The coaching search that has seemed to drag on too long took an unexpected twist for Providence late on Thursday. The Friars received word that their top target of the moment, the University of Massachusetts' Travis Ford, had opted to stay in Amherst.
On Sunday evening, at a 10:30 p.m. Mass, school president Father Shanley mentioned to the crowd that PC was hoping to hear by morning from a candidate that would wow the fans. Internet message boards exploded with speculation over who the "wow" candidate was. Various sources have pegged the candidate as either Larry Brown or Rick Pitino, although this is pure speculation.
Whatever the case, by Monday, the "wow" candidate was out of the picture, and athletic director Bob Driscoll was focused on wooing the next candidate on the list, a candidate forwarded by Pitino himself, Travis Ford. By Wednesday, Ford and his wife were in Providence. They toured the Dunkin' Donuts Center, they took a look around campus, they met with and dined with Father Shanley.
Late Wednesday evening, the Fords returned to Amherst with offer in hand, and a promise that a decision would be made on Thursday. On Thursday, Ford met with UMass officials, who reportedly offered a contract increase from $450,000 to approximately $800,000. With a 6:30 basketball banquet looming, Ford made his decision: he called to say that he was staying with the A-10 program.
For the second time in two weeks, PC basketball had its world rocked. Only a week before, Friar alum Jim Larranaga had turned down an offer to stay at mid-major George Mason. For PC fans who thought it couldn't get any worse, only a week later, it did. For PC's administration, a hard look in the mirror is necessary to figure out why this is happening.
For the administration, take a look at the facts and then ask the following question.
First, the facts. You're a Big East school. You're offering a new coach a salary somewhere in the $900,000 to $1 million a year range. You've got a returning nucleus that many experts have deemed good enough to win right away. So… you're offering mid-major and tweener league coaches an opportunity to move up to the best conference in America; you're offering a pay raise; and you're offering a team that, with the right coach, is ready made to win. And all you're hearing is "no."
Now the question. Why?
Obviously, interested coaches are seeing something that is turning them away. Now, that certain something may differ from coach to coach. But one thing is becoming abundantly clear, and Friar fans won't want to hear this, but maybe this isn't the plum job that many think it is. Maybe coaches look at this job and think that they won't be able to recruit well enough to build a consistent winner. Or maybe they see a small campus with little diversity and no dedicated practice facility. Or maybe they take a look around and see what they consider a MAAC school trying to compete in the Big East.
Whatever the case, something is scaring them away. Something is convincing them that its too difficult a job to win at Providence (Jim Larranaga), or that the luster might come off their reputation in their search for their dream job if they roll the dice at Providence (Ford).
One other thing is also becoming clear. The Friars are in a position where they will likely be forced to overpay… and they might overpay and not end up with a great coach. They might have to overpay just to get a lower level or inexperienced coach. The way this has played out and with the national knowledge that PC has been turned down publicly by two coaches, any future candidates are in position to demand a hefty salary. An inexperienced coach that PC might have had for $500,000 a few weeks ago, might cost $900,000 today. Not a good position to be in.
Certainly, Bob Driscoll has put Providence in the position to hire some good coaches. Larranaga and Ford would have been great hires. Larranaga, at 58, probably would have ended his career at Providence and is a great bench coach. Without question, you go in knowing that Ford would have likely been here two or three years before moving on to an SEC or ACC job, but in that time, he probably would have put the program back on solid ground and left it in good shape for the next coach.
The problem has been closing the deal. And overcoming whatever problems or stigmas are attached to the job. Now the problem has become tougher. The national attention that PC has garnered from two rejections has made it tougher, adding to the prevailing perception that this is not a good job, and its all been a bit embarrassing. National writers like Dick Weiss have taken shots at Providence and other writers have intimated that Driscoll and Providence have no Plan B. None of this helps or is necessarily accurate. For example, one writer stated that Albany's Will Browne had been contacted and was in the mix; Will Browne has never been contacted by Providence.
No question mistakes have been made. Jimmy Christian did not want to wait, wasn't offered by PC and jumped early at the TCU job. Ditto for Craig Robinson who accepted a tough Oregon State gig. But these mistakes would not have been fatal if Larranaga or Ford had worked out.
Where the Friars go from here is extremely unclear. It's difficult to say without knowing for sure who PC has spoken to so far. Have they called Keno Davis or Brad Brownell? If not, now is the time. Do they dish out $1.5 million for Jim O'Brien and take that chance? Do they gamble with Karl Hobbs and hope that he can work with admissions and other officials at the school? Is he another Bobby Gonzalez on the sidelines? Do they roll the dice with a hot assistant like Derek Kellogg? Do they make another run at Jeff Van Gundy? Does Tim O'Shea enter the picture? How about an out of the box candidate like Chris Lowry of Southern Illinois?
Whatever the case, the level of urgency has risen tenfold. With their own basketball banquet scheduled for Monday, PC would seemingly need to have a coach in place to pull that off. More important, recruiting is of paramount urgency and any new coach is behind the eight ball at this point, with a critical class looming.
Stay tuned for the next installment, Friar fans…
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