Anyway, welcome to the Bruins Nation UCLA Basketball Coaching Search Hot Board! The Hot Board is a way for us to track rumors about which coaches are under consideration for the head coaching job in one manageable spot.
As of the time of this writing, Steve Alford is still the head coach of the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team. That said, the writing is on the wall that this will be Alford’s last season at the helm, and it would be foolish to not begin the conversation about who should take over as head coach for the Bruins going forward. Ok, so I wrote all of that on Sunday afternoon. Call it being psychic, I guess.
Each coach listed will have their pros and cons listed, as well as any information regarding their interest in the job at the moment. The board is also broken down into categories, from the Long-shot Home Run Hires, to the bad hires that I am going to label as Alford-esque. This list is also based on available information i.e. who seems to be floating their names for the job. There are a host of good coaches who are not on this list, mostly because they haven’t come up from any reputable source and are more wishes at the moment. This includes guys like Kevin Keatts, Chris Beard, and others.
This article will be updated as needed with any new information as it becomes available.
Update 1/1/2019 @ 2:12 PM - Added some more info on Watson, Pitino, and Hoiberg.
Update 1/2/2019 @ 4:15 PM - Kevin Keatts has been added to the Hot List.
Long-Shot Home Run Hires
Pros: The bane of Ben Howland. Billy Donovan’s run as the head coach of Florida is well-documented at this point, with two National Championships, four Final Four trips, and 6 SEC Championships all to his name. He was the 2nd-youngest coach to get to 500 career wins, and at 53 years of age, he’s still young enough to feel very comfortable with hiring him for the long term.
Cons: There isn’t much of a con to Donovan from an on-court standpoint, but rather to his current situation. Donovan took over as head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and currently has the Thunder, led by former Bruin Russell Westbrook, as one of the best teams in a loaded Western Conference, so it’s hard to see UCLA prying him back to a return to college.
The Latest: There were a host of articles prior to the season (for example, like this one) speculating on where Donovan could land should he be fired from the Thunder that all mentioned UCLA as the clear top destination. Since then, the Thunder have looked like a contender, which makes a Donovan departure all the more unlikely. Still, you’d have to assume UCLA will at least give Donovan a call.
Pros: The best coach on the West Coast, Few turned Gonzaga into a national basketball power and recently got one of his biggest monkeys off his back when his Bulldogs finally made the Final Four in 2017. Under Few, Gonzaga has gotten #1 rankings in the AP poll, #1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and have even beaten other #1 teams, like their win this season over Duke at the Maui Invitational. In his 19 seasons at the helm, Gonzaga has never failed to make the NCAA tournament, an impressive run for a program that first made the tournament in 1995 despite existing since 1908.
Cons: Few is a Gonzaga lifer, starting his coaching career as a grad assistant for the Bulldogs, then becoming an assistant coach before taking over as the head coach in 1999, so we’ve never seen him outside the confines of Spokane. More importantly, no one has been able to pry him away from Spokane.
The Latest: There has been nothing linking Few to UCLA beyond the few stray “UCLA should gauge his interest” comments, which, duh, of course they should. This won’t happen, but UCLA may need Few to decide he can’t win a championship at Gonzaga to have any shot.
Pros: The Virginia head coach has West Coast ties, as he was the head coach of Washington State from 2006-2009, leading the Cougars to a school-record 26 wins in a season, getting the program to the Sweet 16, and recruiting Klay Thompson to play college basketball in Pullman. He has taken Virginia to some impressive highs, including a few #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (the Hoos had not earned a #1 seed since 1983 prior to Bennett’s arrival) and a few ACC conference championships, impressive in a conference that also contains perennial and well-funded powers Duke and North Carolina.
Cons: Bennett probably has more cons than other coaches in this tier, as his teams in recent years have had the reputation of being lock-down defenses and woefully inept offenses. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the relative recruiting disadvantages Virginia has compared to some of its ACC rivals, but Virginia ranked 9th in offensive efficiency as recently as the 2015-2016 season, so with a higher-level of recruit offense shouldn’t be a problem for a coach of Bennett’s caliber. There is also the NCAA tournament underperformance to consider: Virginia has earned a #1 seed 3 times under Bennett, but has topped out at the Elite Eight. Worse, the Hoos have only made the Sweet 16 twice under Bennett in 9 years (6 tournament appearances), and have the distinction of being the only #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed.
