CRAWFORD | Inside Louisville practice, a surreal silence, and a lone coach's voice
"There's only one Coach P -- I'm Coach Padgett," David Padgett said before heading into a practice session as the lone coach on the University of Louisville coaching staff. Eric Crawford provides a glimpse.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nothing looks different, but everything has changed. The Yum! Center practice facility is buzzing with basketball again, with preseason workouts having begun in preparation for the University of Louisville basketball team's first public scrimmage of the season a week from Friday.
Rick Pitino’s face is everywhere, on the large wall hanging at the right of the entry door, listing his accomplishments and championships, in the one at the foot of the staircase, telling his Hall of Fame story. And it is on the cover of the student newspaper, fanned out on a table in the center of the lobby, with a headline about David Padgett being named acting coach, and the adidas logo in the corner of a picture of Pitino and Tom Jurich with the word “adidas” replaced with “adios.”
Exactly one week before the bombshell federal college basketball investigation was unsealed, to the hour, I was in this building, sitting across a table from Pitino in his office, and it was business as usual. He was excited about his team. Before I went into the office, I noted the shelves outside the office and snapped some pictures – the 2013 Big East Tournament and regular-season championship trophies, the crystal basketball given by the NABC to the NCAA champion in 2013, a leather basketball on a pedestal given to the Hall of Fame Class of 2013, the 2013 ESPY Award for best coach.
I took them because I wasn’t sure I’d ever see any of those trophies again. I didn’t realize I might not see Pitino again, at least not as head coach at U of L. (It’s of little interest to people and little impact on my job, but I struggle with how this ended for the Hall of Fame coach. I can’t get my mind around the self-destructive behavior described in that federal complaint. I know why Pitino had to go. I even said as much in print. I just struggle to comprehend this series of events.)
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I was going to ask Padgett what it was like to walk into that office that Pitino has been the only U of L coach to occupy, but it was a moot point. Padgett hasn’t walked into the office. It has been locked shut, sealed off. Above the practice court, the head coach’s suite in the Yum! Center that looks out over the gym was dark.
And Padgett’s was the lone voice calling out instructions.
“I’m losing my voice,” Padgett said as he sat down to meet with reporters. “Now I know why Coach P used the microphone.”
C.D. Kaplan of the Seedy K Sports website asked Padgett what it was like to be Coach P at U of L, and Padgett quickly answered, “There’s only one Coach P. I’m Coach Padgett.”
If a lot of us are still trying to make sense of events, you can only imagine what it’s been like for the 32-year-old Padgett. There haven’t been many moments for him to stop and think, let alone stop and think about what has happened.
Generally, if you’re a young coach beginning your first head-coaching job, you have an entire offseason to get ready. Padgett spent this offseason getting ready to be an assistant to Pitino. To then replace the man who coached him and was his biggest mentor is more challenging still.
He got home Tuesday night, sat down next to his wife, Megan, and for just a moment, was hit by how tumultuous these days have been.
“I got home the other night and my wife and I just sat there on the couch and I looked at her and said, 'Can you believe all this is happening right now?'” Padgett said. “Not in a good way, not in a bad way, just the reality of it. We've just got to take it one day at a time. Everybody I've talked to on the phone who asks, 'How's it going?', I say I'm literally trying to just take this one day at a time, one hour at a time, not trying to think about the future, trying to think about what do I have to do today in practice to get us better, and that's been my mindset.”
In practice, there was no loudspeaker, just Padgett’s voice, encouraging, exhorting, correcting. Pitino’s could boom out like the voice of God. Padgett’s is deeper, calmer. He knows it’s a change for the players.
“It's going to be a different dynamic, because they need to know who's in charge, which they do,” Padgett said. “They have a lot of respect for me because they know I've been in their shoes. But also, if I had to say what kind of coach I am, I think I'm a players' coach because I was a player. I played in this program and they know I can relate to what they're doing from a basketball standpoint. There's going to be times when I'm going to have to get on them and the job of an assistant coach in any sport anywhere in the world is when the head coach gets on you, someone's got to pick you back up. Now, as a head coach I'm not saying I'm going to get on them and not pick them back up, but I think that dynamic changes a little bit. That's just something we've got to work on as we go.”
