MEN'S HOOPS: What History Teaches Us About Weber State Making the NCAA Tournament
The crew here at Weber State Weekly loves to keep up with all sports, and, like most of you, we pay attention to what is happening around the local sports landscape. So we took notice this week when the University of Utah dismissed Head Basketball Coach (and Montana Grizzly super-villain) Larry Krystkowiak. As part of his reporting on the firing, Jon Wilner wrote:
Rare is the head coach who wins at a high level after a decade in one place.
That said, there is one other point to consider:
Krystkowiak is a very good basketball coach, one of the best teachers and strategists in the conference.
And Utah is not UCLA or Oregon or Arizona when it comes to tradition and access to recruits.
Put another way …
In the past 50 years, Utah has reached the NCAA tournament 21 times, but 11 appearances came during the tenure of Rick Majerus, an all-time coach by any definition.
In the 35 years without Majerus at the helm, the Utes reached the NCAAs 10 times — or once every three-and-a-half seasons.
Krystkowiak’s hit rate was once every five years. That’s below the historical standard, for sure, but the program hasn’t exactly been a regular participant in the NCAAs (outside the Majerus era).
This passage got the hamsters on the spinning wheels in our brains thinking about Randy Rahe’s tenure at Weber State. Coach Rahe just completed his 15th season as coach of the Wildcats. Is Randy the "rare" coach who is still winning at a high level after so much tenure at a single school? What is Randy’s “NCAA hit rate” when compared to historical performance at WSU? How does his performance stack up against fan expectations? against other schools in Utah and the west? Coach Rahe hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2016 - is this drought too long? What are realistic expectations for Wildcat fans?
WSW recently ran a Twitter poll asking you, the fans, “How many times per decade do you expect the WSU men's hoops squad to win the Big Sky Tournament?”
Really, this poll was asking how many NCAA appearances fans expect the team to make in any 10 year stretch. Fifty percent of you responded with three to four tournament titles in a 10-year stretch.
Let’s look at some historical numbers:
Weber State has been sponsoring men’s basketball as a NCAA Division I varsity sport since the 1962-63 season, which nicely coincides with the founding of the Big Sky Conference. For the first dozen years, there weren’t any conference tournaments. It wasn’t until the 1967-68 season that the regular season Big Sky Conference Champ received an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, which, for most of those years, only was a 22-to-25-team field. The NCAA tournament didn’t expand to 64 teams until 1985.
In 60 seasons of basketball, WSU has finished first in the BSC 22 times, and received 16 berths in the NCAA tournament. This would put the Wildcats in the NCAA once every three to four years, which is exactly what our Twitter followers say they expect. But how are those appearances spaced over those 60 seasons?
WSU’s first NCAA appearance came in Coach Dick Motta’s sixth and final year at the school ('67-'68) and started a string of six straight NCAA appearances for the ‘Cats. After a five-season drought, the ‘Cats would get back to the tournament for another three consecutive years under Coach Neil McCarthy. This means the Wildcats made the NCAA field in nine of their first 20 years as a program, a hit rate of nearly 50 percent! This is also more than half of the total historical appearances by the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.
The next 40 years of the WSU program’s history aren’t quite as prolific at reaching the NCAA's promised land. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 (and later 68) teams in 1985, the Wildcats have been a part of the field only six times - twice under Ron Abegglen (also the last Wildcat coach to win a tournament game, and he did it twice!), once under Joe Cravens and thrice under Rahe. That’s six bids in 37 seasons, or roughly once every six seasons. If we look at the 22 years prior to Coach Rahe’s arrival, the Wildcats made the field three times in 22 years, or once every seven years! By this metric, Randy Rahe is actually outperforming his predecessors by reaching the tournament three times in his 15 seasons at the helm, giving him a hit rate of one tournament appearance every five years.
With that said, college basketball is a “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” business. The current five-year dearth of a bid for the ‘Cats is only eclipsed in WSU history by the six-year gap between Rahe’s first and second appearances, the 11 seasons between Coach McCarthy’s last appearance in 1983 and Coach Abegglen’s 1995 tournament squad that upset Michigan State and came within a bucket of taking an Allen Iverson Georgetown team to overtime. That 11-year gap could be considered the lowest point in WSU hoops history, as the team had four coaches during that span, including a couple that most fans have likely forgotten about in Larry Farmer and Denny Huston, who combined for a pair of winning seasons in six years (and zero tournament appearances).
How does Weber State compare to its peers in NCAA Tournament appearances? (For our purposes, we will compare performance for the 37 seasons since the NCAA expanded the tournament to 64 teams in 1985, which is widely considered to be the “modern” era).
The first and most appropriate comparison is to WSU’s Big Sky kryptonite, the Montana Grizzlies. The ‘Cats and Griz have combined for more BSC titles than all other current conference teams combined. The Griz have been the source of much consternation amongst the Wildcat faithful, especially during the Randy Rahe era. The Griz have appeared in the Big Dance 11 times since 1985, for a hit rate of approximately one appearance every three years. (If it helps your pain, the Grizz only have one other historical NCAA appearance. However, this is the golden era of Grizzly hoops, as they have five appearances in Randy Rahe‘s time at WSU).
Southern Utah has only made the field once, so it’s basically a once-in-a-generation thing for them. But that is still better than Utah Valley, which has yet to crack the field in their 17 years as a D-I program.
Comparisons with the bigger schools in the state of Utah are a bit unfair, as they play in what are traditionally multi-bid leagues, which provides greater access to the NCAA field.
Utah State has 11 NCAA bids since 1985, which is the same rate that Montana has been hitting at.
BYU has 19 bids in the modern era, so they’re dancing nearly every other year.
Utah, who just parted ways with their head coach, has 16 bids in that same stretch, getting in the tourney once every 2.25 years, but as we noted earlier in the Wilner article, 11 of those 16 bids belong to the Utes GOAT Rick Majerus. Take those 11 seasons away and the Utes only make the field five times over the remaining 26 seasons, or once every five years.
By way of clarification, Weber State Weekly IS NOT looking to promote a referendum about the status of Randy Rahe as the head coach of the Wildcats. The numbers presented here could be used to make the case that as long as he continues to lead the Wildcats to the big dance at his current rate, from a historical perspective, there should be no reason for fans to be distraught about his performance as coach. However, considering that two of the longest NCAA bid droughts in WSU history have come during Rahe’s tenure, the argument could also be made that his seat should be heating up if he doesn’t return to the dance next year. The real question: Where does Athletic Director Tim Crompton stand on the issue?