The Latest: It’s another situation like Few, where the most chatter about Bennett and UCLA revolves around the “UCLA should give him a call” option. Unlike Few and Donovan, I think UCLA could have a shot at Bennett if they make a strong-enough pitch - Bennett would have an easier path to a championship at UCLA than he does at Virginia, and that could be appealing, especially if Virginia again falters in the NCAA tournament.
The Good Options Tier
Pros: Dixon has LA ties, having grown up in the area and started his college coaching career at LA Valley CC and UC Santa Barbara as an assistant. Dixon took over at Pittsburgh when Ben Howland came to UCLA, and put together a 328–123 record over 13 seasons. In that time, the Panthers never had a losing record, and averaged 25 wins over his tenure. He left Pitt to take over at his alma mater TCU, where in 2018 he got the Horned Frogs to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. The Horned Frogs have improved each year under Dixon, and have raced out to an 11-1 start to this season.
Cons: Dixon is a Howland disciple and still close to the former UCLA head coach, so there could be some lingering animosity from Dixon towards the Bruins for how Howland left. Dixon is also at his alma mater right now and is getting paid well to be there. So, a UCLA offer might have to be in the $5-6 million range to get Dixon interested in leaving, but it could be a similar situation to Bennett where it would be easier to win at UCLA than at his current spot, as TCU has to deal with Kansas each year. Dixon, like Bennett, also has a history of underperformance in the NCAA Tournament; though his teams have not been as highly rated as Bennett’s Virginia teams, Dixon has only made the Sweet 16 3 times over 16 years, which isn’t the greatest track record for success, but, again, access to the LA recruiting scene at a national power can do wonders to change that.
The Latest: Dixon’s name was actually brought up during the last opening, but the thought was that his relationship to Howland kept him out of serious consideration. With 6 years having passed, that relationship can be easily overlooked from UCLA’s end, but may be harder for Dixon. Scattered reports are that Dixon would be one of the top targets when UCLA inevitably moves on from Alford, but he’s pretty locked into his alma mater at the moment.
Pros: Marshall is another familiar name for UCLA fans, but let’s run down his info before getting into the why. Marshall is the head coach at Wichita State and has turned the Shockers into a perennial tournament team, including a magical run to the Final Four in 2013. After going 17-17 in 2008-2009, the Shockers have won at least 25 games in every season prior and his teams are known mixing great offenses with solid defenses.
Cons: There have been rumors of fit issues with Marshall that would have to be checked into, but you’d have to assume UCLA will have a much better vetting process this time around just to avoid another Alford situation. Unlike with Dixon and Bennett, it’s easier to dismiss NCAA Tournament results with Marshall because the Shockers have been repeatedly screwed by the NCAA Tournament Committee when it comes to seeding. Want proof? The 2016-2017 team went 30-4, and were given a 10 seed for their efforts, which gave them a 2nd round matchup with Kentucky that they lost by 3 (for reference, Steve Alford’s Bruins would proceed to lose to that Kentucky team by 11 in the next round).
The Latest: So, reports during the last UCLA coaching search had Marshall as being very interested in the UCLA opening, except his team was still in the NCAA Tournament at the time and he did not want to interview for the job while his team was still playing. The rest, as they say, is history, as Marshall led the Shockers to the Final Four and Dan Guerrero did not want to wait, choosing instead to hire Alford. I have to imagine Marshall will again be interested in the UCLA opening (and being mentioned on Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander’s podcast as a potential candidate would speak to that), especially with how things have gone at Wichita State topping out in the NCAA Tournament, so he may be the first realistic candidate on this list.
Pros: Keatts is a real good coach, full stop. In only 4+ seasons, he’s already amassed a 105–41 (.719 winning percentage). He posted 3 winning seasons at a UNC Wilmington program that had not had a winning season in the 7 years prior to his arrival, then came to a NC State program that had stalled under previous coach Mark Gottfried, where he led the Wolfpack to a 21-12 record and a third place finish in the ACC. This year, he has the Wolfpack out to a 12-1 start. He also has a reputation of being a tireless recruiter.
Cons: I think there are two lines of thought for why Keatts wouldn’t be the best hire. For one, this is only his 5th year of being a head coach at the collegiate level, which would tie him with Fred Hoiberg and give him more years than Eric Musselman. The bigger issue may be his last assistant coaching stint before he took over at UNC Wilmington, as he was an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville from 2011 to 2014, and was there for Louisville’s vacated NCAA championship. I haven’t seen Keatts’s name come up in the FBI investigation, but a proper vetting is going to be needed.
