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Coaching search Thursday news and notes

By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 months ago


Brandin Knight, left, with Jamie Dixon (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

Here is some news, notes and thoughts about the coaching search and another candidate (though, well, read on)….

Let’s start with Brandin Knight, who I’m told will definitely interview for the job and will be a legitimate candidate. It won’t be a courtesy interview, and he will be thoughtfully considered for the job.

He has been endorsed by players, former players and Jamie Dixon. I’m sure if someone asked Ben Howland, he would give Knight an endorsement. And none of that is a surprise.

He is, probably more than Dixon or Howland, the face of this great era of Pitt basketball. He’s a guy who symbolizes everything this era has been about: Toughness, competitiveness, desire, onions. ... And on top of all that, he is one of the best players in school history.

I’ll go one step further: If you are going to compile a list of the best players in BIG EAST history and it doesn’t include Brandin Knight, then your list is not worth anything.

I know, I know. A bunch of lottery picks and high-level NBA guys played in the Big East, and Knight wasn’t one of those guys. But none of that has anything to do with a discussion of best players in Big East history, as it is a discussion of college basketball players, not pro prospects. And, by the way, take a look at the list of NBA guys that got their tail ends kicked by Knight and his teammates.

So that is a very, very long way of saying: It is easy to understand why the players want him, the guys who coached him want him and the players who played for him want him. If you want to talk about a guy whose competitive fire is burning, watch that guy on the sidelines when the other team is getting the best of Pitt and it is clear he wants to take his jacket and tie off and go out there and put in some work.

There are a lot of comparisons, also, to be made for when Dixon took over from Howland. Dixon had never been a head coach, he had been the top assistant at Pitt, he was a guy that was endorsed by players, former players and Howland — and it obviously worked out.

• But there are a few distinct differences that should be pointed out…

Dixon had been an assistant coach for 15 seasons before he was a head coach and was 38 years old. He had also worked at five different schools before he came to Pitt and worked under multiple head coaches.

Knight is 34, he has only been an assistant for eight years and only at Pitt and only under Dixon.

So there is a clear difference in their resume and experience level, and the only reason I point that out is because experience matters. And more importantly, just because the two situations on the surface seem the same, they aren’t really.

This is a different program now, a different challenge and a different era.

I am not saying that Brandin Knight couldn’t do the job or shouldn’t get the job — it is not my job to advocate for or against candidates — I’m just trying to look at the situation analytically as to why this isn’t exactly the same situation as when Dixon was hired.

• Pitt right now, I think, is a tougher job than it was in 2003 when Dixon took over because the program Dixon inherited was on the upswing and was really in good place.

This job, while still in a reasonably good place, needs a little bit of tender loving care. I mean, to put it in housing terms, this isn’t a total fixer-upper, but it is a house in a good neighborhood that you got for a little less than market value because the kitchen and bathroom need to be updated some.

There is a little bit of rebuilding that needs to be done, the transition to becoming an ACC has gotten started but isn’t completed and this group of players has an interesting personality that needs to be managed a certain way.

Again, I’m not saying Knight isn’t up to the job because I believe that guy can do anything he puts his mind to, but it is important to understand that is why Scott Barnes and company are considering other options. It also, I think, underscores why they are putting such a heavy importance on the new guy having head coaching experience or significant experience as a high-level assistant coach.

One last thing on this: I keep reading, hearing, having people email me, talk to me about how “if they don’t hire Knight, players will leave and they might lose their recruits!”

OK, I’m going to sound very callous here, but listen before you jump down my throat…

WHO CARES?

First off, a few players are going to leave even if Knight is hired, this is college athletics in the 2010s and beyond and every team has attrition and guys leaving every year.

Second, the list of players who would leave because of a new coach is not nearly as great as you think, no matter what they say right now. The new coach will come in, give his speech to them about what he wants and his vision, and most (because they are smart and know they are in a good spot) will come out and say, “Wow, he was impressive, we love him, I can’t wait to get started!”

How do I know this?

