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NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 coaches have paid their basketball dues

Reaching this point in the NCAA tournament represents a major achievement in careers that began modestly, even for Coach K.

By Ross Atkin / March 24, 2011

Virginia Commonwealth University head coach Shaka Smart yells out a play during his team's third round NCAA basketball game against Purdue University in Chicago, Illinois, March 20.

Jeff Haynes/Reuters

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What will be mostly remembered about the current March Madness, as with any edition of the men’s NCAA tournament, will be the players and the plays, not the “suits.” But coaches in their Brooks Brothers threads and the extra antiperspirant obviously play a huge role in getting their teams to the Sweet 16.

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To think otherwise is to ignore how highly their contributions are valued by their employers. Consider, for a moment, that Tennessee, which just fired Bruce Pearl because of mounting NCAA-related troubles, reportedly will receive severance worth $948,728 in salary and benefits. That hints at what the school was willing to pay a coach who could take the Vols to the NCAA tournament in each of his six seasons. So you can only imagine what Duke’s squeaky clean Mike Krzyzewski must make as the winner of four national championships, including last season’s.

As glittering as Coach K’s situation may be now, however, he has paid his dues – as have all the other Sweet 16 coaches, to varying degrees. For no one starts out at the top. And many began either as high school coaches or lowly college graduate assistants.

Krzyzewski’s rise began humbly enough according to a 14-page bio found on Duke’s basketball website. After playing under Bob Knight at the US Military Academy at West Point, he guided service teams while in the Army from 1969 to 1974. He followed that up with two years as head coach at West Point’s prep school in Belvoir, Va., a short stint as a graduate assistant at Indiana University under Knight, and five years as West Point’s coach. All this occurred before Duke signed him in 1980. The fit, obviously, has been perfect.

The coaching lifers often spend their early, formative years hop-scotching around until they settle into one job. That’s the case for Chris Mooney, a Princeton grad who has taken the University of Richmond Spiders to the Sweet 16. He put in his time with high school and college jobs in Pennsylvania and Colorado (at the Air Force Academy) before landing with Richmond. And even when his growing reputation made him a hot prospect for various coaching vacancies, Mooney elected to sign a seven-year contract extension through the 2016-17 season - this well before Richmond’s current tournament run. He likes the fact, as he puts it, that “we are building our program.”

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