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Monday, May 2, 2011
The CAA perspective on Hewitt's hire

By Eamonn Brennan

On Saturday, George Mason filled its vacant coaching position with as big a name as George Mason was ever going to land: former Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt.

The hire has sprouted plenty of reaction, most notably that of our own Andy Katz, who detailed (among other things) Hewitt's amazing contract situation. Because there was no new-hire offset built into Hewitt's buyout, the former Yellow Jackets coach will retain all of the $7 million he received from Georgia Tech -- a monthly paycheck of $130,000 over the next five years -- while also receiving up to $1 million per season thanks to his new deal with the Patriots. Not too shabby.

Of course, there are also the on-court concerns. At face value, Mason's ability to hire a proven coach from a high-major school in such short order is impressive. Likewise, Hewitt's success at Georgia Tech -- he did go to a Final Four, after all -- allows the Patriots to claim a replacement with similar chops as his predecessor, the charismatic Jim Larranaga.

But does Hewitt have what it takes to be a coach in the Colonial? For that matter, does success in the CAA require a different coaching skill set than the one Hewitt displayed at Georgia Tech? CAA Hoops spends its time tracking just this sort of thing, and its reaction to the Hewitt hire is worth consulting with these sorts of questions. To wit:
Think about success in the CAA: players and teams get better over the course of a season, and year-over-year. Sure there are bumps in the road, but generally speaking you can see individual and collective progress.

There is an energy surrounding successful programs–euphoria when winning and pain when losing. Improvement is both quantifiable and intangible. It’s a passion play in which everyone in every facet of the program is involved and the improvements and energy feed off of each other. You get the feeling something good is going on, even when it isn’t.

That energy, that passion, never surrounded Georgia Tech. [...] But the nagging thing is this: Mason carries a higher expectation than “absolutely nothing wrong,” and the pressure is there from Day One. Nobody’s buying the ACC Experience voucher, especially not 11 CAA coaches. We all know that a second-tier ACC program is the epitome of all hat, no horse.

That is, essentially, where George Mason as a program and the CAA as a conference finds itself in the spring of 2011. The league is good enough now that the mere invocations of high-major coaching experience and touted recruiting chops aren't going to impress league observers or fellow coaches all that much.

That will be Hewitt's immediate challenge with the Patriots: Can he propel the energy that Larranaga inspired, that VCU harnessed on the way to a Final Four run, that characterizes the perceived differences between mid-major teams and high-major talents? Is he a better X's and O's coach than he is given credit for, or is the common knock on his style -- great recruiter, below-average team-builder -- something that will haunt his tenure at Mason?

How does that talent-acquisition style work in a mid-major conference at a mid-major school? Will Hewitt's NBA contacts, along with the Patriots' high-profile success in recent years, be enough to interest top recruits in an offbeat choice? Or will Hewitt have to recalibrate his team-building style to one more suited for the slow-burn rebuilds that were the impetus for Mason's recent successes?

These are the questions that will define Hewitt's hire. Mason fans shouldn't be discouraged, at least not yet. Pensive is more like it. But they will know exactly what to keep an eye on as their program transitions into a new and unexpected era in Mason -- and Colonial -- hoops.