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The UCLA Bruins Basketball Coaching Search Hot Board 2.0 [UPDATE 4/1]

Here is a list of names that could be considered by UCLA to replace Steve Alford. It will be updated as needed.

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Florida State vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

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 UCLA Bruins head coaching job in one manageable spot.

This is the second iteration of the Hot Board. With the regular season finally drawn to a close, attention can now fully turn towards the coaching search and, with it, the rumor mill will begin to heat up. So, now, is the perfect time to wind this back up.

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 article will be updated as needed with any new information as it becomes available.

Update 3/21: New info added for Calipari and Hopkins. JVG removed because I could not continue to be that cruel.

Update 4/1: It may be April Fools, but this is an honest update! We got a whole bunch of names to get through, including Bill Self, Fred Hoiberg, Thad Matta, Kevin Keats, and Mike Hopkins being removed from the list, Jamie Dixon and Bill Donovan returning to the list, and Mick Cronin and Randy Bennett debuting on the list.

Program-Redefining Hires

Tony Bennett

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 (not just once, but twice), 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: At this point, there’s is more than enough chatter from different places to say that UCLA is definitely interested in Tony Bennett. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that Bennett is clearly Option A at this point for the search committee and a full-court press could begin as soon as Virginia exits the NCAA Tournament. There has been a lot of national writers making the case that Bennett would be an awkward fit at UCLA from a personality standpoint, but the hiring of Chip Kelly should make it obvious that UCLA can get past having a low-key guy in charge of a revenue program pretty easily. There’s also been more than enough rumblings that UCLA is willing to pay top-dollar for a head coach. So, I wouldn’t rule this out anytime soon.

Update 4/1: Well, there’s still enough in the air to know that UCLA is still interested in Bennett, but it is fairly clear at this point that Bennett isn’t going to talk to UCLA until Virginia’s run in the NCAA Tournament has ended, and right now Virginia having the best odds in the Final Four is the worst-case scenario for Bennett to come to UCLA.

Billy Donovan

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.

Update 4/1: Welcome back to the list, Billy Donovan! Gary Parrish and Jon Rothstein listed Donovan as a candidate for the UCLA job, and wouldn’t you look at that, the Thunder are suddenly in a tailspin and currently sit in the 8th slot in the West. The Thunder are still guaranteed a slot in the playoffs, but this team went from competing for the top seed to looking like a long-shot in an opening 1st round match up with either the Warriors or the Nuggets. It also doesn’t help that they’re 3-7 in their last 10 games (and 6-13 in their last 19), and there are suddenly rumblings that Donovan may be on the hot seat depending on how the season ends. I’m still not saying this happens by any means, but I am telling you there’s a chance.

The Good Options Tier

Jamie Dixon

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.

Update 4/1: Welcome back to the list Jamie Dixon! I took Dixon down originally because his reported $8 million buy-out compared to more easily manageable options, but Ben Bolch reported today that Dixon is actually a finalist for the job. As stated earlier, Dixon would be a solid get who would do a good job at UCLA, especially with the increased resources being bandied about, so at least an acceptable name looks to be on the board still.

Gregg Marshall

Pros: Marshall is a 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 to this year and his teams are known for 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 three points (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 this season. With the Shockers missing this year’s NCAA Tournament, timing won’t be an issue this time. So he may be attainable.

Wait-and-See Hires

Mick Cronin

Pros: UCLA fans should be pretty familiar with Cronin after the past few seasons, In the first match-up, the Lonzo Ball-led Bruins were able to pull away late for a 79-67 victory in the NCAA Tournament. Since then? Cronin’s Cincinnati Wildcats have beaten UCLA by an average of 21.5 points across 2 meetings. Cronin can coach, has usually had solid defenses, and has the personality that could succeed at UCLA.

