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Zimmerman: Dawkins’ seat could get hotter quickly

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If you are currently an undergrad, I want you to think of the last time during your academic career when a coach of any Stanford sport was fired.

You can’t.

We’re blessed as Stanford fans to avoid the national trend of coaching attrition. It’s all too easy to suggest that our coaches get a free lifetime pass because of the relatively small amount of outside pressure to perform. Is the booster presence the same here as the SEC? No. Do students lose sleep over basketball seasons that end without a trip to the Big Dance? Maybe just this one.

So why, then, are there three coaches with at least 25 years of head coaching experience on the Farm and a slew of others who have called Palo Alto home for over a decade? Because Stanford is really damn good at sports.

However, this idyllic coaching world could see its skies darken if the Stanford men’s basketball team fails to live up to expectations.

Head coach Johnny Dawkins was once the big name expected to bring order to a program ravaged by an ugly coaching breakup with Trent Johnson and the departure of current NBAers Brook and Robin Lopez. He was the Mike Krzyzewski disciple tasked with returning Cardinal ball to the glory days under Mike Montgomery.

The ride since has been anything but glorious. After an appearance in the CBI semifinals (yikes) following a 20-win debut season, Dawkins’ crew has failed to break .500 the last two years. The Card hasn’t won more than seven conference games since his arrival and finished this past season winning just a third of its final 15 games.

This isn’t all to say he’s a bad coach. Stanford’s 2010 recruiting class was among the best in the nation, and this season that group of now-sophomores is joined by elite freshman point guard Chasson Randle. Dawkins has done his job during the offseason, building a talented team, on paper, from scratch. His name alone brought a glimmer of hope back to Maples Pavilion, and there has been noticeable improvement by a formerly atrocious defensive unit. In fact, Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby was impressed enough to provide Dawkins with a two-year extension through 2015-16, although the school has the option to terminate the contract before the extension kicks in.

But basketball is a moneymaker regardless of recent success, or lack thereof, and it’s not unprecedented for a coach’s job to be at risk shortly after signing an extension. There are several factors potentially working against Dawkins in what could be a make-or-break year.

The first is the restructured Pac-12 and accompanying television deal. It was announced earlier this month that Stanford would be televised nationally nine times on FSN, a significant increase in coverage for a team normally confined to a regional audience. Additionally, the bump in Pac-12 exposure as a whole has already created a recruiting boost for rival schools. Arizona and UCLA have top 100 recruits lined up from coast to coast, and up-and-coming programs like Oregon have surprisingly stolen top talent from the Bay Area and other basketball factories. The window for Stanford to capture the conference in the down years of late has closed, as the Pac-12 is close to rejoining the basketball elite.

Another issue Dawkins is facing is youth, a characteristic of this past season’s team that was exposed early and often. Randle could start from day one, and although he has shined in the offseason — especially on the team’s trip to Spain where he averaged 11 points per game — the freshman has yet to engineer a college offense against quality opponents. And with the exceptions of senior Josh Owens and Randle, the team’s primary offensive threats, Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell, are just entering their second seasons. Those four bring the most offensive potential to Maples since the Lopez twins, but the future of their collective body of work is partly clouded by inexperience playing together.

The Pac-12’s resurgence and a youthful squad could hurt the team in the win/loss column, but the biggest threat to Dawkins’ job may come as a surprise.

The departure of Andrew Luck.

All sports, not just men’s basketball, have become overshadowed by the quick ascension of the football team, the success of which has been undoubtedly driven by the star quarterback. The Department of Athletics has allowed Dawkins to develop his program as the rise in football popularity has yielded unprecedented revenue. But when Luck graduates, the free ride could be over, and the other traditional “big” sports will be counted on to fuel the gravy train. Women’s basketball has lived up to its end, but the men have to follow suit to help maintain the current status of the Stanford brand.

With all that said, it must be reiterated that Dawkins has assembled a very talented cast. This team was able to hang with professionals in Europe, and with Randle likely the only newcomer to the rotation, they already have a year together under their collective belt. Dawkins has the cliched basketball IQ and personnel to win games, and the measureable support of Bowlsby to provide an extra dose of confidence. But as has been the case across the country, AD support can disappear as quickly as it emerged.

With a postseason berth, Dawkins could become known as the coach of the future. With another losing season? The coach of the past.

Zach Zimmerman is still grumpy that coach Dawkins never recruited him for his insane point-guarding skills. Send him the names of some D-III schools that may still be interested at zachz “at” stanford.edu, or hit him up on twitter @Zach_Zimmerman.

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