U on Spot with 2 basketball Hires
When Lindsay Whalen was hired as the University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach three years ago the cheers were heard from Cannon Falls to Thief River Falls. The home state hero had a halo above her head after a storied playing career with the Golden Gophers, WNBA Minnesota Lynx and US Olympic team.
Whalen, always the coach on the floor from her point guard position, led the Gophers to their only NCAA Final Four appearance early this century. Then she became one of the WNBA’s best playmakers while helping the Lynx to four league titles. Throw in two Olympic gold medals and you have a dream playing career.
Gopher fans figured Whalen would dazzle as the U coach after being hired by athletic director Mark Coyle.
Being a head coach requires a much different skill-set than playing. Whalen and the public have seen evidence of that in her three seasons leading the Gophers.
Whalen’s Big Ten record is 21-33, with 9-9 (her first season) the best she has done. Marlene Stollings, Whalen’s predecessor, went 27-25 in her first three Big Ten seasons. Pam Borton, Whalen’s coach at the U, started out 33-15 the first three years.
Prior to Borton, Brenda Oldfield (now Frese) coached Minnesota for one season, going 11-5 and tying for second place in the conference standings. That was one year after Cheryl Littlejohn ended her four-year train-wreck with a 1-15 season. Frese, who left the Gophers for Maryland, remains the gold standard for women’s basketball coaches at Minnesota.
Gifted coaches do things early on that are observable and command attention. It might be an extraordinary influx of talent within a year or two. Head coaches need to know what type of talent they need, where they can get it and possess the salesmanship to close the deal. They also must hire a staff that recruits at a high level.
Even without over the top talent, a skilled coach/teacher can immediately impact his or her team and the results with the schemes and plays they use, adjustments made during games, the development of players and effort put forth. As an example, look at video from the Loyola of Chicago-Illinois men’s tourney game played earlier this month. Coach Porter Moser’s team destroyed Illinois’ offense with defensive schemes and “hair on fire” effort to knock the No. 1 seed Illini out of the tournament. The Ramblers put on a clinic offensively, too, with an unselfish style featuring ball movement, precision screens and cuts, and high percentage shots. Twice in the last four years the low profile Ramblers have earned their way into the Sweet 16 of the “Big Dance.”
By hiring Whalen, Coyle took a chance on a first-time coach who will need to achieve much better results in the next three years. Her contract, extended by a year in February of 2020, ends in 2024. Whether it’s the 38-year-old Whalen or someone else, the program has the potential to not only be a Big Ten winner but to become the first money making women’s sport at Minnesota.
Coyle has gone risky again, hiring Ben Johnson as the new men’s coach to replace the failed Richard Pitino who in eight seasons had one Big Ten winning record. Johnson, 40, has many years of assistant coaching experience including five spent under Pitino. Now he finds out how different the role of a head coach is and all the components that go with it.
Having that assignment in the Big Ten, one of America’s premier basketball leagues, is no Sunday stroll in Dinkytown. Pitino, hired at age 30, had one season of head coaching experience before controversial U AD Norwood Teague brought him to Minneapolis. The Gophers paid Pitino about $15 million over eight seasons for what one critic described as “on- the-job training.”
Gophers football fans remember the rocky path of Tim Brewster. Although he was known as one of college football’s top recruiters as an assistant, he had no head coaching experience. Brew won six Big Ten games before being fired about halfway through his fourth season at Minnesota.
Juwan Howard at Michigan has made a terrific entry into college basketball head coaching, despite no previous experience. He came from the NBA Miami Heat where both as a player and assistant coach he had superb mentors in front office boss Pat Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra. Just as important, Howard put together a gifted staff of assistants that excels in both recruiting and X’s and O’s.
Johnson has made two coaching stops as an assistant in the Big Ten and one in the Big East. He worked for Pitino and also Tim Miles at Nebraska who tried for seven seasons to make the Cornhuskers an NCAA Tournament fixture (“danced” one time). Johnson’s most recent stop was Xavier where during three seasons at the Big East school the team record was 51-37, with no championships or NCAA Tournament appearances. He has been credited with both coaching and recruiting contributions there.
Johnson is known for his character and likeability. He has many friends and relationships in his hometown of Minneapolis where he played two seasons as a Gopher guard for head coach Dan Monson. He will “swim or sink” on the results of in-state recruiting where there is annually an abundance of Division I talent. Look for him to bring back home one or two assistant coaches who are state natives to help form the Minnesota connection with prep coaches and players.
Two weeks ago I wrote the following about the Gopher head coaching job:
“After the failed performance of Pitino and two predecessors, it is vital that the Gophers get the best hire for the first time this century. The program has the potential to annually produce teams landing in the top half of the Big Ten. Not to just have an occasional winning season here and there, but sustained success like the neighboring Wisconsin Badgers.
“There are never guarantees of future successes with a coach. That’s why Coyle should not pursue a person with limited, or no head coaching experience. The more successful a coach’s background at his previous stop, the more likely success can be expected at a place like Minnesota. No guarantees, but at least the margin for error has been reduced.”
A day after I wrote the above two paragraphs, Coyle announced he would cast a “wide net” in his national search. He also said expectations are for the Gophers to win championships. A week later he announced Johnson as his new head coach.
Whew! That’s moving fast. What about experienced coaches like San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher? A U alum and native of the state, Dutcher served up more than a nod of interest in the Gopher job last year when his new contract with the Aztecs included a minimal buyout if he were to leave for Minnesota.
A basketball lifer, Dutcher has more than 30 years of top experience as an assistant and head coach. He helped Michigan assemble the legendary Fab Five group in the 1990s, and at San Diego State convinced Kawhi Leonard to play for the Aztecs.
In four seasons as head coach at San Diego State, the Aztecs have won two Mountain West Conference regular season titles and two tournament championships. The last two seasons his record is 53 wins, 7 losses.
There was no buyout on Johnson’s contract and he reportedly will be the lowest paid head coach in the Big Ten. If money drove Coyle’s decision, why did it? Yes, the athletic department is tens of millions in debt because of the pandemic’s impact on finances. However, the total loss for this fiscal year doesn’t look as intimidating as once forecast. The U will be borrowing money to cover debts throughout its state system including the Twin Cities campus. A part of that borrowed money will go to the Gopher athletic department to pays its bills and meet future obligations including coaching hires.
If Coyle had pursued a more expensive coach, he could have said he was making a generational hire that was going to fix Gophers basketball long term. Someone who because of their accomplishments was likely to build not just a winning team or two, but set the course for sustained success. Part of Coyle’s position for spending more money on a coach could reference the TV revenues from Big Ten football and basketball that came through despite the pandemic. That wasn’t a given last summer when athletic department debt at $70 million seemed possible (perhaps $40 to $50 million now). Adding to a brighter picture is that the University system, like other major colleges throughout the country, is receiving millions from the federal government for pandemic budget relief.
In a reaction to debt last fall, Coyle convinced the Board of Regents (by a 7-5 vote) to eliminate three men’s sports. Did he move too quickly? The annual savings will be less than $2 million per year. If fan apathy at Williams Arena hadn’t been so prevalent for many seasons, the athletic department would have been generating that sum or more annually.
And that leads back to Whalen and Johnson, and whether they can produce a lot more wins and dollars at the box office than we’ve grown accustomed to for many years. No guarantees, not even close.