— University of Richmond fans got a taste of this last year, when they almost lost Chris Mooney to a bigger school.
Mooney is a young and rising star in the coaching ranks. So, Richmond fans know that winning games in the NCAA tournament is a double-edged sword — especially when your cool, young coach becomes one of the sport's hottest names.
Getting an at-large bid brings the benefits of extra exposure and positive publicity for a school like Richmond, but win a couple games and your coach suddenly becomes coveted coast-to-coast.
Mooney? He’s a rock star now.
Smart athletic directors searching to replace fired coaches knew about Mooney well before last week. But when Richmond defeated Vanderbilt and Morehead State, it’s a no-brainer that the interest was compounded.
The Spiders lost in the first round last year, but he still interviewed at Boston College. When Mooney withdrew his name, Richmond fans exhaled in relief. Richmond quickly announced an extension to his contract through 2017.
Mooney said his decision to stay “had everything to do with Richmond, the program that we’ve been able to build, the support that we’ve gotten, and the bright future that we have. I love the area. I love the university.”
So what will Mooney tell Richmond fans this year, should he be lured away by North Carolina State, or Arkansas, or Oklahoma, or maybe even Tennessee? He wasn’t lying last year. But time can alter the truth.
Richmond fans, thrilled by the fact that Mooney has directed the Spiders to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in Southwest Regional, don’t want to think about that right now. And you can rest assured Mooney doesn’t want to be asked about the possibility of him leaving, not when he is preparing his team for top-seeded Kansas.
But the issue hang over the Spiders until their season is over. These situations aren’t easy to defuse.
But before you start thinking bad thoughts about Mooney, he isn’t the only Sweet 16 coach dealing with this. Marquette’s Buzz Williams is being mentioned in connection with the same prominent jobs and VCU coach Shaka Smart has worked his way onto the “most wanted” list by directing the Rams this far — especially after so many commentators said VCU didn’t belong in the field.
How do these coaches deal with the distractions? Preparing for the Sweet 16 already creates havoc with for assistants' and players schedules. Travel plans, ticket requests, scouting reports and practice plans are enough for most programs to deal with. Toss in rumors and reports about a possible coaching change and the week can really spin out of control.
There might be books and DVDs with rebounding drills or how to attack a zone defense, but there’s no guide for dealing with distractions. Some coaches rely on advice from their peers. Others turn to their athletic directors. But there’s no doubt a coach looking at another job can result in a lack of focus — for the coach, his team, or both.
Integrity is huge. The school doing the search should always ask permission from an AD before talking to a coaching candidate. Beyond that initial request, there should be no communication until the candidate’s team ends its season. If a coach enters into talks with another school while his team is still playing in the postseason, he runs the risk of ruining both endeavors.
But if a coach has cultivated a good relationship with his players, honesty is the best policy. Hold a team meeting, tell the players they might be hearing or reading news about another school’s overtures. Tell them to keep any news inside the team family and assure them they will be the first to know the latest news.
College players are resilient. They just want to play and win. That should be the focus. They really don’t want or need details, as long as they kept in the coach’s circle of trust. And a majority of players understand coaching is a business, complete with business decisions.
Every Final Four comes equipped with some rumors but nothing ever came close to the scene in 2007. As Billy Donovan tried to lead Florida to a second consecutive national championship, rumors swirled that he would be offered the head job at rival Kentucky. Speculation lingered over every hour and every minute of that Final Four.
But the rumors never got in the way of Donovan’s goal. Somehow he pushed all the Kentucky talk aside without every snapping. The Gators won their back-to-back titles and one of the first questions Donovan was asked was about Kentucky.
“I just got off the court,” Donovan replied. “I mean, [my future is] right here at the University of Florida. I’m going to enjoy this moment right now. I think all that stuff will be addressed. But now’s not the time to address it, as it wasn’t when it got asked over the last week. It’s all about these kids, our program and what happened.”
Donovan paused. “It was a good try, though,” he said to the reporter who asked the question.
Roy Williams had a different type of encounter with a reporter after Kansas lost the 2003 national championship game to Syracuse. Williams snapped during the interview, said he didn’t care about North Carolina, but he was in Chapel Hill within days to accept the job. Kansas fans knew he was gone as soon they heard him cuss on live television. Whether or not there was an impact on the Kansas players remains a topic of debate.
In 2001, UConn coach Jim Calhoun gave serious consideration to a $1.9 million contract offer from South Carolina. Gamecocks AD Mike McGee was able to quietly approach Calhoun because the Huskies did not reach the NCAA Tournament that year. McGee thought he could sway Calhoun in that direction because Calhoun owned vacation property in Hilton Head and views the area as a retirement destination. Calhoun didn’t have the NCAA distraction, explored the deal and turned it down before the public knew much about the offer.
And in 2008, just after Bill Self got past his Elite Eight hurdle to reach his first Final Four, Oklahoma State fired Sean Sutton. Speculation began that the Cowboys would offer a hugh amount of money to Self in order to lure him back to his alma mater. Self repeatedly said he was staying at Kansas and that he hadn’t been contacted by anyone.
Kansas fans still worried. But Self kept his word. He talked to Oklahoma State officials after winning the national championship game over Memphis, but decided to stay with the Jayhawks. Self made sure the rumors didn’t become a distraction to his team. Then he took care of business as quickly as possible when the season was over.
Mooney, Williams and Smart can study the past in an effort to find the approach that’s right for them. But the fact is, they won’t know what is right until they experience it themselves.
It’s just one more reason they call it March Madness.