Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Basketball’s Big Coaching Story Was Meant to Be a Sign of College Sports’ Demise. Oops.

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UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley spent the weekend as the subject of an intense courtship by the Los Angeles Lakers. Before Hurley decided his own fate, his impending departure was being treated, in certain corners, as a stinging indictment of what has become of college sports as an institution.

Geno Auriemma, from his vantage point coaching the other half of the UConn basketball program, had already decided what it would be all about when Hurley left. “The state of college basketball is a mess,” Auriemma said, with the NCAA no longer even feigning a focus on student-athlete welfare. “That has no factor ever anymore, and I never want to hear anybody utter those words associated with college basketball,” Auriemma told the radio host Dan Patrick. “They’re professional athletes, just not called that, so you might as well go coach professional athletes where it’s real.”

Charles Barkley said he understood why Hurley would leave: because college sports had become too chaotic. “I would call it the Wild, Wild West, but that would be disrespectful to the Wild, Wild West,” Barkley said. “I have no idea; how did we ruin college sports? And I understand why Dan is like, ‘I might as well go to the NBA and make a lot of money. Don’t have the headaches of NIL and the transfer portal,’ because I have no idea where college sports are going. But it’s going in a bad direction.”

Alas, Hurley is still UConn’s coach. He’ll get a nice raise out of this very public flirtation, which may have been the only reason it was public at all. But it remains true that he turned down a deal that would’ve made him LeBron James’ coach and paid him $70 million over six years, more than any college hoops coach could make at the moment. If Hurley leaving UConn would’ve been such a decisive negative commentary on the state of college athletics, then Hurley staying must say the opposite. Those are the rules. It turns out that being a major college basketball or football coach is still a good gig. Who knew?

Auriemma and Barkley were just two famous people making a version of a wildly popular argument that college sports has lost its way. The argument fits into a rich lineage. Players switching schools each off-season and payments to athletes are the latest things to invite worries of college sports’ demise. A nonexhaustive list of other things that were purported to kill the enterprise includes integration, gambling, Title IX, “overemphasis” on sports at the expense of class, the military draft, and too many intraconference games. No ecosystem loves a contrived existential crisis as much as college sports, and the present moment lends itself to that. First athletes got the right to transfer schools freely. Then they were allowed to take endorsement money from third parties, and then they were basically getting paid to play for their schools through collectives of team supporters. Soon schools themselves will pay players. You could describe this in a nefarious-sounding way, like Barkley calling it the “Wild, Wild West.” Another favorite is to call payment for services “pay for play.”

This time of upheaval—and it really is a time of upheaval—maps neatly onto Hurley considering the Lakers job. One ESPN producer grouped Hurley with Michigan–turned–Los Angeles Chargers football coach Jim Harbaugh, saying that the two defending champion coaches “jetting to the pros within months of each other is a sad commentary on the state of college athletics.” If even the most successful coaches in the two biggest college sports want new jobs, then what could those sports be offering in their present “state”? But that question is shortsighted, in that it forgets a lot about Harbaugh’s and Hurley’s situations. Harbaugh was a successful NFL coach before he was Michigan’s coach and had yearned for several years (at least) for another crack at a Super Bowl. He was also facing potentially serious NCAA discipline associated with Michigan stealing signs. Hurley had an offer to coach not some perennial third-rate organization like, say, the Charlotte Hornets, but the holy goddamned Los Angeles Lakers, who have LeBron James on their roster. (Famously, no coach ever had the chance to coach LeBron James in college.) Hurley taking that chance wouldn’t say as much about the “state” of college sports as it would about college sports’ permanent condition of “not having LeBron James.”

Not that everything is great right now for college coaches. The profession has gotten undeniably harder. Players used to be recruited once, out of high school. Now they need to be re-recruited to stick around every year, sometimes multiple times within a year. Now they have financial demands that another school might fulfill if the current one does not. An exhausting job has gotten even more exhausting. A prominent SEC head football coach–turned–assistant quit the sport a few years ago (though he has since come back). The greatest college football coach ever retired this January, too. Several other high-profile head coaches have taken title demotions to accept professional jobs where they don’t have to put out so many fires. (Though it is often the case that those coaches were poised to get fired in the next year or two anyway.) A bit of order might do everyone involved some good.

But the difficulty of the job is only one side of the bargain. Power-conference coaches in football and men’s basketball still get an incredible deal. Most of them are not good enough for the pros, which is a higher level of coaching, just as it is a higher level of playing. Yet many are paid like professional-league coaches, or even better, for two reasons that are specific to college sports. One, the schools don’t pay the labor, and the money has to go somewhere, so it has gradually funneled toward the guys with the clipboards, and it is almost all guys. (Schools will soon pay players, but it will take a long time for college athletes to capture the same revenue share that professionals do.) Two, coaches are paid a markup specifically to deal with all of the drama that comes along with being in college athletics. A coach who is not as good at coaching offensive linemen as his NFL counterparts can make the better part of $1 million on a college campus, well more than the guy doing the same job in the NFL. That’s because he also has to recruit players.

Hurley, of course, is not some replaceable assistant. He is a living legend, the best coach on college hardwood right now, with two national titles in a row under his belt. He’s also now a god at UConn, more or less unfireable for at least a decade, and in line, per the Connecticut governor, to become the highest-paid college basketball coach. That will likely come out to less than what Hurley would’ve made with the Lakers, but he will still build generational wealth and get to operate UConn however he wants.

And in college sports, that amount of latitude is well deserved. Hurley is a real wizard of modern college coaching, the guy who seems to have cracked the code better than anyone else. He plays the transfer game but doesn’t rely on it so much that it stunts the development of his existing talent. He’s an Xs-and-Os savant. He doesn’t even have a particularly easy job; UConn is the most successful program of the century, but on the men’s side, it’s not the kind of prestige brand that can bring in superb recruiting classes on autopilot.

Hurley has to grind for all of it, and he’s done it while getting rich and giving the impression of being a guy who still vaguely enjoys life. He was at a Billy Joel concert with his wife in the middle of the Lakers hiring process. He screams his head off at referees during games, but he prays and meditates and writes journals and then exercises in the mornings after UConn’s rare losses. Hurley does not whine about how hard his job has become. Instead he treats the transfer portal and player payments as places to gain an advantage against his competitors. The college coaches who can’t do a marginal Hurley impression don’t need to worry about fielding a call from the Lakers.

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