Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia Tech: That's how I ranked the ACC's basketball coaching vacancies this spring. Each has myriad issues, witness the involuntary exits of Jeff Bzdelik, Steve Donahue and James Johnson, but recent and historic success favored the Deacons over the Eagles and Hokies.
Now consider their completed searches. Sage judgment requires years of observation, but at first blush, the pecking order changes drastically.
New Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock mined his Big East connections, struck quickly and, most important, broke open the checkbook. This he did suspecting that Wake Forest and Boston College would be courting candidates he valued.
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So despite having the toughest sell — the Hokies are reeling from three consecutive last-place finishes in the ACC and have reached only two NCAA tournaments in the last 25 years — Babcock landed, by far, the most nationally relevant coach of the three: Buzz Williams.
In six seasons at Marquette, Williams' teams won eight NCAA tournament games, advancing to an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s. The Golden Eagles thrived in a thorny Big East that included Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut and Cincinnati, the latter where Babcock served for two-plus years as athletic director.
Williams, 41, is the ACC's youngest head basketball coach. He is also among the league's highest-paid, agreeing to a seven-year contract worth a minimum of $18.2 million. Bonuses and secondary income make total compensation difficult to calculate, but according to USA Today's database, Williams' guaranteed salary for next season of $2.3 million will be more than either North Carolina's Roy Williams ($1.82 million) or Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ($1.81 million) were assured this year.
While Babcock searched for less than a week, Wake Forest's Ron Wellman and Boston College's Brad Bates were, comparably, plodders. Perhaps they are more deliberate by nature. Perhaps their preferred candidates were not interested. Perhaps both.
The Deacons, who reached 14 NCAA tournaments from 1991-2010 under Dave Odom, Skip Prosser and Dino Gaudio, hired basketball royalty in Danny Manning. The No. 1 overall pick of the 1988 NBA draft after leading Kansas to an improbable national championship — Danny and The Miracles! — he played 15 NBA seasons.
Manning resonates especially in North Carolina, where as a high school junior in 1983 he led Greensboro Page to a state title. He was an assistant under Self when Kansas won the 2008 national championship, and recruiting figures to be his forte.
With only two years as a head coach — Tulsa was 38-29 on his watch — Manning becomes the ACC's least-experienced big whistle and one of only two not to have advanced in the NCAA tournament. The Golden Hurricane, an NCAA regular under the likes of Nolan Richardson, J.D. Barnett, Tubby Smith, Steve Robinson and Self, made its first tournament appearance in 11 years this season.
That said, Manning's two years as a head coach are only one fewer than Tony Bennett had before arriving at Virginia. If Manning rebuilds the Deacons as effectively as Bennett has the Cavaliers, Tie-Dye Nation will rejoice.
The other ACC coach lacking an NCAA tournament victory is Boston College's Jim Christian, like Manning, introduced Tuesday to his new constituents. Bates was the athletic director at Mid-American Conference member Miami of Ohio from 2002-12, and he returned to those roots in hiring Christian.
The MAC was Christian's head-coaching home for six seasons at Kent State and the last two at Ohio, and each of those eight teams won at least 20 games — his lone NCAA tournament teams, the Golden Flashes in 2006 and '08, exited in the first round. The only blemish on Christian's resume is a four-year stint at Texas Christian, where he compiled a 56-73 record.
Christian has more head-coaching experience (12 seasons) than nine of his 14 ACC colleagues brought to their current positions — Roy Williams, Miami's Jim Larranaga, North Carolina State's Mark Gottfried, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton and Louisville's Rick Pitino are the exceptions.
Under Al Skinner, Boston College advanced in four consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2004-07, never winning fewer than 10 Big East or ACC games. Odom guided Wake Forest to victories in five straight NCAAs from 1993-97, and Seth Greenberg coached Virginia Tech to five top-four ACC finishes from 2005-11.
Translation: There is hope for this downtrodden trio, albeit in an expanded, more difficult conference.
Ranking the hires? Call me in five years, when we'll know how Williams, Manning and Christian adjusted to new cultures and challenges, when we'll know if any has changed his program's trajectory.
But based solely on the new coach's credentials — yes, Manning's championship bling counts — Virginia Tech won this three-way skirmish, followed by Wake Forest and Boston College.