CJ's Corner: Coaching Candidates

An announcement may be close to the end of this famed head coaching search for Stanford Basketball, but there is no end in sight to the debate as to the "who" and "why" that fans are debating for the various preferred coaching candidates. Taking the cue that leading candidates needed to have Stanford or private school experience, here is an in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of a top five list.

Trent Johnson (Nevada).  Johnson is apparently at the top of Stanford's wish list, and with good reason. 

Johnson was an assistant coach at Utah, Washington and Rice before joining the Stanford staff for a three year stint beginning with the 1996-97 season.  Since leaving Stanford, Johnson has been the head coach at the University of Nevada, and has completely turned around the once floundering program.  Last season, the Wolf Pack won 25 games, including a blowout of Kansas and reached the sweet sixteen with a second round humbling of Gonzaga.

Johnson is known in coaching circles as an exceptional recruiter.  He was the head recruiter at the University of Washington and became one of Montgomery's most valuable recruiters at Stanford, helping to land the class of Barnes, Jacobsen, Davis, Borchardt and Kirchofer following the 1997-98 season.  He is particularly well-liked and works hard on the recruiting trail, logging personal appearances when many other head coaches would delegate the responsibility to assistants.  His Nevada teams have been characterized by aggressive play on offense, including a preference for play at a reasonably fast tempo, and the Wolf Pack has led the WAC in scoring offense.  He is willing to put the ball in the hands of his star players, such as Kirk Snyder and Todd Okeson and allow them to create.  Despite his years at Stanford, Johnson is not a Montgomery disciple in the sense of running the same or a system very similar to Stanford's  On the other hand, his teams do share certain characteristics of Montgomery's Stanford squads, as he demands that his players play sound

defense and rebound.  Because he empowers his players and allows them to create, he might not be perceived by some as a tactician, but one should not confuse the lack of rigidity of Johnson's system with a lack of technical ability; Johnson understands the game extremely well, he simply chooses not to employ a system that is quite as structured as that of some past Stanford teams.

If Stanford were to hire Johnson, it would likely be seen in basketball circles as a logical pickup.  Johnson has been widely viewed as the likely successor to Montgomery for some time.  To wit, Lindy's preseason magazine from 2003 named Johnson the #1 "hot springtime commodity" and predicted: "The former Stanford assistant could be Mike Montgomery's eventual replacement.  But Nevada will have to fight off suitors long before then to keep him in Reno."

Given his growing reputation and Nevada's recent rise to prominence (as some say, they have become the "new Gonzaga"), Johnson is a hot commodity, and recruits would probably be favorably impressed with his hiring.  Moreover, given his recruiting skills, Johnson is almost certainly capable of maintaining Stanford's momentum and nailing down a very good recruiting class this year.  Johnson may also be somewhat of a breath of fresh air for Stanford fans who would like to see the Cardinal continue to "open things up" on offense and get away from the seemingly rigid half court sets of some prior seasons.  Style of play matters to recruits, and Johnson's style of play will likely be attractive to fans and recruits alike.

Johnson's ties to Stanford should serve him well as a candidate and, if he is hired, as head coach.  He knows some of the players in the AD quite well, including Ted Leland, and understands the politics of the University.  His track record of recruiting success proves that he knows how to handle the unique aspects of Stanford's admissions process, and he must appreciate the potential pitfalls.

Although Johnson signed a contract extension that currently pays him an annual salary of $450,000, there is apparently no buyout clause that would require a payment by Johnson or a new employer if he is hired away from Nevada.  With his children having all graduated from college, moving to the Bay Area would not be a problem for former Stanford assistant. 

Mark Few (Gonzaga).  The common perception of Few is that he orchestrated the Bulldogs' rise to its current status as a perennial top 25 team and threat to go deep in the NCAA tournament each March.  This perception is not entirely accurate, as predecessor Dan Monson put the Zags on the map with an impressive run to the Elite Eight in 1999, which featured the infamous win over Stanford in a second round matchup. That talented Gonzaga squad featured future NBA players Richie Frahm and Casey Calvary, as well as Matt Santangelo.   When Monson bolted for the University of Minnesota, Few, a Gonzaga assistant coach since 1992 (and a graduate assistant in 1990-91), took the helm.  The Bulldogs didn't skip a beat after the transition, and Few set a record for most wins ever by a head coach in his first three seasons.  The Zags continued their postseason success, with consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in Few's first two NCAA tournaments at the helm.  Last year, Gonzaga reached its highest ever national ranking, but was bounced by Trent Johnson's Nevada squad in the second round of the dance.

