KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was an innocent, if slightly uninformed, question. Why, Billy Donlon was asked, would he leave a head coaching position at Wright State in 2016 after a 22-win season to be a mere assistant at Michigan?
“Well, it wasn’t my choice,” Donlon said politely during his introductory press conference as the new head coach at UMKC in late March.
And to look back, it wasn’t a choice that sat well with many people.
Dan Dakich took to Twitter and called for a boycott, while Paul Biancardi — a former WSU coach himself — was more diplomatic in claiming a contract extension was more appropriate than a pink slip. Those feelings made sense. Donlon was coming off a 22-win campaign, had won 21 games or more in three of his last four seasons at WSU, and had taken the Raiders to three Horizon League Tournament championship games — including what turned out to be his final game with the program in March 2016.
But none of those three games ended in a win and, consequently, didn’t lead to the Raiders’ logo being splashed across screens during Selection Sunday. That, to the administration, was a fatal sin, no matter how competitive the team otherwise had been in Donlon’s six years at the helm.
“I went to three championship games in four years, but we are defined at our level at making the NCAA Tournament,” Donlon said. “Am I a lesser coach because we lost all three of those games? Twitter says yes, but I say no.”
Scott Cross knows the feeling.
The longtime UT Arlington coach was himself coming off a conference tournament championship game loss when the 2017-18 season ended. It was an opportunity the Mavericks figured to have with two of the Sun Belt’s best players — Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal — on the roster. They took a circuitous route to the league tournament championship with a mildly disappointing fourth-place (10-8) regular season finish, but had the opportunity nonetheless in a 21-win campaign. They fell to Georgia State, and that, somewhat inexplicably too many, was it for Cross.
The UTA administration let him go after he had engineered the greatest period in Mavericks history. There were 72 wins in the three seasons preceding his termination in 2018, and his overall tenure saw two of the program’s three regular season titles, as well as its only NCAA Tournament appearance (2008). The Mavericks had developed into a pocket of mid-major success in north Texas, even without the finishing touch of the NCAA Tournament over the bulk of his tenure.
But UTA wanted more, a lot more. Athletic director Jim Baker reportedly told Cross that he wanted the Mavericks to be the next Gonzaga and, of course, what administrator wouldn’t? But in seeking to live out his wildest dreams, Baker also pointed to Loyola University Chicago and UMBC as the type of success UTA wanted to emulate.
In doing so, he laid out the fine, arguably unrealistic line so many coaches in one-bid leagues must walk.
What Cross and Donlon built at their prior schools looked similar to what Porter Moser and Ryan Odom have done at Loyola and UMBC, respectively, with multiple 20-win seasons and upper-tier league finishes. The only difference was not conquering the single elimination beast that is a league tournament, and then not going the extra step and reaching the rarefied air of winning in the NCAA Tournament.
Does not being able to win one-off games on certain dates in March really tell the entire story of a coach? Removing Mark Few, just seven mid-major coaches — Rick Byrd, Dave Richman, Ritchie McKay, Matt McMahon, Nate Oats, Russell Turner, Mike Young — won a game in the NCAA Tournament this season. Does that contain a definitive list of the coaches that were capable of building quality seasons in 2019?
Of course not, and that surely wasn’t the point the administrations at UTA and WSU were making when they made their respective decisions. But making success in March as the determining factor for an otherwise competitive coach can be a risky position, since putting a program in a position to have that March moment is arguably harder to do than reeling off a few wins at the right time.
“Every year if your team in a one-bid league is playing its best basketball and you’re consistently in the title game, eventually you’re going to go,” Donlon said.
Ironic as it may be, UTA and WSU don’t appear to have gotten their subsequent hires wrong, at least in the early going. The Raiders hired Scott Nagy, who had taken South Dakota State from Division I newbie to Summit power, and brought WSU to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. In Arlington, Baker plucked Chris Ogden from the ever-popular Chris Beard tree and despite losing the majority of its roster, the Mavericks were a factor in the Sun Belt with a 12-6 record this past year.
Donlon and Cross, however, both get second chances in 2019-20. Donlon takes over at UMKC, which has never been to the NCAA Tournament at the Division I level, and saw nearly its entire roster enter the transfer portal after the previous coach, Kareem Richardson, was let go. And a year at TCU, Cross landed back in the Sun Belt, taking over a Troy program coming off a 12-18 season.
“I always thought [Troy] was a place that was a sleeping giant,” Cross told Mid-Major Madness earlier this month. “They have a beautiful facility, the town is really, really pretty, they’re super supportive of athletics. You just have a good feel, a good vibe when you’re there.”
Both coaches with proven, program-building track records will now try meet the type of March success that eluded them before, while yet again navigating the high, often unrealistic pressure of one-bid leagues.