I don’t mean this to sound the wrong way, but it’s not very often you talk to a coach who tells you straight up, he needs help. Padgett right now is conducting Division I men’s basketball practices without an assistant. It’s not ideal. He knows it. Acting athletic director Vince Tyra, who dropped by practice Wednesday and spoke with reporters, knows it.
“David at this point is a one-man band,” Tyra said. “He’s out there trying to do what he can, and that’s part of the issue. You can do that for a practice or two, but that’s not a good recipe so I’ve got to solve that. . . . I’ve got to clear distractions for David and this team to get on with business. And I’m going to try to do that as quickly as I can.”
Assistants Kenny Johnson and Jordan Fair both remain sidelined from activity with the team until the school can determine their future based on information from the federal investigation. Tyra could give no update on their status Wednesday.
Padgett said he can get by for a little while, but needs to begin putting a staff together.
“I'm not going to lie to you, you need four coaches to coach a Division I basketball program, especially at this level, but we're getting ready to start our fifth practice today and I can make do for the time being,” he said. “It's just that I don't want to have to go into Cameron Indoor in January or February, whenever it is we play, as a coach by myself. I don't know if I would make it back alive.”
The good thing, he said, is that he has a group with some experience. While he has a talented freshman class, Padgett said the returning players have shown great maturity, taking some of the teaching upon themselves, trying to set the tone for the freshmen.
It’s a strange thing about the program, which is being painted everywhere as an outlaw outfit. The players are disciplined. And they’re serious about having a successful season, Padgett said.
"They make my job so much easier,” Padgett said. “They're low maintenance, they play hard every, single day the whole time we're out there. A lot of them are experienced, so they know what to do. There's still a lot of teaching, but they make my job easier because they listen, they want to be good. . . . If this was a team that had a makeup of 12 freshmen and sophomores who hadn't played last year, I think this would be a big uphill battle. It's going to be an uphill battle anyway, but Quentin (Snider) started three years at the point, Anas (Mahmoud) has played significant minutes, Ray (Spalding) played significant minutes last year, Deng Adel has played significant minutes, Ryan McMahon played minutes last year, V.J. (King) played last year. So having those guys is just so valuable right now, not only from my standpoint running practice, but it helps with the freshmen.”
There’s one more veteran basketball mind Padgett can lean on. His father, Pete, flew in from Las Vegas, less to be a basketball resource, than to be a family resource. Padgett said he’s glad his parents are around. They came to Louisville last week when he feared he might not have a job. Now, he has more of a job than he bargained for, and they are an important presence.
“The role my dad's playing for me is being my dad,” Padgett said. “. . . But look, my dad was a longtime high school basketball coach. He coached me, he knows the game, he knows me better than anybody besides my wife and mother and right now I just need him to be my dad. He's someone who likes to keep a low profile and he's not going to butt his head where it doesn't belong. I'm just leaning on him for advice from a personal standpoint, trying to stay as even keel throughout this whole thing as I can.”
Not that Padgett won’t take basketball advice from his dad.
“He's popped his head in every once in a while,” Padgett said. “I'm not allowed to just bring in whoever I want to help coach practice. I wish I could because that would take a little weight off my shoulders. He'll give me observations. He's watched every game Louisville's played since I came back as a staff member. He's seen these players play on TV. We talk about basketball, but he's my dad first and foremost and he's just going to do what he can to support me and try to make sure I'm successful.”
One young coach. One difficult situation. Tyra on Wednesday again called on Louisville fans to rally around Padgett and the task ahead of him. He says he’ll ask former players of the program, specifically, to stop by and show their support for the program. He plans to enlist former Cardinals coach Denny Crum to be a resource in this difficult time.
“David can dictate what he needs and doesn’t need,” Tyra said. “But if there’s one thing in a playbook, it’s that I’d like to have that involvement. And I know there’s a number of players that are still in the community that would love to support these guys any way they can, and we’ll do that as we’re allowed and can.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article misidentified the local writer who asked David Padgett about being the "new Coach P" at U of L.
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