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UCLA Coaching Search Notes: Smart Talk on Contracts, Stevens Scenario & the Pitino/Donovan Gamble

News, notes and speculative analysis on UCLA's on going search for a new basketball coach.

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Does Guerrero have a plan?
Does Guerrero have a plan?

So let's take a look at all the news developments since yesterday and get a sense of where we are in UCLA's coaching search. There was some commotion yesterday in response to a breathless and giddy tweet from writer Pete Thamel suggesting that UCLA no longer has a shot at Shaka Smart because "VCU is working on a contract extension." That tweet immediately exploded into the internets leading to standard post like this one. But if you look closely there wasn't all that much to it.

A reporter from USA Today finally tried to get some details on the situation and couldn't muster up anything more than this (emphasis added throughout):

Virginia Commonwealth University is making an aggressive push to keep men's basketball coach Shaka Smart, and the school hopes to reach an agreement to restructure Smart's contract by the end of the week, a person with direct knowledge of the contract negotiations told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday evening.

The person spoke under the condition of anonymity because the deal wasn't finalized.

Talks have centered on what Smart and VCU believe will move the program forward, as opposed to Smart's compensation, the person said, which includes recruiting and travel arrangements.

Let's read that again. Is there anything in there that suggests Smart is no longer interested in the UCLA job? Anyone? Beuller? Nope. All it is a standard leak to the media saying that Smart and VCU are talking to each other (why wouldn't he? He freaking coaches there).

It's not a surprise that guys like Pete Thamel (one of the so called national media blowhards pundits who has been busy floating debunked nonsense about UCLA basketball) pounced on a non-story to desperately quash the possibility of Smart to UCLA. But the facts remain as of right now nothing has been decided yet in terms of Smart's future at VCU or somewhere else.

If one wants to engage in reasonable speculation, it can be suggested that perhaps leaking the note about Smart and VCU negotiating his existing K had couple of purposes. First, it sent a hint to Minnesota that Smart may not be all that interested. Second, perhaps it was meant to send a signal to UCLA that if the Bruins are interested in the Rams' coach they shouldn't wait too long before waiting to hear from the other members of the Final-4. So really people need to chill before freaking out over every tweet, story coming from certain members of traditional media, who have been out in pushing out their "combative idiocy."

This brings to state of UCLA's search wrt the Final-4. What is unclear (and somewhat disconcerting) is that right now it appears that UCLA doesn't really have a clear cut no. 1 choice among that group of 4. And, that is kind of a problem. IMO anytime you are running this kind of search, strategically you want to have a clear order in terms of how you want to pursue. If you have a clear no. 1 choice among the group, then you better be sure that you are going to have a damn good shot at closing the deal when you make the offer. Because, if you don't then the other candidates are not going to be very excited about waiting around.

Now if Dan Guerrero and the boosters are locking in on someone like Billy Donovan or even Rick Pitino as their no. 1 options, they better be sure. There are number of reasons why it's worry some to put all eggs in the Pitino/Donovan baskets:

Timing: Timing is not helpful for us. For the Bruins to have a shot Florida and Louisville need to get bounced from the Madness as soon as possible. I think that's a longshot given they are playing OMFG CU and Oregon. The longer those two teams stay in tourney, the chances of replay of the forgettable Larry Brown drama 2.0 circa 1988 will keep going up. So Go Ducks and OMFG CU!

Donovan's K: Pete Yoon noted an interesting clause in Donovan's K (in an excellent piece by Peter Yoon on the list of coaches who may be implicated in UCLA's ongoing search):

Fast fact: Donovan's contract includes a clause that he and his agent "can not directly or indirectly explore, negotiate or discuss any employment with any other school or professional team" without the written permission of athletic director Jeremy Foley.

If that is true, I wonder if there has actually been any kind of contact between UCLA and reps. associated with Donovan beyond identifying him as a Tier 1 candidate. And if that is the case, it would be a dangerous and scary gamble to wait on him, while UCLA could make full court press on guys like Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart (who may actually be interested in coming to Westwood, despite the white noise we are hearing in mostly clueless national press).

Donovan's history of flirting with other job: Consider couple of other ominous data points about UCLA waiting on someone like Donovan. The guy's track record is not good. Little more than 5 years ago he basically accepted an offer from Orlando Magic to change his mind in the last minute. And don't forget what just happened with Jamie Dixon and Southern Cal as reasonable speculation had Dixon on his way back to LA. So waiting for someone like Donovan to give a firm "Yes" or "No" while letting coaches like Stevens and Smart just hang around is not exactly the smartest strategy.

The Louisville cash flow: Meanwhile, Pitino is pretty firmly entrenched in Louisville where he is leading the most profitable/valuable team in college basketball. For him to leave that situation the UCLA offer has to be something spectacular. Yes, there are legit. scenarios in which Pitino could be interested in UCLA but the more Louisville advances in the tourney the less plausible they become.

So it doesn't seem like the best strategy to keep guys like Stevens and Smart waiting around too long so that Donovan and Pitino can finish their season. The only reason waiting would make sense is if UCLA has more than "interested" signals from either of those coaches showing a likelihood of somewhere north of 75% of accepting an UCLA offer. Even then it is incredibly risky. Unfortunately, for us we haven't seen any smart strategy from the people who run UCLA Athletics for last two or three decades. Do we even have a strategy?

Now, speaking of Stevens for those who think that Stevens to UCLA is not a viable scenario, you may want to read this column from Tom Davis of the News-Sentinel who suggests "Butler coach is crazy to spurn UCLA offer":

Stevens and Smart are going to be able to negotiate, not just a top salary (UCLA has a history of being tight with its dollar, but can't afford to be if it truly wants Stevens or Smart), but also facility upgrades (the Bruins need a practice facility), length on the contract, security on that contract (Howland got just $3.2 million as a buyout for the remaining four years on his deal), and assurances that this coach can run the program as he sees fit.

You give Stevens all of that, coupled with the lifestyle that living in Beverly Hills (just a long jump shot from the UCLA campus) brings, and all of sudden Butler fans have a very legitimate reason to be nervous.

I don't question Stevens' love of Butler in any way. I love my alma mater, as well. But when he visits the UCLA campus and tours a renovated Pauley Pavilion, visits the private school where his children will attend in Beverly Hills, eats lunch and plays golf at Bel-Air Country Club (just across Sunset Blvd. from the campus), takes Tracy and the kids shopping along Rodeo Drive, and has them (second) home-shop in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach, where they'll spend their weekends, I can't fathom that Stevens doesn't give pause before waving it off. [...]

Stevens has always said "No, thanks" to job offers. And perhaps he will again. But an opportunity to coach UCLA is different. I told him he'd be crazy to turn it down. So here I am.

Yes, here we are indeed.

I will end this update on a funny note. Yesterday, I linked up a funny story from the OC Register in which Lorenzo Romar's name was floated in connection with this search process. Romar is waiting for a phone call! Today it's Mart Gottfried's turn. Read this amusing post from Zagsblog which suggests "UCLA boosters want Mark Gottfried." Yes, UCLA boosters are really fired up about a coach who hasn't won a conference title in 15 years (when he coached at Murray State) and had to resign from Alabama. Yes, Gottfried will really fill up those blue seats facing the cameras inside Pauley. LOL.

Anyway, the way this is shaping up Guerrero has no margin of error. If he wants to make an argument of holding on to his job in Westwood he needs to land one of the Final-4. Anything less, then Gene Blocks needs to hold him accountable ... just like Guerrero did with Steve Lavin, Karl Dorrell, Rick Neuheisel and ultimately Ben Howland.