CRAWFORD | Six things Louisville needs from its next men's basketball coach
The University of Louisville men's basketball program is in no ordinary position. Eric Crawford runs through the extraordinary list of things required of its next coach.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A little while back, I laid out my own thoughts on the University of Louisville coaching job, the direction I think it should take, and the person I would turn to.
Within that discussion I talked about some things that I thought the next coach should be able to do. They formed the beginnings of a checklist when looking for the next coach. Since then, Louisville interim (and, come Monday and a meeting of the University of Louisville Athletics Association board, likely permanent) athletic director Vince Tyra has talked about the search, and shared some thoughts.
Here, I’d like to flesh out that list. These are things I think the next coach should be able to accomplish, and it’s a daunting list.
Nobody will check all the boxes. But these are the things the university needs in a coach, who by virtue of the standing of the basketball program in this community becomes a face of the university itself.
“I recognize the importance of it,” Tyra said. “All you've got to do is look at the history books here. I think I recognize the expectations. I think if I were still sitting in my seats I'd have high expectations, probably would still be sending the same emails that I get from fans saying, "pick this guy." Or they stop me in the corridor at the Yum! with who their favorite is. It's just part of it. And it's not going to be unanimous. There's no way you could be unanimous in this. I don't know that we've had that in really any of the picks we've had in any of the major sports historically. And this one it's going to be the same. I do think people will understand once we get there why we chose who we chose and how they fit the culture of this university, how they're going to run a clean program, and how they're going to win.”
Tyra’s predecessor, Tom Jurich, used to talk about “fit.” He was 100 percent right to do so. Even a good coach is going to struggle if the fit isn’t right. I believe Charlie Strong is a good football coach. Texas was a bad fit for him.
The culture and the coach have to align, and that’s difficult at Louisville, because there’s an effort under way to change the culture in the wake of recent scandals. Not every good coach out there is going to fit into Louisville's unique circumstance.
David Grissom, chairman of the board of trustees, recently told Billy Reed, “What I am interested in is a clean athletic program that is characterized by integrity that starts at the top. That’s all I’m interested in.”
With those things in mind, a look at what one man thinks U of L needs from its next basketball coach.
1). HE MUST WIN. Let’s be realistic. If a guy doesn’t win, all the integrity in the world won’t keep people behind him. No one has enough communication or marketing skill to sell losing. It just doesn’t work. At some point, the next coach needs to win. How much the next coach needs to win over the next year or two will be a matter of some debate, and will be determined by things down on this list. But winning, especially in athletics, but in many areas of American life, is the ultimate penance.
Something Rick Pitino once said to me – and, in fact, it’s included in a book we wrote together – is this: “There is very little sympathy out there for people who cannot perform. And I mean very little. I’ve seen baseball players go into slumps and despite being the most popular players on their teams, some of them even the most popular in the history of the game, they will get booed if they don’t perform. Slumps are not tolerated. They just are not.”
If a slump can be avoided, the next coach has to do that. The difficulty of this Louisville job is that a slump, by all appearances, may be unavoidable. And that’s where some of these other factors come in.
2). HE MUST PROJECT STABILITY AND INTEGRITY. He must do this in the way he handles himself in public, in the way he handles himself on the sidelines and with his players, and in the way he handles himself with various groups within the university. It can be done. It is being done at Louisville now. Dan McDonnell. Ken Lolla. Arthur Albiero. Many coaches. They are the mold for men’s basketball.
The idea in this isn’t to nit-pick any job candidate to death. None of us is perfect. But if there is a question going in, it may give pause.
That’s especially true given the climate of college basketball right now. You can’t truly know who is untouched by many of the allegations swirling and who is not.
There’s a feeling out there that Louisville can simply write language into a contract that will protect the school if its next coach is caught up in an NCAA mess. That feeling is misguided. If Louisville hires a coach and then has to fire him – potentially hastily – over NCAA concerns, it would be a crippling blow for the program.
Imagine the national narrative if that were to happen. Imagine the impact on players and future recruiting. Imagine the difficulty of getting through this past season with an interim coach, and multiply it.
There should be little wiggle room on this point.
3). HE MUST 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.
If a coach is able to attract top talent even in the program’s uncertain state, all the better. But getting great players and coaching them are two different things. And given where the program is, the ability to develop players and put them in position to succeed should be foremost.
4). HE MUST UNIFY AND RALLY THE FAN BASE. The next coach better talk a good game as well as coach one. He’d better be willing to roll up his sleeves and make people feel good about their program and university again. He’d better get out among the people and listen to them, as well as talk to them. He’d better invest himself in this city, in what it has been, and what it wants to be. He needs to 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 should be able to re-energize fans into giving to the program, into coming to the games, into being proud again, and be able to articulate the good about the program and the institution.
5). HE MUST 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.
He should have a system. The ACC is an inhospitable place for young coaches, even good young coaches. It takes a while to get up to speed, even for guys who know what they’re doing. Tony Bennett is viewed as one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the game. He lost 53 games in his first four seasons, and had two losing records in the ACC, before breaking through at Virginia.
Louisville’s next coach should have enough confidence in his ability, his vision and his system to withstand those challenges.
6). HE SHOULD HAVE A PASSION FOR THE JOB, THE UNIVERSITY AND THE CITY. 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.
Strong, in his time as football coach, broadened the reach of the program into disadvantaged areas of the city. He used the program as a vehicle to speak to a larger audience, to young people who needed the message he brought. You didn’t always see those efforts. If he showed up to pay off the layaways around town at Christmas time, there were no press releases.
The good news for Louisville is that there are plenty of templates in place right now, right within its own athletic department, good people doing good work and winning at a high level. One of them, Jeff Walz, will be on display in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament tonight.
But the next men’s basketball coach at Louisville will have more on his plate than basketball – and the basketball will be challenging enough.
It’s a great job, but a difficult job. But that is, as they say, why he’ll get the big bucks.
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