What the Memphis Tigers, Pittsburgh Panthers and UConn Huskies mean to people from a national perspective is almost always starkly different from those within each of those schools’ collective bubbles.
Not homerism, either. We’re talking about the distinction between nationally relevant programs, which there are very few, and how important a basketball program can be to a specific region.
Jim Calhoun made UConn what it was at its peak: a nationally relevant program that regularly overachieved; lured top high school talent to frigid Storrs; and consistently made headlines in March when the sport matters most.
With Calhoun no longer manning the helm, the Kevin Ollie era began with a bang but ended with a horrific-sounding whimper. And now, today’s non-NCAA Tournament focus turns to Dan Hurley. Will he stay put at Rhode Island, or choose between Pitt and UConn?
Hurley’s decision ignites a new round of conversation on the non-quantifiable debate of what constitutes a great college basketball program.
This. Is March. Wait. I mean…
Narratives. Have. Emerged. Sometimes vaguely, talking points have come forth in the form of questions.
How good is the UConn job without a Hall of Fame coach like Calhoun there?
Is Pitt a good basketball program, really?
You won’t find consensus on a program’s definition. Some are sleeping giants that simply need the echoes stirred, others are considered DOA, while a few supposedly just need a Dr. Pepper to quickly get back in the thick of things.
This can apply for all college basketball openings during each coaching carousel season. Yet, it does get amplified when the schools doing the hiring have been historically good-to-great, but do have legitimate concerns as to what type of program they are in the modern age.
After all, a school can quickly go from being the DePaul Blue Demons to the sleeping giant DePaul Blue Demons with only a few poor coaching hires. Oh, as well as funds being splattered in areas that can’t help a basketball program grow in a meaningful way.
Let’s not bother with that conversation. We shall, at least, try to avoid the ho-hum argument about the pros and cons of coaching at Traditionally Solid Program-X in that school’s time of turmoil.
We can, however, discuss this bluntly. If it means being relatively impolite is inevitable, so be it.
Few programs are Duke or Kentucky. Not many sell to a national audience — and many of those that do, only for a short time and because of a generational talent; not because of the program itself. Case in point: Trae Young, not necessarily the Oklahoma Sooners, attracting eyeballs. To that end, most programs are regional.
That’s not entirely the case in recruiting or operating scale. Many have grown their recruiting pipelines expand beyond state borders. Rather, regionalism refers to how each is viewed through magnitude and consistency of success, audience, and determining reasonable expectations.
Memphis is an excellent example.
Even when Memphis cut ties with Tubby Smith, deciding to try to recapture its fanbase via former Tigers legend Penny Hardaway, a college basketball community is left to question the well-being of its program moving forward.
If you ask Memphis fans, Tubby Smith was an objectively awful coach who simply didn’t get it. An outside observer couldn’t view that thought process with a straight face, as Smith has had a long and successful career coaching good programs and taking many closer to the mountain top than any has ever reached before. No coach has taken more programs to the NCAA Tournament.
Both of those perspectives happen to be right, mind you. It’s just that the Memphis perspective is the only that matters for Memphis.
Smith suffered from not getting the communal mindset of the Tigers fanbase and alumni; the expected presentation that goes along with winning on the court.
Smith’s inability — through no fault of his own other than not being a Memphis guy — to connect cost him players on the transfer market. And his seat was never anything but hot from the moment he occupied it, because from the start, he was an outsider.
We can go through similar examples for Pittsburgh and UConn, which have their own differences. But the overarching point remains the same: However Pitt, UConn and Memphis think about themselves matters, regardless what the national perception may be.
Those three basketball programs are important for those within that bubble. While I’ve often made jokes at the expense of fandom bubbles, these die-hard fanatics are the lifeblood of any potentially solid basketball program. Without their support — through literal money and just showing up to games — a downtrodden program can never recapture the magic that put it into the national conversation to begin with.
Jokes remain > facts. At least to a degree. I’m not writing this to sway you away from any social media shenanigans. What I do ask out of all of us moving forward is to try to look at each of these openings through that program’s specific set of trifocals. It isn’t that they think they are as important as John Wooden’s version of UCLA, but that they want to be.
Striving for excellence, while not great for a coach’s job security, is better for the sport than settling for mediocrity. Taking risks for the rewards, even when not calculated, is fun and dangerous… and a great way to have a model of instability in the sport, which results in a great product for fans to consume.
Let Pitt, UConn, Memphis, whoever else, continue to shoot for the stars. It is what their fans want, which matters more than National Writer-X positing a program should adjust its expectations.