The Anatomy of a Coaching Rumor

Summer is silly season in politics, and if the last few days are any indication, spring has to be the silly season in college basketball. Tubby Smith will be coaching at either Auburn (wrong), Georgia Tech (which never even had an opening), or Oregon (if Tom Izzo doesn’t accept the richest contract in college basketball history first). Before the Tubby rumors began to fly, it was Bruce Pearl heading to Iowa and Ben Howland, for no apparent reason, leaving UCLA to coach a DePaul team that plays between runways in a borrowed stadium in the ex-urbs.


I’ll let others get out their tarot cards and crystal balls in the hope of sorting predicting which number the coaching carousel/roulette wheel will eventually land on. Instead, do what I do. Ignore it all and let things play out.

Naturally, there will be speculation about coaching changes this time of year. There are plenty of open coaching positions. All those positions will be filled in the next few weeks. Fans want to know what to expect next season. However, right now there is more heat than light, and what little light exists is surrounded by a thick fog of nonsense that makes it nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction and rumor from reality.

Like the political silly season, the college basketball season if fueled by, above all else, media boredom. There just isn’t much happening in the world of college basketball. Sure the final four gets started in a few days, but there are only three games of consequence left. On the average Saturday during the college basketball season there were 140 games. Stories abound during the height of the season. Stories about upsets, collapses, injuries, bubble teams, coaches on the hot seat, and conference championship races are ripe for the picking. Now, reporters can write about the few very early NBA entrants, something about Butler apparently being a small school from Indiana that plays in the same arena where the final scenes of Hoosiers were filmed, or they can spend all day on twitter commenting on every rumor on the Internet. Marcus Fuller of the Pioneer Press may be a much better reporter than a certain cross town rival, but he needs to lock up the lap top for a while. Exhibit A: “Tubby is laying low. Not talking to anybody. Wonder what that means? Calm before the storm maybe.” Exhibit B: “St. John’s is talking to Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. If Hewitt leaves, then the Jackets will be hard for Tubby Smith to turn down.” Exhibit C, Parts 1 and 2: “Oregon T.V. station reports Tubby is not a candidate.” “Oregon offers job to Tubby.” :Exhibit D: “All this Tom Izzo-Oregon interest talk seems like a smokescreen. The Ducks are waiting for Tubby to decide if he wants the job or not.” Exhibit E: “I’m hearing that Tubby has to make a decision on Oregon in next couple days or Ducks are moving on, possibly to Butler’s Stevens “ Did you follow that logic? I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any to follow.

Bored reporters with nothing better to do start the rumors. Unfortunately there isn’t much to hold them in check. Schools looking to hire a coach will offer just about anyone with a big name, regardless of whether they have a realistic chance of hiring that program changing coach. I have no doubt that DePaul offered Ben Howland. I also have no doubt that Howland graciously declined, until he hung up the phone and laughed hysterically for several minutes. Ditto for Izzo to Oregon, Billy Donavan and Rick Pitino to St. John’s, and Tubby Smith to Auburn. By offering the power coach, the program making a hire can raise the spirits of alumni and fans and show that they are serious about winning. It also enables them to show that they made a real effort for a game changer, so when they hire that up and coming mid-major coach, they can at least say they tried. They can also blame the lack of the big hire on a lack of cash, and use the less than desirable hire as a fund raising mechanism. In short, don’t be surprised if a lot of these rumors begin with a jilted athletic department at the end of a failed courtship.

Colleges seeking coaches aren’t the only rumor originator and perpetuator. Opposing recruiters are thrilled when coaching uncertainty enters their arsenal, if only to raise a few lingering doubts and delay a decision. It may not be a successful strategy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t used. The rumors likely would be much less if the Gophers weren’t still in the running for all-everything point guard Cory Joseph. Coincidentally, two of Joseph’s other suitors also face considerable coaching uncertainty. Jim Calhoun of Connecticut has missed several games over the last few years and it is uncertain how many years of coaching he has left. Jay Wright of Villanova has been linked to several open jobs including St. John’s and Oregon. Why wouldn’t a coach dealing with his own rumors blame another coach surrounded by rumors.

The last levy preventing the flood of coaching rumor craziness is the coaches themselves, but they are too often unwilling or simply unable to do anything about them. Rumors translate to leverage, and leverage is something every coach wants. The rumors surrounding Tubby Smith may lead to the expedited construction of a practice facility. Other coaches have secured raises and contract extensions from their employer to keep them from heading to greener pastures. Flat out denials don’t calm the chaos either. Tubby Smith has said he is perfectly happy where he is, just like he did last year when he didn’t leave, but that wasn’t good enough. Tom Izzo summed up the insanity of it all succinctly today, “”I’ve commented on (rumors), and it’s gotten me in trouble.I’ve not commented on them, and it’s gotten me in trouble.”

So what are you, the powerless fan, supposed to do when the rumors swirl in a great vortex of angst? I choose to believe the coach. I don’t believe them because I think coaches are incapable of dishonesty. I believe them because they are the most trustworthy option, more so than bored reporters, jilted athletic departments, or sleazy recruiters.