- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Wednesday, the ESPN college basketball hive mind released its consensus rankings of every high-major college basketball coaching job in the country. (We also named our best and worst jobs in every mid-major league.)
Naturally, this created no small amount of discussion among readers and commenters, discussion that we here at ESPN.com were already bandying about throughout the voting process.
Which got yours truly thinking: Now that we've ranked the best jobs in every league in the country, how would we rank the best of the best -- the jobs every aspiring coach spends a lifetime pursuing? Consider what follows my humble attempt to do exactly that.
For the sake of consistency, I'm using the same criteria we established for our initial voting, which was laid out in the rankings (see above link): "This is not an attempt to rank the programs or their histories. When voting, our 14 panelists were asked to take into consideration facilities, expectation level, athletic budget, wins and losses, recruiting base, fan support/pressure and all of the other factors that go into determining the 'best' jobs in the ever-crazy profession of college basketball coaching."
Based on that criteria, here's how I see the top 10 jobs in college basketball, from No. 10 to No. 1:
Order aside, selecting the last member of this list was the most difficult (and most enjoyable) part of the entire exercise. I used my lifelines, polled colleagues -- Andy Katz and I even grilled ESPN analyst and longtime coach Fran Fraschilla for his take -- and the only consensus I could establish was that no consensus existed.
So why did I choose Arizona? A few reasons. Connecticut's success is impossible to extract from Jim Calhoun, the coach who almost single-handedly built it. Florida has two national titles and a huge boost in brand name under Billy Donovan, but it's hard to be a top-10 program when you're still the younger brother to your school's football team. This same disqualifier applies to Texas (though some argued this was actually a great job, because it paid well, came with huge financial support from the richest athletic program in the country, and didn't feature the pressure of basketball-first schools).
In the end, Michigan State came closest to usurping Arizona at No. 10. At this point, the program is synonymous with coach Tom Izzo -- who has been to six Final Fours since 1999 -- but the Spartans experienced plenty of old-school success in the Jud Heathcote era, too, so it's not entirely fair to attribute all of the program's success to Izzo's excellence.
Still, there are drawbacks here: Michigan State must coexist and recruit against in-state rival Michigan, not to mention do battle with the rest of the Big Ten for the Midwest's best talent. Arizona has no such competition in its own state, and -- no offense to East Lansing -- a more attractive locale for national-level recruits seeking some sunshine on their walk to practice. By now, the Wildcats have survived the transition from legendary coach (Lute Olson) to upstart winner (Sean Miller), and it's hard to know how that process would play out if Izzo retired tomorrow. (Good news for Michigan State fans: That won't happen for a long, long time.)
So, yes, Arizona gets the nod. But let's be real: Like the rest of this list, every one of those honorable mention jobs is extremely enviable. And the differences between them are a matter of degree, not kind.
For a program that has almost always played second fiddle to the more popular (and populist) Kentucky Wildcats, Louisville has built a large share of its own tradition over the decades. But forget all that. This job is good right now, in 2012, for far more tangible reasons. The Cardinals boast perhaps the nation's most glimmering arena in the KFC Yum! Center and, with all apologies to the Louisville Bats, the Cards are the only game in town in what is, according to Nielsen, the 48th-largest media market in the country. That combination of facilities and massive local support makes Louisville as attractive a destination for recruits as nearly anywhere in the country.
8. Ohio State
Ohio State may not have the king-of-campus moniker of so many of its brethren on this list, but what it does have -- as Thad Matta has so successfully shown since taking over in 2004 -- is awfully desirable. The Buckeyes maintain a unique form of cultural dominance over the state of Ohio, reside in the 32nd-largest market in the country (people forget how big Columbus really is), and have the kind of big-ticket financial support from its filthy-rich athletic department (thanks, football!) that perhaps only Texas can match. That means great facilities, a great arena and the ability to recruit from across the Midwest on a yearly basis -- exactly what Matta has done to establish the Buckeyes as a yearly contender for a national title. Football school? Sure. But the natural advantages that extend to the OSU hoops program are simply too great to ignore.
