Commentary

Shaka Smart's right to yap

Coaches at 'small dog' programs aren't shy about claiming their place

Updated: February 10, 2012, 3:57 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Litton Dogs IllustrationDrew Litton/ESPN.com

I was never a little-dog guy. My first dogs when I was a kid were a German shepherd named Buddy and some big, mixed something or other named Pal. Yes, Buddy and Pal. Hey, I was a kid. Later, as an adult, I adopted a Labrador-shepherd mix that my kids used to ride. His name was Norman -- for Norman Bates. Yes, "Psycho's" Norman Bates. Hey, it's my favorite movie.

Last year, I brought home a dachshund for my daughter. Actually a dachshund-Jack Russell terrier mix. Her name is LeLe. So, now …

… I'm a little-dog guy.

And if you say anything about it, she'll gnaw your ankles right off.

Now, little dogs are not always underdogs. In fact, underdogs can actually be big dogs. For instance: No. 9 Duke is an underdog against No. 5 North Carolina on Wednesday night. But make no mistake: We all know, in college basketball, Duke is still a very big dog.

Favored or not, little dogs will always be little dogs.

[+] EnlargeShaka Smart
AP Photo/Luis M. AlvarezShaka Smart is rightly boastful about how his teams and the teams in his conference have played.

And they're just fine with that. In fact, of late, a couple of college basketball's little dogs have been barking up a storm.

Last week, Shaka Smart, the Virginia Commonwealth coach whose little-dog team reached the Final Four in March 2011 and became the darlings of the NCAA tournament along the way, yipped that teams in his little-dog Colonial Athletic Conference just might be the best in the state. Said state includes Virginia and Virginia Tech of the vaunted ACC.

"The reality," he began, "is if you go by the numbers, if you go by postseason, if you go by even guys going to the NBA, the best programs in the state are in the CAA. It's really not even close."

Fellow CAA coach Paul Hewitt, of George Mason, backed Smart up, saying college teams are ultimately judged by their success in reaching and advancing in the tourney, and by that measure, the coach surmised, the CAA 's best (VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion are the conference's baddest dogs) are Virginia's best in show.

He's right, but only if you take a long-term view. This season, not so much. Virginia is ranked No. 20, while CAA teams are getting only a handful of votes. The Cavs are also 3-for-3 against the CAA this season, including a 68-48 doggin' of George Mason in December.

Over the last decade, VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion have qualified for the tournament 11 times and reached two Final Fours (George Mason in 2006; VCU last year). Virginia and Virginia Tech aren't even in this tussle. Each has one appearance since 2002 (both in 2007) and both only reached the round of 32 that year.

After Smart's yips, I mean remarks, caused a bit of a local stir, he called Virginia coach Tony Bennett to offer clarity, and later said they both "laughed" about it.

[+] EnlargeLarranaga
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesWhile Jim Larranaga turned 14 seasons of success at George Mason into a job at a bigger school, other coaches have opted to stay put.

Laughter aside, Smart's bravado pointed out why little-dog programs today are so attractive to so many coaches -- perhaps more attractive than ever.

With the success in recent years of mid-majors such as Butler, Gonzaga, George Mason, VCU and many others, the best coaching gigs in the nation are no longer solely on the benches of the big dogs.

At least some coaches are deciding success doesn't depend on the size of the house. Last spring, Smart signed a new eight-year agreement to remain at VCU, reportedly taking less money ($1.2 million) that he reportedly would have earned at North Carolina State ($2 million), which was wooing him.

In 2010, after leading Butler to within a last-second shot of the national title, coach Brad Stevens signed a 12-year extension, and in 2011 he reportedly turned down Maryland as it searched for a new head coach.

Longtime Gonzaga coach Mark Few has turned down so many jobs since taking over in Spokane, Wash., 12 years (and 12 NCAA tournament appearances) ago, I wonder why teams even call anymore. Few even turned down his alma mater, Oregon (and a lifetime supply of Nikes) not once but twice. Two years ago, he told a local radio station about why he decided to stay. "At the end of the day, I love what we have going here," he said. "I think the way myself and my family have been treated here, the way our program's treated here, I think it doesn't get any better than that."

The national landscape is littered with guys like these -- some who made their marks with a little-dog program and seem committed to staying (like Phil Martelli of St. Joseph's and Utah State's Stew Morrill) and others who've gone big and done-that at a major program (such as St. Louis coach Rick Majerus, Steve Fisher of San Diego State and even Hewitt, who came to George Mason after being fired by Georgia Tech at the end of last season) and are finding success and contentment as a little dog.

Sure, you can bet all of them have opt-out clauses that allow for listening when the inevitable big dog comes barking. But few seem in a rush to exercise them.

What makes little-dog programs so attractive now?

For one, they no longer require a coach to take a vow of poverty. Many top little-dog coaches are earning at least $1 million. They could certainly make more at a big-dog program, but many ask themselves if the extra pressure of having to win every season is worth the extra scratch -- and their answer is usually, "No."

Now, losing is losing, they know, no matter where they coach. And if they're not successful, the little-dog AD will toss them aside like an old chew toy. Even so, some choose to stay with programs where winning is appreciated rather expected.

Of course, some do choose the allure of a bigger cage. Jim Larranaga left George Mason last season for his first big-dog coaching gig, with the Miami Hurricanes. And Sunday, when the unranked Canes upset No. 7 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Miami had never won, he justified a job change at age 62 with an experience no little dog gets in February.

Right now, at this time of the season, almost all the barking is about the big dogs; let them fight it out.

Like I said, now I'm a little dog guy. And they're already yapping and getting ready to pounce.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com