ATHENS – Rick Barnes was walking in a hallway Saturday when he spun around to answer a question about a fellow coach who had just lost his job.
“Sad. I’ve been there,” Barnes said. “I don’t think he’s through coaching.”
Barnes was talking about Mark Fox, who had just been let go by Georgia. But Barnes also could have been talking about Thad Matta, who has been offered the chance to replace Fox. Or Tom Crean, who was also contacted about the Georgia job. Or himself.
When a coach gets fired by one school, it’s a setback but not a career ender. And when he is hired by another school, sometimes fans blanch, afraid of the retread label. But retreads often win.
There are 31 teams from power conferences in the NCAA Tournament, and five of those are coached by men who were fired from a previous power-conference job:
- Barnes: He was let go by Texas three years ago and immediately hired by Tennessee.
- Bruce Weber, Kansas State: Weber was fired by Illinois after nine years, which included an appearance in the National Championship Game in 2005. Weber was immediately hired by Kansas State and in six years, his teams have qualified for the NCAA Tournament four times, although he hasn’t won a game yet.
- Steve Alford, UCLA: Alford was fired at Iowa in 2007 after an eight-year tenure. He then went to New Mexico for the next six years before being hired by UCLA. Where he has made three Sweet 16 appearances.
- Bob Huggins, West Virginia: Huggins was fired by Cincinnati in 2003 amid off-court issues. He then went to Kansas State for one year, then returned to his alma mater, West Virginia, in 2007. Huggins has led the team to nine NCAA Tournament appearances, including one Final Four.
- Bruce Pearl, Auburn: Much like Huggins, this also has an asterisk, as Pearl was fired by Tennessee in 2011 amid NCAA violations. After a few years off, he was hired by Auburn, and while the Tigers are in the tournament this year as a No. 4 seed, there once again is a cloud over Pearl’s team because of the ongoing FBI investigation.
Two other head coaches left previous jobs under pressure: Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin left Tennessee for California in 2014, then came back to the SEC last year. Jamie Dixon bolted Pittsburgh for TCU, his alma mater, two years ago, and it has paid off much more for TCU than Pittsburgh, which just fired his replacement.
In addition, four more coaches in the 2018 NCAA Tournament were fired from an NBA head coaching job:
- Kentucky’s John Calipari: He had a short-lived stint with the New Jersey Nets in the 1990s before returning to the college level at Memphis.
- Alabama’s Avery Johnson: He took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals.
- Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger: The former Atlanta Hawks head coach returned to the college ranks and has had immense success.
- Leonard Hamilton, Florida State: It was so long ago and such a short stint that few remember Hamilton’s one year as the Washington Wizards’ coach in 2000-01.
If Georgia does hire Matta – or even Crean – it would clearly not be alone in the SEC in hiring a so-called retread. History shows that it works.
Ben Howland, fired by UCLA in 2013, hasn’t gotten Mississippi State to the NCAA Tournament yet. They won 22 games this season and made the NIT.
In all, the SEC has eight teams in the tournament, and half of them are coached by men were fired from either another college or NBA job, and a fifth is Missouri’s Martin, who left Tennessee under pressure.
The lesson: The pessimist would say this is hiring retreads. The optimist would say it’s hiring experience, and right now the optimists have good evidence in their direction.