Coaches as Contenders

Coach Rick Pitino yells instructions to his team during the first round game of the NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Adam Creech)

When we think about pressure being on coaches, we tend to focus on the most extreme form. We think about coaching hot seat lists. We think about guys fighting to keep their jobs.

Over the past couple of decades, Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich has been able to assemble some of the most accomplished and respected coaches in the country for their respective sports. UofL’s most well known coaches are all currently rated among the best in their game. For each of them, job security is not currently a fear that factors heavily into their day-to-day decisionmaking process.

That doesn’t mean that these coaches aren’t currently under any pressure.

Earlier this week, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell became the first ACC baseball coach in history to be named the league’s Coach of the Year in three consecutive seasons. Those three seasons also mark the totality of time that the Cardinals have been a member of the national powerhouse conference.

McDonnell’s other accomplishments at UofL are common knowledge at this point. He took a program with virtually no history of success and has turned it into one of the country’s best in just a decade. When the NCAA tournament brackets are unveiled in less than a week, it’s more likely than not that the Cardinals will be one of the tournament’s top eight overall seeds for a third straight year.

Even with all this being the case, the next month is huge for McDonnell when it comes to taking the next step in his evolution as a head coach.

At this moment, baseball is one of a handful of national title favorites, just as it was in each of the past two years. In those seasons, the Cardinals rolled through their regional tournament draw only to be stunned on their home field by a Big West program from California in the super regional round. Additionally, while UofL having made it to the College World Series three times was an unthinkable accomplishment before McDonnell’s arrival, the Cards are just 1-6 in their three trips to Omaha. That one victory came in the only year Louisville wasn’t considered one of the favorites to win the whole thing at the CWS.

McDonnell’s status as one of the best college baseball coaches in the country and one of the best coaches of any sort on Floyd Street won’t be affected by whatever his team does or does not accomplish over the course of the next four weeks. That said, both he and his program would benefit significantly from a deep run that ends at some point in Omaha. There’s pressure in that fact.

Of course, McDonnell isn’t alone in being a well respected Louisville coach feeling this level of accomplishment that only prior success can bring.

In Lamar Jackson, Bobby Petrino has the ultimate gift at quarterback that he’s always dreamed about being able to work with. In two years, he took that gift and molded it from a wild scattering of undeniable talent into Louisville’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

Even so, UofL’s season didn’t end the way anyone associated with the program wanted it to. The Cardinals went from College Football Playoff contender to losers of three straight as quickly as Jackson changes direction in the open field. Now, in what presumably will be Jackson’s final collegiate season, there’s some pressure to capitalize on the quarterback’s sensational gift at the overall team level.

As far as basketball is concerned, Rick Pitino would love get the bad taste of the past 24 months out of everyone’s mouths with another run to the Final Four. With Deng Adel’s announcement earlier this week that he will be returning to school for at least one more year, the Cardinals figure to begin the 2017-18 season ranked somewhere in the nation’s top 10. If UofL is able to finish that campaign in San Antonio, it would go a long way toward erasing the painful memories of last season’s second round exit, the 2016 NCAA tournament appearance that didn’t happen and all the reasons why that self-imposed postseason ban was put into effect.

The months ahead are enormous for three of UofL’s most well-known faces. Not because their jobs are on the line but because they have the potential to significantly improve their legacies. There’s pressure in that. VT