Unfortunately, over the last two years I’ve had the opportunity to become very familiar with the modern history of bad power conference teams. If you’ve been reading my MBB columns over the last two years, you might recall this article I wrote last year, looking at historically bad Pac-10/12 teams in an attempt to determine when/if Wyking Jones and Cal could recover.
Sadly, Cal’s 2018-19 season has been even worse than 17-18, which means it’s time to expand our search for comparisons.
Currently, Kenpom.com has rankings that go all the way back to the 97-98 season. That’s 22 total years to draw upon. Last year, Cal ranked 244th, and as of Sunday night the Bears ranked 281st. In an attempt to find teams to learn from, I combed through every season to pick out every team from the power 6 conferences (Big-10, Big-12, ACC, SEC, Big East, Pac-10/12) that ranked 200th or worse by Kenpom.
That cut off point is somewhat arbitrary - it leaves out, for one example, two different Ernie Kent teams that combined to go 3-33 over two seasons (how is he still employed?!) yet still ranked inside the top 200. But the cutoff was going to be arbitrary no matter where I put it, and I didn’t feel like looking into the history of more than the 39 teams and 32 different coaches who led their teams to such lows.
The main question: is there real hope for this coaching staff - have other coaches recovered from the depths of power conference basketball to build solid tenures? Or is it impossible to recover from uniquely bad seasons?
First off, here’s the list:
What I found is that outcomes tended to fall into a few different categories.
Coaches who were 1 year interims
2004 St. John’s - Kevin Clark
2013 Texas Tech - Chris Walker
Walker was attempting to clean up the mess left behind by Billy Gillispie (see below) and after a few years in the media, now he’s an assistant at Cal. That’s some rough luck.
Fired immediately after the season ended
1999 Baylor - Harry Miller (5 seasons)
2000 Kevin O’Neill (3 seasons)
2003 Penn St. - Jerry Dunn (8 seasons, 2 NCAA appearances)
2007 Colorado (11 seasons, 2 NCAA appearances)
2008 Oregon St. - Jay John (6 seasons)
2012 Texas Tech - Billie Gillispie (1 season)
2016 Rutgers - Eddie Jordan (2 seasons)
2018 Pitt - Kevin Stallings (2 seasons)
Of these eight coaches, only two made any NCAA tournament appearances prior to their horror seasons. Gillispie resigned in part due to player mistreatment accusations. This is the cut-your-losses category.
Coaches who were fired/resigned after being given another chance(s), but never made the NCAA tournament.
2001 Virginia Tech - Ricky Stokes (2 more years)
2002 Texas A&M - Melvin Watkins (2 more years)
2002 Washington State - Paul Graham (1 more year)
2007 Rutgers - Fred Hill (3 more seasons)
2009 DePaul - Jerry Wainwright (1 more season)
2011 LSU - Trent Johnson (1 more season)
2011 Auburn - Tony Barbee (3 more seasons)
2011 Wake Forest - Jeff Bzdelik (3 more seasons)
2012 Boston College - Steve Donahue (2 more seasons)
2012 USC - Kevin O’Neill (1 more season)
2013 Mississippi St. - Rick Ray (2 more seasons)
2013 TCU - Trent Johnson (3 more seasons)
Of the 13 situations and 12 coaches (Trent Johnson, wow!) listed above, only one of them made it to the NCAA tournament prior to their horror seasons. That one coach? The immortal Kevin O’Neill, in his 2nd appearance in this column. His Trojans clawed their way to the play-in game (and promptly lost to Final-Four-bound VCU) in 2011.
One could argue that this is the list of situations that demanded change sooner rather than later. Many of these programs have recovered under different coaches (USC, Mississippi St., TCU). Others have languished at the bottom of their respective conferences (BC, Rutgers, DePaul).
Coaches who made an NCAA tournament after their horror seasons
2004 & 2005 Baylor - Scott Drew (7 tournament appearances in 16 seasons)
2004 & 2005 Penn St. - Ed DeChellis (1 appearance in the last of his 8 seasons at Penn St.)
2005 Georgia - Dennis Felton (1 fluke appearance in 6 seasons)
2009 Indiana - Tom Crean (4 appearances in 9 seasons)
2012 Utah - Larry Krystkowiak (2 appearances in 8 seasons)
2012 ASU - Herb Sendek (2 appearances in 9 seasons, 1 appearance after horror season)
2013 South Carolina - Frank Martin (1 appearance in 7 seasons, but it was a final four?!)
This is, by far, the most fun and eclectic category. You’ve got impressive reclamation artists in Scott Drew and Larry Krystkowiak, moribund programs with zero MBB investment like Penn St., a Georgia team that won the SEC tournament after a 4-12 SEC season, the odd up/down path of Herb Sendek, and the transcendent weirdness that is everything about Tom Crean’s tenure at Indiana.
With the exception of Sendek, all of these coaches inherited awful situations and their first year or two were rough. Some of them recovered, others (Felton, DeChellis) never really did, although they at least reached levels of mediocrity. Others (Krystkowiak, Martin) have managed really impressive seasons, and Scott Drew has built a perennial Big-12 contender.
Ongoing recover projects
2016 Boston College - Jim Christian
2017 Oregon State - Wayne Tinkle
2018 & 2019 Cal - Wyking Jones
Jim Christian went 0-18 in his 2nd year, but has survived for another three seasons. BC isn’t making the tournament this year, so who knows if Christian will get a 6th year?
Wayne Tinkle got OSU to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 26 years, then saw a season collapse due to injury. His Beavers have recovered to respectability but won’t make the tournament as an at-large this year.
32 different examples of programs that cratered. If you throw out the two interim situations and the three ongoing recovery projects, that leaves 27 examples. Of those 27 examples, you could argue that three or four featured happy endings for the coaches in charge, give or take a Tom Crean at Indiana. Which leaves 23 situations that ended in unambiguously bad ways.
That’s hardly a surprise. If your program is in a place where you’re historically bad, that probably means that you’re a program that isn’t typically very good anyway, or you made a really bad hire, or extreme circumstances beyond anybody’s control interceded. Sometimes all of the above!
The problem is that once things go bad, it’s really, really hard for a coaching staff to recover. To a large extent, your record becomes your destiny. It’s really, really hard to recruit to a program that is having a horror season. There’s a reason that the success rate in this list is ~15%.
But neither can I say that it’s impossible. Larry Krystkowiak had a season worse than either of Wyking Jones’ first two seasons and is now one of the most respected, longest tenured coaches in the Pac-12. Like Jones, Scott Drew started his Baylor career with two awful seasons and will be competing in his 8th NCAA tournament with the Bears next month.
That doesn’t make a Cal recovery under Wyking Jones likely, and it doesn’t mean that I think it will happen. That just means that it’s possible.