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Coaching Capitalism

April 16, 2003 Columns No Comments

Had Enough of Corporate Hoops?

by Michael Ermitage

College basketball capitalism is alive and well. Succeed at your middle management job, er mid-major job, and reap the rewards of a bigger house, a nicer car and a more prestigious position. There is no pull in America like the pull at your purse strings, except perhaps, the pull at your heartstrings, ala Roy Williams and his departure from Kansas to North Carolina. Although many will argue that the $1.7 million per year salary was certainly an incentive for Williams, who stood in a full arena three years earlier and told a throng of adoring fans he’d retire a Jayhawk. Unless, of course, someone makes a better offer, Williams should have added… it’s the American way.

Certainly working hard to make a better life for yourself is not shameful, in fact, it is admirable. If Sports Illustrated comes calling after reading this particular column, I’m going to have to hold a tearful news conference here in downtown Hoopville. Certainly, however, at some point, you have to value comfort over salary, familiarity over prestige and loyalty over notoriety. And above it all, you have to realize that success ultimately is the responsibility of the employee, not the employer. Coaching at North Carolina does not make you a great coach, nor does coaching in the NBA. Sometimes a situation just fits, allowing you to reach your full potential; perhaps more than you would at a different, higher profile job (See Matt Doherty at North Carolina or the failed NBA attempts of Lon Krueger, Rick Pitino, John Calipari and Tim Floyd).

At this very moment, Illinois’ Bill Self is considering moving from Illinois to Kansas. Why? Most people cite that Self is from the region (he’s from Oklahoma) and he was a former assistant at Kansas. I contend that Self has found the perfect situation at Illinois. The affable coach has won over the Chicago media with his gosh-darn loveable accent and down-home charm. He’s done the same with Chicago high school coaches, something a coach at the University of Illinois has not been able to do in decades. He has won two Big Ten championships and a conference tournament championship (the first at Illinois). He has managed to secure outstanding in-state talent in current players Dee Brown and James Augustine. He’s made inroads on the national level, securing an oral commitment from New Jersey’s Charlie Villanueva.

Off the court, Self is already a hero. Students used sidewalk chalk to adorn messages to Self’s street and driveway in hopes of keeping the coach in Champaign. More supporters of the program lined the street leading to the Illini’s basketball banquet to show Self their support.

Furthermore, the University will pay Self $5 million if he completes his five-year contract. What more does he want? Imagine the reception Self would receive if he were to bring the Illini a National Championship, or even just a Final Four appearance. Instead, he is considering moving to a place where if he doesn’t make a Final Four appearance in short order, he’ll be out of a job. It is nonsense.

Perhaps the only situation more absurd than Self’s is the one facing Marquette’s Tom Crean. Crean is also on Kansas’ short list and is likely to be Illinois’ top choice if Self does leave. If Self is adored, Crean is worshipped. He took a moribund program and returned it to a glory it had not experienced since disco days and bell-bottoms. In just four short years of work, Crean delivered a Final Four appearance to the Milwaukee Jesuit school. And in the process he created an atmosphere few can match in college basketball. The student section at Marquette has grown and unified. Marquette’s home games are now a distinct advantage, losing just once in its last 32 contests. Its alumni base has jumped back on the bandwagon, donating enough money to build the Al McGuire Center (a new $31 million facility). Both the alumni and students swarmed to New Orleans for the Final Four.

And Crean’s time in Milwaukee has not been without personal attachments. He has had a son born while working at the job. And he has seen Dwayne Wade, a recruit he stood by despite academic problems; evolve into an All-American, and more importantly a husband and father.

Crean also befriended now-deceased former coach Al McGuire while at Marquette. It is in McGuire that Crean should see his future at the school. There are few coaches in college basketball lore more beloved by their University and its alumni than McGuire. That is a clear sign that if you bring a winner to football-less Marquette, you will be forever cherished.

There is no amount of money, prestige or job satisfaction that can replace the absolute admiration and respect of an entire community.

At some point, there is no need to climb the corporate ladder any further. Because if you do, you might pass right by the perfect job. Happiness isn’t always at the top; most of the time it comes along the way.


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