CRAWFORD | The future of University of Louisville basketball
Eric Crawford turns his attention to the basketball coaching situation at the University of Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I’ve been reluctant to discuss the future of the University of Louisville basketball program very much this season, particularly in terms of its coaching situation, out of respect to David Padgett, who didn’t ask to be thrust into the interim head-coaching position the way he was, at the time he was, and who has handled himself admirably and professionally throughout a taxing season.
There were times he could’ve thrown players under the bus – because there were times they did things other than they were instructed to do – but he never did. He never even came close. That the Cardinals didn’t make the NCAA Tournament isn’t a testament to his coaching ability so much as to the position he found himself in.
Talking about replacements while he still was trying to reach that goal, to me, wasn’t wrong, but it also didn’t feel right. Not for me. So I didn’t.
That no longer is the case.
The goal is no longer attainable. Louisville is playing in the National Invitation Tournament, but multiple sources close to the team say that the players, as a group, were not in favor of playing in the tournament, once the NCAA took a hard pass on the Cardinals.
It’s been a hard season for everyone. At the very least, those same players owe Padgett something. He sacrificed for them this year. Everybody points to the paycheck, but taking a job before you expect to, without a staff, and putting it all together on the fly, with a group of players you were consoling just weeks before, is not a recipe for greatness for anyone. Padgett should parlay his Louisville experience into a head coaching opportunity again at some point, and soon. But for now, Louisville’s players, if they don’t feel like working hard for themselves, or the school they represent, need to at least play hard in the NIT to represent this guy who poured himself into them.
They owe Padgett, and U of L owes Padgett, and its fans owe Padgett a debt of gratitude for what he did this season. He gave the program some dignity in a difficult time. One day, he might be the head coach here again.
But for now, interim athletic director Vince Tyra must move quickly to find a coach who can turn the page and chart a course for this program, even as it approaches what could be more difficult times.
In some ways, the program is in its darkest hour. At the end of one painful NCAA sanctioning process that cost it a national championship and a Final Four banner, while at the beginning of another that could take years to resolve, the program is in basketball purgatory.
The next coach may have little to offer Louisville fans but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Louisville’s brand is broken. Not only is there no coach to recruit, but the name of the program is toxic.
The Derby Festival Classic All-Star Game had to take a hiatus, in part, because high school and college coaches didn’t even want their players coming to the city of Louisville.
The next coach of the University of Louisville had better be able to do a few things:
1). Identify and develop talent. For the next coach, at least for a little while, 5-star recruits may be difficult to come by. The next coach had better be able to “coach up” a few guys, had better be able to find some diamonds in the rough, had better be willing to sell a few talented players in the Louisville area on the notion of playing for the hometown school. Built into this is the knowledge that the next coach will have to recruit successfully into an extremely difficult environment.
2). Unify and rally the fan base. The next coach better talk a good game as well as coach one. He better be willing to roll up his sleeves and make people feel good about their program and university again. He better get out among the people and listen to them, as well as talk to them. He better invest himself in this city, in what it has been, and what it wants to be. He’d better recognize that the thing that has made Louisville different from every other urban university basketball program that dropped off the map before re-emerging is a fan base that kept the school in the top five nationally in attendance every year for 30 years. He’d better be able to re-energize fans into giving to the program, into coming to the games, into being proud again.
3). Have a vision. The next coach better be able to describe his vision to lead Louisville out of its darkest hour. He should be able to communicate it to recruits and their families. And it ought to be a vision that has worked elsewhere, not one that he thinks will work, but that he knows can work. It should be a vision that captures the imagination of fans and players alike.
4). Have a passion for the job, and the university. There are going to be difficult days ahead. The next coach is going to go through some things. There are going to be days when he wonders why he took this job. The next Louisville coach needs to walk in every morning thrilled to be walking into that office. He needs to understand and work cooperatively with all areas of the university, as it works to rebuild public trust and establish itself. Preferably, the next coach would have an overwhelming passion for U of L. Preferably, he would be a presence that gives people confidence that somebody in an influential position at the school cares about that place more than anything else. Some days, that will be all that keeps him going. Some days, if a coach doesn’t have that, he might not keep going.
By now, you probably know where I am going with this, because you know at the moment there’s only one man who readily fits all those requirements like nobody else in the game.
I don’t know what Tyra’s thinking is on this matter. I don’t know what groundwork he has done. I do know that he has been handling the program as if he were the permanent director, and that means he’ll tackle this decision on a head coach as if he is the permanent director.
And I also know that if he hasn’t been working behind the scenes on identifying the next coach, he’s far behind.
This will sound cynical. It is cynical. That doesn’t keep it from being true. In American life, and especially American sports, winning is the ultimate penance. Louisville needs to find someone who can build a winner as quickly as possible, period. It needs to find a coach who can generate excitement among its freshmen, and its fan base. It needs to find someone who can coach effectively even without five-star elite talent, because that may be tough to come by until the NCAA uncertainty is dealt with.
