In the midst of the search for the next Rutgers men's basketball coach, let's think back for a moment about the football coaching search conducted by athletic director Pat Hobbs. First let me state, as we have discussed on this site, college basketball and college football are completely different animals. Coaching searches for the two are very different and we are seeing that play out with a rare perspective, as Rutgers is now conducting searches for both sports within a four month period. Having said that, Hobbs is orchestrating both, so traits that he valued in the football search could be key in understanding his thought process during this current search.
With Ash, Hobbs took a chance on an experienced assistant coach who worked in power conferences for years, but had never been a head coach before. He was groomed for two seasons at arguably the best college football program in the country at Ohio State, under arguably the best college football coach right now in Urban Meyer. Ash came to Rutgers with a reputation as a good recruiter and as a top defensive coach. Meyer himself credited Ash as being a major factor in turning around their defense in 2014, which helped the Buckeyes win the national championship.
So what does this have to do with the Rutgers basketball coaching search? We now know that Hobbs did not land his first choice, Rhode Island's coach and New Jersey native Danny Hurley. There is a ton of speculation as to where Hobbs turns next. Is Mike Lonergan seriously interested and is Hobbs seriously considering him for the job? Is Hobbs waiting for certain coaches to fall out of the NCAA tournament this weekend, like Stony Brook's Steve Pikiell or Iona's Tim Cluess? We know Hobbs interviewed ESPN analyst Jay Williams, who withdrew himself from consideration for the job today. Accomplished high school coach Kevin Boyle has become a popular thought among fans and media alike. One thing that hasn't been touched on much though, is whether Hobbs could replicate his decision with football, by hiring a top assistant coach from a top program for the basketball job.
Other names I've heard Rutgers is considering/has reached out to: Seton Hall associate HC Shaheen Holloway and Kentucky AHC Kenny Payne.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 17, 2016
I mentioned Kenny Payne as a name to watch for during the NCAA tournament yesterday. Last night, Adam Zagoria mentioned Payne was being considered by Rutgers, along with Seton Hall associate head coach Shaheen Holloway. That would give credence to the idea that now that Hurley is out of the picture, Hobbs is widening the scope of his search. While Holloway has done a great job under Kevin Willard at both Iona and Seton Hall, Payne is the more intriguing candidate in my opinion.
Payne was a member of Louisville's 1986 national championship team under legendary coach Denny Crum, and was the 19th pick in the 1989 NBA draft. His teammate, Pervis Ellison, was the 1st pick of that draft. Payne played for the Philadelphia 76ers for four seasons before playing overseas in eight different countries. He started his coaching career in 2004 when he was hired by Oregon head coach Ernie Kent for an assistant's job. Payne coached under Kent for six seasons, including their 2006-2007 team that made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. After Oregon failed to make the NCAA tourney two straight years, Kent was fired and Payne was hired by John Calipari at Kentucky. Payne is the associate head coach and is in his sixth season for the SEC power, having been a part of three Final Four teams and the national championship team of 2011-2012.
In circling back to the Ash comparison, does the candidate have power five conference experience? Check. Have they been working under a head coach at the top of his profession? Check. Below is what Hobbs said in reference to Ash at his press conference to announce him as the next Rutgers football coach back in December:
Chris Ash is the right man to lead that effort. In his book, Above the Line, Lessons in Leadership From a Championship Season, Urban Meyer wrote, "A true leader is someone who is going someplace and taking people with him. A catalyst for elite performance who enables people to achieve things they couldn't otherwise achieve on their own. A leader is someone who earns trust, sets a clear standard, and then equips and inspires people to meet that standard."
This is what John Calipari had to say last week about Kenny Payne:
He has a great relationship with these kids. He doesn’t BS them. He doesn’t tell them what they want to hear," Calipari said. "He tells them the truth. That’s one. And two, he’s extremely hard on them. He is harder on them than I am. He accepts nothing but their best.
"We’re not here to placate. We’re not here to alibi. We’re not here to enable. We’re here to move you from Point A to Point B to Point C. We’ve done this. There’s a process to it."
If you didn't know that was Calipari talking about Payne, it would have been easy to assume it was Meyer talking about Ash. You can find this quote and others in this great profile of Payne here. In the article, it references Payne's specialty in mentoring frontcourt players. Payne has recruited and then mentored six NBA lottery picks in the past four years. Read this:
When he was recruiting them, Payne gave post players Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns – all of whom became NBA lottery picks in the last four years – the same message.
