Tuesday, April 10, 2012

From the FreeP: MEYER: Gonzaga of the East? Not so fast

By Craig Meyer/DFP Staff

The following column is the fourth in a series of columns written by former Daily Free Press sports editors. Today’s column is written by Craig Meyer, who was the sports editor during the Fall 2011 semester.
In life, there are times when you’re so taken aback by something you’ve heard that you’ll never forget it. For some of us, it’s a piece of shocking news, like the death of a loved one or a similar tragedy. It could also be a statement that seemingly comes out of nowhere to grab you by the throat, be it offensive or outrageous in nature.
I’ve had my fair share of these moments in my lifetime, with one of them occurring my freshman year here at Boston University in the Agganis Arena Premium Club. It was there – as one of only a few students among a crowd of reporters, family members and BU Athletics officials – that a routine introductory press conference turned into something else entirely, courtesy of Patrick Chambers.
“I look at BU basketball like the Gonzaga and Xavier of the Northeast,” the newly-hired Chambers enthusiastically told the crowd.
It was a statement that would be bold and ostentatious for any low-major coach to utter, let alone one who had never been a head coach at the Division I level, but it undoubtedly set a tone for Chambers’ tenure at BU.
Indeed, with Chambers at the helm, BU basketball would be daring. It would be full-throttle and fast-paced.
But it would ultimately be built on a false pretense, for what he aimed to accomplish was something far easier said than done, something that can’t simply be accomplished in the matter of a few years or even a single coaching tenure.
At the risk of stating the obvious, BU basketball is not on the same level of Gonzaga University, Xavier University or any other elite mid-major program in college basketball. In fact, it’s not even close.
This isn’t a shot at the BU program because it’s not one that’s in a bad place. It’s routinely one of the best in the America East Conference and is just a year removed from appearing in the NCAA Tournament. Rather, this is a chance to re-evaluate Chambers’ statement, three years removed from the initial hysteria and excitement that surrounded it.
When Chambers said what he did, whether he intended to or not, he set a bar for the Terrier program, not only for his time at BU, but also for the future of the program. It’s an ambitious goal and one that every mid- or low-major program should hope for deep down, but it’s an utterly unattainable one for most anyone that tries, especially in such a brief period of time.
What has been accomplished by the likes of Gonzaga, Xavier, Butler University and Virginia Commonwealth University, among others, flies in the face of conventional college basketball wisdom. Not only that, but it is also the product of many years and even decades of hard work, diligence and perseverance.
Gonzaga is the original bracket-buster to many, the cuddly underdog that has sported the likes of Ronny Turiaf and Adam Morrison in the last decade. But it’s also the same school that, despite measured success and the efforts of players like John Stockton, took decades to make the school’s first NCAA Tournament.
Since its appearance in the Big Dance, of course, the Bulldogs have made the tournament every year since 1999, with five Sweet 16’s and one Elite Eight. But the point here is that it took more than 20 years and the work of three coaches for Gonzaga to become, well, Gonzaga. The same anecdote can be applied to any other top mid-major program – these things take time to build and grow.
It’s also something that has to survive turbulence and change, most notably with head coaches. Understandably, if a coach experiences a high level of success at a smaller school, he moves on to bigger and better opportunities. It’s something these mid-majors routinely have to deal with, and many falter when trying to replace an elite coach. But there are some that don’t, and that is the true mark of what differentiates the likes of Gonzaga and Xavier from the rest.
Gonzaga replaced Dan Fitzgerald with Dan Monson, then Monson with current coach Mark Few. VCU went from Jeff Capel to Anthony Grant and now to Shaka Smart. Butler went from Barry Collier to Thad Matta to Todd Lickliter to Brad Stevens. Xavier went from Pete Gillen to Skip Prosser to Matta to Sean Miller and now to Chris Mack.
It’s a point you probably could have understood after the first couple of examples, but it’s a good one to emphasize – success cannot begin and end with one coach. What we see from these schools is something that transcends the men on the sidelines, and that’s simply having a winning culture and a supportive administration. Again, not exactly something that can just be created on the spot.
It may go without mentioning that there’s a financial component to all of this, as many of these schools stay competitive and elite by ponying up to successful coaches. Both Stevens and Smart were rewarded with contract extensions that pay them north of $1 million a year and coaches like Few aren’t far behind that mark.
Taking all of this into consideration, it has to be asked whether BU has any of these necessary characteristics. Frankly, at this moment, it doesn’t.
In order for BU to get to that Gonzaga or Xavier level, the head coach will have to be paid more. Chambers made about $250,000 a year, which didn’t even make him the highest paid America East coach. Upping the salary for an accomplished coach is a tall task for an athletic department that already devotes significant resources to the hockey program, but it’s something that would have to be done.
Coaching turnover has also proven to be a problem for BU. It hasn’t been a matter of BU failing to attract top-notch young coaches, because they have, but it’s been that they have never been able to replace them. For all the momentum that was generated at BU under Rick Pitino and Mike Jarvis, it quickly fell flat once they left.
And while BU’s been one of the America East’s best teams for seemingly the past 30 years, the Terriers have made the NCAA Tournament just three times since 1991. Programs like Butler, Xavier, Gonzaga and VCU make Elite Eights, Final Fours and even national title games, so it’s hard to get too excited about a program whose claim to fame the last 12 years was losing to Kansas by 19 in the NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps for now, then, it’s good to temper expectations for this basketball program.
It’s important to remember that Chambers was in the business world before he got into coaching. Just by saying what he did, it doesn’t necessarily mean he felt it could be accomplished in a short period of time. Rather, he was making a sell to a new group of people and he did a damn good job of it, for with that remark, he went from an unknown commodity to the eager and giddy up-and-comer who dreamed of taking BU to mid-major greatness.
For now, BU trying to be Gonzaga or Xavier is a far-off fantasy and not something they can accomplish any time soon. I guarantee Joe Jones would acknowledge as much.
Instead of aiming to be the next great mid-major, try making the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, something it hasn’t done since joining the America East in 1979. Then go for multiple bids to the Big Dance in a five year period. Then try to win a game. Perhaps then a conversation can begin about the progress of this program and how far it can go.
BU has a lot in place to one day become a power program at the mid-major level. It’s an elite school in a major city with a large student population and a top-notch facility in Agganis Arena to sell to recruits.
The pieces are undoubtedly in place and the potential is certainly there for BU. But, much like anything ever worth accomplishing in this world, it will take some time before we ever see Chambers’ dream fully come to fruition.

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