Few is known as a good recruiter, luring talented players to Spokane, not the easiest sell in the West.  He also scores high marks as a tactician, and Gonzaga has featured an efficient half court offense, while selectively running the fast break.  Few is willing to mix up his defenses, and will occasionally change defensive assignments in the man to man defense during the course of a game.  In short, Few is flexible when it comes to strategy.

If Few were to be hired by Stanford, the program would almost certainly reap instant benefits.  Given Gonzaga's rise to prominence and the respect commanded by Few, a decision by him to jump to Stanford serve to solidify the view that Stanford is among the handful of top programs in the nation and that that status is not dependent upon Mike Montgomery.  The perception of the hire by the general public and Stanford's pool of recruits and potential recruits would almost certainly be quite positive.  In short, it would be a great development for recruiting. 

Another attractive feature of Few as a candidate is that his style at Gonzaga would mesh well with the players already in Stanford's program.  The Zags have been a fundamentally sound team featuring good ball movement on offense and effective use of its big men in both the high and low post.  The adjustment required of Stanford's current players would likely be manageable, and they would fit Few's system well. 

Other positive aspects of Few as a candidate for the Stanford job include his relative youth (at age 42, there's a reasonable chance that he could remain in his job for a long period of time), his experience with some semblance of admissions standards, and his experience recruiting in the West.

Few's lack of ties to Stanford would be a minor concern, but it is no secret that he has long admired the Stanford program and might well view the position of head coach at Stanford as so desirable that it would not be a stepping stone for him. 

In sum, I see Few as being as attractive a candidate as there is for the Stanford head coaching vacancy.  He should be pursued by the Ted Leland and the committee.  To be honest, however, I would be mildly surprised if Few were interested in making the jump.  He has been at Gonzaga for over a decade as an assistant and head coach, and even received his graduate degree there.  He is married and has a four year old son, and recently moved into a huge new house.  He is signed through 2008.  Gonzaga recently completed a new basketball arena.  There are a lot of reasons to believe that Few will not be interested in the Stanford position, even if it might mean a step up in prestige and level of competition.  Nevertheless, Stanford could conceivable pursue him and gauge his level of interest. 

Eric Reveno (Stanford).  Reveno presents an interesting and in many ways compelling case to be selected as Stanford's head coach, whether now or in the future.  With seven remarkably successful seasons as a Stanford assistant under his belt, "Rev" may be overlooked by some fans simply because they've grown accustomed to his sitting two chairs down the bench from Montgomery and have unfairly pigeon-holed him as Stanford's "big man" coach.

In some respects Reveno could wind up being a victim of his own success.  After helping develop solid but unspectacular talents such as Mark Madsen, the Collins twins and Curtis Borchardt into NBA players and coaching at Pete Newell's Big Man Camp for a half dozen years, Reveno's reputation for teaching post play is almost unrivaled in the college ranks.  While teaching post play has been Reveno's calling card, he possesses a number of other qualities that make his candidacy for the head coaching spot a strong one.  In recruiting circles, Reveno commands respect from recruits and their families not only because of his track record of coaching bigs, but because he's been through the trenches at Stanford in every conceivable way.  As a player in the latter half of the eighties, he played a part in the revival of the Stanford program.  He later got his MBA from the Stanford business school before joining Montgomery's staff.  When a recruit or his family asks what it's like or how hard it is to be a student at such a challenging university while excelling in basketball, Reveno speaks from personal experience.  When asked how hard it is or what it will take to navigate the admissions process, Reveno can point to his own recruitment, as well as his experience as a recruiter; he has seen both sides first hand at Stanford.  When explaining the virtues of Stanford as a destination for true student athletes, it's hard to imagine someone commanding more credibility than a "double" Stanford grad.  If there is any one candidate who knows how to manage the recruiting process vis-a-vis admissions and how to work effectively with that department, it's Reveno. 

