PORTLAND — One day after the Trail Blazers fired Nate McMillan, four highly-qualified coaches walked into the Rose Garden to interview for the job.
They just didn’t know it. And neither did the Blazers.
Figuring someone in this town had to take some initiative in finding a long-term coaching solution, I took it upon myself Friday to conduct preliminary interviews for the newly-vacated position.
The candidates? Louisville’s Rick Pitino, New Mexico’s Steve Alford, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, and Indiana’s Tom Crean — all of whom will play third-round games Saturday in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, normally I defend my media brethren no matter how preposterous their line of questioning.
But during Friday’s press conference, it seemed all anyone wanted to ask these guys about was “the game tomorrow” or “their players.” So when Pitino took the podium, and the microphone found my hand, I made sure things got serious.
Coach, what do you think about the Rose Garden atmosphere so far, and now that there’s a head-coaching vacancy with the Blazers, would you consider making Portland a full-time stop?
“Yeah, I really want the job,” said Pitino, wearing a grin that would cause a less perceptive man to think he was being sarcastic. “I’d really like to get out here. The weather has just knocked me over, and I really would like to start losing again.”
See, Pitino just gets it. He’s on the cusp of leaving a legacy of peerless college success mixed with putrid professional futility.
Currently, he’s the only coach to have taken three different programs to the Final Four. If he heads back to the NBA, he could also be a coach to take three teams no further than the conference semifinals.
They say that the Blazers’ best chance at a championship is to build through the draft. You want lottery picks? Rick’s your guy.
Next up was Alford, a former Dallas Maverick who has seen coaching success at both Iowa and New Mexico — an X’s and O’s guy who could relate to the players. I read him back his résumé and asked when he’d be taking McMillan’s old job.
You know what he did? He laughed at me.
“That one came out of left field,” Alford said. “I’ve just been watching tape on Louisville. I didn’t know anything had even happened with the Blazers.”
About six years ago, while I was hanging out with a new male co-worker, a woman asked me what my favorite “American Idol” performance from the night before was.
“I didn’t even know American Idol was on last night,” I responded, 22 hours after voting for Carrie Underwood.
I know your tricks, Alford.
Next up was Smart, the 34-year-old coach from VCU. In March of 2011, the only thing buzzing more than Smart’s barber’s clippers were Smart’s 11th-seeded Rams, who knocked off top-seeded Kansas en route to the Final Four.
If JFK looked like a future president at 34, Shaka looks like a future NBA coach. So I had to had to float it out there.
Coach, the nation has gotten to know you and your program over the past couple of years. You’ve spent a few days in Portland now. When are we going to see you throw your hat in the ring for the Blazers job?
“Never,” answered Smart more quickly than a drag racer’s right foot. “A couple of the fans last night after our game asked me that. It’s unfortunate that in this business there’s so much change in coaching, and Nate McMillan is a phenomenal coach. But I guess in the NBA that’s commonplace for coaching jobs to change hands during the year. But I’m in the moment right now at VCU.”
Classy. Graceful. Intelligent. Like having the chance to draft Michael Jordan or Kevin Durant, it just seems too good to be true for the Blazers.
Gotta move on. One option left.
Before Tom Crean led Indiana back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years, he guided Marquette to a fourth-place Big East finish when it was predicted to place 12th. And before Crean guided Marquette to a fourth-place Big East finish, he recruited Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews and coached him for three years.
In other words — CREAN 2012 should be all Blazers fans’ new favorite bumper sticker.
Coach, it’s just a matter of time before we see you in Portland full-time, right?
Using any opportunity to rib his good friend, Crean responded: “I leave the declarations of not being involved with jobs to (Kentucky coach) John Calipari, not me.”
Calipari, huh? Who better to deal with millionaire players?
Someone draw up the contract.
Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org