College basketball's 40 Under 40: Debating Will Wade and the rest of our list

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

ESPN's team of college basketball experts has devised its "40 Under 40," a ranking of the top young coaches from across the college basketball landscape. College basketball writers Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway got together (virtually) to talk more about the list, providing a window into their process, identifying the coaches they might have ranked higher/lower, and discussing what conflicts they might have felt in ranking controversial LSU coach Will Wade.

College basketball is full of terrific young coaches, which makes narrowing it to 40 names a difficult and highly subjective task. What was your personal process in identifying names for this list?

Myron Medcalf: I felt like you had to reward the head coaches since they possess the gigs the rest of the assistants on the list aspire to earn one day. It's incredibly difficult to secure a Division I job. To earn that opportunity before the age of 40 is both rare and an undeniable achievement.

But I also thought it was necessary to reward the assistants who've anchored some of the best programs in the country and to identify the rising stars in the business, folks who are widely known in college basketball circles. Jerrance Howard has helped Bill Self win a lot of games. Joel Justus is now a critical component of John Calipari's program. Jon Scheyer is mini-Coach K, by all accounts. Yeah, they're not head coaches -- yet. But the potential is there, and the assistants of significant programs deserve recognition for that. A lot of these assistants could get head-coaching jobs, but they're all waiting for the right jobs, serious decisions that will affect their entire careers.

Jeff Borzello: I also gave added weight to head coaches over assistant coaches -- with less weight on pure win-loss record as head coach -- because a coach working his way up the ladder to becoming a head coach is an accomplishment in itself for someone under 40 years old.

There are two perfect examples for me: UMass' Matt McCall and La Salle's Ashley Howard. McCall hasn't been very successful during his three seasons at UMass, but he went to the NCAA tournament in his first season at Chattanooga and won 48 games in two seasons. He also had plenty of success during his stints as an assistant coach at Florida. He was a more successful assistant coach than most assistants in the rankings and was a more successful mid-major coach than most of the mid-major coaches on the list. Howard hasn't been great as a head coach at La Salle, but he was considered one of the best assistant coaches in the country during his time at Villanova. Becoming a head coach in their 30s should be looked at as an achievement, not as a negative just because they got off to slow starts.

John Gasaway: It sounds as if I took an approach similar to Jeff's. Evaluating assistant coaches can be a bit like trying to "rank" guidance counselors. It helps if they say the right things and dress sharp, and their membership on a successful staff that everyone wants to join is itself impressive. But when push comes to shove, if the young person they've been advising does something wrong, I'm not necessarily inclined to pin the blame on the coach/counselor.

Anyway, I tried to reverse-engineer my way around this state of affairs by looking at current head coaches and asking myself what they were like as assistants. Young head coaches are a piece of evaluative cake, by comparison. How is their team doing compared with what peer programs have done over the past decade or so? How's recruiting? Are current players smiling, transferring, staring daggers at their coach?

This list was a group effort, which means there were some compromises on which coaches to include and where to rank them. Who's one guy you would have had higher if the list were yours alone, and what's a name that surprised you on the final list?

Medcalf: I thinkKansas' Jerrance Howard is one of the best assistant coaches in the country for one of the premier programs in America, so he's too low, in my opinion. He has found success during stints with both Bruce Weber and Bill Self, and has formed special bonds with the players on the Kansas roster, while evolving into an important voice on the bench and sustaining the talent pipeline as one of the top recruiters in the country.

And I think Ali Farokhmanesh might one day match some of the top assistants and head coaches on this list, but I'm not convinced he's there now. While he was playing professional basketball in 2014, some of the other coaches on this list were grinding and climbing the ladder. That's nothing against Farokhmanesh, but UT-Arlington head coach Chris Ogden -- a former assistant at Texas, Tennessee and Texas Tech -- has a stronger résumé.

Borzello: I'll go to the Pac-12 for both answers. I thinkStanford's Adam Cohen should have a spot on the list. He's developed a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the country at multiple schools: Rice, Harvard, Vanderbilt and now Stanford. Cohen recently led the charge for elite forward Ziaire Williams, the Cardinals' highest-ranked commitment of all time.

On the other side, I was surprised about Washington State's John Andrzejek. He's the youngest coach on the list, but he's been a Division I assistant coach for only two years, one at Washington State and one at Dartmouth when the Big Green went 2-12 in the Ivy League. I'm sure Andrzejek will develop into a solid assistant; it just seems awfully early to include him on this list.

