I think most Boston College fans understand that during this men’s basketball coaching search, Coach K is not walking through that door - and neither is Rick Pitino, Brad Stevens, or whatever other big names are being tossed around on Twitter.
But it is reasonable that many fans are looking for the basketball version of Jeff Hafley - a high-upside, in-demand coach with deep experience at both the professional and power conference level.
This is perfectly fair. It’s hard to compare recruiting at and competing in a mid-major program - even a very good one - to the grind of a conference like the ACC, and it’s reasonable to question whether even the most successful coaches at a place like Vermont, Northeastern, or St. Bonaventure would succeed at a place like BC.
That said, I think BC fans should avoid the fallacy of painting every candidate without extensive power conference experience by the broad brush of experiences with Jim Christian and Steve Donahue.
Both Donahue and Christian had particular quirks on their resume that make them difficult to compare with some of the ‘mid major’ names being thrown around as BC candidates now. Let’s take a look.
To start with, we should recall that for all the appropriate criticism of the move to dismiss Al Skinner, Steve Donahue was the hot name on the market when BC hired him in 2010 following his tournament success with Cornell - somewhat akin to Porter Moser’s status on the market right now. BC’s hiring of Donahue wasn’t the result of aiming low on the list of candidates; it was a result of the person who looked like the right guy turning out to be the wrong guy.
That said, it seems clear in retrospect that Donahue’s reputation was overhyped on the basis of an exciting NCAA tournament run with Cornell, qualifying for the Sweet 16 in 2010, which put a gloss on an otherwise fine but not spectacular record.
Donahue’s overall record with the Big Red was 146-138, and it took him seven years to put together a winning season. He has also been fine at Penn, posting an 83-64 mark with one tournament appearance.
But it seems moreso the case that rather than Donahue being a genius program-builder, his record now looks like someone who is a pretty solid coach at his level, who happened to strike gold with one or two recruiting classes, culminating in Cornell’s run in 2010.
This was basically his plan when he came to BC, if you recall - after inheriting Skinner’s roster and making the NIT in 2011, Donahue essentially gut-renovated the program with a brand new lineup in 2011-12, and repeated the mantra that after a few seasons together, things would pan out.
They did not pan out.
Unlike Donahue’s hiring, which was generally hailed in the BC blogosphere and fanbase, Christian’s hiring was a bit of an immediate head-scratcher for fans.
Christian’s reputation was largely forged on his early-career success at Kent State, where he qualified for two NCAA tournaments and three NITs in six seasons.
But Christian’s work at Kent State was not a rebuild - it was keeping a steady hand on a program that was already successful. Prior to Christian’s first season, Kent State was coming off four straight postseason appearances, including a 30-win season under Stan Heath. The program also remained solid after Christian’s departure to TCU, winning 19+ games in each of the following five seasons.
At TCU, Christian took over a program in 2008 that was mediocre-to-bad (averaging 13.5 wins per season in the four years before he took over), and left behind a program that was mediocre-to-bad (averaging 14 wins a season during his tenure).
Christian put together two winning seasons at Ohio before coming to BC, but again, he was inheriting a program that was in decent shape - his predecessor John Groce led the team to a 29-8 record and got poached for a power conference job at Illinois before Christian arrived.
The guys being floated from mid-major programs are not like Christian or Donahue at all
Given BC’s experiences with Christian and Donahue, it’s reasonable that fans are recoiling at the thought of seemingly repeating the plan of plucking a successful mid-major coach and bringing him up to the ACC.
But it’s not quite fair to compare some of the coaches being floated right now to Christian and Donahue.
Mark Schmidt of St. Bonaventure took over a program that was bad - no tournament appearances since 2000, and records of 7-21, 2-26, 8-19, and 7-22 before his arrival - and turned them into a consistent program regularly in the mix, in a difficult area for recruiting.
Bill Coen, in addition to having experience working at Boston College in the Big East and the ACC, also took over a program at Northeastern that had not made the NCAA tournament since 1991 and took them there twice. He has also been consistently competitive even in the seasons when they didn’t make the tournament.
Vermont’s John Becker also has a long, consistent record of winning 20+ games and contending - not just one run, though Vermont did have a recent history of success and tournament appearances under Mike Lonergan before Becker arrived.
The moral of the story here is not to just assume that because Jim Christian and Steve Donahue didn’t work out, that the only way to build a successful program at BC is to pluck someone working under the head coach at a place like Duke or Michigan.
My preferred candidate would be someone like Howard Eisley who does have that high-level assistant experience, in addition to time in the NBA, which will be appealing to the recruits BC is trying to snag.
But Eisley is likely largely in the mix because he is an alum. Top lieutenants at top programs are probably going to hold out for more attractive openings at this point. At the end of the day, there is a strong case to be made that what the BC program needs is a steady hand, and someone with deep experience of taking a program from a low point and steering it toward consistency. Someone like Schmidt or Coen could fit that bill, and BC fans should keep an open mind about it.