Friday, October 24, 2008

Did Lute Olson Break The Coaching Speed Limit?

I don't want to speculate over the reason's for Olson's sudden retirement. Personal illness, family illness, personal problems... none of the people giving opinions on this know one way or the other, so I'm not going to waste my time with idle speculation. What I'd rather talk about is the chaos that is Arizona basketball:

Olson stepped away last season, leaving Kevin O'Neill (Olson's chosen successor) in charge. This started well, until Olson started making himself a bit too large of a presence in the locker room. He started speaking to the players behind O'Neill's back, and started showing up where he wasn't wanted. He still wanted some control over what he viewed as his team, and the schism he created was obviously a big factor in the under-achievement of that very talented team. Olson then came back, and told O'Neill to get lost. Then without coaching a game, Olson suddenly exits, leaving the University reeling. Now the school is going to have to conduct a search to find a new coach, somebody who will not be able to simply continue the Olson legacy (in the way that longtime assistant Bill Guthridge was able to smoothly continue Dean Smith's work at North Carolina). And this doesn't even get to recruiting anomalies, like this one.

Seeing all this happen around 74-year-old Lute Olson makes me think about the "Speed Limit Coaching Corollary", which ESPN's Bill Simmons came up with after the 2007 NFL playoffs. His theory was that head coaching is an incredibly stressful and time consuming job, that requires a ton of creative ingenuity. All of these are characteristics that fade as coaches age. Simmons theorizes that this starts when coaches pass the age of 55. To be fair, even if you accept this theory, the Sell By Date on an NFL coach is going to be younger than in any other sport. NFL strategies change so much week to week that constant creativity is necessary. You don't need to re-invent yourself as much if you're coaching baseball or basketball. How much have college basketball games changed over the past 20 years?

Also, coaching legacies mean something in college sports, and don't mean anything in pro sports. It's easier to get a kid to come to your school if you have been in your position for years, and have a history of success. So you would think that coaches over the age of 60 would be commonplace, especially compared to the pro sports. But here is the entire list that I can come up with of current head coaches over the age of 60 who are, in my opinion, among the nation's best:

Bo Ryan - 60
Mike Krzyzewski - 61
Jim Boeheim - 63
Gary Williams - 63
Jim Calhoun - 66

If we go further, I think we can actually have doubts about Calhoun. I commented a couple times recently about how it seems like Calhoun had somewhat lost his team. He can still bring in wonderful recruiting classes, but his kids seem to underachieve. So if we assume that Calhoun may be a couple of years past his best, then we go back to Boeheim & Williams, who are each 63. That's a full eleven years younger than Lute Olson.

So what changes as coaches get into their 60s and 70s? I would argue for two things. One is the standard issue of being able to get down on the floor, participate in practice and patrol the sidelines for two hours during games. A bigger one, I would guess, is the ability to relate to players. A coach in his 40s and 50s can be a real father figure to a player. Coaches like Bruce Pearl (age 46), Al Skinner (56) and John Calipari (49) are famous for the way that they can relate to, and influence their players. Obviously there are many others that fall into this category, and I don't mean to offend fans of other coaches, but I simply needed a short list.

Anyway, once a coach gets into his mid-60s, or into his 70s, I think he starts to lose his hold over the players. So not only is it harder for him to keep up with the day-to-day grind, but I think he has less of a personal effect on his kids. Teams are more likely to underachieve, as they're full of talented kids that don't really mesh.

Pat Forde wrote a piece for yesterday where he compared the graceful exit of John Wooden (aged 64 at the time) and Dean Smith (66) to the awkward exits of Bobby Knight (67) and Eddie Sutton (72). Maybe the speed limit for college basketball coaches is a bit beyond 55 years of age. And obviously it's a gray area, because I don't think any of us doubt that a 67-year-old John Wooden would have been a pretty darned good head coach. But I think the evidence is clear that coaches above the age of 65 are in real danger of losing their ability to coach at a high level.

Maybe it was for the best that John Wooden and Dean Smith left us too soon. Nobody likes to remember Willie Mays on the Mets, Jerry Rice on the Seahawks or OJ Simpson on the 49ers. Coaches, like players, can stay on beyond their expiration date. Nobody will forget how Lute Olson took an Arizona program without much history of success to the pinnacle of the college basketball world. But it will be hard to remember him without recalling the messy end to his tenure. And if the other great legends of the modern college basketball world are going to leave while still on top of their game, we could see a whole lot of high profile retirements over the next five years.

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