Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke was asked repeatedly during a news conference Wednesday about the timing of Sean Miller’s dismissal.
Why now, five weeks after the season?
Why not immediately after the final game?
Why not immediately after the Notice of Allegations arrived?
Why not immediately after the FBI scandal broke, a mere 1,290 days ago?
Heeke was never able to offer a satisfactory answer, because there isn’t one.
The handling of the Miller matter … the entire Miller matter … by Heeke and Arizona president Robert Robbins is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a wiretap.
But when asked about the candidate pool available to Arizona as it begins a national search for Miller’s replacement, Heeke’s answer was spot on.
“It goes without saying that this is one of the premier jobs in the country.”
That it is. That it is.
Arizona is the second-best job in the Pac-12, behind UCLA, and one of the top 12 or 15 jobs in the country because of the community support, access to recruits, tradition, kingpin status on campus and proven pipeline to the NBA.
Robbins, a heart surgeon who fashions himself an expert in collegiate athletics, has long been intrigued by Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, according to a source.
Several former Arizona players will undoubtedly receive strong consideration, chief among them Damon Stoudamire, who has one winning season in five years at Pacific.
Another former player, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner, has support in Tucson but doesn’t strike us as a viable option. The Yellow Jackets were banned from the 2020 NCAA Tournament for major recruiting violations on Pastner’s watch.
That doesn’t seem like a good fit for a program that was just banned from the NCAA Tournament for major recruiting violations.
Another former player with local support, Jason Terry, has been an assistant coach for a grand total of one year (at Arizona). Really? You’re going to send a rookie head coach out to compete against Mick Cronin and Dana Altman and think a conference title will follow?
That seems risky.
(The Juwan Howard comparison doesn’t work. Howard spent six years as an assistant for one of the best coaches in the NBA, Erik Spoelstra. Terry has been an assistant for 26 games.)
Nor does it seem smart to hire anyone associated with the Cactus Classic scandal of the 2000s, which generated self-imposed sanctions. That would seemingly rule out current Lakers assistant Miles Simon, who was reportedly deemed by the NCAA to have “acted contrary to the principles of ethical conduct.”
We get the push for a member of the Arizona basketball family, but every option brings significant risk, except Steve Kerr, who isn’t an option.
In our opinion, one name stands above all others.
One name guarantees the Wildcats a return to glory.
One name will elicit a sense of dread from every program in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats should open the vault, pay Eric Musselman whatever it takes, then kick back and watch him raise the program to its historical standard.
Musselman is a better coach than anyone who has been connected to the job in the 24 hours since Miller’s dismissal.
He’s the son of an NBA coach and a former NBA coach himself, until a DUI arrest and losing season cost him a job in Sacramento.
From there, Musselman rebuilt his reputation by becoming an assistant coach for two college teams, Arizona State and LSU.
How many former NBA coaches put their ego in the closet and agree to become college assistants? Musselman wanted to keep coaching, his best (only?) option was the college route, and he knew he had to learn the nuances.
Once learned, twice applied:
Musselman was named head coach at Nevada in 2015 and had the Wolf Pack in the Sweet 16 in his third year.
He was named head coach at Arkansas in 2019 and had the Razorbacks in the Elite Eight in his second year.
That’s right, Musselman has two trips to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since the last time Arizona was there.
Two trips to the second weekend in the past four years, at two different schools.
And those schools are Nevada and Arkansas, not Gonzaga and Kentucky.
The DUI? Bah. It was 15 years ago.
(After employing Miller for the past four seasons, Arizona has vacated all claims to the moral high ground.)
NCAA issues? Not that we know of.
(But on that front: Arizona needs a full-time compliance officer assigned to the basketball program, no matter whom it hires — Musselman, Stoudamire, Lloyd, Mahatma Gandhi IV. That’s how precarious the compliance situation is following multiple Level I infractions.)
Musselman is one of the best coaches in the country — better than Sean Miller, better than any former Arizona players (assuming Steve Kerr isn’t interested).
He’s on the same level as Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Villanova’s Jay Wright.
You know, the best of the best.
He saw the value in transfers before the transfer portal was created, building his Sweet 16 team in Reno around players corralled from other schools.
He is a shrewd evaluator of talent, a proven developer of personnel and a first-class tactician. In six seasons as a college head coach, he has averaged 26 wins per year:
Yes, the money is tricky.
Musselman’s current salary in Fayetteville reportedly is $2.5 million per year, with a stout buyout. And Arizona is paying off Miller. And Kevin Sumlin.
And it has budget problems related to the pandemic.
And it has budget problems unrelated to the pandemic.
But that’s all the more reason to hire Musselman. The Wildcats desperately need their chief export driving revenue like never before.
They cannot let cash stand in the way. There’s money available — there’s always money available. It depends entirely on whether Robbins wants to use it.
Hire Musselman, and the Wildcats are a Final Four contender in Year Three.
Hire Musselman, and the Wildcats are back to the standard of the Lute Olson era.
Hire Musselman, and the 2020s become the 1990s all over again, with revitalized Arizona and resurgent UCLA dueling for conference supremacy.
Top-10 programs loaded with draft picks.
Bitter rivals carrying the conference banner.
The best rivalry in the West — the rivalry that made the Pac-12 a great basketball conference — has been in a years-long slump.
The Bruins are on their way back, thanks to Mick Cronin.
But to make it work, Arizona must be Arizona again.
The Wildcats cannot afford to whiff on this hire, not after the past four years.
“It’s about finding the right person, right fit, right time,” Heeke said.
One coach is righter than all the others. Pay Musselman whatever it takes, then watch the glory return.
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