ORLANDO — In March 2009, Tony Bennett was the head coach at Washington State, where he had taken over for his father. Chris Mack was an assistant at Xavier, his alma mater in his home town of Cincinnati. But because the University of Virginia fired Dave Leitao and because John Calipari moved from Memphis to Kentucky — and not Memphis to Arizona — their lives changed.
This is relevant because, as everyone in college basketball knows, the Indiana job is vacant. And maybe — or maybe not — that means the UCLA job will come open. Either way, Washington needs a coach, as does Illinois. (Which of those jobs is better, anyway?) LSU and Cal, Drake and Duquesne — heck, even Qunnipiac, for that matter. The openings span from north to south and coast to coast. They’re all connected.
We have reached the if-this-then-that portion of the college basketball schedule, and in some ways it provides more intrigue than even the NCAA tournament. Eight springs ago, the opening at Virginia provided Bennett the chance to move cross-country and try his pack-line defense against the ACC. Calipari’s move to Lexington left Arizona searching for a permanent replacement for the retired Lute Olsen and the interim Kevin O’Neill, and when Mack’s boss Sean Miller departed for Tucson, Mack got his shot at the head job at Xavier.
“Sometimes,” Bennett said Friday, “you’re the flavor of the month.”
Who the flavor of the month is at the moment is unclear. But there is no murkiness about the following three facts: Indiana fired Tom Crean roughly 60 seconds after the NCAA tournament tipped off Thursday. One of the premier jobs in the entire sport is now open. And, as Mack said, “Coaches talk all the time.”
So they talk about who might be a candidate in Bloomington. (Psssst. Bennett?) They talk about what job might open up because of that. “That’s probably going on with a dozen guys in our industry right now,” Florida Coach Mike White said.
The most prominent of those dozen guys: Steve Alford, the Indiana grad who is the coach at UCLA. That’s at the top of the food chain. But every single coach knows that every single job trickles down to a level the public might not realize.
In 2000, when Bill Guthridge retired from North Carolina and Roy Williams decided to stay at Kansas and Matt Doherty moved from Notre Dame to North Carolina and Mike Brey left Delaware for Notre Dame and Duke assistant David Henderson became the head coach at Delaware, it created an opening on the Duke staff, which was filled by Seton Hall assistant Chris Collins. (Short version: Retirement at North Carolina leads to vacancy on Seton Hall staff.)
Three years later, when Williams flip-flopped on his original decision and left Lawrence for Chapel Hill, Bill Self went from Illinois to Kansas, Bruce Weber went from Southern Illinois to Illinois, and Matt Painter moved from his assistant’s job on Weber’s staff to the head chair. (Cliff notes: Roy Williams’s move creates opening for Salukis assistant.)
Fans fill out brackets. Coaches fill out jobs.
“Stuff gets spinning,” Bennett said. “Who knows what’s accurate and what’s not? It’s so not about that. It’s about where you’re at, loving what you do and treating it as a gift. . . . If you can have that perspective, it helps you enjoy it and have joy doing it, and you’re not strangling it to death. But there’s times you feel that tension.”
Bennett, whose Cavaliers face Florida on Saturday here with a spot in the Sweet 16 at stake, has to realize that his name will surface now. His staff does. It could be Indiana. It could be the pros.
“Literally, I have not heard a word from his mouth regarding any — any anything,” said Brad Soderberg, one of Bennett’s assistants at Virginia but a former head coach at both Wisconsin and Saint Louis. “I’m not stupid. I know that he’s an attractive candidate for anybody — in the NBA, college basketball, you name it. But it never comes up.”
Coaches essentially learn that the only way to deal with the commotion is to pretend it doesn’t exist. In 2007, Florida was in the midst of defending its national title. Tubby Smith left Kentucky, under considerable pressure, for Minnesota. Immediately, Billy Donovan, then the Gators coach and a former Kentucky assistant, was besieged by questions about the Kentucky job.
“You have to coach your team,” said Jeremy Foley, then Florida’s athletic director. “It’s up to the coach to make sure distractions don’t become distractions. Billy was able to do that.”
The Wildcats, that year, won again. Donovan stayed — until two years ago, when he left for Oklahoma City of the NBA. Coaches, then, looked at Florida. Foley, in turn, considered a list he had developed in his mind.
“You have to pay attention to what different guys are doing,” Foley said. He settled on White, for four years the coach at Louisiana Tech. Now, athletic directors are looking for the next White. The men in those seats realize it. Thursday, Kevin Keatts and his UNC Wilmington team were bounced from the NCAA tournament here by Bennett and Virginia. Friday, Keatts reportedly accepted the job at N.C. State, where he will compete against Virginia in the ACC. Now, there’s an opening in Wilmington. Who might be a fit there?
There is virtually no limit to the connectivity. Soderberg was let go by Wisconsin after he replaced Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, as an interim there in 2000-01. He became the head coach at Saint Louis, where he was fired in 2007. He has coached at Division III, been unemployed (“Your phone stops ringing”) and knows the industry from all angles, and the job discussion intimately.
“It’s extremely stressful,” he said Friday in a cramped Virginia locker room at Amway Center.
And it’s stressful at all levels. Soderberg’s son Kramer followed his father into the family business — against Brad’s advice. In February, his boss at Millikin University, a Division III school in Decatur, Ill., was fired. Kramer Soderberg, father of two young boys, is out of a job.
“I think about it — no exaggeration — more than anything,” Brad Soderberg said. “I just saw today, there’s an opening at Shenandoah. I’ve got to text him about that. Where is it?”
But wait just a second. What if Alford leaves UCLA for Indiana? That just might have an impact on that opening at Shenandoah.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.