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Greg Hansen: Hiring Tommy Lloyd is a gamble, but Wildcats appear poised to take their chances
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Greg Hansen: Hiring Tommy Lloyd is a gamble, but Wildcats appear poised to take their chances

Should Arizona hire Tommy Lloyd away from Gonzaga, it would mark a rare — but not unheard of — move in the Pac-12. In the last 50 years, conference teams have hired just 17 men without coaching experience. Only a handful of them delivered.

Day 3 of the liberation of Arizona’s basketball program came and went with one known variable: Throwing money into a search firm’s lap won’t do a thing to help Arizona hire a sitting head coach whose résumé is commensurate with the UA’s brand and basketball history.

The 2021 equivalent of hiring Lute Olson away from Iowa would be to knock on Tony Bennett’s door. Alas, Bennett is under contract through 2027. His compensation at Virginia is believed to be close to $5.5 million per season. His buyout is $6.5 million. He is the gold standard of college basketball coaching.

Arizona can’t play that game. Lower your expectations. Next.

Other than Gonzaga’s Mark Few, the one Western head coach who would meet Arizona’s expectations is BYU’s Mark Pope. He is the anti-Sean Miller: Warm, fuzzy, doing more with less.


Arizona Wildcats parted ways with head coach Sean Miller on Wednesday after 12 seasons that included three Elite Eights, five Pac-12 championships, 13 NBA draft picks and over 300 wins; why is now the right time for new leadership? The Star's Justin Spears and Bruce Pascoe analyze the UA's decision to move on from Miller, and what the future holds for Arizona. Plus, an overview of the Miller era and the list of candidates that could become the next head coach.

But Pope is untouchable. He is signed through 2027. I don’t think Pope would even leave BYU to return to his alma mater, Kentucky, if the need arose.

“I love BYU,” Pope said when he signed his contract extension six months ago. “I love what the university stands for.”

This isn’t 1983 anymore. Lute Olsons aren’t available. The new template of filling a coaching job at elite-level schools has been to hire blood, search your roots and bring back a familiar face, as Indiana did with Mike Woodson, Michigan did with Juwan Howard and North Carolina did with Hubert Davis.

Arizona has plenty of those men in stock: Pacific’s Damon Stoudamire, Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner and Wildcats assistant coach Jason Terry are all former players. I don’t think any of them will be hired, or even seriously considered. Miles Simon? No.

That’s because I believe Arizona and Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd reached a handshake-type agreement weeks ago. They must have. Right?

Then again, if UA president Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke targeted Lloyd weeks ago, with both sides agreeing to wait until the Zags had completed their season to make it official, why is Arizona hiring a search firm? Why posture with a phony interview process?

It’s puzzling that Robbins and Heeke didn’t move immediately to hire someone who has been (a) a conference coach of the year or (b) marched into the NCAA Tournament with his own team. Once the FBI knocked at Arizona’s door, Robbins had years to come up with a plan to replace Miller. Once the Miller fatigue took root, once it became clear Arizona was going to terminate him, he had to have a plan. Right?

Hiring blunders aren’t novel.

When UCLA fired Steve Alford in December 2018, athletic director Dan Guerrero, who wasn’t accompanied by a backseat-driving president, went on a long and comical chase of TCU coach Jamie Dixon only to discover that Dixon had an $8 million buyout. The Bruins then pursued Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, whose buyout was $5 million. Next.

UCLA learned that money doesn’t necessarily move men like Dixon and Barnes. They are already wealthy. The most important factors are if they are willing to surrender their security and roots to rebuild someone else’s failures.

By the time UCLA settled on Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin — home run! — they learned that coaching basketball in John Wooden’s shrine is no longer a temptation to rich and accomplished coaches.

When former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny decided to look for a replacement for Ernie Kent in the spring of 2009 — he wouldn’t fire Kent for another year — he secretly arranged to meet Gonzaga’s Mark Few halfway between campuses of the two schools.

Backed by the wealth and influence of Nike’s Phil Knight, Kilkenny was stunned when Few, an Oregon alumnus who grew up 11 miles from Mac Court, wasn’t interested.

USA Today later reported that Kilkenny told Few “you’ll never get to the Final Four at Gonzaga.”

A year later, Kilkenny went on a well-documented 39-day search to replace Kent. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said no. Butler’s Brad Stevens declined. UNLV’s Lon Kruger wasn’t interested. Kilkenny ultimately settled for Creighton coach Dana Altman.

Let’s just say the Ducks didn’t win that press conference. Yet Altman proved to be as much a home-run hire as UCLA’s Cronin. Now the dean of Pac-12 coaches, Altman has gone 7-0 against Arizona dating to 2018.

Alas, the mid-major coaching job market in 2021 doesn’t have a Cronin or an Altman.

Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, right, greets forward Drew Timme before their November 2019 game against Cal State Bakersfield.

If Arizona hires Lloyd, it’ll be a bigger gamble than hiring football coach Jedd Fisch.

This isn’t football, where you can surround yourself with a 10-man coaching staff of former NFL coaches and UA legends who can do the bulk of the heavy lifting and planning while the head coach acts as CEO and social media magician.

If Tommy Lloyd is Arizona’s next basketball coach, he has to immediately call the plays, make the tough personnel choices and work in the trenches 24/7. He has to teach chemistry, not just add to it.

Hiring a career assistant is risky business. In the last 50 years, Pac-12 basketball teams have hired 17 men who had never been a head coach. Only a few worked: Arizona’s Fred Snowden. Washington State’s George Raveling.

Bennett, who had been a head-coach-in-waiting under his father, Dick, at Wazzu. Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins qualifies, but he was so-so.

The other 13, like ASU’s Steve Patterson and USC’s Henry Bibby, both of whom had UCLA and John Wooden lineage, fizzled. The jury is still out on Washington’s slumping Mike Hopkins, who was, like Lloyd at Gonzaga, the head coach-in-waiting at Syracuse.

If Arizona is willing to take a chance and hire a career assistant coach, it must be sure it can back it up with genuine endorsements from Steve Kerr, Luke Walton and those like Bob Elliott, Ernie McCray and Sean Elliott.

This needs to be ready, set, go. It shouldn’t be a split decision.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com.

On Twitter: @ghansen711


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