SABATO: Otzelberger, SDSU made calculated choices in split
Basketball fans regard March Madness as the most exciting three weeks of the year because of the potential upsets, buzzer-beaters and performances brought by the NCAA Tournament.
That madness, however, can also be applied to the coaching carousel that revs up each March. Schools buyout the contracts of fired coaches, pay their new hire and pay off the new coach's buyout from his old contract.
We see desperate major conference schools jump at the current mid-major darling every year, dumping an exorbitant amount of money on his doorstep. Now, we even see coaches jumping from school to school in what would appear to be a lateral move.
Of course, South Dakota State University's men's basketball program was caught up in the ever-revolving carousel. While several programs and coaches are bound to have made mistakes in the hiring process, the Jackrabbits and now former head coach T.J. Otzelberger aren't on that list.
Otzelberger's departure from Brookings was inevitable after going 70-33 in three seasons, but rather than biting on the first big offer, he made a calculated move. At UNLV, he is going to have similar expectations, but on a grander scale.
The Mountain West is a more competitive conference than the Summit League, but there won't be expectations of reaching the Final Four, although he put those expectations on himself during his introductory press conference like most coaches in such a situation. He'll be expected to make the tournament and compete for conference championships, while getting paid more than $1 million to do so.
He appears to be following the path of Kansas's Bill Self, Michigan's John Beilein and Oregon's Dana Altman, who all gradually climbed the ladder from mid-major status to top-level schools and eventually advanced to the Final Four.
It is impossible to know if Otzelberger will eventually coach a Power 5 school to the Final Four, but taking smaller steps to the biggest stage appears to be the most effective method. Too often a hot mid-major coach is hired, fails to produce results and within three years, the carousel turns again.
For SDSU's part, promoting associate head coach Eric Henderson less than 24 hours after Otzelberger's departure was a smart move. Opening a coaching search and bringing in an outside candidate would mean starting from scratch.
Henderson provides stability to the program, and promoting from within has worked for mid-majors in recent years. Butler University, of course, has made a habit of this process, with six consecutive head coaching hires were previously serving as assistants, resulting in 13 tournament appearances since 2000.
Yes, losing Mike Daum and potentially David Jenkins Jr. will hurt next season, but the Jackrabbit success preceded them—and Otzelberger—with five tournament bids since 2012. If Henderson can steady the ship, the program could continue to be a Summit League contender more often than not.
Reaching the heights of Gonzaga is the dream of every mid-major, but it's unlikely and it's also taken them 20 years of continued national success to reach that point.
If SDSU can follow the path of schools like Murray State or Belmont—who aren't in the tournament every year, but have been more frequently than not—it's not a bad place to be.