March 1, 2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE While Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage has been successful in not tipping his hand on a successor to seventh-year basketball coach Pete Gillen, that hasn't kept speculation from becoming rampant in other circles.
Littlepage also has been successful in not abandoning Gillen during what appear to be the final days of the coach's tenure, but the AD has made it clear that Gillen's return is tied to an NCAA Tournament bid.
Any hopes of an at-large bid were effectively crushed in late February, when visiting Maryland defeated the Cavaliers 92-89 in double overtime. Of course, it's laughable to think that UVa might win four games in four days at the ACC Tournament, considering the fact that it won one ACC Tournament game (total) in Gillen's first six seasons.
At 13-12 going into the final week of the regular season, Virginia also was going to have a hard time posting the kind of record .500 or better that would make the Cavaliers eligible for an NIT bid. A debate has been ongoing as to whether UVa would or should accept an NIT bid and forestall the job of finding a new coach.
In all likelihood, a Gillen successor would be involved in postseason play, so there's no real hurry on that end. Plus, Virginia already has signed three players for the 2005-06 season and received a commitment for 2006-07. As the numbers currently stand, the Cavs do not have a scholarship available until 2007-08.
That might discourage some coaching candidates, although this is a program that has had a steady turnover of players during the Gillen era. Scholarships could open, but some UVa insiders feel that the returning talent might hold some
Virginia stands to lose its top two scorers in seniors Elton Brown and Devin Smith, but it returns a promising perimeter crew, headed by point guard Sean Singletary, a five-time ACC freshman of the week selection. During a nine-game stretch leading into a trip to Wake Forest, Singletary had a 43-13 assist-turnover ratio and made at least one three-pointer in every game. Sophomore swingman Gary Forbes also has played well recently, and sophomore wing guard J.R. Reynolds could blossom after a fresh start.
Kicking Around Some Early Names
It appears likely that Virginia at least will make a pitch to Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, and big money will not be the Cavaliers' only lure. Smith was a long-time assistant at Virginia Commonwealth, his wife has family in the Richmond area and, if he is unhappy at Kentucky (he's had problems there in the past), UVa with its new 15,000-seat arena set to open in 2006-07 might be attractive to him.
Also high on the wish list is Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery, previously the long-time coach at Stanford. Montgomery interviewed for the UVa job in 1990, when the Cavaliers were looking for a successor to Terry Holland, but Montgomery removed his name from consideration when it appeared that then-Providence coach Rick Barnes was signed, sealed and delivered.
Had Barnes been able to anticipate the guilt trip on which he would be taken by former Providence coach and Big East icon Dave Gavitt and removed his name earlier in the process, Montgomery would have taken the job that eventually went to Jeff Jones. At 57 and in the first season of a four-year, $10-million contract, Montgomery might not be willing to leave the comforts of the Bay Area home he never left, but the Warriors have had a horrible season and who knows? maybe he's not having a lot of fun.
A number of UVa fans feel that the best man for the job is 49-year-old Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, a former Duke assistant with Mid-Atlantic roots that include the famed DeMatha program in Hyattsville, Md. The question becomes, would Brey take the Virginia job? That would depend on how happy he is in the Big East, with its infusion of former Conference USA members, and with the strict admissions standards in South Bend.
Maybe the safest bet would be South Carolina coach Dave Odom, a former SEC coach of the year, a three-time ACC coach of the year, and a former Virginia assistant. Odom is 62, but he's a fitness-conscious, energetic 62. What hurts Odom, in the eyes of some, is his association with former UVa coach and athletic director Holland, now the AD at East Carolina.
Why an association with the most successful coach in UVa history would be a detriment is an interesting story. However, it is felt that Holland was never a favorite of UVa president John Casteen, who felt that pro-Holland forces were responsible for running former AD Jim Copeland out of town. Copeland, now at SMU, was a good man who was a target of the grumbling that accompanied UVa's regular, less-than-satisfying bowl assignments.
There has been considerable discussion of the merits of an African-American coach. Virginia has not had a black head coach in any sport, although Littlepage and top assistant Jon Oliver are black. All things being equal, UVa would like to have a black head coach, but if they can't get Smith and can get Montgomery, that would not be a consideration.
There is a good chance that the Cavaliers won't be able get Smith or Montgomery, or even Brey or Odom, so then where will they turn? Karl Hobbs at George Washington and Dave Leitao at DePaul have been mentioned, as has Jeff Capel at VCU.
That group lacks the "wow" factor that would cause a jolt in fund-raising or ensure that the new building will be full, but the point will come where the "wow" factor becomes secondary to finding a good coach who fits in at UVa. If the Cavaliers wanted the "wow" factor, they could go after Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight, who will be 65 at the start of the 2005-06 season. Knight definitely qualifies as a "wow," but he'd be squabbling with the UVa brass by Christmas.
Coaches with a UVa background include Odom, Phoenix Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, successful Boston University coach Dennis Wolff and Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle. Carlisle might be the first choice, except that he was cool to feelers last year and said recently that college coaching is not on his "radar screen."
Some possible candidates will be lured by the ACC, but this is not an easy job, new arena or not. Gillen was a well-regarded coach when he came to Charlottesville and constantly gets praised by his current brethren, but this conference has chewed him up and is about to spit him out. It's hard to win in the ACC. Just ask Gary Williams or Paul Hewitt, not long removed from Final Four trips and championship-game appearances.
Fortunately for Gillen, his situation is not as ugly as it once loomed. The team has played better in the second half of the ACC schedule, despite losing senior forward Jason Clark to academics and freshman forward Adrian Joseph to injury. Calls for Gillen to step down at midseason ceased. Crowds remained decent, but nobody disagrees that UVa is about to take the next step.