The NCAA escalator ride
Almost assuredly, as soon as the St. Peter’s men’s basketball team loses their next game, head coach Shaheen Holloway will no longer be employed by the small university in Jersey City. That’s certainly not because he’ll be fired, and I’m sure the University would make an aggressive offer to keep him employed, at least as aggressive as any school with an athletics budget that’s smaller than what some major Division I programs pay their head basketball coach can do. It’s because as soon as they lose next, which I’m fairly certain will be Friday evening in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament against Purdue, Shaheen Holloway will be offered a job at a far more major Division I University where he might earn literally ten times what he’s getting right now. The presumptive new employer is Seton Hall, where Holloway played as an undergrad, which means Holloway will be the rare coach who doesn’t need to move houses for his next job. But if not the Pirates, there’s plenty of other schools who would love to capture just a bit of St. Peter’s magic over the past week.
For those who haven’t followed March Madness, St. Peter’s, a Catholic school of around 3,000 students, is 15 seed – that’s out of 16 – and possibly overseeded at that. And they managed to beat blue blood and number 2 seeded Kentucky in the first round before defeating a very hot seven seed Murray State in the second round to make the Sweet 16, the third round of the tournament that largely separates the wheat from the chaff. Only three 15 seeds in tournament history have made it this far – and none beyond – which makes St. Peter’s run and Holloway’s stock higher than gas prices. And why despite the warmth of the moment, Shaheen Holloway is simply waiting for a loss to bid his farewell.
Even if St. Peter’s story is quite unusual, Holloway’s is less so. Division I basketball coaches are evaluated annually, if not more so, and always at the conclusion of the tournament. Those who do better than expected, particularly from the have nots of college sports, find their way to the better funded programs who, conversely, likely fired their head coach because they didn’t go as far as expected. Those coaches will eventually find their way to a position at a smaller school to try and work their way back up. Rinse and repeat. Coaching in college basketball is something of a non-stop escalator ride, where you see the same folks on the way up that you do on the way down. Not for nothing, the same is now true for the players, who now are able to transfer every year to another university if they so choose. So just as coaches come and go, so does the talent. Which means that the team you see on the floor this March may look absolutely nothing like the one that takes to the floor next winter – and that has nothing to do with graduation.
So what does all this volatility mean for college basketball, where fans find themselves rooting for the jerseys far more than the ethereal nature of the coaches or fans? It’s hard to say. I tend to believe that neither coaches nor athletes should be bound to their university any more than you’re bound to your accounting job – although you should at least wait until tax season is over. If a coach can make more somewhere else, then good for him — as long as he didn’t promise his recruits that he’d love them for ever and ever, to paraphrase REO Speedwagon. And if someone from South Dakota State plays his way into a roster spot at Villanova, then Duke the next year, then good for him as well, even though I’d suggest that’s a tough way to get an education, which does tend to get lost in this shuffle.
And perhaps that’s the point. With all the excitement over the little train from Jersey City that could, Shaheen Holloway’s imminent departure is a reminder that this isn’t really an educational venture, but a business one. College basketball, with its ongoing reform to rules and regulations, is simply acknowledging what’s been true forever. Which is why complaining that coaches get paid too much or we shouldn’t allow athletes to make money is like complaining about the Internet. That ship has sailed.
And soon, Shaheen Holloway will sail away as well, although just down the road to South Orange, New Jersey. Which is why St. Peter’s fans should enjoy the ride while they can.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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