In the wake of Frank Haith's hiring at the University of Missouri, most Mizzou fans have begun trying to rationalize why their new coach was over 20 games under .500 in conference at his previous job. On one end of the spectrum you have some fans that have likened Miami basketball to a mid-major program stuck in a major conference's body, and, well, that's not true. On the other end is someone like Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde, who points at Leonard Hamilton's success and goes, "see, it's pretty easy!" And, that's not true either. The truth (as usual!) lies somewhere in between.
It's hard to call Miami basketball a mid-major when (and not to be TOO on the nose here) the team plays in the ACC. Though being in basketball's premier conference arguably hampers the growth of the program, the fact of the matter is that teams in the ACC enjoy advantages that mid-majors— and teams in other power conferences!— do not. The major one, obviously, is a premium relationship with ESPN, a network that televises more ACC basketball games than any conference outside of probably the Big East. And yet, Miami's relationship with ESPN extends beyond the school's affiliation with the conference. It's no secret that Miami's football program has a cozy relationship with ESPN: the two are constantly negotiating games (Miami's string of Labor Day games being the obvious example) and the program has appeared on the network's Thursday night schedule for 10+ years running, and that's to say nothing of the deference paid to the program by analysts like Kirk Herbstreit and Bruce Feldman or the two hour infomercial that ESPN financed. This relationship is one that the basketball program has been able to exploit, even in this past season, when the two negotiated a midnight game at Memphis that represented ESPN's first televised college basketball game of the year. In 2008, when the team was coming off of a Sweet 16 appearance, the Canes landed a slot at an ESPN-affiliated early season tournament in St. Thomas (they lost to UConn, on ESPN), and their first conference game at UNC was the site of ESPN's first College Gameday of the season. This relationship with ESPN is not something enjoyed by a mid-major program like Northern Iowa or Creighton, who get all of one day dedicated to them by ESPN. Likewise, no mid-major conference has a "night of the week" with Fox Sports National, which is another relationship that puts Miami on televisions in homes all across the country.
From a pure basketball standpoint, being an ACC school has its advantages, too. Frank Haith never finished a season with a conference record above .500, but in the year where his team finished 8-8, they received a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. By contrast, Alabama finished 12-4 in the SEC this year and won their division, an accomplishment that got them... envelope please... a one seed in the NIT. And while Haith's poor conference record had a lot to do with having to play Duke and UNC multiple times a year, those games afford Miami an opportunity that many teams across the country—both major conference and not— do not have. If a Canes team was on the NCAA Tournament bubble, any losses to Duke or UNC (in a normal year for those teams) would not be held against the Canes. Those are the teams that a program like Miami is supposed to lose to. But just one win against a top ranked Duke or UNC team could be Miami's golden ticket to the tournament (indeed it was in 2007-2008), and that's an opportunity that Miami is guaranteed every single year.
But Alabama is also a perfect illustration of what Miami is not, and it was quite obvious a few weeks ago when Miami went to Tuscaloosa for an NIT quarterfinal match up. The Canes played a pretty valiant game against a team that was undefeated at home on the season, but when Alabama made a run in the second half, and the crowd perked back up, Frank Haith's team wilted away. In Alabama's previous two NIT home games against mid-major opponents, they averaged an attendance of 5,968 a game. In Miami's two NIT home games against mid-major opponents, they averaged 1,566 a game, and as always, it's best to take that number with a grain of salt. And though a lack of attendance is an issue that Miami athletic teams (both college and pro) will always have to deal with, Miami basketball lost three home games this past season by less than five points. Those games were, not coincidentally, to FSU, UNC and Clemson, three of the ACC's four NCAA tournament teams. Maybe a packed house means that Miami is able to pull those games out, and if they had, they'd have made the NCAA Tournament. Maybe then Frank Haith, compelled by a team that could be contending for a top 25 preseason ranking, rejects overtures from Missouri and signs an extension with Miami. Or maybe, at least, most Mizzou fans wouldn't be apoplectic about Haith's hiring.
To the aforementioned Hyde, Haith was able to skate by at UM by being nice to the media, and more crucially, by staying far enough under the radar to garner any real criticism for his lack of success with the program. Hyde addresses the attendance issue in one fell swoop:
Maybe some blame goes to a fan base with a default position of apathy. But a lot goes to Haith for never putting out a product that demanded anyone pay attention.
But here, Hyde just illustrates a vicious cycle that he is either ignoring, or unaware of. Sure, Haith's teams weren't consistently good enough to keep a large majority of fair weather fans in the bandwagon, but then again, what team sports team in Miami ever is? (Answer: none.) If Miami basketball had a solid fanbase— say, one comparable to Alabama, another school dominated by football— it might, as illustrated above, have won a few more home games and made a few more NCAA Tournaments. Then, people might care enough about the program to justify newspapers like the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald dedicating space and manpower to the Miami basketball program. There was no criticism from the media of Frank Haith because no one is opening Sun Sentinel's sports page to read about Miami basketball. That is partly Haith's fault, but his basketball program was an egg laid by a chicken with a long history of crushing apathy and intense cynicism.
Hyde— in saying that he wants to highlight what is right with the Miami basketball job— offers that the basketball talent in Florida is better than people give it credit for, and that might be true. Florida and Florida State both made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this year with rosters almost half-filled with players from Florida. But those players are almost exclusively from Central and North Florida, two regions of the country that are owned by UF and FSU in football, let alone in basketball. Likewise, in touting local prospects as a reason why the Miami job is better than people think, Hyde unwittingly illustrates just how hard of a job a Miami basketball coach has on a local level. To a prospect from Ohio or New York or North Carolina, Miami offers beautiful weather, great academics and major conference basketball. But more importantly, a prospect from those states can be spun on why the program has been so unsuccessful. A coach can sell a Durand Scott on hanging out at the beach with girls in bikinis by day and reviving a dormant basketball program by night. But how can you spin a Kenny Boynton? He knows what Miami basketball can and will be, he's used to warm weather, and hey, the University of Florida has pretty great academics to boot. A Kenny Boynton knows that when Miami asks him to take an official visit during the off season it's because the program doesn't want there to be any half-attended home games going on, not because the weather is usually pretty nice in April.
If a coach can win in Tallahassee then a coach can win in Miami, but Hyde's characterization of the job is a fairytale. Leonard Hamilton was very good at Miami, but three years is a trend, not a history. Every year preceding those three makes that plainly clear.