BOZICH | Louisville basketball cannot afford error with Home Run Hire
Hiring a new basketball coach is never easy, but it's more challenging in the environment around college basketball this season.
ATLANTA — They say the University of Louisville needs a Home Run Hire for its wounded basketball program. I’ll leave that definition to the big-picture specialists.
As long as we’re framing the situation in baseball terms, my thoughts on the coaching search are these:
1.) Chase your home run. But I can live with a triple or double as long as the hire does not include any errors.
That I can define. Nobody at any significant risk of having his name or the name of his program dragged into the FBI investigation of college basketball that created this U of L opening. That wouldn’t be embarrassing. That would be The End.
2.) It’s 2018. Jackie Robinson changed the sports landscape in America long, long ago. Louisville led many schools below the Mason-Dixon line by integrating its program in the early Sixties. Wade Houston, Eddie Whitehead, Dave Gilbert. The incomparable Wes Unseld. The superb Butch Beard
Interim athletic director Vince Tyra and other U of L administrators should respect the history of this program with serious consideration of a minority candidate. I know Ron Cooper and Charlie Strong led the football team. But this is basketball, the school's signature program.
Not a phone call. Not a courtesy interview. Legitimate consideration.
Similar to the serious consideration we’ve seen at Kentucky, Western Kentucky and Indiana, programs that have been led by African-American basketball coaches.
“They sold me on coming to Louisville (in 1969 from Breckinridge County) by telling me how liberal it was,” Beard said. “I’m not sure I see much change since 1969. That concerns me.”
Jerry Eaves and Beard, two former U of L stars with Division I and NBA coaching credentials, shouldn’t have to howl to make U of L leaders give a serious topic serious thought. They're not trying to cause problems. They're trying to inspire and assist future generations of players and coaches.
Considering the noise around college basketball this season, this is a complicated time to hire a coach. Louisville needs somebody who won’t retreat a millimeter in a fierce basketball conference ruled by three Hall of Fame coaches and the likely national coach of the year. There is another Hall of Fame coach recruiting nothing but 4- and 5-stars prospects 70 miles away.
Louisville needs somebody who can deliver post-season success at a level similar to the success delivered by the two guys who coached the U of L program for most of the last five decades.
It needs somebody who can fill every seat in the KFC Yum! Center (again).The new coach should connect with kids across multiple neighborhoods across the community. He should check other boxes that we all say matter, even though we know this is the first box to check:
Is that Chris Mack of Xavier, the consensus front-runner? He seems to be sucking all the publicity from the room on a quick coronation lap.
Or Matt Painter of Purdue? Shaka Smart of Texas, Buzz Williams of Virginia Tech or Mike White of Florida.
Former Cardinal Kenny Payne has earned solid credentials as an assistant at Kentucky. Louisville has no recruits committed for next season. The next coach will have to overcome the noise around the program situation shakes out. Payne can recruit with anybody -- and has developed a talented group of front-court players for John Calipari. Players respond to him.
Payne has the support of many Louisville players from the Denny Crum Era, like Beard, Eaves, Milt Wagner, Pervis Ellison and the McCray brothers. They’re convinced he is ready despite his lack of head-coaching experience. Payne, like Smart, is African-American. I believe Tyra will talk to him, as he should.
This wacky NCAA Tournament might shake up more names. Porter Moser guy of Loyola became hot, hot, hot by coaching the Ramblers into the Elite Thursday night.
I need more research. So do the folks making the hire at Louisville. They need to get it right, not get it first. Slow down. Look around.
What Louisville does not need is a guy at any risk of joining the crowd in the current Federal investigation of college basketball, an investigation that has stained about a half-dozen programs.
If you remember — and believe — the ‘tip of the iceberg’ comments the feds made when this scandal began last fall, more fallout is expected.
Louisville is not recruiting a coach because the previous coach failed to win. Louisville needs a coach because the shenanigans around the program were sometimes repugnant and wiretapped.
The next Louisville coach should not get the job because he has been endorsed by the recruiting gurus and talk radio crowd.
He should get the job after he has been thoroughly vetted by responsible university leaders and educators prepared to look beyond how efficiently his teams play defense. Louisville has not been a weekend fling job. Just two permanent head coaches since 1971. No Top 10 job can match that stability.
If a candidate has players or former players mentioned in the stories by Pat Forde and Pete Thamel at Yahoo! Sports about money allegedly flowing from a representative of Andy Miller’s sports agency, that coach has some bonus questions to answer during his interview.
As I said, Mack is reported to be the top candidate. I get it. His teams have won 20 or more games five straight seasons. Xavier won the Big East regular-season title and earned a Number One seed this season. He’s the darling of the recruiting guys and a few national writers. They've done their work getting Mack to the front of the line.
Mack also has topics to address. He tried to address one by making a strong 92-word statement to Forde and Thamel, stating he had no relationship with Miller and that Miller played no role in the recruitment of Xavier players.
What the statement did not address was the actual meat of the Miller connection that Yahoo made when it reported that former Xavier guard Edmond Sumner and/or his father Ernest reportedly received $7,000 in advances while in school.
Is the story true? If it is, why did they need the money? Did they receive anything else? Did any other players? How did Miller's guys get to Mack's guy? That's a starter set of questions.
There is also the testiness that has percolated around Xavier’s rivalry with Cincinnati. As one national writer explained it to me Thursday night at the NCAA Tournament South Regional, Mack's teams are generally "chippy." In 2011 players from Xavier and UC famously brawled so harshly the final 9.3 seconds of that game were not played.
During a post-game press conference, Xavier’s Tu Holloway made his infamous comment that Xavier players went out there and “zipped them up at the end of the game.”
If you missed the significance of those words, Holloway clarified them by adding that the Xavier players considered themselves, “gangsters, not thugs, but tough guys on the court.”
Coaches and administrators from both programs issued apologies. Players were suspended. The rivalry was moved to neutral site until it was returned to campus arenas for the 2014-15 season.
But the rhetoric between the programs has remained hot, considerably more heated than the zingers exchanged between the basketball programs at Kentucky and Louisville.
Just last December the Xavier-Cincinnati game ended with a scene that The Sporting News described as a “war of words,” between Mack and Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin after Cronin and Xavier guard J.P. Macura verbally clashed in the handshake line.
Veteran basketball writer Mike DeCourcy opened his story about Xavier’s victory this way:
“The Crosstown Shootout, the annual rivalry game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Cincinnati Bearcats, lately has developed a penchant for inserting conflict into those moments in college basketball when perfunctory sportsmanship generally prevails.”
On the court, Louisville vs. Kentucky has not been as toxic as Xavier-Cincinnati. Let’s keep it that way.
Toss in several off-the-court issues, like the arrest of one Xavier player for pulling his pants down in a bar while in possession of a fake ID and the arrest of another last summer on a possession of marijuana charge. In 2017, another player was suspended for a semester and then reinstated before he quit the team following a pair of incidents with a former girlfriend.
It’s not prostitutes and strippers in the dorm but it’s more than missing curfew.
Louisville does not need air ball behavior by its basketball players these days.
There are plenty of topics for U of L leaders to discuss with Mack beyond his preferences for scheduling or playing zone or man-to-man defense.
Just as there should be for any serious candidate. Talk to several candidates, please.
Louisville is one of the best jobs in college basketball, trying to fill its head coaching position when the program is more vulnerable than it has been in years. The fan base is divided. The roster is in flux. The competition is not going away. A group of players from the Crum Era feels unappreciated and ignored.
Making a Home Run Hire will be challenging. Making an error would be worse.
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