Commentary

So what's taking so long at Oregon?

Big money hasn't translated to a big hire as UO continues its search for a hoops coach

Originally Published: April 15, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Oregon fired Ernie Kent on March 17, severing ties with its 13-year coach in a move about as surprising as learning that ducks like water.

Since then, Seton Hall fired Bobby Gonzalez and hired Kevin Willard, St. John's fired Norm Roberts and hired Steve Lavin, Wake Forest fired Dino Gaudio and hired Jeff Bzdelik, Boston College fired Al Skinner and hired Steve Donahue, and after Oliver Purnell bolted Clemson for DePaul, the Tigers hired Brad Brownell.

And those are just a few of the highlights of the spinning carousel.

[+] EnlargeErnie Kent
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesErnie Kent was fired from his alma mater on March 17. There is still no replacement in Eugene.

Oregon's lone hire since March 17? Spencer Stuart, an executive search firm. UO administrators paid Spencer Stuart $75,000 to assist in targeting a new head coach.

How's that working out? Just check out the team's Web site. Coach TBA is currently in charge of the Ducks.

Botched coaching searches are nothing new. Kentucky stumbled and bumbled is way through Billy Donovan and Rick Barnes before landing on Billy Gillispie three years ago. But as drawn-out as that process seemed at the time, the Wildcats still went from Tubby Smith to Gillispie in a matter of 13 days.

And at least UK didn't know Smith was packing his bags for Minnesota.

Presumably Oregon knew that Kent was toast, since it made the decision to cook him after a lengthy stay on the hot seat. Yet the university now has gone 29 days with Coach TBA at the helm (only slightly less disastrous than the 77-day vacancy at UNC Wilmington).

The tango to nowhere has been a preposterously laughable process for a school that fancies itself a major player in the college sports landscape.

With two scholarships to give and a 16-16 team in dire need of improvement, Oregon enters the late signing period with no coach to do its bidding, especially frustrating considering a pair of Portland products ranked in the top 30 nationally -- Terrence Jones and Terrence Ross -- are still searching for a school.

If the Eugene experiment has proved anything, it is that the Beatles were right: You can't buy me love.

Or a coach.

Oregon officials appear to be victims of a common hubris among universities staring at a coaching void: an exaggerated sense of self. The Ducks have been little more than a flyby visitor to the NCAA tournament, making it out of the first weekend just twice since 1960.

Yet a source told me that initially the Ducks targeted only coaches who had won national championships, which makes for an awfully small pool.

The thinking went that, with the benefit of uber supporter Phil Knight and the deep-pocketed well that is Nike, Oregon could throw buckets of cash at a coach and lure him to Eugene.

Only a few holes in that theory: Most coaches who have won a national championship already are making a bucket of cash.

And then there's the "lure him to Eugene" issue. The grass isn't always greener, not even when it includes the Ducks' garish uniforms.

"You say a lot of cash, but in a relationship to what?'' one coach rumored to be among those contacted said. "If the money they were talking about with Mike Krzyzewski and the Nets was true, that's significant. That's two or three times your salary. I can't imagine Oregon or anyone else is talking that kind of money. So are we talking way above and beyond or not? Because you have to consider relocating your family and what the recruiting pool is.''

As much as the university has been victimized by its own delusions of grandeur, it also has been done in by the double-top-secret way coaching searches are conducted these days.

According to various reports, Oregon has contacted and been refuted by Mark Turgeon, Jamie Dixon, Brad Stevens, Smith and Steve Alford.

Tom Izzo was rumored to be on a wish list, with a gigantic payout coming his way.

Ditto Billy Donovan.

Is that an accurate list? Who knows? The KGB was more open about its practices than major universities are when it comes to recruiting.

[+] EnlargePhil Knight
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireIt was widely assumed the deep pockets of Nike founder Phil Knight would be able to snare a big-time coach. That has yet to happen.

"We sign a confidentiality agreement,'' said Jim Horton, whose public relations firm handles media inquiries for Spencer Stuart. "We cannot speak about anything even remotely related to an ongoing search.''

And ESPN.com couldn't reach former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny for comment. Kilkenny was brought in to head the search, along with Knight, after AD Mike Bellotti resigned last month to take a college football broadcasting position with ESPN.

Besides, you'd have better luck getting the inside skinny on an NCAA investigation than you would getting the real dirt on a coaching search.

Plausible deniability rules the coaching carousel. No one wants to admit they've interviewed a candidate and no candidate wants to admit he's in the running. (To the latter, there can be a point -- coaches under contract run the risk of inciting their bosses' ire by shopping around. Bosses such as, say, BC AD Gene DeFilippo).

More, however, is at play than common sense.

It's about saving face.

Universities don't want to look bad for swinging and missing, and no coach wants to be viewed as the second or third choice.

Trouble is, the ego cover-up often backfires.

Look at Oregon.

The school may not have interviewed that long list of candidates, but the school is perceived as striking out more than Ryan Howard.

Is that worse than coming clean with a legitimate list of candidates who were vetted and approached?

"If I recruit a kid and don't get him, am I a bad coach?" one coach said. "It happens.''

Equally silly is this notion among coaches that being a second or third choice is somehow equivalent to being picked last for the kickball team.

"I think a lot of it, whether you're the first or the 25th choice, it's all about ego,'' Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "And how many times have bad choices, bad actions, bad decisions been made because ego was involved?''

Two years ago, Pastner couldn't even get an interview at Texas Southern or Prairie View A&M. He was packing his bags to join John Calipari at Kentucky when Memphis AD R.C. Johnson, having whiffed on Tim Floyd, Scott Drew and Mike Anderson, offered Pastner the job.

Next season, the fourth-choice coach will welcome one of the nation's best recruiting classes to the Memphis campus.

In 1976, a four-man search committee convened to come up with a new head coach. They considered Tom Young at Rutgers and Bill Blair at VMI before deciding to stay in house and tab a young assistant as the head man.

"They didn't want to hire me,'' the former assistant said. "But nobody remembers if you're the first choice or the last choice if you do a good job.''

Most would agree the coach no one wanted has done a decent job.

His name is Jim Boeheim.

The point is, by shrouding itself in a veil of mystery, Oregon only opens itself up to more ridicule and conjecture -- and really, there's already plenty of ridicule and conjecture to go around in this Abbott and Costello routine.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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