Right or wrong, Mike Woodson’s age was part of his candidate profile. Let’s take a closer look at past coaching hires for insight
Last year, I analyzed every men’s basketball head coaching hire made by a Power 5 conference school from 1985, when the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, through the 2019 coaching hiring and firing cycle, looking at each coach through the lens of his age. At the time, the goal was to see how much interest there might be from universities toward former Michigan coach John Beilein, who was available after a brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Beilein was 67 then.
It turns out that data can be repurposed for Indiana’s newest men’s basketball coach, Mike Woodson, who at 63 is two years older than any of the 297 coaching hires I examined.
That’s right, since 1985, no other school that currently competes in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC has hired a men’s basketball head coach who was older than 61.
In addition to Woodson’s 315 wins across nine seasons as an NBA head coach and IU’s men’s basketball administrative setup with former Ohio State coach Thad Matta and his 439 wins as a college head coach playing a behind-the-scenes role for the Hoosiers, yes, Woodson’s age as a first-time college head coach is at the very least an outlier, if not unique, in regards to the hiring practices in the sport.
I looked at the six other 60 and 61-year-old head coaches who were hired by a current Power 5 school since 1985 in order to see where they succeeded, where their tenures fell short and what we can potentially learn about Mike Woodson’s tenure in advance of his first season as the head man in Bloomington.
It’s worth mentioning that, yes, there are head coaches who are much older than Woodson, many of whom have been incredibly successful. Just look at the ACC alone, with Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (76), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (74), Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton (72) and Miami’s Jim Larranaga (71), plus the recently retired Roy Williams (70). But there’s a difference between taking over a program in your early thirties, like Krzyzewski and Boeheim did and steering the program into your sixties and seventies, versus being hired in your sixties. That’s where this analysis comes into play.
Let’s start with this: How would you, the suddenly reinvigorated Indiana fan, feel about a hypothetical Mike Woodson tenure that lasts six seasons, in which Indiana wins 59 percent of its games, has an average regular-season conference finish of sixth place, makes the NCAA tournament three times and wins two games in the NCAA tournament?
Would that be the bare minimum that you expect from Woodson’s tenure? Would that more or less be suitable? Would it be underwhelming?
Because that’s roughly the average tenure of Jim Harrick at Georgia, Bob Knight and Tubby Smith at Texas Tech, Mike Montgomery at California, Jim Larranaga at Miami and Rick Barnes at Tennessee – the six coaches who were hired in their sixties among the 297 coaches examined. Of course, Larranaga and Barnes are still coaching at their respective schools, so this data is current through the 2021 season.
A 59-percent win percentage would be better than that of the Indiana tenures of Archie Miller (.536) and Tom Crean (.551), and you can add whatever roster or injury-based qualifiers or disclaimers you think are appropriate for those two coaches, especially regarding the situation Crean inherited. The hypothetical tenure described – six seasons, a 59-percent winning percentage, three NCAA tournament appearances and a pair of tournament wins – is also not terribly different from Mike Davis’ tenure from a 10,000-foot view, albeit without the national runner-up finish, obviously.
But in 2021, such a tenure could represent the stabilization of the Indiana men’s basketball program, rather than part of its descent. With a coaching staff that includes poached Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife, who has openly discussed his desire for the head coaching job and who could be a reasonable heir to Woodson’s chair if the next four to eight years are successful, then perhaps the most realistic wish that Indiana fans could have for the Woodson era is one in which the program is stabilized, such that it regularly completes for top-third finishes in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament bids. A program that hasn’t gone dancing since 2016 might need to re-learn how to walk before it runs.
Depending on how much you want to extrapolate the tenures of the six coaches examined and the current Power 5 schools that hired them in their sixties, none of them ever advanced further than the Sweet 16 at their respective schools. They’ve combined for four Sweet 16 appearances in 36 seasons. Larranaga and Barnes, who are still at Miami and Tennessee, respectively, are responsible for three of those four second-weekend appearances.
While there’s a lack of deep NCAA tournament runs at the schools who hired the coaches identified, some still showed flashes of high-level play. Mike Montgomery’s first team at Cal led the country in 3-point percentage (42.7%) in 2009 and the next season, the Bears posted the third-best adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. Jim Harrick’s final Georgia team had the best offense in the country, amid a season in which he ultimately resigned following NCAA violations. Bob Knight – yes, that Bob Knight – was probably the best coach in Texas Tech’s program history prior to Chris Beard’s tenure.
Mike Woodson doesn’t need to be the Indiana version of Bob Knight, nor the Texas Tech version. His job is to lead the Hoosiers back to the NCAA tournament and make them a staple in the top half of the Big Ten standings – both of which are reasonable and attainable goals, even for a first-time college head coach in his sixties.