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.

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    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.
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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.

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.

Recommended: March Madness basketball quiz: memorable players and feats

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.”

Coaches understand that once a program is successfully built, the momentum often continues, making the job of attracting top recruits and producing winning teams more sustainable, if not necessarily easier. In a sense, a coach can achieve a form of basketball tenure (i.e. job security), which can translate into a happier, more stable home life for his family.

The average time on the job for this year’s Sweet 16 coaches, at their current schools, is a little more than nine years. By contrast, the average for 30 NBA coaches is 2.85 years. Eleven NBA coaches have yet to complete one year on the job.

Here’s the complete lineup of Sweet 16 coaches:

* = Has high school coaching experience

Ohio State: Thad Matta

Birthplace: Hoopeston, Ill.

Ohio State head coach: 7 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Butler Xavier (Cincinnati)

College assistant jobs: Butler (twice), Indiana State, Miami of Ohio (twice), Western Carolina

Alma mater: Southern Illinois and Butler

Fact: Played at Butler; later became academic coordinator and coach there

Kentucky: John Calipari

Birthplace: Moon Township, Pa.

Kentucky head coach: 2 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Massachusetts, Memphis

College assistant jobs: Kansas, Pitt

Alma mater: UNC-Wilmington and Clarion State (Clarion, Pa.)

Fact: Previously coached UMass and Memphis to Final Four

Marquette: Buzz Williams

Birthplace: Greenville, Texas

Marquette head coach: 3 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: U. of New Orleans

College assistant jobs: Navarro College, Oklahoma City, Texas-Arlington, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Northwestern State, Colorado State, Texas A&M, Marquette

Alma mater: Oklahoma City University

Fact: Has no listed playing experience

North Carolina: Roy Williams*

Birthplace: Marion, N.C.

North Carolina head coach: 6 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Kansas

College assistant jobs: North Carolina

Alma mater: North Carolina

Fact: Has led Tar Heels to two NCAA titles; took Kansas to 2003 finals.

Duke: Mike Krzyzewski

Birthplace: Chicago

Duke head coach: 31 years

Previous college heading coaching jobs: Army

College assistant jobs: Indiana

Alma mater: US Military Academy

Fact: Coached 2008 US Olympic team to the gold; will try for repeat in 2012.

Arizona: Sean Miller

Birthplace: Ellwood City, Pa.

Arizona head coach: 2 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Xavier (Cincinnati)

College assistant jobs: Wisconsin, Miami of Ohio, Pitt, North Carolina State, Xavier

Alma mater: Pittsburgh

Fact: As a player, became Pitt’s best-ever 3-point shooter.

Connecticut: Jim Calhoun*

Birthplace: Braintree, Mass.

UConn head coach: 25 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Northeastern U. (Boston)

College assistant jobs: none

Alma mater: American International College (Springfield, Mass.)

Fact: Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005

San Diego State: Steve Fisher*

Birthplace: Herrin, Ill.

San Diego State head coach:12 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Michigan

College assistant jobs: Western Michigan, Michigan

Alma mater: Illinois State

Fact: Took Michigan to 1989 NCAA title; also coached Michigan’s Fab Five in back-to-back finals in 1992 and 1993.

Kansas: Bill Self

Birthplace: Edmond, Okla.

Kansas head coach: 8 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois

College assistant jobs: Kansas, Oklahoma State

Alma mater: Oklahoma State

Fact: Led Tulsa and Illinois to NCAA Elite Eight

Richmond: Chris Mooney*

Birthplace: Philadelphia

Richmond head coach: 6 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Arcadia (Glenside, Pa.), Air Force

College assistant jobs: Arcadia, Air Force

Alma mater: Princeton

Fact: A four-year starter at Princeton for Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril

Virginia Commonwealth: Shaka Smart

Birthplace: Madison, Wis.

VCU head coach: 2 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: none

College assistant jobs: Callifornia (Pa.), Akron, Clemson, Florida

Alma mater: Kenyon College

Fact: Graduated magna cum laude with a history degree

Florida State: Leonard Hamilton

Birthplace: Gaston County, N.C.

Florida State head coach: 9 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Oklahoma State, Miami (Fla.)

College assistant jobs: Austin Peay, Kentucky

Alma mater: Tennessee-Martin

Fact: Coached the NBA’s Washington Wizards in 2001.

Butler: Brad Stevens

Birthplace: Zionsville, Ind.

Butler head coach: 4 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: none

College assistant jobs: Butler

Alma mater: DePauw (Greencastle, Ind.)

Fact: Left a career in marketing to try his hand at coaching.

Wisconsin: Bo Ryan*

Birthplace: Chester, Pa.

Wisconsin head coach: 10 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: U. of Wis.-Platteville, UW-Milwaukee

College assistant jobs: Wisconsin

Alma mater: Wilkes University (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Fact: All 27 years as head coach spent in Wisconsin, at three schools.

Brigham Young: Dave Rose*

Birthplace: Houston

BYU head coach: 6 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Dixie State College of Utah

College assistant jobs: Dixie State, BYU

Alma mater: University of Houston

Fact: Was co-captain of U. of Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team of the 1980s.

Florida: Billy Donovan

Birthplace: Rockville Centre, N.Y.

Florida head coach: 13 years

Previous college head coaching jobs: Marshall (Huntington, WVa.)

College assistant jobs: Kentucky

Alma mater: Providence College (Providence, R.I.)

Fact: Led Gators to rare back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007

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