LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Rick Pitino was all set on going with his old friend Ralph Willard after Kevin Keatts left the University of Louisville staff for a head coaching job at North Carolina Wilmington earlier this month.
Willard said he had a better idea.
“He said, 'Rick, what you need more than anything else right now, I’ve been following the ACC, and you need somebody who is going to be able to flat-out replace Kevin Keatts,'” Pitino said Willard told him. “Kevin recruited most of the guys who have been in this program the past couple of years, and he said you need to get yourself a great recruiter.”
From there, Pitino asked for some help from his son, Richard, the head coach at Minnesota, in gathering names, “who are the top two or three best in the country at what I need.” He also got input from Keatts.
Only one name kept coming back: Kenny Johnson, who was introduced as Pitino’s assistant on Wednesday after spending two seasons at Indiana.
“We’re very excited about adding Kenny,” Pitino said.
Johnson called leaving Indiana and head coach Tom Crean, “one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” but called the chance to work with Pitino, “an opportunity to work for and learn from...one of the greatest coaches who ever lived.”
Johnson arrives with a recruiting seal of approval. He landed Noah Vonleh for Indiana, was instrumental in the Hoosiers’ top-five recruiting class last season, and has recruiting ties in ACC country after graduating from the University of Maryland and establishing himself as a high school basketball and later AAU coach in Maryland and the Washington D.C. area.
But his credentials go beyond basketball. He attended Oxon Hill (Md.) High School, where his playing career was cut short due to an injury in his second year of varsity basketball. As a senior at Oxon Hill in 1994, he was named Science and Technology Student of the Year. He earned his bachelor's degree in molecular biology and genetics in 1999 at the University of Maryland, where he was a Benjamin Banneker Scholarship recipient. He worked as a protein chemist/molecular biologist at Human Genome Sciences in Rockville, Md. after graduation.
But after getting involved with basketball at the high school level, he realized that coaching was his dream.
“I wanted somebody the players could look up to,” Pitino said. “I told him we want a close relationship with our players at all times. We have a very close relationship with our players and I felt like he was somebody our guys could look up to. He has a great reputation out in the coaching community. … He’s done a lot of good things in the game of basketball, and he’s exactly what we need in this program to fit our needs.”
Originally, with a large number of young, big men entering the program, Pitino was looking for an experienced teacher of the game. But when Willard steered him toward recruiting, Pitino fulfilled some of the teaching need by bringing one of his former big men home — David Padgett will join the staff as an assistant video coordinator, and no doubt will be someone that U of L’s young big men can use as a resource into the ways they can fit into Pitino’s system.
“Coming from Indiana, Tom Crean is a lot like we are in terms of preparation and in terms of scouting,” Pitino said. “So he should be a great fit for us.”
Johnson said he’s excited not only about getting into the ACC but about the chance to recruit players to the KFC Yum! Center, which he had not seen before visiting Louisville.
He said he’s followed Pitino ever since his Kentucky team came from 31 points down to beat LSU in 1994.
“I thought, if I ever get to be a coach, that’s how I want my teams to play, to play fast, and to play with discipline, but to play free, and in a relentless, attack mode,” Johnson said. “So to receive a call from him was very humbling.”
PITINO ON ACC SCHEDULE: Reacting to the ACC match ups released by the league on Monday, Pitino said, “It’s really back to the Big East — Southern style. From 2005 we spent some incredible years in the Big East, with some of the toughest schedules in the nation. . . . And we’re back at it, where you’re going to see eight, nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, back at it with competition the likes of nothing we’ve seen except the Big East. This is about as exciting as it gets, opening with a prohibitive favorite in Minnesota, at Western Kentucky, Kentucky, the Big Ten-ACC challenge, it’s going to be an incredible season that I know our players are excited about and our fans will be super excited about.”