Commentary

Grant needs to win and be accessible

Originally Published: June 11, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Alabama's men's basketball program needs to be heard from.

It doesn't need to be an overwhelming presence since the cash cow and the most passionate interest will always be with football.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Grant
Howard Smith/US PresswireGrant is the first African-African head coach of any major sport at the University of Alabama.

The Tide's rich football history includes dominant coaching personality Bear Bryant. And since the legendary Bryant roamed the sidelines, Alabama has gone through coaches who have made their presence felt in their own way (Ray Perkins, Bill Curry and Gene Stallings come to mind).

But since Bryant retired, it can be argued that no one has had as intimidating a presence as current football coach Nick Saban.

Finding the delicate balance in the athletic department, and within the state, with someone like Saban is a fine line.

The basketball coach needs to win games, ensure that his team plays hard and is as approachable as possible. But he also has to understand that he won't be No. 1.

"You don't have to be Bruce Pearl, but I do think you have to be accessible,'' said former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, of the flamboyant Tennessee coach who can take over a room from the moment he enters it. "But the media in the state of Alabama want to talk to you. This has to be one of his strengths, maybe his [main] strength."

Sanderson is referring to new Tide basketball coach Anthony Grant.

Grant might be one of the most even-tempered coaches in the biz. A former Florida assistant to Billy Donovan, he's been quite a hit in the profession. He took VCU to the NCAA tournament in two of the past three seasons, including a first-round win over Duke in 2007.

Grant rarely shows emotion. But he is quick to admit that is only what you "see." "I am who I am,'' Grant said. "We all have our own personalities. It's who I've always been, and I come off a certain way. My guys understand who I am, and the expectations I have. The most important thing is to perform.''

Sanderson admits the first thing Grant needs to do (in taking over for Sanderson's former player Mark Gottfried) is win. He also said Grant has to lock up the state of Alabama in recruiting. Sanderson admits the talent base may not be as plentiful as Georgia and Florida, but it's comparably rich at the top. And finally, according to Sanderson, who still lives in Tuscaloosa, Grant needs to be engaging.

Anyone who has been around Grant can attest that he is a gem of a person. Donovan and Grant were extremely close during their dozen years together -- two at Marshall and 10 at Florida. Grant was instrumental in building the Gators up to national prominence with their first title game appearance in 2000 and then the first of two national titles in 2006.

He then left to replace Jeff Capel at VCU but was on the floor celebrating with Donovan and his good friends at Florida when the Gators beat Ohio State in 2007 to win the national title. The team was made up of the same players he had helped recruit and coach to the previous national title in 2006.

Gottfried did well at Alabama. He reached the NCAAs five times, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2004. He recruited well, too, nabbing plenty of potential pros and has one on the roster for Grant in sophomore forward JaMychal Green. But the knock on his Tide was how hard they played.

[+] EnlargeJamychal Green
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyCan Grant return Alabama to prominence in March? JaMychal Green certainly hopes so.

That shouldn't be an issue for a team led by Grant, who mentored likely first-round pick Eric Maynor and rising star forward Larry Sanders.

Ensuring that he's approachable and engaging and making sure his teams play hard won't be issues either, according to his good friend and former fellow Florida assistant John Pelphrey, now a rival coach at Arkansas.

"Anthony is very much in control,'' Pelphrey said. "He's got core values that he believes in. His teams play hard. He doesn't have to be the guy who carries the ball all the time. He can be the blocking back. He knows what he's about. He's got pretty unique qualities. He'll always be successful because people gravitate to him. He'll always be in a situation to impact others and make everyone else around him better.''

Grant said that taking the Alabama job when there was a new rule (not allowing weekend coaching evaluations at tournaments last April) made it harder for him to get his name out.

He has former Tide player Antoine Pettway on his staff, which should ensure that he'll have an "in" within the state.

Having a veteran head coach on the bench like Dan Hipsher (a former head man at Akron) is a huge help, according to those who are familiar with his style (former VCU assistant Tony Pujol, the Tide's new director of basketball operations, and VCU assistant John Brannen, who is serving a similar role at Alabama).

Gottfried and his interim replacement, then-assistant Philip Pearson, had recruited well and Grant will work with a solid nucleus led by Green, Senario Hillman, Andrew Steele, Mikhail Torrance and Justin Knox. The recruiting class stayed intact with Shawn Kemp Jr., Tony Mitchell, Charvez Davis and Chris Hines joining onetime VCU recruit Ben Eblen.

Grant wasn't looking to leave VCU. He didn't have to since it was the team to beat in the Colonial Athletic Association every season. Recent openings at SEC schools LSU, South Carolina and Georgia didn't merit his interest. Maybe it was mutual. But Grant didn't pursue anything.

The only option he clearly would have exercised is if Donovan had stayed with his original plan and gone to the Orlando Magic. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was so certain that Grant would be the perfect choice to replace Donovan that he had a plane waiting for him to fly from Richmond to Gainesville.

Alabama finally made the push for him. But in classic Grant style, he methodically thought about the move before accepting the position. He doesn't do much on impulse. That approach has worked well so far. If he can translate that into results in a college-sports hungry state -- and do so without compromising his style -- then he should be a hit in Tuscaloosa.

"That's the only way I know [how to succeed],'' Grant said.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com