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May 2, 2012
Power Imbalance
Why the ACC Devours Coaches

by John Gasaway


It's been nine days now since Virginia Tech fired head coach Seth Greenberg, an event that struck many observers as odd. After all, Greenberg had arguably achieved respectable results in a locale that's not exactly a hoops mecca. And, anyway, why fire a coach a full six weeks after his team's season has ended?

The timing of the Hokies' announcement was indeed unusual, and clearly the whole process could have been handled better in terms of sheer human-resources elan. (Virginia Tech announced that a press conference would be held late that afternoon without first telling Greenberg what would take place at said event, leaving the coach completely in the dark as his phone blew up with calls from writers.) That being said, the actual impact of the unusual timing on Tech's ensuing search for a new coach (they have since hired James Johnson) was probably overstated. We have seen time and time again that very good coaches can be hired at very strange times. Thad Matta, to take one example, was hired by Ohio State in July of 2004, and I dare say he's panned out pretty well.

No, what I found interesting about last week's news out of Blacksburg wasn't its timing, but rather the way it fit seamlessly into a larger ACC pattern. Together Duke and North Carolina have won a higher percentage of their conference games (76.9) over the past five seasons than any other pair of major-conference programs. Not surprisingly, that level of success has clearly had an impact on the other ten programs in the league. Conference wins are a zero-sum proposition. And if college basketball performance were subject to the dictates of antitrust law, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels would be found guilty of restraint of trade.

Let's take a quick tour around the conference, specifically the portions of the league not found in Durham or Chapel Hill. In order of seniority in their current positions, the head coaches are as follows:

Leonard Hamilton, Florida State: 10 seasons
Tony Bennett, Virginia: 3 seasons
Steve Donahue, Boston College: 2 seasons
Brad Brownell, Clemson: 2 seasons
Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest: 2 seasons
Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech: 1 season
Mark Turgeon, Maryland: 1 season
Jim Larranaga, Miami: 1 season
Mark Gottfried, NC State: 1 season
James Johnson, Virginia Tech: 0 seasons

That works out to an average of 2.3 ACC years per coach for people not named either "Mike Krzyzewski" or "Roy Williams." When we repeat this experiment in the other major conferences (set aside the two winningest programs of the past five conference seasons and look at coaching tenures in the rest of the league), we discover this is the briefest length of service to be found anywhere. Simply put, Duke and North Carolina dominate their league more than any other major-conference duo, and the other ten coaches in the ACC are newer to their gigs than are any other group of major-conference coaches. There's probably a connection.

Obviously this average number for seasons served in one's current position will register a healthy increase with the addition of Syracuse's Jim Boeheim (36 seasons) and Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon (9 seasons) to the league -- whenever that finally comes to pass. But that's kind of my point. We know that all conference expansion is either driven by or at least highly aware of football, but in pure basketball terms the ACC gives the appearance of having to import worthy foes for North Carolina and Duke.

That's not to say you can't have three or more outstanding teams in a league in any given year. Conference wins are zero-sum, but overall strength within the league is not. Florida State was pretty good in 2012 (they beat both Duke and Carolina during the regular season), and NC State reached this year's Sweet 16. Indeed some observers expect the Wolfpack to compete for the ACC title in 2013.

Who knows, maybe Mark Gottfried will build a consistent top-echelon ACC contender in Raleigh. If he does, however, he will have achieved something that no other coach has been able to do across multiple ACC seasons in recent times. To this point the best such performance has been recorded by Leonard Hamilton at Florida State. The Seminoles have been the clear No. 3 in the league over the past five seasons, posting a 50-30 mark in conference play. The question going forward -- for Hamilton, Gottfried, or any other coach in the league not posted to Chapel Hill or Durham -- is whether winning 60 percent of your conference games represents more or less the "ceiling" for what's feasible in a league with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams in their respective primes.

There's a school of thought that says, at least in terms of recruiting, there are three truly "national" programs: Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina. "National" here means simply that the nation's top recruits can be counted upon year in and year out to be found competing head-to-head for the chance to play for these teams. And when two of those three national teams are in the same conference, it makes things difficult for the other programs in that league.

In any event I draw two conclusions from all of the above: Leonard Hamilton is likely somewhat underrated as a head coach (athletic directors take note), and James Johnson has his work cut out for him.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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