I previously said I would not discuss this topic until and if we have an opening. While it's not official, with the news breaking that we are negotiating Coach Johnson's buyout, I think it's obvious he's not coming back and it's now an appropriate time to have this conversation.
First of all, I am saddened that things didn't work out with Coach Johnson. I appreciate his relentless recruiting and marketing efforts, and he seems like a genuinely good guy. Our program is in much better shape, and it should be a much more attractive job than when he found it 4 years ago. To Coach Avery Johnson, I say Thank you for your service to this program and our University, and I wish nothing but the best for you and your family in the future.
Before I get to my list of names, let's take a quick, honest look at the pros and cons of our job opening.
Pros: 1) We can and will pay top dollar. We are loaded. Thanks largely to Nick Saban and football, we have one of the most profitable athletic departments in the country.
2) We return a talented roster. At least on paper, we are only losing Riley and Donta from a team that missed the NCAA tournament by one spot, and we have a top 20 recruiting class signed. The new candidate will have a lot to work with and should be able to hit the ground running.
3) Facilities- We can sell a potential coach on the commitment to the program by pointing to the planned renovations and facility upgrades.
4) We have an AD who loves basketball and has a strong background with good hoops programs.
Cons: 1) It's fair to question our Board's commitment to the program by pointing out that we are only renovating rather than re-building, and even that is being pushed back to phase 2 and contingent upon fundraising success. Before reaching out to the top names on my list below, I would announce that we are moving the renovations into phase 1. I would love it if we also announced we are building a new arena, but I know that's not realistic at this point.
2) Football- it's a double-edged sword. A lot of coaches have big egos, and no matter what you do here, you won't be the big dog on campus at least for the foreseeable future.
3) Expectations- We have a small but passionate and knowledgeable fan base that expects to be in the NCAA tournament more often than not. The reality is we play in a very competitive conference with many already established program, and we haven't been a consistent NCAA tournament team in over two decades.
Other schools with a current opening include UCLA, Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Vanderbilt. LSU may soon have one. I think we are as attractive as any of them with the exception of UCLA. Texas A&M can likely outbid us with their oil money if they choose to do so.
Now, I'm going to list these in order of my personal preference, with some comments on their resume and the likelihood of us being able to land them. Hit the break for more...
I'm not going to discuss unrealistic candidates like Phil Jackson, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, or Billy Donovan. Sure, no harm in making those calls, but quickly move on to plan B once the laughter subsides. Generally speaking, I want someone with head coaching experience who has proven they can win in a power 5 conference. I personally prefer an up-tempo style of play, ideally I'd like someone that runs a system similar to UNC's secondary break.
1) Rick Pitino- He's a hall of fame coach currently working overseas. I have little doubt he would get us to a Final Four. Of course, he comes with a ton of baggage including personal scandals and potential NCAA issues relating to the FBI investigation. I don't care about his personal life, I would make arrangements for his own private booth at Depalma's. We've had enough "nice guy" coaches that haven't worked out. Give me a sleaze bag that will win. Obviously the NCAA issues are concerning, and he may end up with a show cause. At this point, I'm willing to take some chances in recruiting. I desperately want to see Alabama playing in a Final Four in my lifetime, and I'm not getting any younger. I don't even care if it is subsequently vacated. Unfortunately, this isn't going to happen, because the Board isn't going to consider anyone with possible NCAA baggage out of fear that we will somehow hurt football.
2) Kelvin Sampson- He's proven he can win at a power 5 "football" school by taking Oklahoma to the NCAA tournament 11 out of 12 years including a final four appearance. He currently has Houston in the tournament as a 3 seed. I think the allure of getting back into a major conference would be sufficient to pry him from Houston. He has his own NCAA baggage, albeit significantly less than Pitino. He had a show cause on him at one time for texting recruits outside the contact period, lying about it, and then getting busted for the same thing a second time. It was over ten years ago, the man served his time, so to speak, and what he did would not even be considered a major violation under current rules. Regardless, I doubt our people will go for it, which is a shame.
