The Sages of College Basketball: Older Coaches Helping Glory Day Hires

The Sages of College Basketball: Older Coaches Helping Glory Day Hires

About a week before Michigan snatched the attention of the college basketball world with unexpected wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, the Wolverines assistant coach Phil Martelli was as concerned about the casinos there as he was about the basketball games.

Michigan’s new head coach, Juwan Howard, who had never coached in college before this season, was preparing for his team’s first trip. Martelli, who had spent the last 24 years dealing with college athletes as the head coach at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, wanted to know what the team’s policy would be on players entering the gambling halls in the resort where they were staying.

“I’m not sure that the question had even crossed his mind, since he is so used to dealing with grown men in the N.B.A.,” Martelli said of Howard, who was an assistant for the Miami Heat before taking the job in Ann Arbor. Howard ultimately decided that no players would be allowed on the casino floors, regardless of age.

“He thanked me for bringing it to his attention,” Martelli said. “It’s his program, so he doesn’t have to listen to me. But I feel heard, and that’s very important. It’s part of why I wanted to come here.”

Martelli is one of college basketball’s sages, the successful former head coaches who now sit at the right hand of relatively inexperienced current head coaches and help them navigate the college hoops mountain.

Howard’s hiring at Michigan was part of its own trend: a wave of hires in which athletic directors reached back into their university’s past and turned to a successful player to try to rekindle that old magic.

Penny Hardaway, who was an All-Star guard for the Orlando Magic, took over at Memphis in 2018. Aaron McKie took over at Temple in 2019 after 13 seasons in the N.B.A. and several years of being an assistant under Fran Dunphy. Patrick Ewing, the Knicks great, returned to Georgetown three years ago to lead the Hoyas with a résumé similar to that of Howard, who was a member of Michigan’s so-called Fab Five recruiting class in the early 1990s.

No one doubts the basketball bona fides of these N.B.A. veterans, but college basketball, with its massive N.C.A.A. rule book and academic requirements, presents a management challenge that is different from the N.B.A. game. To wit, several of these new hires brought in experienced college coaches to aid in their transition.

Ewing hired Louis Orr, who played with Ewing on the Knicks in the mid-80s. As a coach, Orr guided Seton Hall to two N.C.A.A. tournament appearances in five seasons. McKie has both Monté Ross, a former head coach at Delaware, and Mark Macon, who served as the head coach at Binghamton and was one of Temple’s best players. Vanderbilt’s new coach, the former N.B.A. All-Star Jerry Stackhouse, hired the former Colorado coach Ricardo Patton as a special assistant.

The roles for these assistant coaches vary by program. Sometimes, they are asked to be a cooler head in intense situations. During a recent game against Duke at Madison Square Garden, his old stamping grounds, Ewing was on the verge of an ejection for arguing with the referees over what he thought was a phantom foul call. It was his former teammate Orr who stepped in front of Ewing and kept the peace.

“Louis Orr has been an integral part of our program and our success,” Ewing said. “All of my assistants have been in college sports for a lot of years, while my background is more in the N.B.A. So I can lean on them for the things that I need to learn about the college game, like recruiting, even though on the court we run more N.B.A.-type stuff.”

“So he’s been an important part of our family, even if he used to wear the orange,” Ewing added, referring to Orr’s college days at rival Syracuse.

At Michigan, Martelli has been important to the team for his knowledge about the logistics of running a program.

He was perhaps the most successful coach in the history of St. Joseph’s when he was unceremoniously fired at the end of last season after 24 years with the team. Because of his personality, he had offers to go into television, but he felt he was not done with coaching. He realized his phone would not ring on its own, and started asking friends about assistant gigs in the Power 5 conferences.

Howard was hired at Michigan in May after John Beilein left the program for the N.B.A., becoming the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Word circulated in coaching circles that Howard was looking for an experienced hand to help him. Kentucky Coach John Calipari reached out to Martelli to gauge his interest, and Martelli jumped at the opportunity.

“I just couldn’t imagine being on TV and calling a game between, like, Villanova and St. John’s, and seeing a great game and then just going home by myself after it was done,” Martelli said. “I needed the exhilaration that comes from winning or the despondency of losing. I needed to be a part of a team.”

The results for the hires that call back to glory days have been mixed. For every Fred Hoiberg, who returned to Iowa State after an N.B.A. career and led the Cyclones to four N.C.A.A. tournaments in five seasons, there is a Clyde Drexler, whose two-year stint at Houston set the program back.

Chris Mullin resigned as the head coach at St. John’s after last season, even though he was able to get his alma mater back to the N.C.A.A. tournament after a three-year absence. He had hired Mitch Richmond, one of his teammates on the Golden State Warriors from that squad’s famed Run T.M.C. days with Tim Hardaway. But he was criticized for a laissez-faire approach toward leading the team.

McKie has Temple off to a decent start. Hardaway has Memphis ranked despite losing the nation’s top-rated recruit, forward James Wiseman, who left the program before completing a 12-game N.C.A.A. suspension because his family took $11,500 from Hardaway to move in 2017. (Wiseman was in high school at the time and Hardaway was a high school coach.)

Ewing’s Hoyas have looked talented at times. although they are down to only nine scholarship players. Four players said they intended to transfer, including three who agreed to stay away from a student who said she was threatened and stolen from. The players admitted no wrongdoing in a civil case and the police closed the investigations without any arrests.

The hiring of seasoned assistant coaches follows a template established with Hoiberg at Iowa State, an example athletic directors point to when questioned about whether hiring past stars as head coaches is a good idea.

Inarguably the most popular player in the history of Iowa State basketball, Hoiberg went on to work in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves after a 10-year N.B.A. career and had never coached at any level when Iowa State administrators handed him the keys to the program in 2010.

He brought in Bobby Lutz, who had just been fired as the head coach at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he led the 49ers to five N.C.A.A. tournament appearances, to help show him the ropes that first season. And although family health issues forced Lutz to leave the program after only one season, Hoiberg called Lutz the most important hire that he made early in his coaching career.

Hoiberg left Iowa State after five years for an ill-fated turn as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, but last spring, when he was hired as the head coach at Nebraska, one of the first calls he made was to Lutz, who now serves as a special to assistant to Hoiberg.

“With his experience, he knew how we wanted to play and knew what we could do to put our guys in a position to be successful,” Hoiberg said. “Then and now, I lean on him a lot because there’s a lot of things a guy with his experience can provide to our staff and to our team. He’s been terrific in his role.”

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