Like Connecticut, Syracuse's program is hard to tease out from Syracuse's coach, the legendary Jim Boeheim, who has worked the Orange sidelines since 1976 -- just a few years before SU won the first Big East title. Indeed, Boeheim has in many ways built this program, but by now, 36 years later, the Orange have so dominated the Northeast that it is almost impossible to imagine the program faltering when Boeheim eventually decides to retire. The Orange pack more people into home games -- Syracuse has hosted crowds of 30,000 or more at the Carrier Dome 70 times since it opened in 1980 -- than any other campus arena in the country.
(Warning: From here on in, non-blue bloods need not apply.)
No. 6 might seem a little low for a program that has in many ways been the marquee national fixture of the past quarter-century, which just so happens to be coached by the winningest man in the history of Division I basketball. So allow me to explain. For one, at this point, the marginal difference between the remaining six blue-blood programs is minimal at best. For another, it remains an open question whether Duke is a program that can remain among the nation's truly elite after the aforementioned Mike Krzyzewski rides off into the Durham sunset. Whoever inherits the job will have quite a task on his hands, but he'll also be able to sell to recruits the school's tradition, its gorgeous Gothic campus, its $15 million practice facility, its more-lenient-than-you-think* basketball admissions standards, and -- last but hardly least -- the theater that is Cameron Indoor Stadium.
*Not that getting into Duke as a men's basketball player is easy. It's more difficult than many of its blue-blood rivals, which is another consideration for the ranking. But Duke athletics has often been more flexible than some of the nation's other top schools -- see: Stanford -- in granting admission for men's players.
Just a few years ago, the status of Indiana's basketball program had never seemed more dire. Legendary coach Bob Knight was expelled in a fit of campus fury; Mike Davis' faltered tenure unraveled within years; and Kelvin Sampson conference-called the Hoosiers to a place they had never been before -- the NCAA sanctions doghouse. Indiana was a blue blood, sure, but what if those days were gone? What if the Hoosiers' time had passed?
Those anxious existential quandaries are now the furthest thing from any IU fan's mind. Tom Crean deserves the lion's share of credit for that, in large part because he followed the recruiting blueprint required of any Indiana coach, forging alliances with the state's top coaches and figureheads and, beginning with Cody Zeller, convincing the in-state talent (or most of it, anyway) to stay in the state.
Meanwhile, not enough can be said of Indiana's new Cook Hall, a 67,000-square-foot facility that not only serves as the headquarters for the program and its players but also hosts a veritable museum of Hoosiers tradition. Before it was built, Indiana practiced at Assembly Hall, where scheduling conflicts with the women's program were just one of the issues keeping the program from landing top talent. These days, Indiana not only has its name brand and deep cultural connections in a basketball-obsessed (and talent-rich) state to entice prospects. These days, it has the bling to seal the deal.
As you read in the criteria at the start of this piece, tradition is not a major factor in these rankings. So why is UCLA -- a program that has for decades struggled to live up to the standards set by iconic coach John Wooden -- ranked so high? For one, UCLA remains the biggest non-Lakers basketball brand on the West Coast, situated smack dab in the middle of one of the nation's most fertile recruiting territories (if not the most fertile), Los Angeles -- replete with all the glitz and glamour that comes with being a Bruins star in that flashy city.
For years, with no dedicated practice facility and a dour, aging Pauley Pavilion as its only structural selling point, UCLA lost the pace in the national facilities arms race. Now the Bruins -- with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class in tow -- are preparing to open a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, a $136 million project that includes: new locker rooms, lounges, concession stands, restrooms and seats; a new scoreboard and video room; 30-inch LED ribbon board panels around the building's interior; and a built-in UCLA hoops museum. Like Indiana, UCLA no longer has to sell its tradition, or even its cultural import, while fighting against the Xbox-in-the-whirlpool-stocked locker rooms of elite rivals across the country. The Bruins have finally modernized.
