Ten realistic candidates who could replace Rick Pitino as coach at Louisville
Speculation could last the entire season, but here are the coaches to keep an eye on
We've got many months ahead and miles and miles to go, but eventually, the powers-that-be at the University of Louisville will need to make a permanent decision on who is going to be the long-term coach of the Cardinals. On Friday, U of L assistant David Padgett was upgraded to interim head coach after Rick Pitino was paced on unpaid leave. It's an indefinite promotion and Pitino is not expected to return to the bench.
What makes the Louisville coaching vacancy interesting is the dichotomy of a universally regarded top-10 job facing so much uncertainty. There is inevitable punishment coming from one NCAA investigation involving strippers and prostitutes. Plus, now, the school awaits initiation on what's sure to be another serious NCAA review, thanks to the shady and/or illegal recruitment of at least two players: freshman Brian Bowen, and an unnamed prospect in the Class of 2019.
And, of course, the backdrop of an unprecedented FBI investigation looms largest in all of this. With all of that in mind, it's impossible to forecast what kind of position Louisville is going to be in come late March, when a hire will probably, ultimately be made.
Still, even if the NCAA poses a threat to issue a death penalty to the program (which is highly unlikely), there will not be a shortage of interested candidates. At the end of the day, it's Louisville. It's a megawatt program that can and will rebound. How long depends on the penalties levied and the coach ultimately tasked to overcome them.
The university was not on good footing to begin with when this earthquake hit. There is no full-time president nor an athletic director in place, and Tom Jurich, the AD on leave, has an attorney all too eager to let the litigation launch. Those posts will need to be appointed before a men's basketball coach can be approved. Timelines at Louisville on hirings and firings remain fluid.
All of this won't stop speculation, and right now there are plenty of coaches that know they could be in line for a big raise and a rare opportunity if this season goes well for them. Here are 10 candidates (in alphabetical order) that could, should or will be up for consideration for the Cardinals job a few months from now.
Northwestern's Chris Collins: I'll start by reminding readers that this is the Louisville job, so no matter what position or however many punishments the program is subject to, it's almost certainly going to be hiring either a sitting head coach or a former head coach with loads of experience. Collins just took Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament and stands to have an even better team in 2017-18. If Northwestern winds up not only reaching the NCAAs again, but winning a game or two, he'll be a prime candidate. He is considered on the short list of coaches-in-waiting for the Duke job, but Louisville would have to strongly consider a coach who has good basketball bloodlines and did the near-impossible with Northwestern.
Providence's Ed Cooley: Cooley's absolutely got the personality and coaching acumen to handle the Louisville job. He just took a Providence team -- one that was expected to struggle to make the 2017 NIT -- to the NCAA Tournament, marking the fourth straight Big Dance trip for the Friars. Going to four consecutive tourneys had never been done before at that school. Cooley's team figures to be even better this season. He's a Providence native, but if Louisville is not facing debilitating sanctions, he'd have to strongly consider taking the job.
Former Indiana coach Tom Crean: I recommended Crean for the interim position, but Louisville interim president Greg Postel opted to go in-house (a potentially treacherous choice, given there's at least one assistant caught on FBI wiretap) in an effort to get the program in order for preseason practices. Crean still deserves an interview .
Cincinnati's Mick Cronin: Cincinnati has made seven straight NCAA Tournaments, and with the roster Cronin's got back this season, it should easily be eight come March. Cronin's among the most underrated coaches in the game. He could well go 20 years at Cincy and become a local basketball icon in his own right, or he could aim for higher. It feels like the next two years will decide if he's going to be a lifer with the Bearcats or not. Cincy is a top-25 job, but Louisville's in the top 10. And remember, Cronin flirted strongly with taking the UNLV job in 2016. If the Bearcats are a top-three AAC team again, which they should be, Cronin's name will be in the mix for Louisville.
Vanderbilt's Bryce Drew: Like a number of coaches on this list, Drew is only one state border away. He took Vanderbilt to the NCAAs in his first season and coached his alma mater, Valparaiso, to two NCAA Tourney trips. Drew isn't as young as you think (he just turned 43) but he's still considered, very much so, a coach on the rise. His candidacy for the job probably depends on how good Vandy is this season; failing to make the NCAAs might take him out of the running. But consider this: He could wind up as an interesting option if Louisville is facing exhausting sanctions but wants to throw a lot of money at a promising coach who's willing to take a gamble and will do it the right way.
Xavier's Chris Mack: An easy pick here. Mack, 47, has taken Xavier to the NCAAs in seven of his eight seasons and has reached at least the Sweet 16 in four of those trips. With another good year probably coming, Mack will almost certainly be at or near the very top of every Louisville candidate list you see later this season. He has the success, is good with the media, and is suited for the Louisville job. He'll almost certainly be courted for an interview, and I believe he'd have serious interest if the program was staring down incapacitation from a sanctions standpoint.
Wichita State's Gregg Marshall: If you want the one guy who could be the biggest challenger to Mack as the favorite to land the job, Marshall's it. Timing is everything, and Marshall's about to hit the point where he'll be deciding if he's going to retire as Wichita State's coach or if he's going to finally take a top-level job. This season Wichita State is set up to be a top-10 team. Then, the Shockers could lose Landry Shamet and/or Markis McDuffie to early NBA Draft entry. Plus, almost every other player of consequence will be graduating. The Shockers will still probably be respectable a season from now, but this is the high point. Marshall making another charge to a Final Four, in addition to getting a good tourney seed, would be further validation of his coaching acuity.
Illinois State's Dan Muller: The youngest candidate on this list among head coaches. And here's why Muller could be considered. Say Louisville winds up with a postseason ban for 2018, or potentially 2019 depending on how the NCAA's inevitable, second investigation tied to this FBI probe goes. If that happens -- if Louisville is truly crippled by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions -- then luring a good head coach from a top-40 program is going to be tough. But Muller, who has been quietly getting it done at Illinois State for years, could be a good candidate to take the lumps for a couple of seasons, be given a long leash of a contract, and ultimately see the benefits of risking it for the long-term payoff. Few mid-major coaches would be a better call in this spot.
Louisville interim head coach David Padgett: I don't discount Padgett's chances here, but we can't ignore the fact that Louisville's leadership may well see the need to rid its entire staff of the Pitino connection before this is all said and done. If that happens, but Padgett's name is still not connected to wrongdoing, then he'll land on his feet and get another chance elsewhere. However, if Louisville winds up having a terrific season (they are a top-20 team as we see it now, after all), and Louisville winds up still getting hit hard with punishments? And if Padgett's name is cleared despite all of this and he has the support of the power figures in that city? Maybe he's the right guy to promote. A lot has to happen between now and then, though.
Purdue's Matt Painter: Kind of a dark horse, but maybe not really? Painter's been really good over the course 12 seasons in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers could be the primary challenger to Michigan State in the Big Ten this season, and another strong campaign would put Painter in position to be looked at seriously. I've never heard a coach utter a word about cheating or shady activity when it comes to Painter, either. He's a great combo of clean coach + NCAA tourney success + knows how to recruit the region + very different from Pitino + plenty of years ahead of him. This season could be his 10th trip to the NCAAs, and he's still just 47. Louisville could offer a lot of money, and Painter would be a logical but relatively outside-the-box choice.
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