NCAA Tournament: How Long Do Cinderella Coaches Stay?

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Andrew Doughty Jun 15, 2021, 1:21 PM
Head coach Paul Mills of the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles reacts in the first half against the Florida Gators in the second round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on March 21, 2021, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Forty-two minutes after reporting Lon Kruger’s retirement, Jeff Goodman suggested Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione could “look at,” among others, Oral Roberts head coach Paul Mills. While Goodman, the preeminent insider for college basketball coaching changes, wasn’t reporting Mills as an official candidate, he was leading a common-sense parade that says Mills’ coaching stock has skyrocketed after leading the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16.

Mills was a little-known high school basketball coach in Sugar Land, Texas, when he joined Scott Drew’s first staff at Baylor in 2003, taking a pay cut in doing so. Fourteen years later, he took another pay cut, this time to become head coach at a small private school in Tulsa nationally known for the death-or-money fundraising tactics of its controversial founder, Oral Roberts, as much as a basketball program with zero NCAA Tournament wins in the last 45 years.

Mills won 22 total games in his first two seasons and 17 last year in guiding the Golden Eagles to their first above-.500 conference record since 2014-15. And he came inches shy of a 19th win this season that would’ve made him the first coach to lead a 15-seed to the Elite Eight. Still, with a win over Ohio State in the First Round and Florida in the Second Round, Mills joined Andy Enfield as the only two coaches with a Sweet 16 appearance as a 15-seed. Three days after Florida Gulf Coast’s run ended with Sweet 16 loss to Florida in 2013, Enfield bolted for USC, calling the opportunity an “unbelievable dream” he’d been “working toward for many years.”

What is Mills’ dream?

Maybe he’s dreaming of a 120-mile move to Norman to lead a once-familiar foe. Maybe it’s a return to his home state as Texas head coach or, at a later date, Houston head coach in his hometown. Or maybe he doesn’t have a dream and will evaluate each interview request as it arrives. Regardless of Mills’ dream, Oral Roberts will fight to retain a low-paid Summit League head coach leading a historically mediocre program. Florida Gulf Coast lost a similar fight eight years ago, as did Milwaukee in 2005 and Gonzaga in 1999.

Since the tournament expanded in 1985, 40 mid-majors have reached the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, a group that includes Gonzaga’s first three Sweet 16 teams from 1999-2001 but not the 2016 team that won two games as an 11-seed. (By Jack Kvancz’s original mid-major definition, Gonzaga is still a mid-major team, though that seems foolish.) Those 40 double-digit mid-majors were led by 38 different coaches; John Chaney and Mark Few are the only coaches with multiple Cinderella runs per this criteria.

While Few’s predecessor, Dan Monson, didn’t coach another game after leading the 10-seed Bulldogs to the 1999 Elite Eight, Few remains head coach two decades after his first run in 2000. He’s one of only five mid-major coaches still at the program with whom they reached a Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed:

Mark Few: Gonzaga
Bob McKillop: Davidson
Randy Bennett: Saint Mary’s
Chris Mooney: Richmond
Porter Moser: Loyola Chicago

Chaney and Richmond’s Dick Tarrant, Valparaiso’s Homer Drew (1998), and Miami Ohio’s Charlie Coles are the only four coaches who retired from the same program. And six coaches were eventually fired after the Cinderella runs, all of whom coached at least three more seasons before their dismissal:

Joey Meyer: DePaul
Kevin Mackey: Cleveland State
Dick Hunsaker: Ball State
Neil McCarthy: New Mexico State
Jim Les: Bradley
John Giannini: La Salle

The other 23 coaches left for another job an average of 1.3 years after reaching the Sweet 16. No coach stayed longer than five years, and 12 coaches bailed immediately, including Monson and Steve Alford (Missouri State to Iowa) in 1999, and most recently Enfield in 2013. Loyola Marymount’s Paul Westhead, who also left immediately after Loyola Marymount’s Elite Eight run in 1990, is the only one of the 39 coaches who left for the NBA.

Monson and Alford are two of seven coaches who left for Big Ten programs, only one of whom reached a Final Four at his new school (Bruce Weber). Eastern Michigan’s Ben Braun, George Washington’s Mike Jarvis, and George Mason’s Jim Larranaga stayed the longest, all remaining head coach for five years before leaving for Cal, St. John’s, and Miami (FL), respectively. 

Each case differs – Homer Drew handed the Valpo program to his son, assistant coach Scott Drew, four years after their run, Enfield’s brother lived in Los Angeles, and VCU poured millions of dollars into their program to retain Shaka Smart for four years after their 2011 Final Four run – but history says most mid-major coaches (nearly 60 percent) eventually leave for another job within five years of a Sweet 16 run as a double-digit seed.

Just three weeks after entering the Summit League Tournament as the 4-seed, Paul Mills is suddenly one of the hottest coaching candidates in college basketball. Now, we watch to see if – or how long – Oral Roberts can hang onto their head coach.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM

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Andrew Doughty

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.

Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else.