Old-timers Frank McGuire, Ben Carnevale and Abe Lemons were sitting around a suite at the annual basketball coaches convention the other day discussing the high turnover rate in Division I jobs.
They had been reading a survey in a local newspaper in which North Carolina's Dean Smith was named the best coach by his peers. "Dean," McGuire said, turning to Smith, "you're probably the only one who's safe."
That was a slight exaggeration, but not by much. A year ago, there were 57 coaching changes in Division I -- a rate of slightly less than one in five jobs, according to Joe Vancisin, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
This year, at least 17 coaches in major programs had either retired, resigned under pressure or been fired by the time the NCAA regional semifinals began a week ago. They were at some of the biggest-name schools in college sports: Houston, Nebraska, Southern California, South Carolina, Ohio State, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Florida State.
Already, because of the domino effect, six other schools will have new coaches next season. For instance, Eldon Miller leaving Ohio State caused two other changes, as Gary Williams left Boston College to replace Miller and Jim O'Brien left St. Bonaventure to replace Williams.
"It's the pressure to win or else," said Ed Steitz, athletic director at Division III Springfield College and longtime NCAA rules editor. "It's intensifying, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If the little guy makes it and you don't, somebody's got to go."
The risk is high, but so are the rewards. According to one Big East Conference coach with a $100,000-plus shoe contract, about 10 coaches are making $500,000 annually and about 50 are taking in at least $200,000 when salary, shoe contracts, camps, speaking engagements and radio-television shows are taken into account.
Smith was said to be one of those earning half a million dollars annually. "That isn't true," he said, declining to reveal his income. "But I'm overcompensated."
"There's a lot of people who don't even realize there's an evolution going on in college athletics," said George Raveling, who this week left Iowa for Southern California. "And those are the people that are going to wake up like Rip Van Winkle and realize it's passed them by and they won't even know about it."
Asked what he meant by evolution, Raveling replied: "The whole game, administratively, the way the game's played, the way the game's accepted, the finances of intercollegiate athletics. It's changed totally. You can't show me one phase of intercollegiate athletics that hasn't turned at least 180 degrees. And only the strong are going to survive."
A common theory among coaches is that they should move every five or six years -- and sometimes more quickly -- to fare better financially and to be appreciated more.
The movement of college coaches and their lack of job security is a concern of both the NABC's board of directors and of administrators wanting to do things the right way.
"College presidents have to get involved more, instead of leaving it up to the athletic director who, after all of a sudden a coach has a bad year and attendance is down, thinks something magic is going to happen if he fires a coach with experience who is a proven winner," said Smith.
"It's the pressure to win and go to the NCAA tournament," said Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins. "Every school wants it. We won 27 games and I feel like we had a bad year."
"You stay in a place a number of years, and people want everything," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, whose good teams have had little success in the NCAA tournament. "Winning the league means nothing now. Now it's only the NCAA tournament and maybe only getting to the Final Four."
What's the answer?
"We've talked about tenure time to time," said NCAA President Jack Davis of Oregon State. "Under some circumstances, that might work.
"We have to be cautious about the extent of rewards for successful coaches. At times, that -- the income from summer camps, TV shows, shoes and speaking engagements -- should be shared with the institution. The pot's too attractive for some."
Said Boeheim: "I almost fell off my chair when I heard that one. To me, that's off the wall. America's America, isn't it? Is there any talk of the president of IBM making $500,000, $800,000 or $1 million or whatever he makes sharing it with the company ? In coaching the risks are greater, the pressure greater.
"All the money I make is money I made on my own, by hard work. Syracuse pays me very little . . . I generate Syracuse 5 to 6 million dollars per season . Syracuse is the top-drawing crowd in college basketball and has the largest on-campus arena, the Carrier Dome."
"I think $5 or 6 million income from basketball is a pretty good return on my salary," he said. "If you want to go back to the days there was no TV and you didn't have to win, when there were no sneaker contracts, no camps, no TV, then you made $25,000.
"At that time the school made $200,000. The percentage returned to the school now has been greater than the percentage returned to the coach."
A year ago, Eddie Sutton, one of the nation's most successful coaches, left Arkansas for the University of Kentucky, where this season he led the Wildcats to the regional finals and was named Associated Press coach of the year. He left mainly because of differences with his boss, Frank Broyles. "Basketball got too big," Sutton said. "It might have been bigger than football."
That is an unpardonable sin in the Southwest Conference.
"It has become more difficult to be a major college coach," Sutton said. "I'm not sure institutions or fans are as patient as they used to be. That comes from TV. Everybody has become an assistant coach.
"Look at Bill Foster fired at South Carolina , Rich Falk fired at Northwestern , Tom Apke fired at Colorado . Those guys are all good coaches. They're all quality human beings. Evidently they didn't win enough ball games to get them over the hump.
"That's one reason you're going to see in the future very few people that retire like Mr. Rupp did, like Mr. Iba, Mr. Meyer, Mr. Wooden. They were the giants. I don't know how many people who are coaching today can go till they're 65 or 70."