Cougar hoops search: Skip the call to Saul

AS SAUL PHILLIPS danced across my TV screen yesterday in the wake of his North Dakota State Bisons' overtime upset of Oklahoma in the Spokane Arena, two thoughts occurred to me. First, that this game proved again why March Madness is the greatest sporting event on the planet. And second, that Phillips is exactly NOT who the Cougars need as their next basketball coach.


I've written a couple pieces recently mentioning Phillips as someone who might be an intriguing possibility to succeed Ken Bone. But seeing him in real life, not just on paper, it struck me how absolutely wrong he would be for WSU.

Cougar fans were abuzz on the message boards and in Twitter-land after the game with the Phillips-at-WSU idea.

And I can see the attraction, for sure. But to me, hiring him would be a concession that WSU has resigned itself to never getting above eighth or ninth place in the Pac-12.

How so?

Bill Moos said the other day that recruiting ability is priority No. 1 as he goes about hiring a new coach. And by "recruiting" I took that to mean someone who is interpersonally skilled at wooing high school kids and their parents, and has a large network of contacts with AAU and high school coaches around the nation.

Phillips is clearly a very good coach, and likely is someone who would represent himself and his school very nicely in the living room of a prospect's home. The pure joy on his face after yesterday's big win suggests he's someone you'd like on your side.

But here's the reality. He has spent the last seven seasons in the Summit League recruiting against Mayville State, Fort Wayne, Omaha, South Dakota State and the like. Cougar fans have been quick to jump on the fact Ken Bone came to WSU from the "lowly" Big Sky Conference, where he guided Portland State to two NCAA Tournament invites in four years. If you think the Big Sky isn't big time, then you'd probably put the Summit League barely above pick-up games at the Y.

That's not to discount what Phillips has accomplished in Fargo. Nor is it to suggest that great coaches in major conferences can't come up from places like North Dakota State. Lots of them do.

What it means, however, is that he's spent seven seasons combing over the leftovers of the basketball talent wars and finding great success in places like Delano, Minn., and Bismarck, N.D.

That absolutely, positively is NOT what WSU needs at this point in time.

The old "he'll find the hidden gems and coach ‘em up" mentality has its place. Building a whole team out of those guys, as Dick and Tony Bennett managed to do, is a rare feat. Maintaining it is even rarer.

Moos uttered the word "recruiting" first and foremost the other day because he knows WSU must dramatically step up its game in the talent chase if it wants to compete in the Pac-12. He invoked the name of George Raveling during his press conference.

That should be a huge, huge clue to the mindset Moos is bringing to the coaching search. He wants a proven major-conference recruiter.

PRIOR TO Raveling's arrival at WSU in the early 70s, roughly 80 percent of WSU's basketball players hailed from Washington, Idaho and Montana. Then George arrived from Maryland and suddenly the roster was filled with kids from places like Detroit, Toledo and Chicago. And pretty soon, the program was relevant year after year.

WSU needs a talent infusion right now in order to get out the Pac-12 cellar. It needs a guy who not only knows John Wall, but recruited him. It needs a guy who once sat down at the dinner table with Kevin Durant's family. And no, WSU doesn't need to recruit the Kevin Durant's of the world to be successful. But they do at least need someone who travels in those same circles. Indeed, they do need a guy who can walk into a hoops hotbed of talent like Seattle Rotary Boys and Girls Club and draw whispers of "that's the guy who coached FILL IN THE NOTABLE NAME HERE."

That guy is NOT Saul Phillips.

Sure, he's tailor-made for one of those heartwarming tales about the scrappy underdog who does more with less.

And that's also a mindset for people who embrace and rationalize mediocrity.

Rather than marveling at how well WSU did doing more with less, I'd rather marvel at how much better WSU did doing more with more.

Moos didn't talk about recruiting and Raveling the other day because he wants someone to do for WSU what's been done at North Dakota State. He's gunning for someone who can walk into AAU tournaments in Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., and be on a first-name basis with every coach there.

That's what WSU needs to revive its basketball program, and that's not Saul Phillips.

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