I always thought that the big differences between collegiate athletic programs were the expectations and demands placed on them.
What I appreciated about working at Duke University was the culture that was instilled in the athletic department - EVERY team is expected to win, and to compete at a national level in their respective sport. The only teams that were ever honored at center court of Cameron Indoor Stadium at halftime of a basketball game were those that had done the following in their respective sport - won the ACC Tournament, advanced to the Final Four, or won a National Championship
With the firing of Billy Gillispie at Kentucky, and the subsequent hiring of John Calipari, it brought to the forefront about the difference between the elite or iconic programs from the rest of the college sports world.
SI's Andy Staples wrote a great piece about this, referencing what it was like for Steve Lavin to accept the responsibility of being the head coach of the UCLA basketball team from 1996-2003.
For Steve Lavin, Jim Harrick's words still echo in Harrick's West Virginia twang. "When you're the head coach at a place like UCLA," the former Bruins basketball coach would say, "you're anah-lyzed, critah-cized, scrutin-ized and di-ssected like a frooooog in a biology class."
Lavin, a Harrick assistant from 1991-96, always chuckled. He didn't truly understand what Harrick meant until he lay on the tray, facing the business end of the scalpel.
"There were many days down the line once I became the head coach that I had a greater appreciation for that quote," said Lavin, who succeeded Harrick and shepherded one of college basketball's name-brand programs from 1996-2003.
To be the keeper of the flame at an iconic program, a coach must do more than draw up plays and recruit. He must be a spokesman, a diplomat and a fundraiser. He must always show proper respect to the legends who built the program. He also must comport himself in a manner acceptable to the donors and administrators who keep the program humming. Most importantly, he must win.
Billy Gillispie wasn't able to meet those standards at Kentucky, and was fired after two seasons. Not only did he not win as much as the perceived expectation level, but he also didn't connect with the faithful fans of the Wildcats.
Roy Williams has been able to meet those standards, and is now competing for another National Championship for the University of North Carolina. A former UNC assistant under Dean Smith, Williams clearly understood what was asked of him on and off the court, just as he had at Kansas while he led them to success.
Rich Rodriguez (Michigan) and Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) are two college football coaches who are still under the microscope in regards to whether they have been able to deal with the demands placed on those storied programs. In both cases, as Staples referenced, winning certainly is the key component.
At Notre Dame, football coach Charlie Weis kicked off his tenure by leading the Fighting Irish to BCS bowls in each of his first two seasons. It was a great story; Weis, a Notre Dame graduate who never played football at the school, had come to his alma mater from the New England Patriots and restored the luster to a program that had fallen off in recent years. Then, in 2007, the Irish went 3-9. When the honeymoon ended, his treatment of influential donors and his attitude in media interviews were called into question. Some wondered if Weis, a career NFL assistant before coming to South Bend, had the correct makeup to hold the same job that Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz performed so well.
"When you win nine or 10, the naysayers don't jump out at you," Weis said. "When all of sudden you win three, all bets are off."
Weis admits he didn't handle his off-field duties as well as he should have. On Bill Belichick's New England staff, Weis rarely gave interviews. If a fan saw him in a store, Weis rarely heard anything other than, "Go Pats." At Notre Dame, he was the face for the biggest name brand in college football. Now, Weis said, he understands better what is expected.
"I don't think you're ever done evolving in that role," Weis said. "When you first come into any job, especially coming from an assistant to a head coach, there's a level of transition, but you do wear an awful lot of hats here. It's a never-ending process. The one thing I've been able to do better as the years have gone on is to continue to evolve with the job."
In the end of the day, you need to have conviction and belief in your blueprint for success to make it - whether it is one of these coaches who are currently sitting on the throne at one of these storied programs, or for Calipari who is just getting fitted for his crown. Lavin referenced the great Rudyard Kipling poem "IF" (which I have displayed on my own office door, to look at every morning) to help provide inspiration for those preparing to take on this challenge.
Coaches who can achieve that balance get statues carved and buildings named in their honor. Those who can't usually get shown the door. Lavin, who fell into the latter category, said a coach at such a program would do well to keep handy a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "If." The poem begins: "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too..."