Leaders of the new schools

Few, Smart and Stevens are a combined 636-172 as head coaches.

Few, Smart and Stevens are a combined 636-172 as head coaches.

The past three years have seen an unprecedented level of success and excitement at VCU. An unknown Shaka Smart, in just his second season of head coaching duties, burst onto the national radar, leading the Rams to a historic 2011 First 4 to Final 4 run that put VCU and Coach Smart’s havoc defense on the national radar and at the tips of the tongues of every BCS fan pining for a new coach to lead their program to glory.

Ram fans nerves have been tested following the team’s Final 4 success. The joys of March have led to the paranoias of April, with Smart’s name being linked to virtually every major job opening in college basketball.

Just this past season, Illinois came calling.

Heading into a Chicago Cubs first pitch invite following VCU’s magical run, Smart told ESPN, “Chicago is my favorite city in the whole country, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the city of Chicago as a kid…It was kind of a second home for me.”

Those comments offered an entitled group of Illini fans all the evidence they needed a full season before needing to replace Bruce Weber in Champaign. It was a closed case in their minds, Smart would come to Illinois to coach a Big 10 program just seven seasons removed from a national title game appearance.

Ram fans were nervous, yet unconvinced.

A Dan Wolken tweet following VCU’s 2012 CAA tournament Championship run would test those nerves like never before.

“Sounds like Shaka is going to take Illinois or is leaning that way, from what I hear”

The USA Today writer delivered what looked like an 84-character dagger to Ram fans everywhere, and with that, sent fears of a third coaching change since 2006,  losing Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant to football powered programs in Oklahoma and Alabama after three and four year stints on Broad St.

But the Rams had games left to play, and needed a coach to do so.

Smart led VCU in yet another NCAA tournament upset, taking down fifth-seeded Wichita State before falling in the last minute to the fourth-seeded Hoosiers of Indiana, 63-61.

The Rams 29 wins that season were an all-time record at the University and proved Shaka was no one-hit wonder, just three points from a second-consecutive Sweet 16 with a group of young players filling in the gap left by four legendary seniors.

Four days later, the Rams upset another squad, as Shaka Smart turned down Illinois reported $2.5 million to stay at VCU.

It wasn’t his first BCS job offer–and it certainly won’t be his last–but in declining the Illini, Coach Smart joined what has become the holy trinity of non-BCS power coaches, coaches who have decided to stay put and grow their programs instead of bolting for the promise of BCS advantage. Mark Few of Gonzaga and Brad Stevens of Butler complete the list.

Few is the elder statesman of the group, taking over after Dan Monson left Gonzaga for Minnesota following the Bulldogs first and only Elite 8 appearance in 1999.

Monson coached Minnesota for a part of eight seasons, taking the Golden Gophers to just one NCAA tournament appearance before resigning in 2006.

Few took what Monson started in Spokane and ran with it. Since taking over the Bulldogs, Few has led Gonzaga to an astounding 13-straight NCAA tournament appearances, getting as far as the Sweet 16 on four occasions.

The Creswell, Oregon native has turned down a number of jobs, including an opportunity to coach at alma mater Oregon.

In an interview with 1510 KGA, Few commented on the opportunity, saying, “At the end of the day, I love what we have going here. I think the way myself and my family have been treated here, the way our program’s treated here, I think it doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve always said from Day 1 since these job opportunities have been coming our way, as long as we still feel like that there’s room for growth and the school and the people and everybody around the program will help us keep growing the product and we still feel appreciated around here, then I don’t see any reason to ever leave.”

Coach Smart echoed Few’s sentiments in a recent ESPN interview in regards to his desire to continue to coach at VCU.

Like Few, Stevens took over a program coming off a deep NCAA tournament run, as previous coach Todd Lickliter guided the Bulldogs to two Sweet 16s including a 2007 appearance before departing for the Big 10′s Iowa Hawkeyes.

Lickliter was fired after his third season in Iowa just as Stevens was leading the Bulldogs to their first-ever national championship appearance. Stevens would return Butler to the title game a year later after defeating VCU in perhaps the unlikeliest Final 4 pairing in the tournament’s history.

Two seasons after their Final 4 matchup, Stevens and Smart have elevated their programs into a stacked Atlantic 10 conference that CBS bracketology expert, Jerry Palm, currently projects will get seven teams in this year’s NCAA tournament, the second highest total of any league.

The two also have their programs as reported candidates for a new basketball conference consisting of the seven departing non-FBS football members from the Big East conference–Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, Seton Hall, Providence, St. John’s and DePaul.

Like Gonzaga, both Butler and VCU have risen to unprecedented heights under their young star coaches.

