As an Arizona alum, there was a part of me — especially after watching Michigan hire Juwan Howard a couple years ago, then Indiana hire Mike Woodson and North Carolina go with Hubert Davis in the past month — that desperately wanted Damon Stoudamire, Miles Simon or Josh Pastner to succeed Sean Miller in Tucson.
As much for the late Lute Olson as anything else.
Let’s face it: Stoudamire is more qualified for the Arizona job than any of the aforementioned coaches. He helped lead Arizona to the Final Four back in 1994. He was a lottery pick, the NBA Rookie of the Year and he spent more than a decade in the league. He then started his college coaching career immediately after retiring as a director of player development at Rice, had two stints as an assistant for Pastner at Memphis, spent a couple years as an assistant with Miller in Tucson and has been the head coach at Pacific since 2016.
Stoudamire would have been a terrific hire for Arizona. Instead, school president Dr. Robert Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke went a different direction, which will upset many of the former Arizona players and even the fan base.
Gonzaga associate head coach Tommy Lloyd.
It didn’t upset me.
Gonzaga has been one of the best programs in the country the last couple of years, and if Mark Few has been the program’s Batman, Lloyd has been its Robin.
Lloyd was the Coach-In-Waiting in Spokane.
“Tommy has a written guarantee that he will be our next head coach,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth told me. “And he has turned down numerous opportunities over the years.”
But this was one he couldn’t spurn.
Lloyd, 46, has been an assistant coach under Few for the past two decades and is best-known as arguably the premier international recruiter in college basketball. But that’s selling him short. He’s far more than just a guy who can cross the border and bring back talent.
Sure, Lloyd has lured guys like Domantas Sabonis, Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura and Joel Ayayi to Spokane. But he’s also crushed it on the transfer market, landing Brandon Clarke (San Jose State), Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), and Andrew Nembhard (Florida), and has been able to land top high school players such as incoming freshman guard Hunter Sallis — the Omaha native who is ranked in the top 10 nationally.
And Lloyd has taken on a ton of the coaching responsibilities over the years. All you need to do is talk to any of the former players, or watch a game, to see how involved he is in the X’s and O’s.
“He looks at the game differently than almost any coach I’ve been around in his attention to detail and how to implement his philosophies, especially with player development,” said former Zags standout Dan Dickau, now a national television analyst. “His ability to evaluate and recruit and blend international talent has really helped Gonzaga become what it has become.”
“I think Tommy is a great coach,” former Zag and current Portland Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins told me. “Very smart and he has an edge to him. He promotes toughness, hard work and understanding that things aren’t supposed to be easy. He’s very detail-oriented and fights for his guys. He expected a lot out of us.”
“He has an incredible basketball mind,” Wiltjer added. “He gets guys to compete, doesn’t waiver under pressure. He’s intense, but cool, calm and collected all the time. I think it would be safe to assume anyone in the basketball world knows a huge reason Gonzaga has had the success it has had in the past two decades is because of Tommy Lloyd.”
Lloyd has been to the NCAA Tournament every single season he’s been on the Zags staff. There have been 19 WCC regular-season titles in his 20 years on staff, four Elite Eight berths and a pair of national championship game appearances.
I understand the disappointment that Robbins didn’t go with an “Arizona guy.” I knew Olson well, the guy who built this program. I had a lengthy conversation with him a little more than a year ago at his house, months prior to him passing away, and it was clear he was frustrated with the direction of the program under Miller. He would have loved to see one of his guys at the helm.
I also comprehend the concern that Arizona, one of the best programs in the country since Olson took over in the mid 1980s, has tabbed an assistant coach.
Robbins and Heeke tried to swing for the fences. The Arizona camp reached out to Few, to Baylor’s Scott Drew, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and even to guys like Purdue’s Matt Painter and Arkansas’ Eric Musselman.
All politely declined, except for Muss — who wound up leveraging Arizona for big money in Fayetteville. I’m not certain if Arizona could have gotten them under normal circumstances, but these aren’t ordinary times in Tucson. The program could still face another season of a postseason ban, even after self-imposing one for last year. And there will be other recruiting restrictions on the new staff for certain when the NCAA eventually hands down its punishment for the transgressions that took place under Miller.
Arizona wound up with an assistant coach, but Lloyd is no ordinary assistant coach. He’s been given far greater responsibilities by Few than most assistants. Few isn’t a guy who spends every single day on the road during the recruiting period like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, or every night on the phone with recruits like Baylor’s Scott Drew, or all night watching film like Texas’ Chris Beard. Few has the ultimate work/family balance, and that means Lloyd has inherited a broader role than most right-hand men.
“Tommy is ready for a head coaching opportunity in my opinion,” said former Zags great Adam Morrison, who worked on the staff for a couple years and now does the team’s radio broadcasts. “He is an elite-level X and O coach, recruiter, and has a natural knack for relating to players and bringing the best out of them.”
There’s also some trepidation about Lloyd taking over with no head coaching experience. Well, back in 1999, Few didn’t have any when he took over the Gonzaga program. Jim Boeheim was elevated from his assistant spot at Syracuse in 1976 and it’s worked out. Ditto for Izzo in 1995 and he has done just fine. Kansas hired North Carolina assistant Roy Williams in 1988 and he went to four Final Fours with the Jayhawks, and Louisville took a chance on UCLA assistant Denny Crum in 1971 and he won a couple of national titles in 1980 and ’86 with the Cardinals.
I feel badly for Stoudamire, Simon and Pastner. This was obviously their dream job.
But I don’t feel badly for the former Arizona players.
Lloyd may not have been a part of the Arizona family, but that changes now.