Because, again, I’ve been through about, well, too many to count, coaching searches. And only once — when Pitt hired Michael Haywood — have I ever heard players upset and not get on board quickly. Sure, guys leave because they don’t fit the style or don’t see themselves with a role, but all of that happens after practices. And, like I said, this happens after just about EVERY coaching search.

Let’s do the math:

This team has four juniors, who are also four of the five best players returning. And outside of maybe Chris Jones, who I think either has or will graduate, I don’t know that any of them can transfer somewhere else and play for their final year. So I’m thinking they will be back.

Every conversation I’ve had with Ryan Luther (and that includes early this season when he wasn’t getting much playing time) has been very consistent: He loves it at Pitt, loves the school, loves playing in front of his family and friends, grew up watching Pitt and he doesn’t want to go anywhere else.

I haven’t had the same conversation with Cam Johnson, but I’m fairly certain staying at Pitt is his first choice regardless of his coach.

As for the recruits, the new guy will try to keep the three guys coming in. But here is the reality: If they don’t want to come, it gives the new coach more open scholarships to find players that fit what he is looking for.

So, if three of the four juniors (and again, I’m not saying Jones will leave, just that he is the one who would have the option) and the two sophomores (I know, I know, Cam is a redshirt freshman eligibility-wise, but those two came in together) are almost locks to come back regardless of who is the coach, I’m thinking that the team will be in great shape.

• In today’s paper, I published the initial list of coaches that Pitt wants to contact.

It is — deep breath — just the initial list the school was working with and is probably not complete. Scott Barnes obviously has his short-list guys (like Sean Miller) but the list shows that this is going to be a thorough process. I was told yesterday that three of the guys they are really interested in are still coaching in the NIT or NCAA tournament.

As we have seen in countless coaching searches that involve a search firm, the initial list is often broad and may not even contain the guy who actually gets the job. But it is a starting point.

This was not a guess of who Pitt will hire as its new coach, it was a list of initial coaches Pitt will either have contacted or will contact.

What I do like about it is that it shows Barnes is willing to kick the tires on a lot of the hot names among mid-major coaches.

From what I can gather, Bryce Drew seems to be somewhat high on the wish list, but they will have competition for him from St. Louis, among some other schools.

The formal interview process for real candidates is expected to begin in the next day or two.

The reason Pitt has yet to hire a coach is because it’s just getting started with interviews, the real formal interviews. I want to clarify that because again “define interview” - Barnes hasn’t spent the last three days sitting on his thumbs, he has spoke to guys, had some conversations, got some things set up for next few days etc.,etc. You don’t want to wait too long, and Pitt isn’t but Barnes does want to go through a good process. He wants to make sure that he gets the right guy. 

• Maybe this is burying the lede, but here is another name to add to the list – and it is an intriguing one.

Pitt is interested in at least kicking the tires on North Carolina-Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts. And under normal circumstances, he might actually be at or very near the top of the list.

The 43-year-old is an up-and-comer with head coaching experience (Colonial Athletic Conference coach of the year twice in a row) and was the top assistant at a big time program.

He has experience winning recruiting battles in a power conference.

He is also from Lynchburg, Va., worked at Hargrave Military Academy for a bunch of years, meaning he has deep ties in the footprint of the ACC. And he is African-American, which, at an urban school like Pitt would be an added bonus. 

BUT there is just one issue — the “big-time program” he recruited for is Louisville, and he did it from 2011-14.

Yes, THAT Louisville. We’re talking about the Andre McGee years, which you may know from the stripper/prostitute/$10K bagmen scandal and as the reason Louisville is not in the NCAA tournament.

Keatts is a very good coach and probably would have a lot more teams coming to try and get him, but the risk is there. He is probably a bit to toxic until the scandal is fully investigated. It is hard to pull the trigger on hiring a guy today who was on a staff that is being investigated for a major recruiting scandal. Maybe he had nothing to do with it.

The worst case scenario would be if Pitt hires him, he hits the recruiting trail and then the facts of the investigation come out and he is named as one who handed money over to someone or knew what was going on and said nothing.

