Critical assistant shuffle quietly rolls on
The year after Florida went back-to-back, winning its second national championship in a row, Billy Donovan figured he was facing the toughest task in his career.
Turns out reloading arguably the best roster in school history was merely a warm-up act to the reshuffling Donovan has had to do on the fly this offseason.
Had Donovan peeked out of his office and down the hallway recently, he might have felt a little lonely.
On March 31, Larry Shyatt, Donovan's associate head coach for the past four years, left to become the head coach at Wyoming.
On April 12, assistant coach Rob Lanier bolted for the Texas bench.
And on April 14, assistant coach Richard Pitino elected to join his father, Rick, as a member of the Louisville basketball staff.
That Donovan was able to hit one out of the park with his new hires -- naming former Arkansas head coach and one-time Gators assistant John Pelphrey, ex-St. John's head coach Norm Roberts and one-time UF director of operations Mike McCall as his assistants -- doesn't negate just how turbulent the last month has been at Florida.
The head-coaching carousel may have been relatively tame this offseason, but the assistant coaches' revolving door has made for some interesting scrambling. And though those moves and decisions don't generate a lot of headlines or attention, they are undeniably critical.
"Sometimes losing continuity on your staff can be even more difficult than losing good players,'' Donovan said. "This was really hard. Rob has been with me for four years, Larry seven and Richard I've known since he was 4 years old. There's a level of trust and comfort in that. They know you and you know them.''
Plenty of assistants have jumped ship this year, as they always do. No group is more responsible for the fiscal good health of U-Haul than assistant coaches, whose address histories read more like phone books.
Some of the highlights of this offseason's relocation program so far: Tracy Webster left Nebraska for Tennessee, Chris Walker parted company with alma mater Villanova in favor of a spot on Billy Gillispie's bench at Texas Tech and Bobby Lutz left Iowa State to head back to his old stomping grounds of North Carolina, where he'll assist Mark Gottfried at NC State.
Rarely are the partings less than amicable -- going home, bigger jobs and in plenty of cases head-coaching opportunities -- are all part of the cyclical nature of the business.
But there is no denying that the moving and shaking can make for some wrung-out and stressed-out head coaches, who are trying to help players get ready for the draft, work with other players, recruit and suddenly have little help to do it all.
At Florida and Louisville, the spin cycle has been especially vigorous. Donovan and his mentor, Rick Pitino, both have been left to rebuild their entire staffs in the last month.
Pitino plucked his son from Donovan but only because his own staff upheaval left him with job openings. Tim Fuller bolted after one season to join new coach Frank Haith at Missouri; Steve Massiello is the new head coach at Manhattan; and Ralph Willard, Pitino's longtime friend, announced he will step down as the Cardinals' director of basketball operations.
Pitino, in turn, just announced that along with Richard Pitino, he is hiring Wyking Jones (a former assistant at New Mexico and one-time grassroots director for Nike) and longtime Hargrave Military Academy head coach Kevin Keatts.
"This year for Billy and I, it's probably been as difficult as it possibly could,'' Pitino said. "Replacing one person is difficult, but with three, now you not only have to make the best hires, you need to somehow make sure they all get along. It's difficult.''
That's because, contrary to popular belief, assistant coaches are a lot more than glorified yes-men. Hit a Las Vegas gym in July and you'll find bleachers filled with assistants watching prospects and then frantically directing their head coaches where to go, when to go and who to watch.
Hit a basketball office after hours and you're sure to find an assistant breaking down film or working the phones.
Consequently, with head coaches relying so much on what their assistants advise or suggest, they need to find guys whose opinions they trust as practically sacrosanct.
That's not easy to do when staring at a pile of resumes.
"If we're not on the same page as a staff, how can we expect our team to be on the same page,'' Donovan said. "It's easy to identify guys who can play and who can't play. But the people you're working with have to know you. They have to know what kind of guys you want to coach and that can take time.''
And time is not a luxury anyone has. The recruiting window reopens in earnest in July.
Both Donovan and Pitino found life a little easier when they were able to immediately bring someone familiar on board. For Donovan, that was Pelphrey, a guy who had worked at Florida for six years before embarking on his own head-coaching career.
And for Pitino it was the ever familiar face of his own son.
But Jones and Keatts are new to Pitino and Roberts to Donovan.
"We've been blowing and going for the past two weeks,'' Roberts said. "I took the job on a Tuesday, flew here on a Wednesday and been going ever since. It's going to be a constant learning curve throughout the whole year.''
The three were hired for similar reasons -- recruiting reaches. The simple secret to basketball success is getting good players and the simple secret to getting good players is relationships. You need to know people or have people on your staff that do.
Jones' previous job with Nike afforded him contacts with countless summer-league programs stretching from California to the East Coast. Those names, numbers and relationships will be invaluable to Pitino and Louisville.
Keatts, who coached 103 Division I players during his 10 years at Hargrave, has similar and equally important connections.
"The way things are now, I think having someone like that is crucial,'' Pitino said.
Donovan didn't know Roberts more than socially, but liked the idea of his background. The former head coach at St. John's is from New York and has strong ties to the Northeast.
Roberts, who's been out of coaching since being let go by the Red Storm, welcomed the idea of a fresh start.
A longtime assistant with Bill Self before becoming a boss himself, Roberts knows well the rigors of being an assistant -- but with the benefit of age and wisdom, recognized the opportunities Donovan was offering him.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'What do I want to do right now? Do I want to be a head coach just to say I'm a head coach and then two years down the road think what did I get myself into?''' Roberts said. "When you're a young assistant, your mindset is, 'Get a head job, get a head job.' I had a different perspective. I wanted to be somewhere I could win, have an opportunity to grow as a coach, a chance to recruit in another part of the country and be even more versatile, and I wanted to go somewhere I enjoyed living. This afforded me all of that.''
That Roberts and Pelphrey both have head-coaching experience gives Donovan assurance, but it also could make for a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
"Maybe this is just me, but I think you have to have a level of confidence and security in yourself,'' Donovan said. "I'm always eager to learn and to get better. I also happen to believe that you're a much more effective assistant after you've been a head coach. When you're an assistant, it's hard to understand what a head coach is going through all the time. If you've been a head coach, you get it.''
Indeed, Roberts said he thinks he's not only more cognizant of what Donovan wants to do but smarter about what his role is.
"Working for Bill Self for so long, if you had a suggestion, you offered it,'' Roberts said. "But I also know you can't be so thin-skinned to get upset if he doesn't run with it. If I say we need to trap on that ballscreen and Billy says, no we're going to hedge, I'm not going to run to my office saying, 'Damn, they just won't listen to me.' It's not personal. It's about winning the game.''
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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