The best mid-major coaches are masters of doing more with less. We're about to find out if that makes them ideal candidates to fix programs doing less with more.
The basketball programs at Illinois and Indiana aren't nearly as good at this moment in time as those at Green Bay and Bowling Green. But Matt Bollant and Curt Miller are not looking at the present.
Bollant and Miller made a habit of beating bigger programs during their tenures at Green Bay and Bowling Green, respectively. Miller made a run to the Sweet 16 with Bowling Green in 2007 and routinely ran roughshod over the Mid-American Conference. Green Bay had long been a successful program under Carol Hammerle and Kevin Borseth, but Bollant led the Phoenix to their first Sweet 16 last season and beat Michigan State in the second round to do it. He guided them to the top 10 in the polls and came within seconds of eliminating No. 2 seed Kentucky in the second round this season.
But for all the success he had at Green Bay, there was only exasperation and disappointment in Bollant's voice when he learned on Selection Monday that not only was his team seeded seventh, at least 15 places lower than either of the national polls ranked a team with a 30-1 record at the time, but it would have to play Iowa State on that team's home court in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. He sounded exactly the way a person might when they've been passed over for promotion at work despite knowing they outperformed many of those rewarded.
He had done his best to strengthen the team's nonconference schedule. Green Bay went to a Thanksgiving tournament for the second year in a row, no easy task for a small-budget program, and beat Georgia Tech on a neutral court. Power conference schools don't want to go to Green Bay and risk the blemish on their own résumés, so Bollant scheduled a rare home-and-home series in the same season against Toledo, only to see a team with NCAA tournament potential of its own lose one of the best mid-major players in the country to injury early in the season. He scheduled Northern Iowa, the likely Missouri Valley Conference favorite until it lost that league's player of the year to injury. And still the selection committee held Green Bay at arm's length.
It was just one more indication that he was part of the club but not really part of the club. Bollant is a genuinely nice guy, but coaching isn't a profession inhabited by those short on ego. He was beating the same programs on the court that he continued losing recruits to off the court. And even with three overlooked gems of the sort he would be lucky to get a few times a decade in Celeste Hoewisch, Kayla Tetschlag and Julie Wojta (all of whom, it's worth pointing out, were recruited by Borseth), advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament looked like the ceiling on success.
On some level, it's clear that wasn't enough for him.
I asked Bollant last season if he could envision a scenario where he made Green Bay a career job, a program he shaped in his image for decades, not just years. It wasn't an attempt to trap him, but it was, in fairness, an impossible question to answer, as it always is for mid-major coaches. Answer in the affirmative and he would look like a hypocrite if the opportunity of a lifetime came along later. Answer any other way and he risked putting his own recruiting and general peace of mind at risk with stories that he's interested in moving on to bigger and better places.
"I think about the kids I get to coach here, honestly, and it's so much fun," Bollant said by way of avoiding the question. "The kids I get to coach at Green Bay are special kids, they're talented kids, they're hard-nosed, they're coachable and that really makes it fun."
Those traits aren't exclusive to mid-major programs or overlooked recruits. Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw would say the same thing about their players, but Bollant now has to recruit players who rise to the top rather than those who slip through the cracks. At Illinois, as will be the case for Miller at Indiana, Bollant will be able to get the ear of all sorts of recruits who might not have given him the time of day at Green Bay. The question is, will the particular talents that made him such a good fit at Green Bay serve him as well on a bigger stage? Will he take a player with incredible skill or size who might not have the same drive as Hoewisch or be as coachable as current Green Bay guard Adrian Ritchie? Will a coach who loves the X's and O's have to spend more time on executive duties?
The new generation of coaching standouts in power conferences -- those who followed the likes of Auriemma, Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer -- have limited ties to the top tiers of mid-major basketball, suggesting at least a belief that the skills that work in one sphere of the sport aren't necessarily suited to the other.
Kim Barnes Arico went from Division II Adelphi to St. John's. Matthew Mitchell went from a brief stint at Morehead State to Kentucky, returning to the SEC after stints as an assistant at Florida and Kentucky. Joanne P. McCallie and Sharon Versyp each went from low-major Maine to power-conference jobs, McCallie eventually settling at Duke and Versyp at Purdue. Brenda Frese spent just two seasons at Ball State, never making the NCAA tournament, before moving to Minnesota and eventually a national championship at Maryland. Prior to taking over at Louisville, Jeff Walz gained most his experience as an assistant at Nebraska, Minnesota and alongside Frese at Maryland. Penn State's Coquese Washington and Georgia Tech's MaChelle Joseph fit the same bill. Among rising coaches in the Top 25, it's difficult to find many who spent any amount of time building a true mid-major power -- maybe South Carolina's Dawn Staley at Temple or Miami's Katie Meier at Charlotte.
Of course, as was the case when Bollant was rumored to be under consideration for the Wisconsin job last year, it's impossible to ignore the role gender plays in the coaching carousel when both Bollant and Miller replace female coaches in Jolette Law and Felisha Legette-Jack, respectively.
There is a larger systemic problem in American sports when it comes to women and coaching. As an example, consider the world of Division I college basketball. An aspiring male coach coming out of college has more than 600 head-coaching positions theoretically available to him down the road -- all of those in both men's and women's basketball. Given that we don't seem any closer to women coaching men's basketball, an aspiring female coach coming of college has half that number of opportunities when she looks into the future.
Aspiring female teachers aren't limited to all-girls schools. Aspiring female doctors aren't limited to practices that see only women. But when it comes to basketball, it's accepted as a societal norm that aspiring female coaches will work only within their gender. In turn, that reality creates understandable pressure within women's basketball to promote, literally and figuratively, women coaches. If only half of the coaching positions available to women in the first place are actually held by women, what incentive is there to go into coaching? If the situation was more equitable, there would be more opportunities for aspiring coaches like Shea Ralph (Connecticut), Megan Duffy (St. John's) and Kate Achter (St. Bonaventure), recent college stars on the court who are now rising stars as assistant coaches.
That pressure is obviously felt most acutely at the sport's highest level, in the athletic departments with the highest profiles and at the largest universities, often public state schools caught in the dance between political correctness for the sake of political correctness and a genuine desire to make sure everyone gets a fair opportunity.
What gets lost at times is the idea of hiring the best coach for the job, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or any other category irrelevant to teaching the 2-3 zone.
In hiring Bollant and Miller -- as was the case when Mississippi recently hired former Fresno State coach Adrian Wiggins or when Washington last year hired former Xavier coach Kevin McGuff -- Illinois and Indiana are tapping a heretofore underutilized reservoir of talent and betting that the success those coaches had in different surroundings wasn't dependent on those surroundings.
If they are right, and if sleeping giants like Indiana and Illinois awaken, it makes the sport better and a tournament short on upsets far less likely. There might come a time when mid-major programs like Green Bay and Bowling Green can seriously think about the Final Four, but developing a deeper tier of major programs might be a necessary first step.
At the moment, it is uncomfortable that so many of those experiments seem to involve men replacing women. But such is the curse of small sample size. And if successful, it might soon mean opportunities for coaches like Princeton's Courtney Banghart, Toledo's Tricia Cullop, Drexel's Denise Dillon, Boston University's Kelly Greenberg and Hartford's Jennifer Rizzotti.
If any of those coaches want to move, of course. Sometimes it simply isn't worth trading the satisfaction you have for that which you might find.