I’m not saying Pitt — or any school — can’t or won’t hire him, but they are certainly going to take a lot of time to go through the vetting process (more than usual) with him.

There are a lot of people freaking out about how bad it looks for Pitt that two native sons of Pittsburgh and the man responsible for building the program the first time (Ben Howland) have turned the job down.

I’ve heard this countless times from people in the past 24 hours: “If those three don’t want the job, nobody will want the job!”

Relax, please.

1) Sean Miller was never coming here. He said it many times over the past three years. Read yesterday’s blog post for more on this.

2) Archie Miller left Pittsburgh when he was 18 years old and never looked back. Yes, his family is still here, but I’ve talked to his dad, John Miller, in recent years and it is clear he is on the verge of becoming one of these snowbirds who maintains his house here and buys one in Arizona or Florida for the winters. And those people (I know, because my parents fit in that category) generally like the idea of two residences until they have to try to maintain them and eventually they become permanent residents of the place with better weather. ... In short, I don’t know how much longer Archie’s family is going to live here, and that is the ONLY connection he has to Pitt. He didn’t play here, he has never really expressed a desire to be the Pitt coach, and frankly there is something to be said about not wanting to have to come here and live in Sean’s shadow. AND on top of that he has a great job already and is holding out for one of the top jobs because he thinks he may have a shot if he keeps getting to the NCAA tournament and winning games. Pitt reached out to him because, again, they needed to, but I know this for a fact: Barnes knew he had no chance of getting Archie, either.

3) Ben Howland. I’ve had enough conversations to know that the idea of Ben Howland coming back was met with a lot of lukewarm response from the people that matter. Yes, he was on the initial contact list, but very few people at the university wanted to go this direction. And the idea that he “turned down” Pitt is WAY overstating things. Someone of influence (a very relative term, by the way) apparently reached out to him and asked if he’d have interest in the job, and he said no. So, here we go again: What does that actually mean? Did he turn down Pitt or did he decline to talk to Pitt? He was never offered the job, depending on what your definition of offer is, of course. ... At any rate, he has a great recruiting class coming in and he is at a place where he has a much better chance to get to the top of the league than he does in the ACC. Why would he leave? I mean, OK, Kentucky – but to get to the point where he finishes second or third in the SEC is not going to require a whole lot of heavy lifting. There isn’t a North Carolina, Virginia, Duke, Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame waiting behind Kentucky.

So, what is my point? Simple: These are three guys that nobody who was paying attention believed would even think about coming to Pitt for a variety of reasons, and most of them had nothing to do with how good or bad the Pitt job is. Sean has a great job. Ben is in a place he knows he can win pretty quickly and already has a great recruiting class (six 4-star recruits coming in) and this was never Archie’s dream job or anything close.

Now Scott Barnes can say to the old-timers around the program and other key influential people and fans in general who wanted a “Pitt Guy”, well, we tried, and they said no.

Pitt will be fine. Pitt will find a very good coach. Take a deep breath and relax.

• By the way, remember when I wrote that Barnes was in his office interviewing Tuesday and even filled a spot for some internal jobs (which is why it was impossible for him to be at Nemacolin or the airport Marriott), well here you go, here is the hire:

University of Pittsburgh athletic director Scott Barnes announced today the hiring of Julio Freire as deputy athletic director for external affairs.

The athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Martin the past two years, Freire’s oversight at Pitt will include fundraising, ticket sales, marketing, branding, multimedia rights, licensing and merchandising.

“Julio brings a fresh perspective as well as a tremendous work ethic to Pitt Athletics,” Barnes said. “He will provide key leadership as we continue our departmental reorganization. In addition to overseeing our external functions, Julio will have a particular focus on our athletic development operations. His overall experience and passion for collegiate athletics will be a great asset for our entire department.”

“I’m incredibly honored to join Scott Barnes’ team at the University of Pittsburgh,” Freire said. “So many exciting things are happening at Pitt, not only athletically but throughout the entire university. It is a great time to be a Panther and I’m thrilled and appreciative my family has been given this opportunity.”