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The Best Program Builds: Gonzaga, Butler, Saint Mary’s

Often times fans of downtrodden schools will use history as an excuse. “Our program has always sucked” so they will say as a response to why it can’t be successful moving forward. Some fans blame this current reality on accent history and point to this as the reason. We’ve only had this many winning seasons ever, usually dating back to the 1960s. Like something from the 1960s or even 1990s makes a hill of beans impact today. This has always been the stupidest argument to me for why recent coaches of can’t succeed. Yet I have seen plenty of fans cite history as the main reason.

The Real Reasons

There are factors that do hold programs back. No one is going to argue that, but it’s not a trophy case from the 1970s or a program history. Being in places like South Dakota, Vermont, Idaho, or Wyoming for example I believe does increase the difficulty of building a successful basketball program. This is both from a resource and recruiting aspect. There just aren’t as many good players in certain regions of the country. They have to find supplemental players in many cases from warm more diverse cultural places and recruit them to places like Wyoming, Idaho, Vermont, South Dakota etc. That to me can be a hard sell, but there are schools that do it. Just last year All of those states had highly-ranked programs.

Here are some recent examples of programs that have certainly done more with less.

Pay RankSalary2022 NET4 Year NET AvgBudget Rank
103Boise StateLeon Rice$900,0003475127
105Saint Mary?sRandy Bennett$800,0001920109
114WyomingJeff Linder$700,00058203119
119North TexasGrant McCasland$650,0005588130
150Vermont CatamountsJohn Becker$318,2705673204
158South Dakota StateEric Henderson$275,00067102297

On the flip side, you have programs steeped in history or spending millions more like Georgetown in a basketball hotbed like DC paying the 12th highest salary who can’t field a team that would even compete with them.

Pay RankSalary2022 NET4 Year NET AvgBudget Rank
12GeorgetownPatrick Ewing$4,000,00019410320
18PittJeff Capel$3,533,43819312535
20NebraskaFred Hoiberg$3,500,00014512215
36Georgia TechJosh Pastner$3,000,0001579677
82CaliforniaMark Fox$1,600,00015014974

The Coach

You are only as good as your current coach. I believe that is the moral of this story. There are factors beyond that. That do help like fan attendance or donations that help fuel the staff or recruiting budgets. For the most part the biggest factor I believe is the coach and his talent to attract and bring in players to your school and coach them. If you put a bad coach at North Carolina like Matt Doherty he will lose. Those decades-old championships can’t save him. Likewise, even if you put a good coach in a poor resource, facility, or location school it’s likely they will figure it out enough to exceed the fundamentals of the job.

The key is to maintain them long enough to build a program, or hiring the correct replacements who are also high quality. That is where history can come into play. Not from the trophy in the case, but what the program build in the fundamentals like facilities or fanbase when they were good and that got you to a better situation and conference that also fills the coffers. Those fundamentals supply the money and resources to hire and keep coaches.

How I typically view a job’s quality is the overall resources a program can offer to a coach. How I view the job the coach is doing at that school is if they are posting higher ranked seasons than the amount of overall spending at a school.

The Coach Matters. There is plenty of evidence over the history of hiring the wrong coach and losing big regardless of what you have as an institution. There are also plenty of examples of coaches taking programs that had never done anything and building them into powers. Gonzaga didn’t even go to their first NCAA’s until the mid-’90s for example.


The Zags are the poster child for building something from nothing and just how far you can take a program. The stability has been key once they got their long term coach in Mark Few. Everyone knows John Stockton went to school there in the 80s, but that is the only notable part of their program over their first 40+ years.

Gonzaga had been in division 1 basketball from 1953-1994 without a single NCAA appearance. Gonzaga had one 20 win season from 1953-1992 didn’t go to their first NIT until 1994. This was a program completely in the wilderness until. It wasn’t until the 1994-1995 season when Dan Fitzgerald took them to their first dance as a 14th seed. Fitzgerald would hire both Dan Monson and Mark Few on his staff before retiring setting up the future.

Dan Monson would take over and in year two as a 10 seed would take Gonzaga to the Elite 8 making the first big splash. In a move he likely regrets he would leave after this 2nd season turning over the program to Mark Few who would remain and continue to build it to it’s eventual powerhouse status. The rest is history. Gonzaga has won nearly 84% of its games and made the NCAA all 22, soon to be 23 seasons since, finishing ranked all but 5. Highly ranked the last half-decade. The last 6 years the average final rank in the AP Poll has been 3rd. This is an example of what is possible with the right coach who wants to stay and build a powerhouse.

Building on their success they have certainly upgraded the level of recruits, and improved facilities. They opened a 6,000 seat arena in 2004, replacing a 2,000 seat one before that. A conference upgrade hasn’t happened to this point, but there is some talk of them joining what is left of the Big 12. That’s the last piece to secure their future, and long term sustainability after Few.


Butler is another program that went decades with little to no success. From 1949 to 1997 they went to 1 NCAA in 1962. They had two 20-win seasons in those 48 seasons as well. It’s a very similar story to Gonzaga of hiring the right guy and promoting within once they finally broke through. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to retain a Thad Matta or Brad Stevens as Gonzaga did with Few. Unlike Gonzaga though they were able to parlay the Final 4 National Finals appearances into membership in the Big East which long-term may be better. That money has allowed them to bring back Matta for example. Gonzaga I believe still needs a better conference and situation like this to land their program after Few retires. They are both a great examples of upgrading their fundamentals but hiring the wrong coach. If you have to constantly hire new coaches and aren’t promoting within this is certainly going to happen. It’s still an impressive transformation of their program from where they were before 1997. The grass isn’t always greener as similar to Dan Monson, Todd Lickliter found out.

Saint Mary’s

These schools are getting more bang for their buck. Saint Mary’s and Randy Bennett have to be considered the king of doing more with less. The program he has built is incredible. He’s built a legit top 20 program nationally, playing in a glorified high school arena with a big screen.

The program was 2-27 the year before he got there, and they haven’t missed an NCAA or NIT in 16 years. Outside Gonzaga this is the most impressive programming build but any coach I have seen in the last 30 seasons. The through line is the willingness to stay for well below market value, but great coaches are doing great things.


Those three are the greatest examples but there are many others who have been at programs that have never won or haven’t won in decades. Davidson had ancient history, but Bob McKillop took them back to a national level of relevance. He did this even after Steph Curry raising their profile enough to get them in the A10. They weren’t over matched upgrading conferences either.

Vermont fascinates me from the perspective of how other conference mates with similar situations like New Hampshire and Maine compare. There is no comparison. This wasn’t always the case though as there was a lot of bad basketball played at Vermont before the 2000s. They wouldn’t make their first NCAA until 2003. It took Tom Brennan 14 years as a coach to get them to their first NCAA. He went to three straight NCAAs before leaving. This was after starting 14-68 in his first 3 seasons. They hadn’t had an NCAA appearance or 20-win season ever despite playing for 50+ years prior to that.

It can all be turned around even in less-than-ideal places with the right coaches. That is the key.

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