How Tommy Lloyd won the support of former Arizona legends who criticized his hire

LOS ANGELES — Gilbert Arenas’ phone began buzzing nonstop when word started to leak that Arizona was hiring an outsider as its new men’s basketball coach.

Outraged texts popped up one after another in a group chat consisting of Arenas and dozens of other former Arizona players.

The group chat’s preferred candidates were legends of the Lute Olson era who were working to climb the coaching ladder. The former players had lobbied for Arizona to take a chance on Damon Stoudamire, Miles Simon or Jason Terry the way Michigan did with Juwan Howard or Memphis did with Penny Hardaway.

When Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke instead offered the job to Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, many former Wildcats players felt unheard and betrayed. They struggled to understand how Heeke could entrust the program Olson built to a man none of them knew, to a man with no head coaching experience.

“Everyone was upset,” Arenas told Yahoo Sports. “We said to keep it in-house and give it to someone who has put on that uniform. We felt that our voices weren’t heard.”

Over the next few days, the frustration spilled out of the group chat and into the public eye. A.J. Bramlett responded to a report of Lloyd getting the job by posting, “This can’t be true. The damage done from this kind of decision without feedback from the alumni will kill the support from all of us.” Richard Jefferson called the coaching search “a debacle” and penned a lengthy social media post urging Arizona in all-caps to “IMPROVE THE PROCESS.”

The most outspoken of all was Arenas. In an Instagram live video with Jefferson, Arenas said that the job should have gone to Stoudamire because “he has the credentials.” Arenas, a three-time NBA all-star, said that “an assistant coach doesn’t have the credentials” to coach Arizona and refused to say Lloyd’s name “because he doesn’t deserve it.”

Three years later, it would be easy for Lloyd to gloat. He could easily clap back by pointing to his 88-19 record at Arizona, to his two Pac-12 titles, to his multiple Sweet 16s.

Instead, on the eve of Arizona’s round of 16 NCAA tournament clash with Clemson on Thursday in Los Angeles, Lloyd displayed trademark humility. He insisted that Arenas, Jefferson and the rest of the former Arizona players “had a right to feel that way.”

“This is an amazing program,” Lloyd said, “and it's an amazing legacy and an amazing tradition. Had I not known myself so well, I probably would have wondered what the heck they’re doing hiring an assistant coach from the WCC.”

Mar 27, 2024; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Arizona Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd during a press conference prior to NCAA Tournament at West Regional at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd during a press conference prior to NCAA Tournament at West Regional at Arena. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

What Arizona saw in Tommy Lloyd

Two days after the 2021 national title game, just as college basketball appeared to be drifting peacefully into the offseason, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke drove a sledgehammer through the serenity.

Heeke fired Sean Miller, opening one of the sport’s rare jobs with championship potential and sending the coaching carousel spinning anew at breakneck speed.

It wasn’t the NCAA investigation into his program or five Level I allegations that doomed Miller. Arizona had stood by him for years amid that turmoil. What led Heeke to make a change was that Arizona hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2017 and had slipped from the top of the Pac-12 to its muddled middle. As Heeke put it when speaking to reporters that day, “We have not been, on the competitive side, as successful as we wanted.”

When Heeke spoke to basketball people he trusted about the Arizona job, he’d sometimes ask the question, “If you had to hire an assistant, who would you consider?” Maybe 95% of the time, the answer would be the same.

“They’d say Tommy Lloyd,” Heeke told Yahoo Sports. “That kept happening.”

Having gone to high school with former Gonzaga coach Dan Monson and worked for nearly two decades in the Pacific Northwest, Heeke knew enough people familiar with Lloyd to ask around about him. The more Heeke learned, the more he liked.

Lloyd had come to Gonzaga as a grad assistant in 1999, earned a promotion to assistant coach two years later and gradually evolved into Mark Few’s most trusted lieutenant. It isn’t just that Lloyd was college basketball’s finest international recruiter, bringing the likes of Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos to Spokane (Wash.). Lloyd was also a well-rounded coach who constructed Gonzaga’s offense and was instrumental in game planning and player development.

Among the other candidates Heeke interviewed during the search were Stoudamire and Simon. Stoudamire had rebuilt Pacific into a winning program after stints as an assistant coach in the NBA and at Arizona and Memphis. Simon worked as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers at the time after previously serving in the same role at Arizona.

Before long, Heeke’s choice was clear. He wanted Lloyd.

