Publisher’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series examining the growing trend of hiring professional coaches to the staffs of LSU’s big three sports – football, baseball and men’s basketball. You can view part one with baseball coach Paul Mainieri here and part two with football coach Les Miles here.
For a number of reasons college basketball is a different animal when it comes to the thought process behind a staff coaching hire. Not the least of which is the fact that, because there are fewer players than in baseball or football (and one player truly can make that much of a difference), head coaches are often swayed to add a star high school player’s coach – prep or AAU – in order to get the blue-chipper.
It does happen in other sports, but the practice remains most prevalent on the hardwood.
The irony for LSU and head coach Johnny Jones is that they haven’t had to go there, at least not directly. Assistant head coach David Patrick is the godfather of elite 2015 forward Ben Simmons, an unwavering LSU commit, but Patrick’s expertise and reach have extended a lot farther than that.
And so Jones, in an era when many continue to cherry-pick top prospects by giving up seats on their benches to unqualified coaches, surprised some when he went the other way this offseason. With a vacancy on his staff following the departure of Korey McCray, Jones brought on former NBA head coach Eric Musselman to serve as LSU’s associate coach in June.
It was quite the coup, but as Jones explained it was less about Musselman’s time in the Association, where he was the head coach of the Golden State Warriors (2002-04) and Sacramento Kings (2006-07), as it was the fit.
“With every hire I really just want to try and find out who may be the best fit for each situation,” said Jones. “There were a lot of NBA people with NBA backgrounds that had an interest in the position when it was open. I just thought that Eric was the best fit. Anytime you’re looking for different ideas, you to go coaching clinics and you buy tapes and you’re always seeking chances to grow in the profession. Well, when you have a chance to hire somebody in that spot, you get the best of both worlds.”
Tabbing Musselman, whose father Bill was a longtime head coach on the college and professional levels, was definitely about beefing up on the Xs and Os for the Tigers, bringing another proven basketball mind to the sideline. That concept of generating new ideas, and keeping things from getting stale, is something Paul Mainieri and Les Miles also echoed when it came to their forays into hiring pro coaches.
“It’s like everything else. We want to make sure we can continue to improve in all areas and at the same time new ideas are important,” Jones continued. “That’s something that really doesn’t come just with professional hires but with all hires. Guys come in from different programs, and that’s happened with a couple different guys since we’ve been here. I think sharing is best. Eric’s been a head coach on that level, an assistant on that level, and with all the head coaches he’s been able to serve under, he’ll certainly have some new ideas. He may have something different that you can implement that can help your team moving forward.”
The prestige associated with having a former NBA head coach on the bench for LSU plays well from a recruiting angle, too. But, as Jones reminded, it’s just as important to convince current and future players that they’ll be developed properly, giving them a chance to reach the pinnacle of hoops.
To that end, during his time in Baton Rouge, Jones has also hired McCray, who used to work with NBA players in his native Atlanta during offseasons before taking a job with UCLA, and Patrick, who came to LSU after a stint as player personnel scout for the Houston Rockets.
“Anytime you have someone that has been a part of the NBA, that highest level, and had that experience, it’s something they have an opportunity to share with our prospective recruits or current players,” explained Jones. “They can share the knowledge that they have or the experiences that they’ve had, and all of it helps point our players where they’re trying to go.”
There may not be a one-size-fits-all formula for hiring coaches to a college basketball staff, but Jones, taking a look back at his history with these decisions, felt he always made the best call based on the need and taking modern trends into consideration. It’s what gives him hope that he’s struck gold with Musselman.
“When I was at the University of Memphis and I had an opportunity as the interim head coach to make a hire, one of the best people that was in that area was Charlie Leonard. With his background it was going to be something different, but I brought him on board and that was good,” recalled Jones. “Then when I was at the University of North Texas, with every hire I made I never jumped in there and tried to go too quick in finding somebody. I always tried to find the best fit, the best person that may be able to help us do what we were trying to do, help an area you’re searching for. Sometimes that may be a recruiter, a guy with a great recruiting background that you’re looking for. Or there could be someone with some different type of philosophy or an individual skill coach, which a lot of guys have gotten into hiring them.
“But usually you’re looking for someone that’s well-rounded. The good thing for Coach Musselman is he’s worked in Division-I basketball the last two years. That’s certainly helped because I’m sure sometimes those things might not transition quite as well. We’re hoping those past two years he’s had at Arizona State will help him transition here and that he’s grown from understanding whatever it takes in the college game as opposed to the pros.”