Around 4:15 p.m. local time on Friday, April 2, Porter Moser called Drew Valentine. The Loyola Chicago head coach took a day to vacillate before making his decision. It was time. Moser told Valentine he was leaving to be the next coach at Oklahoma.
Valentine was the guy Moser leaned on throughout March. As the Ramblers rambled their way to a dominant season and another Missouri Valley title, Moser knew bigger schools would come courting. He refused to deal with it. He didn't take a phone call and did not hop on a Zoom with another school or search firm during Loyola's NCAA Tournament run. Valentine handled some of that noise, and in handling it, he knew that if Moser did leave he'd have a shot to be the successor.
"I definitely was setting it up for him, but I also told him, 'I don't want you to get too ahead of yourself. My heart's still very much here,'" Moser told CBS Sports.
Oklahoma was too good to pass up, though Moser strung himself out a bit in getting there. After the two hung up that Friday, Valentine immediately called his athletic director, Steve Watson.
Within minutes, the 29-year-old Loyola assistant would have Moser's job and become the youngest head coach in Division I basketball.
"He says, 'Do you have any interest in the job?' and I busted out laughing," Valentine told CBS Sports. "Hell yeah, I have interest in this job. Hell yes, I want this job."
Watson was being cheeky; both men knew the gig was effectively Valentine's. There was a contract to draw up and red tape to work through, sure, but Valentine was going to be the guy. He knew it, Watson knew it, and within 30 minutes, Loyola Chicago's players knew it. They all hopped on a Zoom call at 5 p.m. An emotional Moser delivered his news, said his thank-yous and goodbyes, then logged off to make way for Valentine. Over the ensuing six hours Valentine called each player, recruit and their parents to let them know he was going to succeed Moser.
Valentine's career has been guided by a rocket, but he practically built the missile himself. He graduated from Oakland University in 2013 as one of the winningest players in school history. Valentine immediately transitioned to a support-staff role on Michigan State's 2014-15 Final Four team. In 2015 he left Michigan State to go back to his alma mater as an assistant. Two years later he took a leap of faith by leaving Oakland to join Moser's staff.
The Ramblers made the Final Four in his first season. From third assistant to head coach in four years' time. Valentine's rapid ascent has no recent analog. He is, according to my research, the first coach in men's college hoops history to get a head job under the age of 30 while simultaneously taking over a program that made the Sweet 16 the season prior. (Valentine will turn 30 on May 25.)
The most recent and closest parallel to Valentine's situation happened 14 years ago when a fresh-faced 30-year-old named Brad Stevens was promoted from within at Butler after the Bulldogs made the Sweet 16 and Todd Lickliter left for Iowa.
"Are you serious?" Valentine said when talking with CBS Sports this week.
And what does Stevens, now 44 and in his eighth season coaching the Boston Celtics, remember about being handed a plum job at 30 in a quality mid-major conference?
"If I would've been at a different school rather than one I was at for seven years, then it would've been very, very challenging to move down the office," Stevens told CBS Sports. "I remember feeling excited, I remember feeling like there's a lot to do, I remember I had to take all of Todd's speaking engagements, all of those things you have to do when you first get the job. I also remember feeling a great deal of responsibility toward the tradition that had been built by everyone else. I think that's the only thing I would say. I don't remember feeling overwhelmed and I don't think Drew will either. There are some unique things that a head coach learns that you only get from a chance of being in that spot -- dealing with all of the things that go into putting together a staff, coaching a full team, doing all those things -- if you're doing it at the school you're used to, then I think that makes the transition way easier."
Valentine had been building toward the events of April 2 for two years. In 2019, top Loyola assistant Bryan Mullins left for his alma mater, Southern Illinois. That nudged Valentine up the ladder. A couple weeks later, Moser heavily debated leaving Loyola Chicago for St. John's; there was one night where it could have gone either way. As Loyola AD Steve Watson waited on word from Moser, he also approached Valentine, then 27, about being at least considered for the job if Moser were to leave. Moser ultimately balked, returned to Chicago and continued to build up one of college hoops' best mid-majors.
But the past two years have in effect been an informal, up-close interview process for Valentine.
"This is a place Moser still loves. It was going to be hard for him to leave," Valentine said. "I never necessarily wanted to bank on my only opportunity being at Loyola, but that really got my mind in a place where I started thinking about all the things you have to be on top of and what to do. I was kind of interviewing, I guess you could say, without 'interviewing' the past two years."
Moser shrugs off Valentine's age. Says the man has way more experience than many due to his college success, then serving under Tom Izzo, in addition to being the son of a coach and the brother of an NBA player (Denzel Valentine is in his fourth season with the Chicago Bulls).
"The thing that always struck me with Drew was how much he was soaking it in and learning the whole way," Moser said of Valentine joining his staff at 26. "Every meeting every day he brought his journal in. The thing about Drew is he wasn't going a million miles an hour. He was wanting to learn it, learn the 'why.' I can see him every meeting with his journal and soaking it all in. He was such a learner. We'd drive while recruiting and talk the 'why' of things."
