UCLA has long been lumped with the blue bloods of college basketball, the triumphs of John Wooden still reverberating generations later. As coaches, athletic directors, agents and search firms position themselves for his year’s college carousel, that age-old UCLA reputation will get its latest reality check. Is UCLA still an elite job in college basketball?
The answer may lie in the caliber of coach UCLA can lure to Westwood this winter. More than 20 years after UCLA’s last championship, the school will be hiring its fourth coach tasked with attempting to hang a banner next to the one commemorating the 1995 title. The eras of Steve Lavin, Ben Howland and Steve Alford were all solid, with Howland’s three consecutive Final Fours (2006-08) providing the highlight. Who will be next in the wake of Alford’s December firing?
It’s hard to imagine a job better than UCLA opening this year, at least without a surprising NBA defection. It promises to be a busy season out West, as the Pac-12’s irrelevance on the court translates to a busy season with Arizona, California and Washington State all facing potential openings.
But UCLA will be the most coveted spot, and it will be fascinating to see what caliber of a coach they can lure. And it’s also hard to imagine UCLA being a sexy enough job that it could de-trench an established winner like Jay Wright or Tom Izzo from their local comfort zones.
The next coach will have to figure out if the expectations in Westwood intersect with reality. The school fired Alford – owing him nearly $4 million – with a 124-63 record and four NCAA tournaments in his first five years. Basically, he wore out his welcome in Westwood. This came to no surprise to anyone who’d ever actually met him, as Alford’s aloofness and misplaced ego didn’t magically appear when he got the UCLA job.
Who could be next? There’s no obvious answer like when Howland got hired from Pitt. The coach that UCLA covets is Virginia’s Tony Bennett, but he’s already turned down plenty of more established programs in favor of the elite program he’s established in Charlottesville. Also, Bennett enjoys attention as much as J.D. Salinger, which wouldn’t make the bright lights of LA very appealing.
Where does UCLA turn from there? Luke Walton appears to have about as much chance to remain with the Lakers as his father does joining President Trump’s cabinet. But does he covet a college gig? And would he prefer to try and help his alma mater, Arizona, through the NCAA fallout from the federal basketball investigation if the school decides to move on Sean Miller?
Former Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg played scintillating and aesthetically pleasing basketball at Iowa State, but his transfer-based recruiting approach would need to be overhauled. Hoiberg, as of now, is the safest bet from this field if he doesn’t stick to his NBA-first preference.
Then there’s a flurry of the next tier of college candidates, all excellent coaches who’d be interesting fits. Nevada’s Eric Musselman leads the West Coast candidates, and his record and acumen are without question. He could jolt the Bruin program, but a reputation as being high maintenance from his early days in the NBA still lingers.
Others who could come up? The school has expressed interest in Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall before, but he’d be pricey as he’d need a cost-of-living raise from the $3.5 million he’s making from the Koch Brothers at Wichita State. Texas Tech’s Chris Beard has proven an exquisite tactician and motivator, but he’s expensive as he makes more than $3 million on average at Tech. Could Washington’s domination of the league – 10-0 after winning at Arizona on Thursday – earn Mike Hopkins a look? He’s a Southern California native and his energy and personality would be a refreshing change from Alford.
Mick Cronin’s consistent success at Cincinnati will always have him on the list for elite jobs, but he’s been hesitant to leave. Providence’s Ed Cooley, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams and Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski could also earn looks. It’s a muddled field with no clear frontrunner, which is fitting with UCLA’s place in the greater college basketball stratosphere.
Who else could be in the market for a new coach this spring?
Boston College – Jim Christian’s time at BC doesn’t look great on paper. He’s been there five seasons (59-93), and this will be the fifth one without an NCAA tournament. There’s some nice young talent like injured freshman guard Wynston Tabbs and freshman forward Jairus Hamilton, but there’s still a 2-7 ACC record. They’ve gone a decade without an NCAA appearance at BC, and the school is falling far behind its ACC peers in facilities and support. BC has no buzz or resonance among this generation of high school stars, and it’s viewed in the industry as a difficult job. Christian got extended through 2022 last year, but his buyout isn’t prohibitive. BC needs to deliver some hope in the final weeks.
Wake Forest – Danny Manning is staring at one NCAA appearance – a First Four cameo in 2017 – in five years. With a 2-8 league record this season, Wake is widely believed to be underachieving considering their recruiting success and the talent on their roster. (NBA teams are intrigued by 6-foot-8 freshman Jaylen Hoard.)
The variable here is Manning’s contract, as he signed a long-term extension in 2017 and it is believed to cost over $10 million to buy him out. (The numbers at the private school aren’t known.) Wake Forest isn’t flush with cash, which could make moving on from Manning untenable.