"There are going to be times that I’m going to be more committed than you’re going to be, and I’m OK with it, because at the end of the day, I’m never letting go," Payne said. "When you give me 100 percent effort, I’m going to find a way to beg for 110. It may be from me hugging you. It may be me threatening to kill you, but I’m doing it out of love. Because success is not optional."
Rutgers football coach Chris Ash has talked at length on the need to change the culture within his program. After 10 consecutive losing seasons and 25 seasons without an NCAA appearance, the basketball program is sorely in need of a change in culture as well. A major complaint I had this season with former coach Eddie Jordan was his postgame commentary, highlighting excuses and stressing that not giving up was more important than winning due to the adversity the team was facing. I'm sorry but that is a loser mentality, and it needs to change with the next head coach.
As important as facilities are to the success of the basketball program, they are not nearly as important as recruiting and player development. Payne has proven to be strong in both areas, and after years playing and coaching the game of basketball, he has developed many relationships. Ellison, his former teammate, is the head coach at Life Center Academy in South Jersey and coached the prominent AAU Team Final previously. Payne has landed New Jersey stars Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Karl Anthony Towns for Kentucky, two of the best in-state players in the last decade.
Another aspect to Payne is the likelihood of him developing relationships with key players at Nike after coaching at Oregon. Nike sponsors the EYBL AAU circuit, including summer recruiting tournaments such as the Peach Jam. It's not just New Jersey connections that matter in college basketball, but AAU connections are equally important. With Payne's success at Kentucky, also a Nike school along with Ohio State and Rutgers, he has connections to both. Oh year, Rutgers contract with Nike expires in June 2017. Another factor for Hobbs to consider.
Like Ash, Payne's association with a top national program that have won championships would give Rutgers instant credibility when walking into a local gym in the New York/New Jersey metro area. Payne even won a national championship as a player, something Ash never did. He played in the pro's, like Eddie Jordan. The key difference between the two is that Payne has learned his craft at two college power conference schools. He has recruited the best players in the country and then developed them into NBA stars in their own right. Of course, Payne has never run a program as the head man and it would be paramount for him to surround himself with a strong staff. Which brings me back to Ash, who understands how important his coaches and support staff are. Indications from the Hurley talks are that Hobbs recognizes that importance too.
Pat Hobbs has options, and as Dave White wrote this morning, there is no reason for panic now that Hurley is off the table. Mike Lonergan is a really good coach and has led George Washington to five seasons of 20+ wins. Steve Pikiell played and then coached under Jim Calhoun at UCONN, and has Stony Brook playing against Kentucky tonight in the NCAA tournament. Mark Schmidt has done yeoman's work rebuilding the program at St. Bonaventure. All three are candidates worthy of serious consideration for the Rutgers job.
However, I hope Hobbs thinks back to the football search and remembers the qualities in Chris Ash and his pedigree. While it will take a couple of seasons to measure Ash's success on the field, the early signs are very positive. Kenny Payne not only has a similar profile to Ash, he actually matches up favorably in comparison. That is not meant to be any slight of Ash, but only to highlight that Payne is the real deal.
He won't be cheap, as he makes $700K at Kentucky, possibly the highest salary for any assistant coach in college basketball. There is a reason for that, but it's clear Hobbs has the funding to pay in the neighborhood of six years at 1.5 million per, as was the reported offer to Hurley. While facilities are certainly in the works, it will most likely be a couple of years until a basketball practice facility becomes a reality. Rutgers needs a veteran coach with a winning pedigree, one that will change the culture of the program.
Payne can point to his championship rings and his former pupils starring in the NBA. The idea that a TV personality could resonate with recruits and get Rutgers positive national attention was a pipe dream. There are others coaches who are certainly qualified for the job at Rutgers, like Lonergan, Pikiell and Schmidt. Let's hope Pat Hobbs also remembers what he looked for in a football coach and applies those to the basketball search. If he does, then Kenny Payne is certainly worth listening to as to what his visions are for the future of the basketball program. Hobbs has options, it's best he explore them all.
Cal on Payne: "He took over in that South Carolina game and did better than I would've done." Jokes he'll be sick if UK plays USC this week.— Alex Forkner (@AlexForknerTCP) March 7, 2016
Kenny Payne says he’s in no rush to leave UK for a head coaching job. "Somebody would really have to do their homework…I have a great job"— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) March 7, 2016