It’s rare for a team to find itself looking for a head coach with the backdrop of an NCAA Tournament run, but that’s exactly the situation LSU is in after firing Will Wade ahead of Selection Sunday.
While the focus in the coming days will (and should) be on the athletes and what they’re doing on the court as they head to Milwaukee for the first round, much of the conversation in the coming weeks will center around the search to replace Wade.
USA TODAY Sports columnist Blake Toppmeyer has two candidates in mind for the job, and both would give athletics director Scott Woodward the chance to dip back into his Texas roots, where he wooed power conference coaches away in football and basketball at Texas A&M with Jimbo Fisher and Buzz Williams.
The first candidate is one that would make a lot of sense but could be a nonstarter for reasons other than Xs and Os.
Houston’s Kelvin Sampson may be 66-years-old, but there are few coaches as accomplished. He has two career Final Four appearances with two different teams, and he has a winning record on his career in the NCAA Tournament at 19-16.
But if you’re waiting for a catch, here it is: Sampson would come with more than a little baggage. He’s run afoul of the NCAA in previous stops at Oklahoma and Indiana, receiving a five-year show-cause penalty after his time with the latter. He spent that time as an assistant coach in the NBA before returning to the college game in 2014.
Here’s Toppmey’s take on Sampson’s strengths – and limitations – as a candidate.
Viewed through today’s lens, Sampson’s transgressions don’t seem so bad anyway. It’s not as if he operated or arranged easy money for recruits. Sampson’s cheating featured impermissible text messages and phone calls to recruits. Sampson has a good thing going at Houston, where his salary di lui is $ 3.1 million. He enjoys sturdy backing from billionaire booster Tilman Fertitta, the Houston Rockets owner who is the chair of the UH System’s board of regents. Sampson’s son, Kellen, is Houston’s coach-in-waiting.
Look, I’m not here to moralize about the NCAA’s overly bureaucratic and often ridiculous rules. Do I think that Sampson’s improper contact with recruits is representative of some moral failing? Of course not.
Given his current salary and the fact that there’s a succession plan in place, it would make a lot of sense for him to jump to the SEC, even though his Cougars program is set to join the Big 12 at some indeterminant point in the future.
But it’s not about that. The fact remains that this is an LSU program that found itself embroiled in one of the biggest college basketball scandals in recent years. Sanctions from the NCAA are almost certainly coming down the pipeline, and hiring a coach who was previously banned by that same body for a time would be an interesting choice, to say the least.
I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Woodward will not be targeting a coach with a prior history of NCAA sanctions. Especially with so many intriguing coaches without a rap sheet. So, assuming Sampson is off the list, who else does Toppmeyer think the Tigers will go after?
If we’re sticking with the Texas theme, why not opt for a reunion? Woodward hired Williams away from a good job once, and he could potentially do it again, per Toppmeyer.
Williams curiously gravitates to programs with little pedigree. He went from Marquette to Virginia Tech to Texas A&M. The Aggies narrowly missed earning an NCAA bid this year in Williams’ third season. His best success di lui came at Marquette, which he led to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight. If Williams desires a Final Four for his mantle, he’d have a better shot achieving that at LSU. Texas A&M is one of six SEC programs to never reach a Final Four.
Woodward obviously liked Williams enough to bring him to College Station, and he at least was interested in bringing Fisher to Baton Rouge as well. Williams isn’t the most accomplished candidate, though he does have a wide range of experience.
It’s clear that Woodward approaches these searches looking to land a big name. At LSU, he’s already hired Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame in football, Jay Johnson away from Arizona in baseball and Kim Mulkey away from Baylor in women’s basketball.
He will almost certainly shoot for a similar caliber hire for a Tigers men’s basketball program that doesn’t have the pedigree of some other schools in the conference but are quickly rising. If Woodward makes the right hire, the school could be poised to capitalize on the positive aspects from Wade’s tenure.
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