The Latest: Well, we at least know Keatts is on the radar for UCLA. Jeff Goodman’s piece on the opening mentions that he has heard Keatts being discussed by folks close to the program, which at the very least means he’s being considered despite the small resume. Personally, I think Keatts would do an amazing job here, but it’s whether the people in charge make that choice.
Pros: I wouldn’t dismiss Hoiberg out of hand just because he flamed out in the NBA. It’s a different game and guys like Rick Pitino and John Calipari also flamed out at that level before returning to college and finding a huge deal of success (and, you know, the recruiting violations probably helped). Hoiberg had a surprisingly solid run at Iowa State, leaving his alma mater with the highest winning percentage in school history and winning two Big 12 conference tournament championships in his time there, finishing with a #9 AP ranking before leaving for the Chicago Bulls.
Cons: The conference tournament championships are important, because Hoiberg’s NCAA Tournament resume isn’t exactly the greatest, with only one Sweet 16 appearance in four attempts. That’s another problem. We only have five years of college data to go off of with Hoiberg. That’s where we start getting into issues in this tier, because there’s just not a lot of data to go off of, where the coaches above all have shown success over a long period of time. There’s also the question of Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams, because while I was searching for info on Hoiberg, I came across this fun graphic:
While the splits between Adjusted Offense and Adjusted Defense aren’t as extreme as they have been under Steve Alford, it’s not a great sign that those numbers are similar. And say what you will about John Calipari, but he gets his teams to play defense, and that’s the mark of a great coach (it’s also the mark of most of the coaches listed above). I’d also have questions about his reliance on transfer players while at Iowa State, but 5 years at least shows he can sustain to some level with that strategy. So there are definitely more question marks regarding Hoiberg, which keeps him in this tier.
The Latest: Hoiberg was already a name being thrown around for a potential UCLA opening before the season started, and his firing in Chicago just made that chatter louder. Adam Zagoria at Zagsblog discussed Hoiberg being interested in the UCLA job in the aftermath of his firing and, at the moment, he appears to be positioned for the job if they strike out on Billy Donovan. Personally, I think he’d be a fine coach, but he’s just not in that top tier yet.
1/1 Update - Not a big one, but it has been pointed out that Hoiberg is a client of Casey Wasserman’s agency, so you’d have to consider him a clear frontrunner for that reason only. Mark Stein is reporting from NBA circles that Hoiberg is a target, so we’ll see.
Pros: Speaking of failed NBA coaches, there’s Eric Musselman. The biggest pro for Musselman has been how he’s reinvented himself since taking over as Nevada head coach in 2015. The Wolfpack have won at least 24 games in each year since Musselman took over, winning the Mountain West conference twice (and MWC tournament once), and advancing to the Sweet 16 last year. As of this writing, the Wolfpack sit at 13-0, and at #6 in the AP poll. There are glowing profiles written about him. It’s all very nice to think about.
Cons: You know how in the Hoiberg profile, I mentioned that there wasn’t a lot to go on because he has not coached in college for a long period of time? That goes double for Musselman, who is only in his 4th season as a collegiate head coach. To be fair, Musselman at least has a longer coaching resume, but it’s hard to feel too confident about the smaller college head coach length. Oh, and you know how, in the Hoiberg profile, I mentioned the splits in adjusted offense and defense? Musselman is actually worse than Hoiberg on this front. Here are those splits:
Nevada Adjusted Offense and Defense under Eric Musselman
There are more questions. Musselman’s reliance on transfers — he’s had 15 transfer students at Nevada — calls into question his ability to sustain long-term success, especially with the potential changes to the one-and-done rule placing a greater emphasis on program building. And there are reports of baggage that may prevent Musselman from becoming a serious candidate; our friends at California Golden Blogs ran down a few of them when Musselman became a candidate for their head coaching vacancy last year and, if more exists, you’d bet a more stringent background check would have UCLA steer well clear of Musselman.
The Latest: We have a good idea that Musselman is at least interested in the UCLA job. His name has been thrown around by a few national reporters (including on Parrish and Norlander’s podcast), and he interviewed for the UC Berkeley job, which shows that he’s not married to Nevada long-term. But, again, that baggage looms large here. After the debacle with Steve Alford’s lack-of proper vetting, you’d think anyone with even a questionable past would be immediately ruled out. So, it’s hard to say whether Musselman will even get to the interview process.