What do college prospects want? Luxe facilities? Sure. A pristine campus? It can't hurt. The chance to go pro? No question. But there are few things more potent in the recruiting game than a truly great home atmosphere -- and no other school in the country can offer the chance to earn a game-ending, goose-bump-raising "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" chant from the die-hards at Allen Fieldhouse. (I'm not sure how many 17-year-olds are impressed by the fact that James Naismith essentially invented college basketball at Kansas, or the fact that his 13 original rules exist permanently in the Phog, but it would certainly impress me.) Just as impressive, perhaps, is the frequency with which KU competes for national titles; it currently holds the active NCAA record for consecutive tournament appearances (23) and has won or shared the last eight Big 12 regular-season titles. If you go play at Kansas, you know two things. One: You're going to win. A lot. Two: You're going to do that winning in one of the greatest venues in sports, packed with one of the nation's best and most intense fan bases. What's not to love about this gig?
Do you hear that clicking sound? That's the sound of approximately 4 million members of Big Blue Nation (give or take a few) readying their angry replies to their beloved program's placement at well, anywhere but No. 1 overall.
Indeed, that may be Kentucky basketball's greatest strength: its fan base. UK fans are like no other in the sport, and like few others in any sport. The connection between huge swaths of the Commonwealth and the program it cherishes runs as deep as any such connection possibly could. That intensity alone ensures that Kentucky, come hell or high water, will compete for national championships on a regular basis. Big Blue Nation won't settle for anything less.
That intensity also makes the job an unusually challenging one. Managing the expectations of an entire state -- or trying to live up to them -- is no easy feat. Few have ever done it better than John Calipari, whose media savvy and insane recruiting acumen have turned Lexington into the country's annual one-stop shop for future NBA talent. The Wildcats are coming off an Elite Eight, a Final Four, and a national championship in just three seasons, with a score of NBA lottery picks to show for it.
So why isn't Kentucky No. 1? To my mind, the only thing holding it back -- besides the memory of the pre-Calipari days, and the sneaking suspicion that few others could possibly do the job Calipari has done -- is the aging state of Rupp Arena, which is in desperate need of that $300 million renovation that is reportedly coming sometime down the line. Were it not for Calipari's play-for-me-and-go-pro genuis, would Kentucky have as much to offer the nation's truly elite prospects?
We'll find out eventually, I suppose, but for now, the question is almost moot. As I wrote above, the differences between jobs at this level are almost imperceptible. The point is, Kentucky is one of the truly great programs in the country, backed by the best fans in the sport. If you're a coach, and Big Blue comes calling, you say yes. It's really just that simple.
1. North Carolina
Why is North Carolina the best job in the country? Well, because it's North Carolina. Allow me to explain.
Of course UNC has the obvious things recruits want: great facilities, a chance at the pros, big-time exposure, a chance to play in the best rivalry in the country, a gorgeous campus -- you name it.
But thanks to Dean Smith, and now Roy Williams, North Carolina has essentially become a self-sustaining nexus of hoops desire. It's the argyle uniforms. It's the clean Carolina blue. It's the UNC basketball museum, with its artifacts and gravitas. It's the perhaps-imagined (but does that make it any less real?) impression one feels in Dean Dome that there is something special about Carolina basketball, something innate and hard to define.
More than anything, though, it's the "family" -- the scores of current and former pro stars who still come to Chapel Hill to play in alumni games and watch the young guns take on Duke. More specifically, perhaps, it's Michael Jordan. There may come a day when recruits won't want to follow the footsteps of the greatest basketball player of all time, when they won't remember or care what MJ meant to the sport, when His Airness' nostalgic brand won't bless anything it deigns to touch.
That day has not yet arrived. Wear any retro Air Jordans you like, become part of MJ's college "family," even meet the man himself. If you can think of a better recruiting pitch for young basketball players, I'd love to hear it.
In 2012, the differences in job desirability between North Carolina and Kentucky -- or North Carolina and Syracuse, or, frankly, any other two jobs on this top 10 -- is a matter of almost invisible degree. But if UNC has an edge over the rest, it comes from the Tar Heels brand, a brand built by Smith and sustained by Williams and long since ensured in relevance by the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
North Carolina basketball sells itself. How great of a job is that?
Editor's Note: To read Eamonn's conversation with Myron Medcalf on the best jobs, click here.