The Zags check in at No.2 in the latest AP Poll, the highest ever for the program. Butler currently sits at No.20 but have a neutral court win over current No.1 Indiana. VCU dropped out of the top-25 in this week’s ranking (No.27), but remain in the coaches poll at No.25, and like Gonzaga and Butler, are being considered “locks” for this season’s NCAA tournament by a number of experts.

All three will be rumored for one job or another after the season, with UCLA, Texas and Minnesota as just three of the potential suitors.

UCLA is considered one of the premier jobs in the country with a history that rivals next to no one, Texas has the budget of a small country and Minnesota is currently led by former VCU AD Norwood Teague.

But even with those names, relationships and dollars being thrown around, there remains the great likelihood that all three coaches will remain at their respective programs, potentially perpetuating the growth of their schools into the national powers they are becoming.

And that’s not something that happens all that often these days.

Coaches continually jump from one program to the next, grabbing higher salaries and the great expectations that come along with those payouts, hopefully thriving, but more often than not burning out in some level of disappointment to the fans and donors whose team’s bars are often set no lower than annual Final 4s and in some cases, national championships.

Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is a rare breed in college hoops. Having been with the Orange since 1976, he is the longest tenured coach in college basketball.

After serving as an assistent at his alma mater, Boeheim took over the Orange following Roy Danforth’s departure for Tulane two season’s after Syracuse’s 1975 Final 4 appearance.

Boeheim is just one of two coaches with 20 or more years of experience, joining Duke’s Mike Kryzyzewski in that elite duo.

Out of the 76 combined BCS basketball programs, only 11 have been at their schools for a decade or longer, four (Boehiem, Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan and Tom Izzo) 15 years or more–all having won at least one national title–with the Big East boasting the largest group of 10 plus-year tenured coaches at a total of three (18% of the league’s membership).

Their programs offer the promise of big rewards–national championship, 5-star recruits–but more often than not, end in big buyouts after unmet expectations.

The general trend in college basketball, as in life, is to work your way through the ranks. In college hoops, those ranks were once clearly defined, but have been turned on their head due to the runs of VCU, Butler and a 2006 George Mason team who’s Final 4 run closed the perceived gap between the then power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big 10, Pac 10…now Pac 12, and SEC) and everyone else.

Smart, Stevens and Few have built their reputations to among the most respected coaches in the industry in what seems like the blink of an eye, doing so at programs outside of the blue blood circle.

The BCS sell to previous hot coaching commodities has first and foremost been money, but followed by an ability to win at a level thought previously impossible outside of the power six conferences.

With Smart reaching the Final 4 in just his second season, taking a team from CBI Champions to ESPY winners in the matter of 12 months, and Stevens within one win of not one, but two national titles–playing out of the Horizon league no less–who is to say VCU, Butler, Gonzaga and others, can’t rise to the level of basketball success typically reserved the old guard?

UCLA wasn’t born an elite program. They weren’t send to Earth from the planet Krypton with the sole purpose of becoming a basketball power. The Bruins were just four games over .500 in their history before the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden, led them to 10 national championships during his tenure.

John Thompson put Georgetown “back” on the map in 1980 after a nearly 40-year absence. The 1943 Hoyas won their first NCAA Championship, outlasting an 8-team field that consisted of wins over NYU, DePaul, and then Wyoming. The program cooled off until the Hoyas plucked Thompson out of the high school circuit, building momentum from his start in 1972 to his first Sweet 16 appearance in 1980, eventually winning the tournament championship in ’84.

Brad Stevens may have taken Butler to more title appearances (two) in his five seasons at Butler than current UCLA coach, Ben Howland (one) in his nine seasons with the Bruins, but the perception remains that in order for Stevens to be truly successful, he need jump to a program like UCLA to do so.

So far Stevens has opted to remain with the Bulldogs, Shaka with VCU and Few with Gonzaga.

Butler has jumped from Horizon League to Atlantic 10, and is rumored to be a lock to join the new version of the Big East currently in the works. ESPN’s College Gameday visited BU’s historic Hinkle Fieldhouse this season for a Butler versus Gonzaga contest that became an instant classic with a miracle BU win in the final seconds, and tickets to the Butler versus VCU game this Saturday are currently going for as high as $400 per ticket on Stub Hub.

Fans and friends of BCS programs would like you to believe that it’s a join or die decision when climbing the coaching ranks, but in today’s college basketball landscape, coaches like Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens and Mark Few are proving–as the saying goes–if you build it, they really WILL come.

 

About Mat Shelton

VCU School of the Arts (BFA '07) and Center for Sport Leadership (M.Ed. '10) alumnus, Mat has followed VCU basketball since the Sunbelt days when he'd attend games with his father. Worked as a graduate assistant in the VCU Sports Information Department for the '09-'10 season, but has covered VCU basketball for VCURamNation.com since 2007. mshelton@vcuramnation.com @MatShelton