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On coaching searches, ‘OFFERS,’ and landing on the correct choice

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Good process doesn’t guarantee good results, but it’s the best place to start.

San Francisco v Gonzaga
Was Kyle Smith the first choice or third choice? It doesn’t matter — he was the correct choice.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Later today, the Washington State Cougars will officially introduce Kyle Smith as the coach of men’s basketball team, and there appears to be some disagreement as to whether he was the first choice of athletics director Pat Chun.

Cougfan’s Barry Bolton reported last week that Chun “wanted Boise State’s Leon Rice or Montana’s Travis DeCuire to be Washington State’s next head basketball coach but both said no thanks.” Before long, Spokesman-Review writer Theo Lawson tweeted, “According to a source, Kyle Smith was the only person offered the #WSU job. Other reports have indicated #BSU’s Leon Rice and #Montana’s Travis DeCuire were offered by the Cougars. Those reports are false.” To which some nameless person(s) with the keys to Cougfan’s Twitter replied, “no need to be naive” and “we never said OFFERS were made. We said WSU wanted them and WSU was rebuffed.”

This all is a pretty silly war of semantics. Do I believe Chun put feelers out to Rice and DeCuire? Yep! Do I believe Theo when he says Smith was the only offer? Absolutely — job offers are almost always only extended when a “yes” is expected. Do I believe WSU “wanted” Rice and DeCuire?

Ehhhhhhh ...

There are fine lines (and sometimes very blurry ones) between inquired about and “wanted,” and OFFERS and official offers. It’s probably better thought of as a continuum, anyway, in which candidates can slide along the line depending on various sets of circumstances. Chun would have been derelict in his duty if he didn’t at least try to find out — either directly or (most likely) through an intermediary — if moderately successful midmajor coaches in the region had interest in the job. Does it mean Chun “wanted” them?

That’s in the eye of the beholder. And these pictures are often incomplete, since reporting is coming from a variety of sources with varying (and sometimes competing) interests.

When I see a report like Cougfan’s, my first thought is always “who benefits from this information being public?” The most obvious answers are Rice and DeCuire, each of whom see their status elevated when a Power conference program supposedly wants to hire them. They then can use that to leverage other opportunities.

For example, it wasn’t long after DeCuire’s name surfaced with Cougfan that, in a completely shocking turn of events, it was reported that DeCuire was working on an extension with the Montana Grizzlies that will increase his pay. You’ll also remember that Moos’ fruitless pursuit of Rice five years ago led to him getting a big raise from the Boise State Broncos. There’s a clear benefit for a coach to the perception that he turned down WSU rather than getting passed over for the coach of a fourth-place West Coast Conference team. (If you need more evidence, well, you surely remember this.)

To a lesser extent, this information also makes for a nice little bit of evidence in service of Cougfan’s relentless — and extremely puzzling — narrative: “the WSU job sucks and nobody of any quality wants it.” It’s not incumbent upon them to say only positive things, but for a fan site to communicate a single negative message about its program so consistently and pervasively is super weird, even if it ostensibly is to motivate people to join the CAF and give (which, yes, we all should do). It’s been so pervasive that WSU president Kirk Schulz even felt compelled to address it.

It’s also pretty obvious who Cougfan’s story doesn’t benefit. It doesn’t benefit WSU to make it look like the program was so unattractive that a couple of kinda successful midmajor coaches wanted nothing to do with it; it doesn’t benefit the new coach, who needs to immediately hit the recruiting trail and convince kids that, yes, it’s possible to come to WSU and win stuff; and it doesn’t benefit the athletics director, who is made to look like he didn’t have the ability/moxy/savvy to land someone he actually wanted before settling for a guy with zero NCAA tournament appearances out of the Ivy League and WCC.

I’m not sure why that’s something Bolton wanted to communicate, but in case there was any doubt about intent, here’s the third paragraph from the original report:

But the bottom line is that two people — Chun and Schulz — who have no first-hand familiarity with the decades-long systemic problems in the Cougar basketball program may have found exactly what Wazzu needs in USF’s Kyle Smith, who is expected to be named the 19th head coach in WSU history.

Maybe someone will tell me I’m wrong, but is there any other way to read that other than, “WSU had a pair of blind men leading its coaching search, but they might have just lucked into a good hire in spite of themselves”?

That’s ... man, that’s definitely something. And I say that as someone who is a proud subscriber to Cougfan and thinks they fill a really important space in coverage of WSU. We partnered with them on a fundraiser. This isn’t an outright criticism of them on the whole; this is just me being confused.

Chun has been on the job for more than a year; Schulz has been in Pullman for nearly three years. (Hard to believe it’s already been that long, right?) No, neither of them have seen the ups and downs of WSU basketball from the vantage point of you or I, but it’s clear from their brief time at WSU that they have a handle on the challenges of athletics in Pullman.

In the immediate wake of the firing of Ernie Kent, both invoked the names of past successful coaches at WSU, observing the similarities between them. Sometimes, that can be lip service. But when you see this ...

... and then he goes on to hire a guy who checks many of the same boxes, that looks to me like a man who knows what he’s doing. Oh, and just in case you needed a little more convincing:

Bolton hasn’t backed down from his report, and I don’t expect him to. But ask yourself: In the larger context that we knew about before the hire (they were looking for a system coach) and given what we’ve learned since (that Chun sought out the opinions of high-profile people connected with WSU basketball), would hiring Rice or DeCuire even have fit within that narrative?

I don’t see it — both guys are fairly conventional, with the exception of Rice having landed some Australians along the way to shoot copious amounts of threes. It’s worth noting that WSU already was bombing away from deep in a way that is no longer all that unique in college basketball, and Rice is coming off his first losing season since 2012. His stock hasn’t been this low in quite some time.

It makes me question the very idea that Chun “wanted” anyone other Smith. Without any particular insight into this particular job search other than how these things typically go down, here’s what I think probably happened:

  • Chun, through an intermediary, made contact with the coaches on his short list — Rice, DeCuire and Smith among them.
  • Somewhere along the line, it was clear Rice and DeCuire (and probably others) weren’t going to be a fit. Maybe the money wasn’t going to be right, maybe they didn’t see WSU as attractive enough to make the move, maybe their interview was a dud and the coaches themselves “withdrew” because they knew they weren’t the first choice. There are lots of reasons why guys don’t get offered a job!
  • Chun had an interview with Smith and he knocked Chun’s socks off with Nerdball, and a short time later, the offer was made. The only offer.
  • The contract negotiated made sense for both parties.
  • And it all took less than two weeks.

How can anyone find fault with that?

The fact that everything about the search seems to have been done right doesn’t guarantee that Smith will be successful. It’s an uphill battle to be a winner at WSU, which we all would know even in the absence of 20 Cougfan stories reminding us that the basketball program is woefully underfunded. But of the options available this particular offseason, there’s absolutely no question in my mind that Kyle Smith was the best possible choice to rebuild from the smoldering ashes left behind by Ken Bone and Ernie Kent.

I say that as someone who has been a Coug for 25 years and watched six coaches come and go. I say that as someone who looked pretty closely at most of the names who should have been on Chun’s initial list. I say that as someone who has listened to nearly two hours’ worth of Smith talking about his philosophy and coaching style. (Here and here.)

However we got here — and I’m convinced it was much more than a happy accident — this is the right hire. I can’t wait for the Kyle Smith era to begin.