Let us outline the challenge facing Pat Chun in his first major hire since taking over as Washington State’s athletic director in January.
He desperately needs to juice up the men’s basketball program, which has been moribund since Tony Bennett left for Virginia, and which cratered in five seasons under Ernie Kent, fired Thursday by Chun.
The Cougars are sporting a massive operating deficit in the athletic department of a reported $60 million, with projections of it reaching $85 million by 2023. One way out of that mess would be to bolster the revenue generated by the men’s basketball program, which currently has all the buzz of a muted text.
So Chun needs to somehow find a coach who can thrive in what longtime Spokane Spokesman-Review columnist John Blanchette calls “the most challenging Power 6 basketball job in America.” And do so presumably without the salary enticement, facility perks, travel budget or assistant coaching budget of other programs (see deficit, above) and with a returning group of players that hardly excites.
You can see the line forming now.
Here’s the good news — it’s been done before. Here’s the bad news: Not very often.
For every George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson or Tony/Dick Bennett — the three beacons of basketball light in Pullman from 1972 to 2019 — there is a Kent, a Ken Bone, a Paul Graham, a Kevin Eastman, a Len Stevens.
The Cougars’ misery index is depressing. They have been to the NCAA tournament just twice since 1994 (in 2007 and ’08, under Bennett). They haven’t been to any postseason tournament since the CBI in 2012. They haven’t won a game in the Pac-12 tournament for 10 consecutive years. Take out Bennett’s two tournament teams, and they have just one upper-division finish in conference in the past 20 years.
Oh, one more thing: Chun was done no favors by his predecessor, Bill Moos, before he took off to Nebraska. Moos was so sure Kent could replicate the success they had together at Oregon — five NCAA tournament appearances, twice to the Elite Eight — that he rolled over Kent’s contract three times — after each season from 2014-17, years which produced a combined total of 35 victories. Those dubious decisions meant that it cost WSU $4.2 million to buy out Kent’s contract, hardly an ideal circumstance in its financial plight.
So how will Chun attract a coach who can pull the Cougars out of their malaise? He’s going to have to be creative and convincing, because, let’s face it, no established big-name coach is going to want to mess with this job.
So far, the name being tossed around most frequently is Travis DeCuire, who has had great success at his alma mater, Montana. Another name mentioned by The Spokesman-Review is T.J. Otzelberger of South Dakota State, a former Lorenzo Romar assistant who led the Jackrabbits to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (though they were just upset as the top seed in the Summit League tournament by bottom-seeded Western Illinois).
Boise State’s Leon Rice, a candidate when Kent was hired, could be in the running again. He’s done wonders in Boise but is coming off a 20-loss season in 2018-19.
None of those names would necessarily move the needle of a fan base that became understandably (and increasingly) apathetic during the disastrous Kent years. But winning games is what moves the needle, not winning news conferences.
How have the Cougars won in football? Same as they have won, intermittently, in basketball — by being unique. Dennis Erickson, Mike Price and Mike Leach ran, or are running, a specific system that’s highly appealing to quarterbacks and receivers. That can be a great equalizer when it comes to the inherent recruiting disadvantages of Pullman.
Similarly, in basketball, the three successful regimes had something special to offer. Raveling was one of the youngest coaches in the country when he took over in Pullman, and the only African-American coach in what was then the Pac-8. Raveling was a relentless recruiter who used the force of his personality — and subsequent success — to attract players from all over the country, such as the program’s lone All-American, Don Collins from Toledo, Ohio.
Sampson may have his issues with following NCAA rules, but he’s proving yet again at Houston (31-2) that he’s a brilliant basketball mind. He knew what kind of players he wanted to run his system and was able to identify them and bring them to Pullman.
The Bennetts were a unique deal. Dick was looking for an under-the-radar place to end his career and nurture that of his son, Tony, a fledgling coach. Washington State filled the bill.
Dick’s three seasons at Pullman were all under .500, but that was deceptive. Graham left him little in the way of talent, and yet in his first year Bennett still managed a breakthrough win against UCLA. Then he recruited six freshmen and endured their growing pains (but still swept Washington during Brandon Roy’s senior year) before handing over a team to his son that was on the verge of jelling.
Talk about unique — the Bennetts have a signature brand of basketball that may not excite the senses, but it’s effectiveness cannot be questioned. It worked in Green Bay, Stevens Point, Madison and Charlottesville, and it worked in Pullman.
So that’s all Chun needs to do: Find one of those. Unearth a coach who is the hoops equivalent of Leach, just quirky enough, and brilliant enough, to do the impossible.