3) Thad Matta- Made the NCAA tournament 13 out of 14 years during one stretch between Butler, Xavier, and Ohio State, including a Final Four appearance, and for what its worth won the NIT the year they didn't make the big dance. Much like Sampson above, he's proven he can win big at a football school. The only concerns would be his ability to recruit the Southeast. With the exception of one year when he was an assistant at Western Carolina in the mid 90s, his entire career has been spent in the Midwest. He resigned from Ohio State a couple of years ago due to health issues related to a bad back surgery. If he's recovered and willing to get back into coaching, I think this would be a fantastic hire
4) Buzz Williams-He took Marquette to five straight tournaments and is now making his third straight tournament appearance with Virginia Tech. He's an energetic personality that would be the great promoter of the program that we need. I don't know if his ceiling is quite as high as those I have listed above him, but I like the way his teams play. Texas A&M is publicly courting him, and he did attend their Kingsville campus where he was also an assistant coach. As mentioned above, I think aTm can outbid us here, but we should drive up the price as much as we can if nothing else.
5) Fred Hoiberg- The mayor of Ames, took the Iowa State Cyclones to 4 straight tournament appearances before stinking it up for 4 years with my beloved Chicago Bulls. Much like Avery couldn't adapt from the NBA game to college, Hoiberg was unable to adapt to the NBA game. He simply did not know how to manage the egos of professional athletes. It's been a maddening 4 years for me simultaneously watching a college coach run my NBA team while a pro coach was trying to coach my college team. Anyway, back to the point, I don't think his pro career is in any way indicative of what he would accomplish here. He's another guy who's been in the Midwest his entire career. Nebraska is rumored to be after him, and while we are easily a better program with deeper pockets, he may not want to come south.
There's a BIG GAP here, as I think any of the 5 above would almost assuredly be a success whereas the rest of these guys are total crap shoots.
6) Bobby Hurley- He won the conference both of his years at Buffalo and has now taken Arizona State to back to back tournament appearances. He seems to be on the right trajectory but who knows if it will continue or what his ceiling might be.
7) Scott Drew- He resurrected an unmitigated disaster at Baylor and has made the tournament 6 out of the last 8 years. I'm not crazy about his zone defense system, and I think those two elite eight appearances may have been his ceiling.
8) Steve Prohm- There's a lot rumors suggesting he will be the man. Alabama graduate who has won 2 conference tournaments and taken Iowa State to the big dance 3 out of 4 years. He had a terrible year there last year, and while he won his conference regularly at Murray, he only made the NCAA tournament in his first year there. If he was successful here, he would be less likely to leave for a blue blood than the other up and comers on this list, but I have my doubts if he can compete with the likes of Pearl, Barnes, and Howland. His teams have great spacing and movement on offense, but tend to be defensively challenged.
8) Steve Wojciechowski- Very inexperienced, but has taken Marquette to the postseason the last 3 years, with two of those being the big dance. Typical up and coming roll of the dice type hire.
9)Nate Oats- Won the conference last 2 years at Buffalo, had them ranked in the top 25 at one point this year, and has made the tournament three out of four years. Very similar resume to Wojo above.
10) Mick Cronin- Definitely should be higher on the list based on his accomplishments. He's had Cincinnati in the tournament for a solid decade now. I just don't like his style of play. His teams play great defense with a very slow, methodical offense. They rank in the 330s in tempo. I think this allows inferior teams to keep games close, and while he's consistent, I don't think he will ever be a threat to make a deep run. They've only made it to the second weekend once.
11) Andy Kennedy- Another guy I've heard rumored to be in serious contention. I really want him to be the head coach...of my second favorite team, the UAB Blazers. He would be a great fit there. We've already seen what he can do in the SEC, 2 tournament appearances in 12 years and never past the second round, and that was only because they had Marshall Henderson. Not to mention he assaulted a cab driver. No thanks.
12) Gregg Marshall- I've heard some people say he might be a possibility since he "considered" us last time, and now his kids have graduated, etc. I'm not convinced he can recruit at a level necessary to compete in the SEC. It's a whole different animal than Wichita. Avery Johnson beat him twice, for that matter. I don't like the guy, or his wife, for a number of reasons.
13) John Pelphrey- Again, only listing him here because I've heard rumors involving his name. Nice guy, solid coach, but if he can't cut it at Arkansas he won't cut it here.
14) Bucky McMilan- I've heard rumors that he will be brought in as an assistant coach, and I'm totally fine with that if it's what it takes to land Watford. I'm only mentioning him on this list because I've heard some morons actually advocate for offering him the head coaching job. He's a great high school coach, but to hire a high school coach to a power 5 conference job after our NBA coach didn't work out is just sheer stupidity. There are a number of reasons why his system won't translate to the college game. If he wants to come as an assistant and one day move into a head coaching role in college, then I'm fine with that. But under no circumstances should he get any consideration for the head coaching job at this time whatsoever.