Mid-majors face extra challenges to win big
By Michael Bradley
Published: October 31st, 2008
Athlon Sports Contributor
John Calipari was perusing the program at the Reebok All-American Basketball Camp in early July, checking out the talent, when he came across something that suprised him, and that’s not easy to do. During his time as a head coach in both the collegiate ranks and in the NBA, Calipari has seen just about everything. But when he looked at the brief biography of a certain player, he read something he didn’t expect.
Right there, next to the “What Schools Are You Considering?” question, was Calipari’s school, Memphis.
“I didn’t even know the player was interested in us,” Calipari says, laughing. “But you can bet I had one of my assistants check it out.”
The Tigers have been the destination of some pretty big names over the past few years, most notably Derrick Rose, the top pick in June’s NBA Draft. So it’s not as if Memphis never had interest from top prospects. After a three-year run that has produced 104 wins, including 38 last season — “That might never be beaten,” Calipari says — the Tigers have moved into somewhat rarified air, especially for a school that isn’t in one of the BCS power conferences. You know the ones: Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10, ACC, Big East. Those leagues are defined predominantly by their football profiles and access to big-money bowl games, but their influence carries over to the hardwood. They’re the folks who get the most TV games in the choice spots. Who get the most money from the NCAA come tournament time. And who get the widest interest from top recruits.
Leagues like Memphis’ Conference USA, the Atlantic 10, the Missouri Valley and the like are the “mid-majors,” which for some is almost a profane designation. Last year, when Xavier’s Drew Lavender was named “Mid-Major Player of the Week,” the school turned down the award, arguing that its success over the past decade-plus had put it in the big time and that it shouldn’t be considered mid-major in status.
No matter how much Xavier protests, there is a clear designation between the football power conferences and the rest of the D-I hoops world. Because of that, there are extra stresses and challenges presented to the non-BCS conferences that require considerable imagination, cooperation and commitment. When Calipari met the media at last year’s Final Four, he said, “It takes a village” to raise a mid-major program to great heights. He wasn’t just channeling Hillary Clinton.
Before you try to include Memphis with the rest of the big-timers, because of its Final Four appearances in 1973 and ’85, remember that tradition means little to the average high school student these days. “We’re talking about kids who are 17 years old,” Calipari says. “They remember back to when they were 12, 13 or 14. That’s it.” And the Tigers weren’t roaring too loudly when Calipari showed up in 2000. Memphis was coming off two straight losing seasons and had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1995. He had work to do, and he needed plenty of help.
“Everybody has to be involved to do everything we can possibly do,” Calipari says. “Our building holds 19,000 people, so even the people who buy the upper-level seats, and they’re way up there, are important, too. (Their buying tickets) gets you the sellouts that build excitement and helps get TV to come, too.”
Calipari talks about the program’s “ambassadors,” who give $500,000 each to help the program. “We have 32 of them,” he says. Memphis may have a football program, but it sure doesn’t make money, so basketball needs to maximize every asset it has. When the Tigers do something special, like advance to the NCAA tourney final, it’s up to Calipari to capitalize on the impact. So, he’ll be looking for every recruit who now considers Memphis hot. He’ll be rustling up some more ambassadors. Looking to improve the program’s facilities. Calling on every member of that “village” to do his part.
And he has plenty of company throughout the non-BCS world. It’s tough enough to earn an invitation to one NCAA Tournament, much less become a regular participant. And once you get there on a consistent basis, it becomes incredibly challenging to stick around for a couple weekends. The trick is to do more than just dream big; schools must devote every moment to making those dreams come true.
“We always have to be realistic about the world around us, and try not to trick ourselves that we are someone we’re not,” Xavier AD Mike Bobinski says. “But we also put no limits on ourselves. How do we accomplish what we can accomplish? Putting the right plan together is a day-to-day mindset.”
Bobinski has been at Xavier through much of its recent success. Dating back to 1983, the Musketeers have played in 18 NCAA Tournaments. That alone is reason to laud the program and its progress. For part of that period, however, X was thriving as a bully in a weak neighborhood, dominating the Midwestern Collegiate Conference until its move to the A-10 for the 1995-96 season. Since then, Xavier has committed itself to behaving more like a BCS school. In 2000, it opened the on-campus Cintas Center, which seats 10,250 and is as sharp as any place you’ll find in the nation. It has begun to get respect from the tournament selection committee as well, grabbing No. 3 seeds last season and in 2003 and No. 7 seeds in 2002 and ’04.
