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A Note on Coaching Searches

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that Lindsay Whalen was let go by the University of Minnesota. Minnesota is now looking for a new women’s basketball coach.

Whalen’s tenure was not what people hoped for when she was hired. While recruiting has decidedly improved, the team under her tenure never went to the NCAA Tournament. Her best season was her first, finishing 6th in the conference. Since that first season, the team finished 11th, 10th, and 10th and tied for 11th in the conference. The Gophers did not have a winning record over the last three seasons. A move is understandable at this point. If the coach in question was not the best point guard ever (for men's or women's basketball) at Minnesota and an unabashed top 25 women’s basketball player of all time, I doubt she would have made it to a fifth season.

All true, except that she is Lindsay Whalen, which is also why she was hired in the first place. Mark Coyle’s risk profile hoped for a home run like Dawn Staley, so hiring a candidate with no previous head-coaching experience was a risk worth taking. It is depressing that it has not worked out.

Now that we have gotten the throat clearing out of the way let me make a point about a certain type of discourse over who should be the next head coach.

The screenshot above is from a representative tweet of the genre. While it happens to be the case that the tweet in question is public because why not show your whole dumb self with the internet, I’ve chosen to make it pseudo-anonymous because I want to talk about the “they only got hired because they are X” argument.

Let’s play a game. Here are four coaching profiles in men’s basketball when they were hired by their most recent Power 5 coaching job.


Attribute Coach A Coach B Coach C Coach D
Attribute Coach A Coach B Coach C Coach D
Alum Y Y N N
Previous Head Coach N N Y N
NCAA Tournament Success N N Y N
Previous P5 HC N N N N
P5 Assistant for at least 2 years Y N Y N
Under 45 when hired N Y Y Y

Two coaches have made it to the Final Four. Two of them have two of the top 10 teams in the country. One of them was considered one of the five hottest candidates of the coaching cycle when he was hired. One was considered a massive risk because he never had head coaching experience. One of them was far down on the program’s list and thought by some to have been both a bad fit and a panic hire after several other coaches turned down the job. One of them was fired for being a bust. Who’s who? Which one is the “diversity” hire?

So who’s who here? In order, Hubert Davis, Matt Painter, John Groce (who is back to being successful at Akron), and Mick Cronin. Groce on paper looked like a sure thing at Illinois back in the day. Matt Painter was the in-house candidate coach in waiting. Mick Cronin took over somewhat by happenstance at Cincinnati, and was the after thought candidate at UCLA. Hubert Davis was explicitly tagged with the “he doesn’t have any coaching experience” criticism and then promptly went to the Final Four. Jury remains out on how consistent he will be at UNC, but I would be happy with a single Final Four that is not stripped from the rafters at the Barn.

Here are four coaching profiles in women’s basketball when they were hired by their most recent Power 5 coaching job.


Attribute Coach A Coach B Coach C Coach D
Attribute Coach A Coach B Coach C Coach D
Alum Y N N N
Previous Head Coach Y Y Y Y
NCAA Tournament Success N Y N N
Previous P5 HC N N N N
P5 Assistant for at least 2 years N N N N
Under 45 when hired N Y Y N

Every coach’s team in this table is in the Top 10 of the current Women’s basketball rankings. Three of them will likely be number 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Who’s the “diversity” hire?

So who’s who here. In order Denise Dillon, Lisa Bluder, Teri Moren, and Kenny Brooks. Dillon is the pure alum candidate that worked out at Villanova. Bluder has been an institution at Iowa. Moren has turned the Indiana program into a good basketball team. Brooks and Virginia Tech have had a breakthrough year after a long coaching career at James Madison. None of them are diversity hires because that’s a stupid label to tag someone.

The discussion here is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of coaching searches. I deliberately cherry-picked to demonstrate the same problem that happens when people talk about “diversity” candidates. Most of the time, discussions around “diversity” hires follow a logical fallacy called selection on the dependent variable. It is incorrect to discuss the determinants of failure only by looking at incidents when we observe failure. If we start from the premise that a head coach is unsuccessful and thus cannot be a real hire, then it is very easy to make the logical leap that the reason is based on some observable attribute. Now it must be because they were a woman instead of a man, young instead of old, non-white instead of white, some orientation other than straight, some gender assignment other than the one assigned them at birth.

All of that is horseshit. Coaching hires are all risks. Pat Summitt and Dean Smith in their primes are not walking through the door. Numerous variables go into searches, and suggesting that some coaches will not get a look because they are wrong on some vector is the height of stupidity. Let’s be better.

Well fine UStreet who should they hire?

To paraphrase our fearless leader GopherNation I would like to see to see Coyle make a systems hire. What do I mean? Coyle’s most successful hires across sports have been coaches who have had clear success at another program, come in with a defined philosophical style of play, and can teach and recruit to that system. An implication here is that I would prefer all else equal (and so much of this discussion is all else equal) a current head coach at a school in a good conference who has had multiple years of success inclusive of the last two years. All else equal, I do not want an assistant or associate head coach stepping into their first job.

We have a post of possible candidates for the job, and there are of course many other possibilities. Confining myself to that list, here are four names that fit that profile in no particular order

  • Megan Duffy.
  • Robin Fralick
  • Jennie Baranczyk.
  • Aaron Johnson