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Ivy League: Best Training Ground For College Hoop Coaches

The coaching carousel can spin fast and furious. Take the chain reaction that followed Billy Lange‘s decision to leave Navy for the associate head coaching position at Villanova. Ed DeChellis fled his post at Penn State to fill the vacancy at Navy, causing Patrick Chambers to leave Boston University to lead the Nittany Lions.

You got all that?

With a spot open at the helm, Boston University athletic director Mike Lynch decided to go a route that has become increasingly common in recent years. Lynch tabbed former Columbia head coach Joe Jones for the job, making him the seventh coach since 2000 to be hired by an outside program after starting his head coaching career in the Ivy League.

The list consists of Georgetown’s John Thompson III, Boston College’s Steve Donahue, Temple’s Fran Dunphy, Oregon State’s Craig Robinson, and Northwestern’s Bill Carmody. And when the 2011-12 season tips off, Jones will join Sydney Johnson – who was recently hired by Fairfield after guiding Princeton to a share of its first Ivy League title since 2004 – as the newest additions to the list.

Why, you may wonder, have athletic directors from more highly-esteemed basketball programs dipped into the Ivy League – a conference with small athletic budgets and no athletic scholarships – to fill its coaching vacancies?

According to Donahue, the conference’s modest operation might just be the very reason. Donahue, who was hired by Boston College after coaching at Cornell from 2000 to 2010, says that the Ivy League’s strict admissions standards, back-to-back conference games, and limited resources force coaches to hone their skills, thus making them attractive candidates.

“It’s a very difficult situation in every aspect of coaching around basketball,” says Donahue. “There is a great deal of responsibility put on you as a coach that I think, once you get years and years of that, you really develop your craft.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Ivy League coaches manifests itself on the recruiting circuit. Ivy League coaches must first deal with a limited talent pool, as only players who reach certain academic qualification can be granted admission. Second, coaches must convince players and their families to cover the schools’ hefty price tags without the aid of an athletic scholarship.

“You figure out ways to be successful,” says Donahue, who led Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2010 with a core of players who were not heavily recruited out of high school. “I think it really helps when you go to other places and try to go in and develop a program. I think you’re more prepared than you could ever imagine.”

But recruiting isn’t the only challenge facing Ivy League coaches. They are only allowed two paid assistant coaches, one fewer than in other conferences. They must prepare for games on back-to-back nights because the Ivy League holds its conference matchups on Friday and Saturday nights. And the lack of a conference tournament makes every game a do or die in the one-bid league.

“Your week of preparation has got to be great,” says Donahue. “I think it’s the best coached league in the country, and I thought that when I was there, and I still think that. It’s not necessarily the coaching but it’s the kids you’re coaching.”

After leaving the Ancient Eight, former Ivy League coaches have had modest success. Including Denver’s Joe Scott – who moved from Princeton to Denver in 2007 after starting his career at Air Force – the group boasts a 536-414 record after leaving the Ivy.

Thompson, who coached at Princeton from 2000 to 2004, has posted the highest winning percentage while also leading Georgetown to five NCAA tournament appearances in seven seasons with the Hoyas. After coaching Penn to 10 Ancient Eight titles, Dunphy took over the Temple program in 2006 and has taken the Owls dancing the past four seasons. Donahue has gotten off to a strong start at Boston College, going 21-13 in his first year.

After coaching under Donahue at Boston College this past season, Jones will look to continue the successful trend at Boston University where he takes over a squad fresh off an NCAA tournament berth.

With Jones at Boston University, Donahue at Boston College and Tommy Amaker at Harvard, three of Boston’s four Division I programs are now headed by a coach with Ivy League connections. This could increase the chances of starting a basketball Beanpot to complement the annual hockey Beanpot that pits Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, and Northeastern against each other in a single elimination tournament at the TD Garden.

Donahue, for one, does not seem opposed to the idea.

“I would love anything that can promote college basketball in the city of Boston,” he says. “Anything we can do to do that, I’m all for.”

What do you think? Would you like to see a basketball Beanpot?

Follow Martin on Twitter at @MartinKessler91.

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