Another significant factor working in Reveno's favor is his passion for Stanford.  It is no secret that Johnson and Few have the utmost respect for Stanford and that Johnson thoroughly enjoyed his time on the Farm.  Reveno, however, spent seven years as a student at Stanford and seven more as a coach.  No candidate has more passion for Stanford or is a more ardent believer in "Stanford values.".  Just 38, Reveno is nevertheless the kind of coach who one could envision staying at Stanford for his entire career should he be selected as the head man.

In most cases, I would be extremely wary of hiring a coach who is not a well-recognized name outside of the Stanford community out of concern that recruiting would be adversely impacted, at least in thie critical immediate future.  Perception is as important as reality on the recruiting trail, so if Stanford's hiring decision fails to generate excitement, recruiting could suffer.  Reveno presents a unique case, however.  Although he is not a household name likely to generate buzz on the recruiting trail, he already has established relationships with many of Stanford's recruits.  Therefore, he may be better able to continue Stanford's recruiting momentum than any of the other potential candidates who are not household names and whose hiring wouldn't necessarily generate much buzz.

The one potential drawback with Reveno is his lack of head coaching experience.  If one of the others above him on this list gets the job, this may be the reason.  Nevertheless, before anyone discounts Reveno as a candidate based on his lack of head coaching experience, I would suggest consideration of the example set by Mark Few.  Like Reveno, he was a long time assistant who had attended graduate school at the university at which he now coaches.  His exceptional knowledge of the game and experience in his program allowed for a smooth transition and tremendous, continued success.  Reveno's situation at Stanford is strikingly similar.  Moreover, Reveno has developed exceptional leadership and management skills thanks both to his business school education and his experience under Montgomery's tutelage.  While one might argue that Stanford should pursue Johnson or Few because they are known quantities as a head coach, Reveno's unique qualifications for the Stanford job make him a viable candidate as well.

Willis Wilson (Rice).  Despite having limited ties to Stanford -- he served as an assistant under Montgomery for only one season, 1991-92 -- Wilson has a background that may be attractive to Leland and the hiring committee.  Rice is that rare small university with real admissions standards for its recruited athletes.  Wilson has been the Rice head coach for the past dozen years, logging seven winning seasons. 

Wilson is recognized as a very good strategist and teacher, and his Rice teams are known for their execution of their half court offense.  Stanford has witnessed this first hand, as the Owls have given Stanford fits recently. 

Despite Wilson's being a Rice alum and having a long tenure as its head coach, Stanford would appear to be one of the few jobs that could tempt him.

Despite some good credentials, Wilson may be a longshot to land an interview.  If he were chosen for the Stanford job, he might find it difficult to recruit in the short term thanks to his having coached at a relatively low profile school and achieving only mixed results.  (After the first year or two, however, the perception of our next coach among recruits will likely be based almost entirely on his record at Stanford.)  Nevertheless, Wilson's knowledge of the game and teaching ability might allow him to be successful in the long run.

Blaine Taylor (Old Dominion).  Taylor's ties to Montgomery and Stanford are exceeded only by those of Reveno.  Taylor played for Montgomery at Montana and followed in his footsteps as the Grizzlies' head coach, leading them to 5 season with 20 or more wins.  Like Johnson, he spent three years as an assistant at Stanford.

At Old Dominion, Taylor has begun to turn the Monarchs' program around, and after two losing campaigns, led them to a 17-12 record last season.  Taylor is in many ways a coach's coach, and his knowledge of X's and O's is impressive.  He is a good teacher and an effective public speaker, which can serve him well in alumni and media relations.

As with Wilson, one drawback with Taylor is that his hiring is unlikely to generate the kind of excitement that would be helpful as the Stanford program transitions to a new era.  He would be an unknown quantity to Stanford's current crop of recruits, so one might question what kind of impact he would have on recruiting in the short run. 

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