les Guice and the other people in on the search -- including the omnipresent "search committee" -- do as well as they did hiring a women's basketball head coach two years ago, it will be a success.
      Tyler Summitt -- son of Pat -- was a home-run hire, in my opinion.
      That is, in terms of national publicity and exposure for La. Tech. Success on the court might take longer. The Lady Techsters aren't what they used to be, haven't been for a while now, but at least there is hope it could happen.
      With Tyler came the return of one-time Tech player Mickie DeMoss as associate head coach, and she has years of head coaching/assistant coaching/national recruiting success. So it was home run ... and another extra-base hit.
       The top men's assistant coach now being touted by players and some boosters is Dusty May, a six-year staff assistant who was close to White and handled his share of coaching and recruiting. He hasn't been a college head coach, but his hiring would mean continuity in the program. Is that enough?
        My choice, and I'm sure others will agree, would be Mike McConathy, one of Tech's greatest players (mid-1970s) who has been the successful head coach at North Louisiana neighbor, Northwestern State, for 16 years and was at Bossier Parish Community College for 16 years before that.
         Perhaps twice before when the job came open and Mike was available, the connection could not be made. Now he and his family -- his real family and his basketball family -- are well-established in Natchitoches, he's 59 and likely unwilling to make the move.
         But, look, it's not me doing the search job ... and thank goodness for that. Nor am I even remotely closely involved. 
          I'm just hoping the best for Tech, and I trust Dr. Guice, McClelland and Co. will make a great hire. And if it turns out to be a stepping-stone choice, and it's as popular as Michael White was, that's good. 


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