The Name On The Court
May 9, 2011 1 Comment
It wasn’t until I became a college hoops fanatic that I learned there was a post-career honor that rises above even the retiring of a number. In this sport, the truly transcendent figures are rewarded for their success with a court-naming ceremony. Though the biggest coaching legends — Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and North Carolina’s Dean Smith — have entire arenas named after them, bestowing a coach with a court is still so rare that is represents the pinnacle of coaching honors. After all, unlike jersey numbers, there is only one court at a school; the honor can only be given to one person, and it is more or less irreversible.
Typically, a court is named for a coach who has spent most of his coaching career at the school while winning games (one might say tenure is only guaranteed through winning). That alone is not enough, however. In most cases, a coach must have elevated the program to heights unseen before his tenure. There are exceptions, of course, the most glaring of which might be the founder of the game himself, Dr. James A. Naismith. The inventor of basketball actually had a losing record before stepping down as the head coach at Kansas, but in this case, I think most would agree a pass is acceptable.
One court-naming situation that will be interesting to monitor over the next few years is the one involving George Mason. Jim Larranaga essentially built that program from a college hoops afterthought into a consistent champion. In 2006, he became the first coach to take a true mid-major to the Final Four in the modern era. He won a lot more games than he lost while at George Mason, but — and this is a big but — he recently left the CAA school to likely finish out his career at Miami. Larranaga spent 14 years at GMU in total, which is far from a quick stopover. But was his tenure long enough to secure him court-naming rights one day down the road?
In an attempt to answer this question, I gathered information on the coaching tenures of 22 different coaches who have courts named in their honor. There could very well be more out there, but this list should serve as a solid representation of the various levels of college basketball (traditional blue bloods, high-majors, and mid-majors).
At first glance, we can see that Larranaga falls short of the average length of tenure needed for naming rights. Across this sample, the average tenure was 20.4 years, but the median length was 19 years, which suggests the distribution doesn’t lean heavier on one side over the other. Though this could be seen as an advantage for Larranaga and his 14 years, it should be noted that a majority of the “under-19-years” honorees stalked the sidelines several decades ago during program beginnings. Their honors often came many years or decades after they stopped coaching to acknowledge their legend in the early days of college hoops.
Perhaps the closest comparison for Larranaga is Oklahoma State’s Eddie Sutton. Though Sutton had coached at Arkansas and Kentucky prior to heading to Stillwater, his length of tenure as well as his on-court results at Oklahoma State make this stop his lasting legacy in coaching. Like Larranaga, Sutton was tasked with making his hoops program relevant, and he did that to the tune of consistent NCAA appearances and two Final Fours. Larranaga had postseason success too, and he did so without the financial resources provided by the powerhouse schools.
On merits alone, Larranaga would seem to fit the bill. He won games, had postseason success, and took the George Mason program to another level. However, the biggest challenge when evaluating whether to honor him with “Coach Larranaga Court” will be the way his tenure in Fairfax ended. The vast majority of coaches with courts bearing their names retired while still with that program. A few more years with the Patriots, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But right now, Coach Larranaga is a Hurricane. He left Geroge Mason for somewhere else, and in the present, that still stings just a bit.
In the meantime, there are already reports down the road in College Park that Maryland will honor the retiring Gary Williams by stamping his name on the court at the Comcast Center. Williams fits all of the criteria for the honor. He has lots of wins, 22 years of tenure, and a nifty NCAA championship on his resume. Mark that down as one of the easiest decisions Maryland officials will have to make in the coming weeks.
A few years from now, when Coach Larranaga retires from Miami, George Mason officials will be faced with a much more difficult call to make. Whatever happens, Larranaga has undoubtedly left his mark at GMU, and one gets the impression he’ll one day join those other legends whose names forever ink the courts they once prowled along.
There are a number of active Division I coaches who will be up for court-naming consideration in the next decade as they begin to retire. Many of these coaches have been with their programs through transitions from Division II to Division I, and the fact that they are still there says something about their ability to coach. And then there is Jim Calhoun, who would appear to be a shoe-in for the honor once he concudes his career with Connecticut. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say he should join Coach K and Jim Boeheim as active coaches with this distinction. (All tenure lengths include the upcoming 2011-12 season).
Name, School, Tenure Phil Martelli, St. Joseph's, 17 years Gregg Nibert, Presbyterian, 23 years Rick Byrd, Belmont, 24 years Bob Thomason, Pacific, 24 years Jim Calhoun, Connecticut, 26 years Ron "Fang" Mitchell, Coppin State, 26 years Greg Kampe, Oakland, 28 years Don Maestri, Troy, 30 years Dave Bike, Sacred Heart, 34 years