If the hiring of Chip Kelly is any indication, UCLA may not be operating under the same old constraints as it begins the search for its next basketball coach.
Gripes about not being able to pay enough or offer top-level facilities might no longer apply.
The Bruins are paying Kelly an average of $4.66 million per season to coach their football team. His office features a picturesque view of campus inside the gleaming Wasserman Football Center, a $75-million facility that serves as the hub of cutting-edge sports science, strength and nutrition programs.
That means whoever fills the basketball coaching vacancy that was created this week when UCLA fired Steve Alford might be in line to double the $2.6 million that Alford pocketed per season. The new coach will also hold practices inside the $35-million Mo Ostin Basketball Center, a barely year-old facility that is among the best on the West Coast, before making his debut inside the recently renovated Pauley Pavilion.
It might be enough to finally lure a brand-name coach, thanks to a recent surge in donor funds as well as the record $280-million Under Armour deal that the school signed in 2016.
“I do think the funding and the money will be there in order to get the hire that can get this program back on track,” Sean Farnham, the former UCLA forward who’s now an ESPN college basketball analyst, said Tuesday during a telephone interview. Farnham cautioned that it might not be enough to land someone like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Billy Donovan, who makes an average of $6 million per season in an area of the country where that money goes much further than it would in Los Angeles.
Farnham said one issue UCLA’s search committee may have to address with prospective candidates is the policy of usually taking commercial flights instead of charters. The team was recently marooned at the Cincinnati airport for 2½ hours because of a flight delay on its way to Chicago.
“Kentucky’s not sitting in an airport for 2½ hours, ever,” Farnham said. “And if that’s who UCLA wants to compete against, then you have to be on a level playing field.”
While Bruins fans openly daydreamed on message boards about prospective candidates such as Donovan, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and North Carolina State’s Kevin Keatts, a groundswell of support among recent UCLA basketball alumni continued to build for another name.
“The no-brainer is Earl Watson,” Ryan Hollins, the onetime UCLA center who is now an NBA analyst, said of the former Bruins point guard who coached the Phoenix Suns for parts of three seasons. “The guy bleeds blue and gold, and he’s one of the best basketball minds that I’ve ever been around.”
Former Bruins Matt Barnes and Josiah Johnson tweeted their support of Watson’s candidacy, citing his ability to connect with younger players and bring the school’s alumni back to Pauley Pavilion.
Darrick Martin, the former UCLA point guard who was openly critical of Alford shortly before he was fired, said he would like to see Watson get a shot but that whoever gets the job should be someone with California ties who understands the dynamics of UCLA basketball and is willing to embrace the expectations of a program that has won a record 11 national championships.
Martin said the new coach should become instantly identifiable with UCLA in the same way that Roy Williams is with North Carolina or Mike Krzyzewski is with Duke.
“Certain coaches just fit in certain areas,” Martin said. “Also, in L.A., with all the other teams here, in order for UCLA to regain its allure the style of play has to be exciting — not a Big Ten [Conference-style] 50-49 game.”
Just like it did in acquiring Kelly, UCLA has assembled a search committee that involves more than athletic department officials. The Bruins enlisted Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman and mega donor Casey Wasserman with their football search and have engaged Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers, a former UCLA player, in the hunt for their next basketball coach. Wasserman will not participate in the new search to prevent a conflict of interest because he represents former Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, a potential candidate.
Longtime ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas was not bullish on UCLA’s chances to land a top coach given its recent results. The Bruins were rebuffed by Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart before hiring Alford in 2013.
“I think after Ben Howland was dismissed, there was an incorrect belief that there would be a line at the door and there was not,” Bilas said, “and so I think UCLA has to be creative and look for a long-term solution rather than someone who may have the biggest name or come from what they consider to be a comparable job.
“I just don’t believe that’s going to happen, and I don’t believe that’s been in the cards for a number of years now.”