Gasaway: I voted Todd Golden a smidge higher than what the group tally shows because: (a) he scaredGonzagaout of its wits for perhaps 100 of the 120 minutes the two teams played against each other this past season; and (b) I was reminded of Maryland back in the day. When the Terrapins were still in the ACC, it seemed as if they treated each game againstDukelike they were defending Stalingrad in 1942. It didn't even matter if Maryland was "down" in a particular season, the Terps would circle those dates and put on a show. So, yeah, in addition to the already excellent rivalry betweenSaint Mary'sand the Bulldogs, it might be nifty if a Jesuit version of Terps-Blue Devils developed with Dons-Zags. As for being surprised by how high someone was ranked, I believe this next question addresses that ...

Will Wade, who has won a lot of games at VCU andLSUbut who has also been surrounded by smoke in the FBI probe and subsequent NCAA investigation, might raise some eyebrows near the top of our list. What went into your own process of considering Wade for "40 Under 40"? How much pause did the controversy around Wade give you?

Medcalf: From what we all know about college basketball, it's possible that every person on this list has either bent or broken an NCAA rule at some point. I'm not trying to minimize the allegations, and evidence against Will Wade because they're serious. They could end his time as a high-major coach, and perhaps they should, but I just don't know who is guilty and who is innocent, in the eyes of the NCAA, on this list. So I tried to stick to coaching. And if it's just coaching, Will Wade is the top guy on this list and there is a giant gap between him and whoever is in second place. At age 37, he has won 21 or more games five times, something Mike Krzyzewski didn't achieve for the first time until he was 38.

Borzello: Wade was my personal No. 1 on the list. If we're judging by on-court achievements and recruiting, it's not even close. He won 40 games in two seasons at Chattanooga, went to two NCAA tournaments in two seasons at VCU and then won the SEC regular-season title in only his second season at LSU. No one else on the list can even come close to matching those accolades. He's also proved himself as a high-level recruiter at every stop, including when he was an assistant coach. I'm aware that the controversy is likely the reason he wasn't the consensus No. 1, but to me his on-court successes outweigh the controversy.

Gasaway: The great thing to me about any "40 under 40" exercise is that everyone recognizes instantly what's being done but, when you get down to it, no one really has to agree on how you rank the candidates. For our rankings, I guess I viewed this list less as: "If we were reenacting 'Lord of the Flies' as one basketball season, whom would you want to recruit and coach your team?" To me, it was something closer to: "If you were an AD making a hire with the hope that it will work out beautifully for a decade or more on and off the court, whom would you choose?" Others built their lists differently. That's fine! Vive la différence.

There are a lot of names on the list who are unknown to general college basketball fans, particularly from the assistant ranks. Why is it hard for not only young assistants but assistants in general to get traction as head-coaching candidates at top programs?

Medcalf: I once asked a 40-something Division I assistant for a top-five program why he'd refused to interview for a mid-major opportunity. His response: "Why would I take less pay to deal with players who have half the talent and then put myself in a position to get fired in a few years because I can't win with that talent when I make more money and have access to the best high school players in the world here?"

I mean,Kentuckyassistant Kenny Payne will be making $900,000 per year as long as Calipari is there. The money is a key part of it. But I can't help but notice the number of black coaches on this list who've been labeled as "top recruiters" at this stage in their careers, while some of their white peers have been identified as "future leaders." The perception that black coaches can attract talent but not necessarily lead those players has impacted the job opportunities for African American assistants for years.

Borzello: There are a couple of reasons. One, as Myron alluded to, is the growing salary pool for high-major assistant coaches. A lot of the top-level assistant coaches on this list are making more money than mid-major coaches. They take charter flights; they recruit five-star and top-100 prospects; they have large budgets. Many coaches do harbor dreams of one day running their own program, and that can outweigh the advantages of high-major schools -- but if that dream isn't there, a lot of coaches are comfortable as high-major assistants.

The other factor is that sitting head coaches or former head coaches are considered safer hires than assistant coaches. Some athletic directors go into searches saying they will hire only a sitting or former head coach, severely cutting their candidate pool. For high-major searches, that's especially true. Someone with several years of mid-major head-coaching experience is considered more proven than a high-major assistant.

Gasaway: I blame math. One of my favorite historical pictures is one of the Syracuse roster and coaching staff for the 1976-77 season. Rick Pitino was an assistant on that team, and he appears to be perhaps 17 years old. But for our present purposes, the main takeaway from this particular photo is that there are just three adults in it not named "Jim Boeheim." Look at a team photo now. The suits-to-uniforms ratio is far different than it used to be. Assistant coaches are a growing population, but "major" head-coaching positions remain stubbornly finite. Major-conference athletic directors making men's college basketball head-coaching hires operate in a highly imbalanced buyer's market.

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