Pros: Brey, at the very least, has a track record of solid teams while at Notre Dame. He’s compiled a 412–205 record over 19 seasons as the head coach of the Fighting Irish, with only one losing season in that time coinciding with Notre Dame’s move to the ACC. He’s made the Elite Eight twice, with one more Sweet 16, and has an ACC Tournament Championship on his resume. The biggest thing I’d throw in here is that he’s always brought up as an underrated coach by his peers. Just this past offseason, Brey was voted the 4th-most underrated coach in the country, and was the highest Power 5 coach on the list. And it should be pointed out that Brey has sustained success despite not having the same resources and recruiting advantages that his opponents in the former Big East and ACC have.
Cons: It’s hard not to look at Brey’s resume and not feel underwhelmed. Again, 19 seasons, and only three trips to the Sweet 16 and beyond. We got to watch Brey’s Notre Dame team this year and they’re fine. They play fundamental basketball, but nothing truly stands out about them beyond the fact that they lost to this UCLA team. He’d probably be fine here, and it’d be interesting to see what he’d do with a higher level of recruit and program support than what he currently receives, but it’s such a shoulder shrug of a hire that I can’t put him in a higher tier.
The Latest: Honestly, the only reason I’m even mentioning Brey in this column right now is that Jeff Goodman brought him up in a recent column as a name to watch, which means at the very least some people connected to Brey are floating his name out there. So stay tuned there.
The Alford-esque Bad Hires
Pros: Well, he’s a UCLA alum! And he has a lot of ties to the local AAU community, which means he’d probably do fine as a recruiter.
Cons: I know up in the Eric Musselman section, I said that it’s easy for me to dismiss NBA performance because it’s not the same as college coaching, but Watson has no college coaching experience, which means all we have to go on is his NBA record and, folks, nothing on his NBA resume would lead me to believe he is a good coach. He went 33-85 in his time at Phoenix, taking over as an interim coach before being given the permanent job despite a 9-24 record, and then was fired after three games in 2017 after it became clear that the Suns not only were getting worse, but that Watson had also lost the locker room. Watson’s firing came after Eric Bledsoe’s “i don’t wanna be here” tweet. Watson’s Phoenix tenure proved he wasn’t ready to be a head coach and his lack of experience proves he’s still not ready to be UCLA’s head coach.
The Latest: Watson is always going to have a strong contingent pushing for him to take the job. He’s a former player who’s close with a lot of other former players and influential donors, which means he’ll get way more of a chance than many of the better options not on this list (or better options not on this list at all). Again, we know his camp is already floating his name out there for the position, with Goodman’s article mentioning him along with Parrish and Norlander’s podcast. The hope here is that enough people make it known that Watson is not an acceptable hire early and often.
1/1 Update - And like clockwork, the calls from former players to hire Watson have begun. Former players Josiah Johnson and Matt Barnes have gone on Twitter to advocate for Watson’s hiring. Be ready for a few months of this.
Pros: Alright, let’s be fair here and list the accomplishments. Two national championships (one official), seven Final Fours (five official), numerous conference regular season and tournament championships, National Coach of the Year in 1987, official collegiate record of 647–392. If you’re looking at this list in a vacuum, Pitino would be up there with Billy Donovan as the best candidate available.
Cons: The problem is, you can’t just look at the resume. Or, maybe you can. Notice how I had to clarify how many of those accomplishments were official? That’s because Pitino didn’t leave Louisville under the best of circumstances. By that, I mean Louisville is at the center of the FBI’s investigation into pay-for-play in college, which cost both Pitino and Louisville AD Tom Jurich their jobs, and eventually led to Pitino becoming so unhireable that he announced in September that he was retiring from coaching (you will be surprised to know that it only took Pitino a few months to go back on that promise). Suffice to say, Pitino is still radioactive.
The Latest: Am I only bringing this up because Gary Parrish made an argument for hiring Pitino on their latest podcast? Absolutely and, while I agree with Parrish’s argument for why hiring Pitino may not be the biggest deal in the world, Pitino has a 0% chance of even being considered for the job, especially considering the outcry from the UCLA fanbase when Alford was hired and everyone remembered his role in the Pierre Pierce sexual assault case.
1/1 Update - Rick Pitino has begun campaigning for the job, through his mouthpiece Dick Vitale. So you know he’s definitely gunning for the job now.