The general expectation is that there will be no firings in the Big East. The league has struggled this year, but the only potential openings – DePaul and St. John’s – are unlikely to happen. DePaul likely has NCAA scrutiny from the federal basketball investigation coming, which could eventually factor into Dave Leitao’s future. But he appears safe as long as Jean Lenti Ponsetto is the athletic director, as she’s tied to him. DePaul doesn’t have the institutional gusto to pull an AD-coach coup, especially because losing games has been institutionalized there. (They haven’t had a winning record in league play since they were in Conference USA in 2005.) DePaul has shown embers of life at 12-9 and 4-6 in the Big East, just enough for Leitao to stick around. St. John’s would only open if Chris Mullin decided to walk away, as the Red Storm project as a play-in game NCAA team. It would be hard for new AD Mike Cragg to part ways with a legend after only a few months on the job if St. John’s doesn’t reach the NCAA tournament.
PENN STATE – This job is certain to open, as Pat Chambers is staring at going 0-for-8 in NCAA tournament appearances. Penn State has little tradition and basketball appeal, but the current 1-11 Big Ten record has sealed Chambers’ fate. Good luck finding a good replacement, as Penn State has one NCAA appearance since 2001. Look for Penn State to attempt to find an up-and-comer, with Buffalo’s Nate Oats, George Mason’s Dave Paulsen, Vermont’s John Becker, Charleston’s Earl Grant, Northeastern’s Bill Coen, UMBC’s Ryan Odom, Stony Brook’s Jeff Boals, Bucknell’s Nathan Davis, Michigan State assistant Dane Fife and Ohio State assistant Ryan Pedon all logical names.
NEBRASKA – Tim Miles is looking at going 1-for-7 in NCAA appearances in Lincoln, as he’s done solidly at a difficult job in a place with no local recruiting base. Will new athletic director Bill Moos hit reset? It appears likely at this point, which will put the speculation around Oregon’s Dana Altman heading back to Nebraska. (He was a standout coach at Creighton.) The thorny issue with Altman is that Oregon came up in the federal basketball scandal, including for offering an “astronomical” amount for Brian Bowen to play there. An interesting potential play for Miles, if fired, is to go to Washington State in an attempt to mimic the success he’d had at Colorado State. Not having to pay a lot up front would make Miles appealing, as Washington State will owe Ernie Kent $3.9 million if they fire him.
Nothing appears imminent in the Big 12. There could be rumblings about Shaka Smart at Texas, but they’d owe him $13 million. Even at cash-rich Texas, that’s a non-starter. Could Bill Self explore the NBA as NCAA issues mount in Lawrence?
ARIZONA – Sean Miller seemingly faces a thorny road to keeping his job, with looming NCAA issues and potential exposure in the upcoming federal trial of Christian Dawkins. The two glaring names here would be Walton and Musselman, who both could also be coveted by UCLA. That makes Arizona’s timing interesting, as it’s difficult to see them firing Miller without cause (they’d owe him nearly $8 million). Can they wait to see if cause emerges? If so, they could lose a top target. The other factor about Arizona is luring a coach with potential NCAA issues looming, as a there’s potential for significant sanctions considering the breadth of everything related to the Wildcats that emerged in the federal basketball trial.
CALIFORNIA – The hiring of Wyking Jones was the single-worst high-major basketball hire of the past decade, an inevitable and unmitigated disaster that no one outside the walls of Berkeley could have envisioned working. Cal is 13-41 overall in two seasons, winless in Pac-12 play this year and generally hopeless. Cal isn’t flush with cash, but it’s hard to imagine them continue floundering with an overmatched coach. The obvious hire here should have been made last time – Montana’s Travis DeCuire, who is a former Cal associate head coach from better times. This being Cal, they could slog through another year of Jones to save money.
WASHINGTON STATE – This is one of the hardest jobs in the power conferences. Ernie Kent’s contract and buyout ($3.9 million) are an albatross at cash-strapped Washington State, so they will have to be creative contractually when they fire Kent. They blew out Arizona State on the road on Thursday to improve to 2-8 in the conference, but there’s little hope. Some names here are Boise’s Leon Rice (who is an alum), Seattle U’s Jim Hayford, UC-Irvine’s Russell Turner, Utah State’s Craig Smith and Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd. AD Pat Chun may need to go outside-the-box, as East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes and South Dakota State’s T.J. Otzelberger have proven an ability to excel in tough geographic areas. Could the Cougars attempt to tap into successful bloodlines? Houston assistant Kellen Sampson has emerged as a hot name, and his father, Kelvin, had four straight winning seasons in Pullman in the early 1990s.
TEXAS A&M – It would be surprising if Billy Kennedy returned to A&M next season. The Aggies have free-fallen to 1-8 in SEC play and mysteriously lost assistant Isaac Chew to a vague resignation in late January. There have been no positive vibes out of College Station. Athletic director Scott Woodward has always been fixated on hiring star coaches, landing Chris Petersen at Washington and Jimbo Fisher at A&M. Look for a full-court press on Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams, a former A&M assistant who has long been linked to someday returning. He makes nearly $3 million in Blacksburg, which would mean a meaty offer to get him to leave. Kelvin Sampson is down the road at Houston, and would loom as an attractive candidate. Musselman has experience as an SEC assistant and would certainly be the big name that Woodward craves.
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