March 3, 2013

Most successful basketball coach in Texas deserves a shot

Danny Kaspar’s Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks have the state’s best winning percentage since the 2007-08 season.

Every athletic director in the nation should flog themselves every time one of their men’s basketball hires flops if they didn’t take the time to at least talk to Danny Kaspar.

Kaspar runs the most successful college basketball team in Texas, and he can’t get a sniff from a big-time job. It’s part of the deal when you coach at Stephen F. Austin.

The Lumberjacks are the best team in Texas — it may be the only team from this state that makes the NCAA Tournament — and the chances are good Kaspar’s phone won’t ring when the season ends.

Kaspar’s case is part of a trend that is seeing successful mid-major coaches get squeezed because they don’t have a name and because they won’t win an opening press conference, even if they could potentially win games.

Despite a résumé as impressive as any mid-major coach in the nation not named Mark Few (Gonzaga) or Brad Stevens (Butler), Kaspar can’t buy an interview from a bigger job.

“Do I want to move on?” Kaspar asked in a phone interview. “I took this job because I wanted to win and to get to the NCAA Tournament. I didn’t take the job to win and to get the hell out. I wanted to create a winner and, if something great comes my way and I could enjoy living and making a little bit more money, I would have to look at it. It’s not something that weighs on my mind.”

Kaspar’s Lumberjacks have the best winning percentage of any of the 21 Division I programs in Texas since the 2007-08 season. He has won regular-season conference championships. He has won conference tournaments. He has been to NCAA Tournaments.

The Jacks are the favorite to represent the Southland Conference in the NCAA tourney in a few weeks.

Kaspar has shown he can win at a hard place. His teams play hard and his résumé says he should get a shot at a promotion, but the call never comes.

Athletic directors want to hire a name. If Pat Knight’s last name was Smith he would never have been handed the job at Texas Tech or Lamar. You need to have a name, be a former player, a high-ranking assistant from a power program or hope the AD who is making the hire is your old college roommate.

The résumé isn’t enough. The opening press conference has become a major issue, and Kaspar’s record at SFA may be impressive, but he’s not a top assistant at Kentucky or Indiana.

What Kaspar will need is to do is not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but win a game or two when the Lumberjacks get there. He needs to upset a Syracuse, a Kansas or some other traditional power for people to notice. Preferably win via some wild 40-footer at the buzzer that inspires one of the One Shining Moment moments. An AD making a hire will remember that more than any of Kaspar’s other wins this season.

What he has built at SFA has been ignored by the regional, forget national, media. People do not understand how hard this job is. He does not get his choice of recruits; he has to hope a few transfers hit, and that his JUCO guys will work and know how to play. He has to play at least three “guarantee” games a season in order to cover costs. Then he has to win at least 26 games for his team to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

“I told my team this year we had to win 28 games,” he said.

Unlike winning at Butler, where basketball is a passion, Kaspar has established his basketball program as a conference power despite being in an area where football is the priority.

“As far as the Southland, this is a good job,” he said. “We have the resources. We have a nice facility. We have nice dorms. It’s one of the most beautiful campuses in Texas. The problem can be location.”

Located in Nacogdoches, SFA is at least two hours from any major metropolitan area. Sometimes that can be spun as a positive, but most of the time, location and distance act as a major hindrance.

Kaspar isn’t complaining. He has a Division I job and he wins. A lot of coaches don’t ever reach his level. He knew what he signed on for when he took over as the SFA coach in 2000.

What he could not have seen coming is that, despite his success, there is a lack of opportunities to move up to the power conferences, and the growing emphasis on winning a couple of NCAA Tournament games. The same thing happened to Johnny Jones at North Texas for years.

“If you are winning then you’re a mid-major and if you’re not winning you are a low-major,” Kaspar said.

All he will keep doing is winning, and maybe some AD will have the guts to make that call to give the big job to a coach rather than just a name.

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