The position of U of L basketball coach is one of the least-held in the history of modern college basketball. Before Padgett stepped in to fill the void after Rick Pitino’s firing, four men had held the job – Peck Hickman, John Dromo, Denny Crum and Pitino – since 1944.
This is a fan base that is hurting and in need of hope. It is in need of a program it can be proud of. It is in need of someone who can change the conversation, and who can sell young players on the future of the program again.
Among names that have been bubbling to the service over the past two weeks, Steve Alford of UCLA and Matt Painter at Purdue have been the most prominent. Chris Mack, who has coached Xavier to a No. 1 seed, has had a general interest in Louisville in the past, according to sources close to him, but his interest level at the moment isn’t known, and he will be one of the most sought-after names in the college game after the season his team has had.
Kenny Payne, an assistant to John Calipari at Kentucky, would have an interest in returning to his alma mater, and deserves at least an interview. But his association with Kentucky and his lack of head-coaching experience undoubtedly preclude him from getting the job. Tyra would be wise to keep his number, however. He’d also be wise to explore other coaches of color.
But in the end, the next five years for Louisville basketball need to be a labor of love. Louisville needs right now what Kentucky needed in 1989. Unfortunately, there is no Rick Pitino on the horizon. The next best thing Louisville can do is find someone who can bring all of this together, the old days in Freedom Hall, the former players under Crum and Pitino, the fans, the city of Louisville, the university community. It needs somebody who can coach Louisville’s own version of the unforgettables, whoever they may wind up being.
The guy Louisville needs, right now, is Scott Davenport.
I know what you’re saying. Yeah, he was a great high school coach. Yeah, he was a great Division II coach. I’ve heard all that before. I began my sports writing career writing about Division II basketball. For nine years, I covered the same coach. They said the same things about him. Sure, he’s a great D-II coach. Sure he won a national championship and went to a title game the year before that. But can he recruit at the D-I level? Can he win at the highest level?
I had no doubt that he could. The guy’s name is Bruce Pearl. His team just won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
Davenport can coach. He learned from Crum. He learned from Pitino. His teams play unselfish, motion offense. They play the same pack-line defense Virginia parleyed into a No. 1 seed. They score. They’re disciplined. Someone asked me how Davenport would’ve fared this season at Louisville. My answer? “I don’t know, but I do know that anyone who didn’t pass the ball to Ray Spalding wouldn’t have been in the game.”
His program has been among the best shooting in any NCAA level for seven years. He has built a culture within the basketball program at Bellarmine that should look familiar to Louisville fans. It’s the same culture that Dan McDonnell has built in baseball and Ken Lolla in soccer and Arthur Albiero in swimming and Jeff Walz in women’s basketball.
Davenport is the only coach in America who is a living thread from Bill Olsen to Denny Crum to Tom Jurich to Rick Pitino to the present. He grew up on Central Avenue and going to games in Freedom Hall and today his plaque hangs in Freedom Hall in the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
I’m all for giving the guy who grew up here and who dreamed of coaching in this seat a chance to do the job, if only because, in another field, I was given that chance myself, for better or worse, and if only because, of all the coaches in the country, he is the one who best understands the challenge facing this program, and the importance of meeting the challenge to the city and the university the program represents. He’s the one coach U of L could hire who could legitimately call the rebuilding of Louisville basketball the culmination of his life’s work.
There are two ways of looking at Davenport’s experience. You can look at it and say, well, yeah, he won a state championship here, and a national championship here when he got the chance, but can he win at a bigger level?
Or you can look at it, and think back to him playing in faculty pick-up games in Crawford Gym, and working all those years in high school basketball just to get a chance to be an assistant to Crum – not a head coach, mind you, but an assistant to Crum and later Pitino – and having struck out on his own in Division II, to win a national championship. You can look back on all those things and think, maybe, they all prepared him uniquely for this pivotal moment in U of L history.
At worst, you give Davenport a five-year contract (at a lot less, I imagine, than you’d have to pay a bigger name), and he doesn’t win as much as you want, but he gets you through these dark times, and you find someone else. But I don’t think that would be the case. It’s amazing what a qualified guy can do if given the chance and some support.
If U of L doesn’t hire Scott Davenport, he won’t see it at the end of the world. He’ll keep on winning at Bellarmine. He has 12 players back next season off a team that was eliminated from the NCAA Division II tournament on a call that the NCAA ought to be ashamed of, if it had any shame. Sunday night at midnight, the fitness center of the hotel where the team was staying in Big Rapids, Mich., was full. Bellarmine players were running. Next year, they plan to leave no room for officials’ error.
It’s that kind of passion and character that Louisville needs now, in its locker room and on its sideline.
I don’t know who the school will hire. I know it could do worse than Davenport. Likely, the university could hire a bigger name coach. But given the challenges ahead and the unique requirements of the job in its current circumstance, I’m not sure it could do better. Sometimes the easiest answer is the best.
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