“Lon Kruger figured it out a long time ago,” one college coach told me earlier this week during a conversation about the benefits of job-jumping. And he’s absolutely right.
But Oliver Purnell is the GOAT.
Undeniably, OP is the G-O-A-T when it comes to knowing exactly when to leave one place for another, and I mean this is the most complimentary of ways. Oliver Purnell, you see, coached 27 years at the Division I level before being fired for the first time, and he did this even though he was, through his first 22 years, only 10 games above .500 in league games and in possession of zero NCAA Tournament wins. That’s zero NCAA Tournament wins! And yet Purnell was never on the hot seat, not even once, until the very end, and the reason is because he made a habit of taking bad situations, making them respectable and bouncing.
His career record in league games sits at 186-236.
He has still never won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
And yet Purnell spent 27 years as a DI head coach, made tens of millions of dollars, and he did this primarily because he never stayed anywhere too long. Three years at Radford. Three at Old Dominion. Nine at Dayton. Seven at Clemson. Five at DePaul.
Five jobs in 27 seasons.
That’s one every 5.4 years.
And this week seems like a great time to pay homage to Oliver Purnell The GOAT — because one man has already pulled an OP and bounced from one job to another before things got too uncomfortable, and another seems on the verge of doing something similar.
The first is Jamie Dixon, who had reached a point at Pitt where simply taking the school to 11 NCAA Tournaments in 13 years was no longer good enough for some fans. And never mind that Pitt had only made 15 NCAA Tournaments before Dixon became the head coach. And never mind that he’s responsible for three of Pitt’s seven trips to the Sweet 16.
Pitt fans wanted more.
Consequently, Dixon was probably one bad season from having his own fans demand a change. So what did he do? He left the good thing he built at Pitt for something with almost no history at TCU. In the process, he got a six-year contract and new fans with fresh and reasonable expectations, and now he’s at least three years from feeling job-pressure again.
No matter what happens going forward, Dixon will make many more millions before anybody suggests he no longer deserves the job he’s being paid millions to do, entirely because he was smart enough to bounce from Pitt to TCU at the right time. Meanwhile, Mick Cronin appears on the verge of leaving Cincinnati for UNLV. And though Cronin’s motivation is slightly different and more complex, the end result is similar to Dixon’s in the sense that he’s getting out of UC before anybody at UC grows too tired of him.
Cronin has been at Cincinnati 10 years.
He’s made the last six NCAA Tournaments.
But he’s only been to one Sweet 16 in that span. And he’s about to lose four of his top seven scorers. And if he misses the NCAA Tournament next season, some UC fans, if not most UC fans, would surely focus more on the fact that Cronin would’ve missed the most recent NCAA Tournament than they would the fact that he would’ve still made six of the past seven NCAA Tournaments in an era of college basketball when almost everybody not named Krzyzewski, Izzo, Few, Self or Wisconsin misses the Field of 68 from time to time.
Fans always want more.
Because, basically, here’s how college coaching works: when you’re hired you are asked to be better than the guy before you if the guy before you was fired, and at least as good as the guy before you if the guy before you left on his own terms and for a better opportunity. That’s Step 1. If you don’t meet that criteria, you’re fired in three or four or five years. But if you do meet that criteria, then you start to coach against your own record, and if your second five years aren’t better than your first five years, for the most part, fans start to think you’re taking them nowhere, and they begin to envision and want something new.
This is precisely what Dixon ran into at Pitt.
Once upon a time, Pitt fans would’ve been thrilled with the idea of making the NCAA Tournament basically every year. But once Dixon started making the NCAA Tournament basically every year, that was no longer good enough. Suddenly Pitt fans wanted Sweet 16s. And when Dixon failed to deliver those regularly, fans started chirping, and a large percentage of them don’t really seem to even mind that he left for TCU.
Whether Pitt fans are right or wrong to feel that way is not the point of this column.
The point of this column is that Jamie Dixon was smart enough to recognize Pitt fans felt that way, and aware enough to know that he’d raised the bar at Pitt to the point where merely reaching that bar annually, while exceeding all historical norms, was no longer good enough. He’d been there 13 years. And that’s a long time to stay in one place in this era of college coaching unless you’re a Krzyzewski or a Boeheim or a Calipari or a Pitino.
Which brings me back to Lon Kruger.
To be clear, I think Kruger is closer to a Krzyzewski/Boeheim/Calipari/Pitino than not, and I believe he’ll someday join them in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Regardless, Kruger figured out the business of coaching a long time ago. He’s coached six different schools — plus the Atlanta Hawks — over a 34-year span and never stayed anywhere longer than seven seasons. He just takes a job, builds it into something nice, then goes and does the exact same thing somewhere else. He never gets bored with the current state of affairs. His fans never get bored with him. Things are forever fresh. And young coaches really would be wise to study his approach and, if possible, try to replicate it.
Buzz Williams did.
You can read about that here.
Bottom line, it’s never been easy to coach at the same school for 10-plus years, but it’s more difficult than ever now. Unless you’re constantly outdoing yourself, which is, at some point, almost impossible, you’ll reach the point where your fans don’t appreciate what you’ve done and what you’re doing as much as they bemoan what you’ve failed to accomplish.
If you’re a Round of 64 coach, you better become a Round of 32 coach.
If you’re a Round of 32 coach, you better become a Sweet 16 coach.
So on and so forth.
Simply maintaining a certain level of success, in time, won’t be good enough for your fans even if the level of success is quite remarkable. Lon Kruger figured this out a long time ago. Oliver Purnell is the GOAT. And Jamie Dixon is the latest to recognize and respond.
I have no idea if Dixon will flourish at TCU.
As always, we’ll see.
But what I do know is that he just ensured he’ll stay on the right side of the fans of the school that employs him, and off of hot-seat lists, for at least a few more years. Because he’ll no longer be required to be better than himself at Pitt as much as he’ll be asked to be better than Trent Johnson at TCU. In other words, Jamie Dixon just changed jobs and lowered his own bar. And lowering your own bar every six-to-eight years is the simplest way to delay termination for as long as possible in the business of college coaching.