Cons: The biggest negative for Cronin, and why I have him down here instead of up a level, is Cronin’s track record in the NCAA Tournament. He’s taken Cincinnati to the NCAA Tournament nine times, but only has one Sweet 16 trip to show for it. Now, is that necessarily disqualifying? Not necessarily, especially considering the talent Cronin has had to work with (and considering he’s gone from the loaded Big East to the very good AAC during his tenure). On top of this, Cronin does not have any West Coast ties, which again isn’t disqualifying but would put more pressure on nailing the assistant coaching hires.

The Latest: I resisted putting Cronin on this list for one reason or another, but I can do so no longer. Ben Bolch lists Cronin as a finalist in the UCLA coaching search, and while he has the track record of an excellent coach, he also lacks a postseason track record to excite the fanbase.

Eric Musselman

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 each year since Musselman took over, winning the Mountain West conference twice and MWC Tournament once and advancing to the Sweet 16 last year. The Wolfpack finished the season 29-4, and are #14 in the most recent 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

Year Adjusted Offense Adjusted Defense
Year Adjusted Offense Adjusted Defense
2015-2016 0.982 (246th) 0.968 (62nd)
2016-2017 1.100 (26th) 0.984 (98th)
2017-2018 1.138 (9th) 1.007 (144th)
2018-Current 1.148 (10th) 0.935 (68th)

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.

Luke Walton

Pros: On first glance, there’s a lot to like with Walton. He’s a young coach, well-liked by his peers, and has some high-level NBA experience, not just with the Lakers, but also with the Golden State Warriors, especially when he was named the interim coach for half of a season. That would theoretically mean that Bob Myers, GM of the Warriors and seemingly the most influential basketball mind on the search committee, would have a good idea of his strengths and weaknesses and whether Walton would be a good fit with the Bruins. Walton is also not without college experience, having worked as an assistant for Memphis during 2011.

Cons: I think Walton is a fine coach and, full disclosure, I am a Lakers fan, but it’s hard not to look at his Lakers tenure and see two potential issues. The first is, from a schematic standpoint, Walton struggles, especially with his offense where a specific system is seemingly non-existent. This is especially troubling considering Walton came to the Lakers from the Warriors, who have an amazing offensive system that utilizes plenty of movement to free up their excellent shooters for clean looks. The other issue is from a development standpoint, specifically that the young Lakers have struggled to develop under Walton. At the NBA level, there is a bit more on the players to do some sort of development on their own, but at the college level you have to be able to teach things and help players grow, and it’s hard to look at Walton’s resume and point out a player who grew under his tutelage.

The Latest: We actually gave Walton his own article when news of UCLA’s potential interest came out. So, we probably won’t tread new ground on most of that. The two big wrinkles are whether the Arizona job opens up as Walton would most likely prefer coaching at his alma mater than at his father’s and whether he gets another NBA job. On that second front, it looks increasingly likely that Walton will be a hot commodity on the NBA market should the Lakers let go of him, with the Suns and Cavaliers reportedly eyeing Walton for their head coaching position. I’m of the opinion that Walton could work out at UCLA, but he’s pretty far down the list and might be looking elsewhere already.

Randy Bennett

Pros: Randy has always been in the shadow of Gonzaga, but let’s not diminish the fact that he has made St. Mary’s into one of the stronger mid-major programs in the country, with a squad that plays fundamental basketball, solid defense, and plenty of shooting. We talk a lot in football about having a system and recruiting to implement it, and that’s exactly what Bennett has done. And unlike a lot of other guys on this list, Bennett has actual west coast recruiting ties, which can help.

Cons: Once you look past the St. Mary’s of it all, nothing about Randy Bennett really stands out. And that’s one of the problems, especially in the aftermath of the John Calipari dalliances. Bennett could be had rather cheaply, and he’s never been able to really wow over his St. Mary’s tenure. Hell, this year’s St. Mary’s team lost a home game to UC Irvine, which makes sense after the fact because UCI was clearly the best basketball team in California this year, but also is not a great look on a resume for a coach to take over what is supposed to be the premiere team of the entire West Coast.