“Not to say we weren’t engaged with sitting head coaches and other people, but it quickly narrowed to, hey, this is the guy,” Heeke said. “It was a little bit out of the box, but we were confident in Tommy’s skill set, his energy level as a recruiter and that he had the coaching chops to do the job.”

Of course, there was still the matter of whether Lloyd would want the job. After all, he had it written into his Gonzaga contract that he would be next in line whenever Few decided to retire. The Zags had just played for the national title days earlier. Arizona still faced the possibility of NCAA punishment.

Luckily for Arizona, Lloyd was interested. He had never previously considered leaving Gonzaga when other schools pursued him, but this was different. Arizona, for a long time, had been the standard bearer for Gonzaga. It was one of the programs the Zags tried to emulate.

At his introductory news conference, Lloyd admitted he was nervous when he approached Few in the Gonzaga weight room and revealed that Arizona was interested in him. Lloyd recalls Few putting him at ease by telling him, “Are you kidding me? Who would have thought five years ago we’d play in two championship games and Arizona would want Gonzaga’s assistant coach to be their head coach?”’

“He told me, ‘If you can get that job, you have to take it,'” Lloyd continued. “Trust me, he’s never told me that before.”

Mar 23, 2024; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd during the second half in the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament against the Dayton Flyers at Vivint Smart Home Arena-Delta Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd during the second half in the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament against the Dayton Flyers. (Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports)

'Give him a chance'

In hindsight, Gilbert Arenas said, the frustration with the new hire among former Arizona players had little to do with Lloyd.

“It could’ve been Phil Jackson,” Arenas quipped. “We’d still have been in the same uproar.”

It aggravated ex-Arizona players that they weren’t consulted more during the week-long decision making process. A.J. Bramlett, the leading rebounder on Arizona’s 1997 national championship team, said that he and other former Wildcats “felt kind of shut out, not part of the process.”

“You want to feel like you have some sort of say and are being heard,” Bramlett told Yahoo Sports. “I think that’s where some of the issues came from.”

Ex-players also felt that Heeke and Arizona president Robert Robbins may have already decided on Lloyd before they even spoke with Stoudamire, Simon and other candidates. Reports that Lloyd was the “heavy favorite” contributed to that perception, they said, as did erroneous leaks about how much money Arizona intended to offer.

“Seems very ‘Rooney Rule’ to me,” Jefferson wrote on social media at the time. “Imagine walking into an interview knowing that terms have already been leaked for someone else not associated with your University or with head coaching experience.”

For Lloyd, the first step toward gaining the support of former Arizona players was a zoom call with them the day of his introductory news conference. Bramlett recalls leaving that conversation impressed that Lloyd didn’t tiptoe around the elephant in the room, that he addressed head-on the criticism that he had heard.

“Hey, I know that some of you weren’t happy with the process,” Bramlett remembers Lloyd saying. “I’m going to show you who I am and that I value this program. I’m going to show you that every day with the way that I work and the product that I put on the court.”

The zoom call broke the ice. Arizona’s performance in Lloyd’s debut season melted it for good. Playing at a dizzying pace reminiscent of the Olson era, Arizona amassed a 33-4 record and claimed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

It also helped that Lloyd made former players feel welcome whenever they dropped by to visit or attended a game. And that Lloyd retained former Olson team manager and Miller assistant Jack Murphy as his associate head coach and named former standout Arizona point guard Jason Gardner as his director of player relations.

“I remember Murph saying that he’s a good guy and to give him a chance,” Arenas said. “I was like, Alright, Murph, if you’re giving him the stamp of approval then I can’t go against that.”

The change of heart toward Lloyd among former Arizona players has been striking over the past couple years.

Arenas speaks highly of Lloyd after getting to know him when Arizona began recruiting his son, five-star prospect Alijah Arenas. Earlier this month, Jefferson belted out “Bad Boy for Life” alongside Lloyd in the victorious Arizona locker room after the Wildcats clobbered UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 title.

“All of our comments three years ago were really just because we cared,” Bramlett said. “We cared about U of A basketball, the school and Coach Olson’s legacy. We just wanted to make sure that was going to be handled with care and built upon."

Lloyd is the first to say that he understands where Bramlett and the rest of the former Arizona players were coming from when he was hired.

“I wasn’t an Arizona guy at that time,” Lloyd said, “but I’ll tell you what, I am now.”