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Monday Morning: The Search Goes On for the Next Great Kentucky Men's Basketball Coach


So this is officially day 3 of the 2009 Kentucky coaching search.  Rumors are flying.  Comments are being made everywhere.  Nobody knows much.  That is as it should be.

It won't be long, though, before some real news starts to be made.  Athletics directors will begin answering "yes" when asked if they have been contacted by UK connections about the possibility of an interview with this coach or that.  There will be actual news (not people reporting private aircraft flying from hither and yon to Lexington) about the progress of the coaching search for UK.  We have been through this before, recently.  We know how this works.

We also have a pretty good idea of who the top candidates for the job will be, although we really don't know who the administration favors and who they do not.  I actually hope there will be more than one interview this time, but to be honest, I think that is a vain hope.

One would think a coaching search would be similar to a search for any other employee -- you line up qualified candidates, interview them, vet them as well as possible and make an offer -- but history tells us that's not how it works with coaches.  The interview process tends to be nothing more than a formality before the hire, and interviewing more than one candidate these days seems like something only mid-majors do.

For my part, I actually don't have a preference for who is to be the next coach at UK.  I do have a pecking order of sorts, one that I laid out in this earlier post.  But as to whether I prefer Izzo over Calipari or Donovan or Jay Wright, I don't really care.  They all have things to recommend them, they are all outstanding college basketball coaches who would bring a lot to Kentucky.

But as I said, I do have a pecking order.  I am not a believer in hiring a young-up-and comer with single-digit years of coaching experience.  We just did that, and it didn't work out.  I think we need to learn the lesson implicit in that failure and resolve not to make the same mistake twice.  So my preference this time is for experience, and there are a number of highly qualified candidates.

But if those don't work out, years of experience have to become less of an issue.  Some may think it odd that UK can't just pick the coach it wants, offer him a huge salary and be guaranteed acceptance, but times have changed since the days of Adolph Rupp, or for that matter, even a young Rick Pitino.  These days, coaches even at smaller or non-powerhouse programs can get all the media exposure they need to lure quality players to their program -- one only need look at Billy Donovan's success at Florida or Rick Barnes' success at Texas to see how that works.  Back before the days of ESPN and hundreds of cable channels covering sports, this was much more difficult.

So when people tell you that great coaches won't be interested in UK because UK isn't what it once was, just scoff at their ignorance -- that isn't why.  Coaching has become much more of a lifestyle choice now that it was only 25 years ago.  Coaches can now stay in comfortable places, secure in the knowledge that they will be paid a salary competitive with what they could get at a national power and still have a shot at landing the next Kevin Durant.  That's the way coaching works these days, and that's why Donovan and others have resisted UK's advances up until now.  If today were even 1989 instead of 2009, things would be vastly different.  In this way, coaching has become just like playing -- no longer must a recruit travel far from home to Kentucky, UCLA or North Carolina to get the exposure they need to be drafted at the next level.

When I think of UK getting a coach, I think about the qualities I would like to see in a UK coach:

  • Comfortable with the media -- I think recent experience has taught us this is no longer optional.
  • A relationship-builder on every level -- You can't just forge a relationship with the elites, or with the common man.  You have to relate to everyone.
  • A great recruiter -- I don't think this needs exposition.  Great players make great teams.
  • An ambassador for UK -- The ultimate downfall of our last coach, apparently.  This is a necessity.
  • Clean as a whistle -- This is UK, not IU pre-Sampson.  We are not squeaky clean, and have had an unfortunate history with the NCAA.  For years, we have been a good NCAA citizen.  That must continue.
  • A coach that at least looks conventional -- UK fans have very parochial attitudes about what basketball should look like.  John Beline's strange schemes would not really be welcome here, nor Jim Boeheim's match-up zone.
  • A coach that can understand and embrace Kentucky's fans -- Our last two coaches have had a dysfunctional relationship with the fan base.  That needs to change.  Everyone doesn't have to love whoever the new guy is, but we should not bring in a coach that will divide the fans into a bickering mob.  We need a guy that almost everyone can agree is qualified at minimum, and has the capacity for winning over any detractors.
  • A coach who can develop young men.  UK wants to be known as a school that puts players in a position to succeed in life, either in basketball or in some other endeavor.  No matter who we get as the head men's basketball coach, every player at UK will not be playing in the NBA or otherwise professionally.  We need someone who can help our players graduate from college and succeed in life.
  • A coach that will embrace and understand Kentucky's traditions -- He doesn't have to be born to them to learn, study, understand and most importantly, embrace them.  Coaches at Kentucky, as recent experience has shown, can't just hope to come here and be a coach.  He must be a press secretary, a salesman, a TV pitch man, a guidance counselor, a teacher, a fund-raiser, a community leader and many other roles.
  • A coach who will win, and win right away.  Kentucky has suffered through four consecutive un-Kentucky-like seasons.  That must stop, and it must stop immediately.  We have seen what happens when college sports programs take too long to get back on track -- they wander in the wilderness for years.

There are a number of good candidates who meet all these qualifications, and surely Mitch Barnhart can convince one of these good men to take on one of the most challenging and rewarding positions in all of sports -- that of Head Men's Basketball Coach at the University of Kentucky.

I would hope this search would be as thorough and detailed as possible while proceeding with all deliberate speed.  We cannot afford another debacle like we just suffered through two or even five years hence, or there really will be long-term damage done to this great program.  We don't need a quick fix, or a coach close to retirement.  We need a man with at least ten good years left.  Indiana hired the "quick fix," to their ruination. 

Let's not relearn the lessons of the lessons of the recent, or even distant past.  Let's get it right this time.