The Latest: Well, Randy Bennett has appeared in Ben Bolch’s coaching list, and at this point I have to assume he’s a fall-back option who would immediately take the job if offered. So do not be surprised if UCLA announces they’ve hired a Bennett, just not the one everyone wanted.

The Alford-esque Bad Hires

Earl Watson

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.

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. That said, there have been more than enough reports from a host of people that Watson is not being seriously considered.

Update 4/1: Earl Watson was interviewed. What are we even doing here?

Rick Pitino

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 podcast a few months ago? 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.

Rick Pitino has begun campaigning for the job, through his mouthpiece Dick Vitale. So you know he’s definitely gunning for the job now.

Gone, but Still Helpful to Keep Around Just for Information

John Calipari

Pros: If you’re talking about top-tier coaches in the 21st century, you have to talk about Calipari. He’s taken three different programs to the Final Four (don’t look at how many of those were later vacated) and he has a knack for getting talented players into his program and actually developing them. UCLA fans need only look back to the 2016-2017 season for an example, as UCLA was able to go into Lexington and beat a young Kentucky squad early in the season, only to face them in the Sweet 16 and get absolutely handled by a team that had clearly developed over the season. Calipari can get talent, but it’s the fact that he can actually do something with that talent that makes him so appealing.

Cons: Well, if you want to talk about cons, I did kind of mention the whole “left two programs right as they were about to be hit with NCAA sanctions” thing up there. Now, to be fair, Calipari was never directly linked to the issues that came up, unlike some people who will appear on this list later, but it’s still definitely something to be wary of. The other big con is his cost; Calipari makes almost $9 million a year at Kentucky. UCLA is willing to open the pocket book, but, at that amount, Calipari would almost have to take a pay cut to make the move and that might be all the difference.

The Latest: If I am being completely honest, part of the reason for reviving the Hot Board right now is the Seth Davis piece discussing the UCLA opening, when he casually mentions that Calipari is at the top of the Bruins’ wish list. And honestly? It almost makes perfect sense. Calipari just oozes LA; he basks in the glitz and glamour and loves to hobnob with big names. And make no mistake—a UCLA program under Calipari would instantly move back into elite status and those big names would be around the program pretty quickly. I get that he’s Public Enemy #1 for many fans, but, if I’m UCLA and Calipari expresses interest, I’m handing him the checkbook and asking him how much he’d come for.

Update 3/21: Well, that all happened.

To recap what all happened, the idea of Calipari to UCLA was essentially a dream on Monday, something of a “Hey, this guy is a real good coach, someone should reach out to him and see if he’s interested,” which, duh. Then came some rumors, first from Evan Daniels, 247Sports Basketball Expert, in an appearance with Doug Gottlieb on The Herd.

Nothing Daniels says there is out of the ordinary, as he essentially says that UCLA would like to hire Calipari if they could, and that Cal would stay at Kentucky because of course. Gottlieb throws out a “I heard they offered $10 million” because that’s what he does, and we all could have moved on.

At this point, BRO decided to step into the fray. Up to this point, a host of anonymous UCLA insiders had floated the idea that talks with Calipari had developed to the point of discussing terms. BRO then bring the discussions into the open by reporting on them, which turned out to be a bad thing, as suddenly Calipari was forced to issue a full-throated denial of the rumors on Twitter. The UCLA sources would go a step further and insinuate that BRO’s story ended up having the effect of killing the talks, while revealing that UCLA still had not learned some lessons from past searches about being way too eager and forthcoming with information. Lesson (hopefully) learned.

Now, does this all mean that Calipari is not coming to Westwood? In as far as that was already a remote possibility, I would not say that this ends the chances of Calipari coming, but they were already minuscule to begin with that these events did not have as big of an effect as could be imagined.

Update 4/1: Calipari has apparently reached a deal with Kentucky for a lifetime contract, so he’s basically out of the coaching search. That said, details of the offer UCLA presented to Calipari have come out, and they do more than enough to show that UCLA is willing to pay top dollar for a basketball coach. At least we can, once again, put that particular line to bed about UCLA being cheap.

Go Bruins!