Here are some major-conference head coaches.
Still, they all have one thing in common. They were all assistant coaches when they secured their first non-interim gigs as major-conference head coaches.
As you can tell from the brevity of the list, that’s an unusual career path. This group comprises just 18 percent of major-conference head coaches. Conversely 76 percent of today’s head coaches in the six “power” conferences were hired into their first such job when they were the head coach at a mid-major.
In other words athletic directors overwhelmingly prefer hiring a head coach over hiring an assistant coach. That’s to be expected, of course. It’s good to hire someone who’s currently doing the job you want them to do for you. But a preference this one-sided (76 percent to 18 percent), along with the fact that the pool of D-I assistant coaches will always be much larger than that of head coaches, suggests that assistants are being undervalued — maybe even severely so — as potential candidates in head-coaching searches.
To say that assistants are being undervalued as candidates doesn’t mean the best candidate will often be an assistant. After all, if you can hire a current head coach like Brad Stevens, then by all means hire Brad Stevens. The point, however, is that very often you can’t hire Brad Stevens. And by the time we see candidates who were removed from their previous head coaching positions being recycled into new positions, I think it’s fair to raise the hey wait a minute point. Head-coaching experience is a good thing to have, surely, but athletic directors may be making a fetish of it.
True, hiring an assistant will always require a certain amount courage on the part of the athletic director. Neither Frank Martin nor Buzz Williams triggered widespread euphoria when their hirings were announced at Kansas State and Marquette, respectively. (More like: “Who’s Frank Martin?” and “Who’s Buzz Williams?”) But particularly in situations where the departing head coach has left voluntarily, recent history suggests that excellent candidates may be available just down the hall. During the carousel’s latest spin this spring both Martin and Williams were prominently mentioned in connection with major-conference openings. Of course they were. They now have head-coaching experience.
BONUS fine print! The absence of Matt Painter from the list up at the top is intentional. It’s true that prior to becoming head coach at Purdue Painter served as Super Executive Senior Poobah Associate Head Coach under Gene Keady in 2004-05. But since Painter left his job as head coach at Southern Illinois only on the stated understanding that he’d become the Boilermakers’ head coach in one year’s time, he doesn’t really fit with guys who took jobs as assistants with no guarantees that a head-coaching gig would ensue.