Like plenty of other college basketball fans who picked Georgetown to advance deep into the NCAA tournament, I quickly familiarized myself with Florida Gulf Coast University and its head coach, Andy Enfield. The FGCU Eagles disposed of the second-seeded Hoyas in surprisingly dominant fashion, then took down San Diego State (a team that beat USC during the regular season) before falling to the third-seeded Florida Gators.
Enfield and the Eagles are arguably the biggest story of March Madness. FGCU became the first 15-seed to make it to the Sweet 16, and did so with dozens of highlight-reel dunks. They played relentless, fearless basketball regardless of the talent level of their opponents.
And now, not even two weeks after FGCU’s improbable run began, Enfield is USC’s new men’s basketball coach.
When news of Enfield’s hiring first broke on Twitter Monday night, I was frankly disappointed. Two wins in the NCAA tournament was all it took to take the reigns of a program that was looking to reinvent itself as a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12? What other qualifications did Enfield even have?
As the night wore on, more information on the hiring began to trickle in, and it quickly became apparent that Enfield’s background isn’t as sparse as many would be led to believe. He previously served as a shooting coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and was an assistant to Rick Pitino with the Boston Celtics along with Leonard Hamilton at Florida State University. That’s far from a star-studded resume, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either.
My initial feeling of disappointment has since softened. On a very basic level, I’m content with the hire for three reasons.
One, because the Trojans probably couldn’t do much better. As fellow columnist Joey Kaufman pointed out to me over Twitter, USC wasn’t going to pull in Jamie Dixon from the University of Pittsburgh or Josh Pastner from the University of Memphis. People love to talk about USC being an ideal location for a basketball program — the city of Los Angeles, new arena, fancy athletic facility — but that’s yet to entice a big-time candidate. Until USC actually becomes an attraction for its play on the court, very little else matters.
Second, Enfield fits the mold of a low-risk, high-reward hire. If the Trojans were consistently knocking on the door of the NCAA tournament, then the risk would be greater for a guy who has only been a head coach for two seasons. But the Trojans were 6-26 a season ago. They were 14-18 this season. I highly, highly doubt Enfield will come in and send the program spiraling south. At the very least, his team will remain a middle-of-the-road squad in the Pac-12.
On the other end of the spectrum, Enfield is the type of youthful, creative coach who could reinvigorate athletic gunners like junior guard J.T. Terrell. He might be able to recruit better than expected. FGCU’s surprising finish in the NCAA tournament might not actually have been a fluke. Lots of ifs and mights, but the possibility is there.
Finally, Enfield appears to talk the talk of a coach who wants to do things differently. He issued a statement on Monday night promising to bring “an exciting, up-tempo style of play to USC [while] building the men’s basketball brand into one that the fans and basketball community will enjoy and respect.” At the very least, that will fill some empty seats at the Galen Center.
During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, he went on to add, “I want my players to have fun. We enjoy ourselves. I believe in positive reinforcement.” Certainly a novel concept on the heels of the news that Rutgers head coach Mike Rice routinely physically and verbally abused his players during practice. Players want to play for coaches that treat them with respect. End of story.
So Haden didn’t strike out with this coaching search. From all indications, he did his due diligence with the biggest names in the sport, all of whom turned him down. Then Enfield’s team emerged as the darling of the NCAA tournament, and Haden pounced.
On some level, though, this move feels a bit calculated for the wrong reasons. Enfield is the sexy name. Plenty of media pundits have already declared USC the winner of the head-coaching search against rival UCLA, who went for the safer, more established choice with former New Mexico head coach Steve Alford. But it shouldn’t be about splashing headlines.
Yes, Enfield is a gutsy hire. Yes, his ceiling is higher than Alford’s. And yes, if you want people to start caring a little bit more about USC basketball, bringing in a guy whose old team was nicknamed “Dunk City” isn’t a bad idea. But it’s about the long-term, not the short-term.
I still maintain that Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins would’ve been the best choice for the job. He has the pedigree that Enfield just doesn’t. He’s been Jim Boeheim’s understudy for 17 years and is in line to take Boeheim’s position when the legendary coach eventually calls it quits. And Boeheim made an interesting point when asked about USC’s coaching decision.
“People in those situations, they try to take a guy who is a head coach so they can say they hired a head coach,” Boeheim told Syracuse News.
That’s not all he said either.
“Mike is 10 times better than anyone they could have hired,” Boeheim added.
I want Enfield to prove him wrong, but I tend to trust the coach who has his team playing in the Final Four this weekend. Hopkins wouldn’t have excited the fanbase nearly to the same extent as the leader of the this year’s Cinderella squad, but he’d instantly legitimize the Trojans on a level that Enfield simply can’t, at least not yet.
That brings me back to my point. It’s not about pumping up the fans from the get-go, it’s about putting a winning squad on the court.
“We really want to and need to make basketball relevant at USC,” Haden told reporters during Tuesday’s conference call.
I just hope his idea of relevancy is creating a consistent, winning program, not just putting butts in seats.
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