Moser would share what he learned from one of his mentors, Rick Majerus, and Valentine would dig deeper and want to know why this and why that. Always hunting for more.
"That's why Drew's the right guy for the job," Moser said. "He's the connector. And he's ready. His thirst for learning along the way. He's the right choice to keep that connection and that culture going."
Rare is the case in college basketball where someone is fortunate enough to take their first head-coaching job and do so at a school coming off a Sweet 16 appearance. Rarer still is when such a coach can do that while bringing back most of the roster from the year before. Stevens said inheriting five seniors for his first year on the job in 2007-08 was pivotal for the adjustment. Valentine will transition into the big chair and big office with a similar circumstance. One of college basketball's bigger headlines in recent days was Loyola seniors Keith Clemons, Tate Hall, Aher Uguak and Lucas Williamson jointly announcing their return for the 2021-22 campaign. You read right: seniors who are returning. All four are taking advantage of the bonus year of eligibility afforded to all college athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ramblers no longer have Moser and they no longer have the most decorated player in school history (outgoing senior Cameron Krutwig), but every other significant player will be back. Loyola is slated to return 80% of its minutes and 76% of its points and rebounds. The program has gone 99-36 since Valentine joined the staff and it finished the season as the No. 10-ranked team at KenPom (an outrageous accomplishment for a mid-major). The four returning seniors combined for 30.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game last season. Toss in Braden Norris, the rising junior who is a high-level 3-point shooter, in addition to cherished under-the-radar Ivy League transfers Chris Knight and Ryan Schwieger and Loyola Chicago has a case as a preseason top 25-level team.
Valentine has his best roster situation imaginable for Year One.
In turn, this has become one of the more intriguing storylines of the early offseason. And if Valentine can keep the team close to the level it was last season, the Ramblers will again be nationally relevant and NCAA Tournament-good.
There will be plenty made about Valentine's age, but it's also why he's in such a good spot now. He's young enough to relate to the players, and that made the seniors' collective decision that much simpler. Hall was the first to commit, then Clemons. The day after Valentine's introductory press conference, Uguak privately told Valentine he'd be back, and less than 48 hours later Williamson was all in, too. They kept it hush-hush for more than a week.
"Damian Lillard has a thing on staying paranoid, Chris Beard talks a lot about not being satisfied. That's a mentality to how you operate in life," Valentine said. "Every day you're working like your life depends on it. The belief in yourself and that work ethic starts it. The second part is being aligned with people on the same page as you."
Circle back to Stevens. Here's a timeline to cramp your brain: Drew graduated from college less than two months before Stevens left college basketball in 2013. And here's what Stevens told CBS Sports about why the move for him -- from assistant to head coach -- was not intimidating back in 2007 and why he wouldn't think it would be for Valentine now.
"Every situation is different, but the thing I would say about Drew -- and I don't know Drew -- but I know Porter loves him and everyone says great things about him," Stevens said. "When people start talking about experience and talking about age and those type of things, you can't put a price on the experience of him being there, at Loyola. That's worth so much to that transition and he's been a huge part of that, obviously. At 29, the wealth of experience that he's accumulated just from being a part of that great run they've had and knowing the institutional workings of the school and knowing what's important to the school, the mission of the athletic department, it gives him a great head start on what obviously is a promising career."
Moser echoed that. He said the pressure for Valentine will be big and real right away. There is a standard now and the fan base won't drift back to previous era. But Valentine is a rare quick study, so this has a shot at continuing to be a great college sports story. Think about it. Joins the staff as an assistant at 26 and has the head job at 29. Who does that? The man is also prideful about his truthfulness with players. That's why, in part, the seniors are coming back. There are other factors (the overseas professional market isn't exactly thriving as the pandemic continues to devastate across the globe), but an essential truth to all of this is Loyola's players have as much trust and faith in Valentine now as they did when Moser was coach.
"When you have real relationships with people and can be honest with them about them about things -- there's not one promise made here," Valentine said. "It's the realness and the care about them and their development. They trust what they're going to do and what I'm going to do to get these guys better. They know you don't play for a coach as detailed as Porter Moser, and these dudes buy in and believe in it in a certain way. If they didn't trust or believe in me as a coach then they would've been like, 'If I'm going to go back to college, I'm going to go play for somebody else because this guy didn't know what he was doing.'"
This program has in many ways been a microcosm for why college basketball is lovable and irresistible for millions. If there was ever a way to keep that interest going, hiring young and keeping most of the team together is how to do it. There are a lot of coaches who are taking over bigger jobs, better jobs. There are coaches hired in this year's cycle who clearly have more talent. But you can easily make the argument that, of the near-60 coaches who took jobs this year, the one who acceded to the best situation is Valentine.
"Every step of the way for these last four years he wasn't just present," Moser said. "He was soaking it in. He was learning the whys. It was so obvious to me, a head coach who's been in it a long time. He's ready."
The Ramblers are ready. Again. Young coach, old team and a new era for a modern mid-major powerhouse.