The fallout has been substantial. Not only is Xavier now considered a national factor, from its TV coverage to its recruiting scope; it is also behaving more like a team that belongs among the upper echelon of the country’s powers. When coach Sean Miller recruits, he often travels by private jet. The school’s locker and training facilities are first-rate. Assistant coaches’ salaries are more in line with those paid by BCS schools, helping to promote continuity. It comes down to a priority and a commitment designed to make Xavier basketball thrive.
“In the early ’90s, (school) president Father James Hoff had a great affinity for athletics and realized they were a great asset for Xavier going forward,” Bobinski says. “People told him ‘this’ needs to happen or ‘that,’ and he was a visionary. He said, ‘Get it done.’ He made it a priority, and because of his ability to raise funds at a high level, it has been done.”
Because there is no football revenue, and the basketball programs can’t fund capital improvements on their own, other income streams are needed. When a team has success, it’s important to capitalize. Saint Joseph’s is in the midst of a project that will expand the capacity of its on-campus fieldhouse by 1,000 and provide new practice and office facilities. It was important to make a move while the team was successful and popular. “You have to express to upper administration and the people who make decisions that when we danced on the clouds, everybody liked it,” Hawks’ coach Phil Martelli says. “It meant something in admissions and annual giving and community pride, but it’s not done with smoke and mirrors.”
No, success is sustained often with steel and brick. Upgrading facilities is big in luring recruits, who don’t care about a school’s tradition. So, there must be upgrades made, especially after successful periods, because that’s when people are more likely to open their wallets. But some programs don’t have the luxury of being able to make substantial changes. For them, sustained success is more of a mindset and an ability to convince players that they can achieve what they want by coming to a school that might not be on TV every week.
Valparaiso’s Homer Drew has been a head coach for 31 years, the last 19 for the Crusaders (with a one-year hiatus, in 2002-03). He has noticed prospects are more interested in getting to the professional ranks than learning about a school’s campus life and educational opportunities. So, he stresses that in the past 14 years, 27 Valpo players have played professionally around the world. Oh, and they all have their degrees, too. But none of them, even Drew’s son Bryce, who played in the NBA, left early. Often, the key to winning at the mid-major level is developing players and building a team, rather than putting together all-stars.
“When we went to the Sweet 16 (in 1998), we had five seniors,” Drew says. “Experience can offset talent. That’s why you’re seeing so many mid-majors do well. Experience counteracts talent at other schools.”
Experience on the bench is huge, too. Creighton’s Dana Altman has been at the small, private school in Omaha for 14 years — save a few days when he was hired at Arkansas and then resigned. During his time there, he has taken the Bluejays to seven NCAA Tournaments. It’s important that assistants Darian DeVries and Brian Fish have been with Altman almost every step of the way. DeVries spent three years as a graduate manager before joining the Bluejays’ staff full time in 2001, while Fish has been at Creighton for two stops and has worked with Altman for a total of 10 seasons. Before he took the job at Indiana State last spring, Kevin McKenna was a nine-year assistant.
“(Having long-time assistants) keeps your recruiting stable,” Altman says. “A lot of the players who come here are here for five years. When they’re working with the same coaches, they develop a bond and the trust needed to be successful.
“When you’re working on improvement with a player, until you get that player to believe everything you do is for a purpose, you don’t get progress. That takes time.”
Facilities, continuity, a sense of community, fundraising, a winning attitude and TV exposure are all part of the non-BCS basketball success story. Nothing, however, beats wild success. That’s why George Mason remains a big name. Its run to the 2006 Final Four triggered an avalanche of progress and good will that continues today. Attendance is way up. Sales of merchandise have skyrocketed. TV opportunities are so abundant that GMU coach Jim Larranaga often must choose between a great game and a greater game. Admission applications are up. The Patriots’ recruiting has improved. The “Mason Nation” logo on the Patriot Center floor is more than a marketing emblem.
George Mason has maximized the wild, one-time ride to the upper reaches of the NCAA tourney. Few people know the Pats have made four tournament appearances during Larranaga’s tenure. They just know about the one biggie. Larranaga is not being arrogant or demeaning when he says that there is no contest between the benefits of one colossal achievement and a prolonged period of less dramatic success. “There are other schools out there that are consistently at the top of their (non-BCS) conferences and get back to the NCAA Tournament each year for a decade; that’s special,” he says. “But until one of them gets to the Final Four, they won’t reach us.”
Memphis made it this past season, and Calipari is eager to get everybody in the village to help keep it going. And that means everybody.