The life of a mid-major team rests heavily on numerous factors but none are as important as its head coach. Gonzaga made its splash onto the national scene in 1999, then head coach Dan Monson led the Bulldogs to a historic run in the NCAA Tournament, captivating the hearts of millions of college basketball fans.
If you’ve ever heard Gus Johnson cover a sporting event, especially when pressure-filled situations meet his passion and enthusiasm for the game, it creates legendary play-by-play calls that are forever etched in the history books.
For a school that at the time had an enrollment of around 3,000 students, clinching a berth in the Elite 8 while beating No. 7 seed Minnesota, No. 2 seed Stanford, and No. 6 seed Florida was unheard of. Johnson’s iconic call of the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 upset victory over the Florida Gators, wherein he exclaimed, “The slipper still fits!” has become a rallying cry for the small Jesuit college in Spokane, Washington. They have embraced their part as America’s textbook Cinderella, a model for mid-major programs across the nation. However, as the Bulldogs head to Phoenix to play in their first ever Final Four, almost twenty years since their first magical run, the common denominator for their success wasn’t the man who first took them to the Big Dance but rather an assistant on his bench, Mark Few, who has stuck with the program and has built up the powerhouse that has shed the Cinderella stigma and is ready to claim its stake among the bluebloods of college basketball.
One of the biggest fears of all mid-major schools that have success in the national scene is when larger and more enticing Power 6 conference schools come knocking on the door inquiring about the head coach. For most programs, it is inevitable that coaches move on to greener pastures, whether it be for more money, resources or greater prestige. Very rarely do you find a coach who is willing to turn down these opportunities in order to build something from scratch while facing all the challenges of a mid-major school. Greg Marshall of Wichita State and Randy Bennett of St. Mary’s College are two of the other notable coaches who have stuck with their programs. While it is possible to sustain success of this magnitude for a mid-major, when you realize that there are over 300 Division I teams across the sport, you quickly begin to see how special Few’s commitment is during this almost 20-year run.
This year, Nevada Basketball had the most successful season of the past decade. Head Coach Eric Musselman was able to turn around a program that was coming off the heels of a 9-win season. Within a year, he won the CBI Tournament and this year reached the NCAA Tournament. More importantly, he has revived a barren Lawlor Events Center and has once again made Wolf Pack Basketball the talk of the town, much like its glory days from the mid-2000s.
After the Wolf Pack lost a tough battle against the Iowa State Cyclones in the NCAA Tournament, the attention turned to the future of Musselman with the program. Early last week, reports came out that Musselman had interviewed twice for the head coaching vacancy at Cal. A vocal group of fans accepted the fate of losing their coach, as they have all heard this story before. Trent Johnson, who led the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16 in 2004, jumped ship after his tournament run. His predecessor, Mark Fox, also left for a Power 6 team a couple of years later. Why would Musselman be any different?
It was interesting to note that during the time that the reports of Musselman’s interviews with Cal first came out Athletic Director Doug Knuth vocally expressed a desire to keep Musselman in Reno. Not only that, he believes that Musselman is the guy to build Gonzaga 2.0 here at Nevada. Realistically, there are a lot of things that will need to happen in order for Knuth’s vision to become a reality.
Probably the most important thing is for Musselman to make the conscious decision that he does want to build a powerhouse program here at Nevada. This entails that he publicly turns down the offers from bigger programs that come his way. When asked by boosters at a luncheon about his future with the team, he responded that he plans on having his seven-year-old daughter graduate from Reno High. In addition, a couple of days after he decided to turn down the Cal job, he posted a family photo on his Twitter account with the caption “#Battleborn.” One has to wonder whether Musselman plans to stay here for the long run or is just waiting for a better opportunity to open up. Either way, if Knuth believes he is the guy to maintain the quality of recruiting, recruits need to know that the coach is here to stay.
Equally important for Nevada Basketball is to continually dominate the Mountain West Conference. Truth be told, Nevada won the conference during one of its down years. At its peak, the conference would have two or three at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. This year there were none, showing the relative lack of quality teams in the conference. Few have reached the Big Dance for 18-straight years, with a large part of it due to Gonzaga being head and shoulders above any other team in the West Coast Conference. If Nevada is to continually reach the NCAA Tournament, it will need its fellow conference foes to improve their play in their out-of-conference games so that losses in conference won’t kill the Wolf Pack’s chances at an at-large bid. Nevada needs to continue to do its part by winning the lion’s share of its games.
One of the things that successful mid-major program have is their own unique niche that separates them from the competition. Saint Mary’s has a steady pipeline from Australia that no other program has been able to replicate. At Wichita State, Marshall has a knack for bringing in under-recruited players who fit his system well. Musselman’s niche seems to be his ability to exploit the transfer market and reload his teams using players from Power 6 conferences. It is eerily similar to the way that Few’s current Gonzaga team is constructed, wherein three of his starting five are transfers from larger conferences. Musselman has hit home-runs in bringing in Jordan Caroline and Marcus Marshall. Players transfer for a number of reasons, with the two most prominent being lack of playing time and wanting to compete for championships. If Musselman is to continue with this route, success is contingent upon sustaining the winning tradition that Musselman has had with this program and how he sells his vision to the transferees.
For all of these things to work for Nevada, the thing that is out of Musselman’s and Knuth’s control is the support of the fans and the school. Nevada had the highest average attendance this year. It is clear that Wolf Pack fans have embraced this program and are fully behind the campaign to become the next mid-major powerhouse. However, the numbers for this year are a little bit inflated from some promotional ticket packages. Also, it isn’t every year that the Wolf Pack will have championship implications to its games. Last year it was the CBI Tournament and this year it was the Mountain West Regular Season Championship. These past couple of years we have seen a Harlem Globetrotters style warm up, Musselman handing out flyers around campus, and a Michael Buffer introduction. At some point, the game alone should be the sole draw for fans to show up. As Nevada ponies up to pay its coach the annual $1 million contract, can the program consistently turn out equal or better attendance numbers?
In addition to the Cal athletic department being a hot mess, one of the biggest reasons for Musselman’s decision to stay was his relationship with Doug Knuth. In Knuth, he has an advocate for all of the things that he does for the program, such as new uniforms and the Buffer introduction. Coaches have loved working under Knuth, and Musselman is no different. Knuth’s relationship will be the glue that holds all of this together. For his vision to become a reality he will need to continue to foster this relationship with Musselman while also staying loyal to the university as well as his vision.
In order for Nevada to become the Gonzaga of the Mountain West, a lot relies on the buy-in of the athletic department, boosters and fans. There are a lot of different factors that all have to align for the Wolf Pack to continue its success but none are as important as the coach. Ultimately, Musselman needs to decide whether he wants the challenge of building a national powerhouse at a school that adores him while turning down the offers of more enticing opportunities that could provide an “easier” path to success. With Musselman turning down the Cal job and agreeing in principle to sign the most lucrative contract in Nevada Athletics history, the Wolf Pack took the first step into building their own Cinderella.
Only time will tell if Knuth’s vision is here to stay. It begs the question: in a few years, will the shoe still fit or will there be big shoes to fill?