Utah State Isn’t A Stepping Stone, It’s A Launch Pad
Long term success is possible
Aggies coaches need to know there is support
Utah State’s position as a mid-major in the NCAA pecking order is a defining feature of the school’s identity. In an illustration of the Goldilocks Effect, Utah State, the rest of the members of the Mountain West Conference, and other mid-majors are positioned as “not too big, not too small, but just right” in the landscape of amateur sports. It’s a wildly entertaining level of college athletics, with highly competitive programs and just enough parity to ensure some chaos.
Surely, being a mid-major has plenty of benefits, however, not being the biggest fish in the pond has some challenges. Unfortunately, being used as an organ donor for the rich comes with the territory.
It’s a problem Utah State is very familiar with, but it’s not a unique one. It’s a reality that the entire Mountain West Conference is well-acquainted with. Just in recent memory, Bryan Harsin left Boise State for Auburn, Kalen DeBoer left Fresno State for Washington, Eric Musselman left Nevada for Arkansas, and T.J. Otzelberger left UNLV for Iowa State. With equal parts paradox of success and benign masochism, it has become a rite of passage for any mid-major looking to climb the food chain.
Recent events have, once again, brought this into focus in Logan, Utah. After two years as head coach of the Aggies, Ryan Odom has left his post to take the same job at VCU. In the wake of the coach’s seemingly premature exit, a major piece of Utah State’s identity was called into question. Is Utah State a stepping stone or, after pumping out two quality coaches in two years, is it simply just a coach factory?
Depending on perspective, Odom’s departure was either a harsh souvenir from the barren wasteland of the mid-majors or an emboldening reminder of the conveyor belt the Aggies developed that mass produces and dispenses wins. In a way, Odom’s departure means Utah State’s system is working.
Although he was successful, Odom didn’t necessarily raise the program to new heights. When Odom arrived, he inherited a team only one year removed from back-to-back conference championships. He was a responsible steward of the team and did a commendable job, but nothing about his success was unique or unfamiliar to Utah State.
It would be inaccurate and a bit audacious to suggest that Utah State didn’t benefit from Odom, but it would be equally inaccurate and audacious to suggest that Odom didn’t benefit from Utah State. A winning culture can do a lot for a coach’s career, and if Utah State has one thing, it’s a winning culture.
Thanks in no small part to Utah State’s propensity for achievement, in both football and basketball, three of the past four coaching dynasties have been successful. In football, Gary Andersen was extremely successful. Matt Wells was successful. Andersen came back and was not so successful. Blake Anderson has, so far, been successful. In basketball, Stew Morrill was famously successful. Tim Duryea was not. Craig Smith was successful. Odom was as well.
𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐤𝐥𝐞 𝐄𝐫𝐚 𝐢𝐬 𝐇𝐄𝐑𝐄!
Welcome our newest Head Coach Danny Sprinkle to the @USUBasketball Family!
➡️ https://t.co/xi3b5Zsfkv#AggiesAllTheWay pic.twitter.com/fZ98pj08aO
— USU Men's Hoops (@USUBasketball) April 7, 2023
There’s been some turnover, but contrary to one common school of thought, this is actually the sign of a healthy program, not an unhealthy one. A team’s long-term goal isn’t to keep a single coach employed for as long as possible, a team’s long-term goal is to win as much, as often, and as consistently as possible. When a mid-major does that, bigger programs come calling. Instead of being properly labeled as a winning team, these mid-majors are sometimes unfairly labeled as stepping stones. It’s now a deeply ingrained systematic feature for schools to sometimes be used as a stepping stone, which is a term that comes with a frustratingly confusing and mind-bending connotation.
There are only a few reasons a coach and a team part ways. The coach retires, is fired, or is hired by another school. Retirement is generally the most amicable and is often agreed upon mutually and in advance. In many or most cases, a coach’s retirement does not come as a surprise and leaves the program well-equipped to handle the coaching vacancy.
In a way, it may seem like the best scenario for the school is to fire the coach because the situation would be happening on their terms. However, as counterintuitive as it may appear, having to fire a coach is expensive and burdensome for teams and often happens as a result of a lack of performance on the coach’s part. Coaches that are fired usually leave a track record of failure being them, leaving the school in a messy situation.
When a coach leaves to take a better opportunity, it can come unexpectedly for the school. It may even come at inopportune times. But generally, when that happens it’s because the coach excelled in the role so much that it forced bigger schools to open up their wallets. Coaches that attract higher-paying jobs usually leave a track record of success behind them, leaving the school in a good situation.
Winning at Utah State is just part of the job, so, according to the natural order of things, in many cases, doing well in Logan is a surefire way to make the jump to the next level. With Odom taking a job at VCU, he has become just another in a long line of beneficiaries profiting from the Utah State success factory. For many of those beneficiaries, Odom’s predecessors in using Utah State as a stepping stone, leaving a tested program with a proven winning tradition, didn’t work out.
Plainly, the grass is not always greener outside of Cache Valley. With the possible exception of Andersen, who had a remarkably peculiar career when he departed, not much success has yet been enjoyed by those that have turned their back on the Aggies. Andersen was hired away by Wisconsin. He left that job to go to Oregon State where he lasted only two and a half seasons. Wells left to take the job at Texas Tech and was fired before the conclusion of his third season. Andersen’s second departure is shrouded in ambiguity, but he certainly wasn’t let go for outperforming his contract.
He is now an analyst at Weber State. Smith left Utah State for Utah. He has only been there for two seasons, but so far he is 28-35. That’s all fine and well. It’s frankly none of Utah State’s concern if a coach leaves and has success. Unlike with graduating students, where the explicit goal is to enable long-term success beyond departure, the university has no moral commitment or obligation to a former coach’s continued success.
It’s not that Utah State can’t keep coaches, it’s that it doesn’t need to. When a coach leaves, their future is uncertain at best. Utah State, on the other hand, just keeps winning. The point isn’t what happens to coaches that leave, the point is what happens at Utah State. Coaches win. The Aggies have elevated the careers of nearly every coach that has passed through. Utah State is the King Midas of coaching careers. Whenever there is a coaching position open, Utah State could just put out a job ad that reads: “Come to Utah State. Win. If you want to coach at the next level, we’ll get you there. Leave if you want… but you’ll probably regret it.”
No program is fully autonomous. Utah State is, and always will be, in need of strong leadership. Even though the Aggies will always be reliant on good coaching, their culture is strong enough to carry the team and fill in the gaps when needed. A durable winning tradition has already been installed and for the most part, coaches just need to stay out of the way and let the tradition continue.
Utah State isn’t a stepping stone. It’s a launch pad. As long as the Aggies sustain the culture they’ve built, Utah State will continue to be a launch pad. As Utah State continues to build and enhance its rich winning culture, it can continue to navigate coaching vacancies that will arise as a product of its own success. Utah State can keep hiring motivated, talented coaches that will rely on self-preservation to ensure mutually assured survival and continue Utah State’s legacy. The Aggies would be happy to welcome “the next Stew Morrill,” but winning season after winning season is a worthy substitute until then.