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August 8, 2011
Grading Coaches
The Culture Changers

by Corey Schmidt


When Patrick Chambers was introduced in June as the new head coach at Penn State, he opened his remarks by saying that he intended to change the culture of the men's hoops program. Chambers is right: something needs to change. Penn State exhibits the widest gap in fan support between football and basketball of any major-conference school over the last six years. Then again most coaches will talk about a "culture change" when taking over a program that hasn't been a regular NCAA tournament participant. For the most part coaches can get away with these statements because we don't have a definitive way to measure whether or not a coach actually changes the culture.

Culture is inherently subjective. Each athletic director likely has his or her own definition. That said, most of those ADs would probably say that a solid culture is directly linked to winning. If you win games, everything else that defines a culture will fall in line. While this is a isn't a bad way to think about culture, I've often wondered how we could take its measurement a step further.

I aimed to determine which coaches have changed the culture at their schools by comparing basketball attendance (defined as percent of capacity filled) to football attendance within the same program. The thinking here is that football is king at a majority of colleges. To change the basketball culture a new coach has to put out a product that gets fans more interested in attending hoops games. My data set contains six years of attendance figures and coaching changes from the six major conferences.

Since this research deals with venue capacities and attendance figures, it assumes that programs build facilities to meet reasonable demand and that they report attendance figures in good faith. Moreover, this exercise does not attempt to control for how changes in a football program could impact this equation. Instead, support is considered fluid, where both sides must continually adapt to changes in fan preference between basketball and football. With those limitations in mind, let's get to our list of college basketball's Great Culture Changers.

The Great Achiever: Matt Painter, Purdue
When Painter took over the head post at Purdue following the retirement of Gene Keady in 2005, he was in a unique position. Keady had presided over the program for a quarter century and for most of those years the Boilermakers were, at the very least, a relevant player in college hoops. Yet the program was in need of something fresh by the time Keady took his final bow. Essentially Painter was tasked with modifying the culture without disrupting the tradition.

By and large Painter has succeeded in accomplishing this during his tenure in West Lafayette. Though fan support for basketball lagged significantly behind football during Painter's first year, he has slowly but surely tipped the scales toward the hardwood in each subsequent season. In 2005, the percent of attendance capacity filled at Boilermaker football games was 25% higher than at basketball games. By the close of last season, basketball had a 22 percent advantage. Over this time period no other coach has reversed the culture course quite like Matt Painter has at Purdue.

The Old Guard: Bob Huggins, West Virginia
Though John Beilein regularly took West Virginia to the NCAA tournament during his tenure in Morgantown, he never quite parlayed that success into more fan support for his team. In Beilein's final years, WVU fan support was trending heavily toward the gridiron. Bob Huggins, a West Virginia alum and indeed a Morgantown native, appears to be the guy the school needed to help ramp up interest in hoops. By the end of his third season at the helm, Huggins was drawing fans to basketball games at about the same rate as the football team. Though the basketball team experienced a slight dip by this measure in 2010-11, it's still far better off in relation to football than where it was prior to Huggins' return.

John Calipari, Kentucky
During the two-year tenure of Billy Gillispie, Kentucky fan support was actually stronger in football than in basketball. And even though the Wildcats did struggle (relatively speaking) on the court under Gillispie, it's still amazing to think that Kentucky could show up as a football-leaning school by any measure. Thus, when John Calipari took over following the ousting of Gillsipie, he did not have to do much to awake the sleeping giant known as Big Blue Nation. In just two years on the job, Coach Cal has the Wildcats back to being the basketball school we all know it as. He didn't have to reinvent the culture as much as he simply had to reignite it.

The Fallen One: Bruce Pearl, Tennessee (formerly)
Tennessee is one of a handful of schools that regularly draws more than 100,000 fans to its football games. Yet for years its men's basketball program had trouble filling Thompson-Boling Arena. During his six years on the job Bruce Pearl proved to be the man the university needed to change that culture. He had been on pace to tilt Tennessee away from a football-leaning school toward a basketball-leaning one. However the transgressions that eventually cost him his job may have also cost his program some support during 2010-11. Though his departure was inglorious, Pearl made hoops relevant in Knoxville.

The Oddballs: Tony Bennett, Virginia (formerly Washington State)
Much has been written about the slow-paced system that Tony Bennett has employed in his five years as a head coach. Whether at Washington State or Virginia, Bennett's teams have consistently ranked near the bottom of Division I in tempo. Regardless of pace, however, Bennett has actually improved his basketball programs' fan support in each year he's been a head coach. At Washington State he helped bring about a dramatic shift in the way basketball was perceived in relation to football. In the year before his arrival the percentage of capacity filled at Cougar football games was 55 percentage points higher than at basketball games. By the time he left three years later that number was down to 19. Likewise football support was considerably higher than that of basketball at Virginia during the last few years of Dave Leitao's tenure. But through his first two years Bennett has chipped away at that disparity and has basketball back to an even level of fan support with football. He's proven that a grind-it-out approach may be more appealing than most believe.

Ken Bone, Washington State
Bone has continued to build on the culture change that Bennett initiated at Washington State. Though he's only been on the job for two seasons, Bone has further closed the divide between basketball support and football support at Wazzu. With the loss of several key players from last year's team it'll be interesting to monitor where Cougar basketball support goes from here, but Bone certainly deserves a pat on the back for the work he's done thus far to grow fan interest in Pullman, Washington.

Others to Watch: Fran McCaffery, Iowa
Fan support for Iowa basketball was not exactly at an all-time high during the short-lived Todd Lickliter era. So while Fran McCaffery did bring about some improvement in this regard in his first season, he was improving on very low figures. Still there's reason to believe Fran is the man to help get the Iowa faithful back into Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Mark Fox, Georgia
Though Georgia is firmly a football-first school, Fox has at least given basketball a chance in his two years at the helm. After losing two key players to the NBA this off-season, the results of his third season will give us a better indication of his long-term potential as a culture changer.

Mike Rice, Rutgers
While the results of one season shouldn't be considered too heavily, the shift seen in fan support for basketball at Rutgers during Rice's first year was large enough to warrant placement here.

Needs Culturing: Tom Crean, Indiana
Crean hasn't had it easy in his brief tenure as Indiana's head coach. He took over the storied program after the Kelvin Sampson mess and essentially had to build from nothing. Though most IU fans are willing to give the guy the necessary time to rebuild, apparently there's a faction out there that's more than a little impatient with what's happened to Hoosier basketball since 2008. That faction has abstained from attending games at Assembly Hall: percent-of-capacity attendance has decreased relative to IU football in each of Crean's three seasons. While a portion of that may be explained by efforts taken by Indiana to sell more football tickets, it's nonetheless apparent that Crean has work to do. Cody Zeller should get ready for that weight to be placed on his shoulders.

Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Sometimes the football program just gets better. That's what has happened at Cincinnati over the last few years, and it's why the culture scale for Bearcat basketball is so perplexing. Essentially basketball has lost fan support relative to football in each of the five years that Cronin has coached Cincinnati, yet he received a contract extension this off-season. However with the football program filling its stadium to capacity, it leaves one to wonder why the basketball program has been unable to win over some of these new supporters of Bearcat athletics. Perhaps it's those weak non-conference schedules.

Follow Corey on Twitter: @HalcyonHoops. This free article is an example of the content available to Basketball Prospectus Premium subscribers. See our Premium page for more details and to subscribe.

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