Coaches not defined by age

Athletic directors handing the keys to young and younger coaches -- with success

Updated: October 14, 2013, 2:50 PM ET
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Richard Pitino, Shaka Smart and Chris CollinsAP PhotoAge is just a number, and athletic directors aren't worried about having young coaches.
Even though he was just 29 when he accepted the job in 2010, Robert Morris coach Andy Toole received a positive response from the university's supporters.

There were few concerns about his youth because he'd been an assistant under former coach Mike Rice. He was a familiar figure.

There was, however, some confusion when Craig Coleman, the school's athletic director, introduced Toole to a respected booster at a football game.

"The lady leans over to me and says, 'Are you one of the captains?'" Toole said. "Obviously, everyone started laughing. I said, 'Actually, I'm the coach.' She made me take out my driver's license and prove that I was over 30 and that I wasn't a player but I was the coach."

But Toole's youth wasn't a deterrent when Coleman made the move. He wanted a coach with passion and a high IQ. Although he'd never held a head coaching job at the Division I level, the former Penn point guard had the characteristics his athletic director desired in a head coach.

Plus, he wasn't alone.

The recent accomplishments of young coaches -- specifically the Final Four runs by VCU's Shaka Smart and former Butler coach Brad Stevens -- have given some administrators more faith in candidates who are under 40 years old.

The Big Ten, a conference packed with veteran coaches, added Northwestern's Chris Collins, 39, and Minnesota's Richard Pitino, 31, this offseason. Josh Pastner, 36, enters his fifth season with Memphis. When Stevens took a job with the Boston Celtics this summer, Butler grabbed former assistant Brandon Miller, 34.

[+] EnlargeChris Collins
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesChris Collins might not have the head coaching experience, but he is out to prove he can get the job done at Northwestern.

It's still an anomaly among power conference schools, but it is becoming a trend within the mid-major ranks.

"I think every time another coach proves that they can succeed at that age, it just makes it all the easier to calm the doubts of your university president or your trustees or even your athletic administrators," Coleman said. "It's OK to turn the keys over to a guy that young because it's happened before."

This is not foreign.

Mike Krzyzewski became Duke's head coach when he was 33, and Indiana hired a 30-year-old Bob Knight to lead its program in 1971. Administrators have always taken chances on a few young coaches.

But the level of acceptability, especially at non-BCS schools, has been altered by school officials who've bucked the status quo by hiring young coaches.

Most lack head coaching experience and must prove they're capable of guiding players who aren't much younger than they are. But the recent gains by members of the under-40 coaching fraternity have compelled some administrators to consider young leaders.

"All it takes is success," said Murray State athletic director Allen Ward, who hired then-36-year-old Steve Prohm to run his men's basketball program in 2011. " If you're successful, administrators will start looking at it a little bit differently, that maybe you don't have to get that coach with head coaching experience."

But Prohm, previously an assistant with the Racers for four years, was connected to the program. That was an advantage. Some of the nation's youngest coaches were assistants within the programs they now lead. But that connection rarely guarantees anything.

Prohm said he still he had to prove he could handle the job during the vetting process.

"I think the first thing I had to prove to them was that I was ready to separate myself from the assistant's job to being the leader," he said.

That's a challenge many young coaches must overcome, especially the ones who have never been head coaches. Sure, Stevens, Smart and others have enjoyed success before their 40th birthdays. But there are dozens of assistants in their 40s and 50s who have never had the chance to become head coaches, in part because they lack head coaching experience. And that's a requirement for many Division I openings.

[+] EnlargeAndy Toole
Charles LeClaire/USPRESSWIREAndy Toole might not look old enough to be the coach at Robert Morris. But he is, and his record proves he can handle the task.

Before Jim Phillips commenced his search for a new coach this past spring, he asked Northwestern's players to describe their new head coach. They told Phillips they wanted someone personable and someone to whom people could relate.

Chris Collins had those traits. Philips, however, had one concern.

"The only hesitation I had was head coaching experience versus no head coaching experience," he said. "I interviewed quite a few coaches with head coaching experience. That was the only box he didn't have."

But Collins had other qualities.

He'd been a top assistant under Krzyzewski. And his youth was beneficial, too.

"I think just by being not too far removed from some of the players in age, having the energy level, I think the hunger, too," Collins said. "Plus, the fact that I haven't done it. Any time you get that first opportunity, you're going to be hungry to prove that you can be successful."

Energy is frequently mentioned by administrators who have hired younger coaches.

Today's recruiting world demands it.

"We needed someone who had that energy level not to take any shortcuts but to make sure we had the right people in here," said Dayton athletic director Tim Wabler, who hired then-32-year-old Archie Miller in 2011.

Added Miller: "Recruiting is 365 [days a year]. We're really a 12 months-out-the-year program. … I do think that age and youth and having some goals to attain at a place, it matters."

Younger coaches might also have an edge when it's necessary to relate to their players. In most cases, they're more connected to players culturally and socially than veteran coaches. That's a plus for administrators.

"Andy Toole is one of the world's greatest tweeters," Coleman said. "While some people in my generation, it took us a while to figure that out. He was a natural. … He can get on the basketball court with them and play against them with energy and great success, which a 40-year-old or 50-year-old coach might not be able to do."

The nation's most successful coaches, however, are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Most of them, at least. Experience, longevity and legacy all matter, especially in recruiting.

"Sometimes the parents have more questions," Toole said. "Sometimes, the parents look at you sideways. You can social media, text, phone with the kid, but you do sometimes have to do a little bit more work with the parents."

That's a minor issue for administrators who have hired leaders who are still in their late 20s and 30s. In recent years, they've granted young coaches opportunities at programs that had previously overlooked or ignored similarly inexperienced candidates.

And for many, the push toward youth has been a positive move.

"Age isn't a consideration," said Princeton athletic director Gary Walters, who hired Mitch Henderson in 2011 when the head coach was 35. "I'm looking for the person that can best represent Princeton. I don't care what age you are."

There's a growing list of administrators who feel the same way.

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