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Little guys big beneficiaries of coaching dominos

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Rusty LaRue owes his new job as an assistant coach at Wake Forest to Lute Olsen's decision to retire at Arizona.

No, there isn't a direct link between the Demon Deacons and Wildcats. But when the Hall of Fame coach abruptly departed the desert last fall, he started an unlikely chain of events that was mirrored at four other big-time programs across the country: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia.

"It's such a visible profession, and you see when openings come available that there is a lot of movement," said LaRue, one of the best all-around athletes in Wake Forest history. "You talk about dominos, and one guy getting hired at one place ... that opens up a couple different spots at another place, and people start moving up the food chain."

The biggest headlines are generated by high-profile moves by coaches like John Calipari, who started a domino of his own when he left Memphis for Kentucky.

But in reality, some of the biggest beneficiaries often can be found a few rungs down the ladder.

Among those under-the-radar aspiring coaches who moved up this offseason is Jack Murphy, the Denver Nuggets' video coordinator who wound up on new Memphis coach Josh Pastner's staff. And LaRue, a former NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls who, thanks to Olsen's decision, received his break in college coaching.

"When you find out you're going to get involved ... you start monitoring the chat boards a little bit more, because you really do start looking at those dominos. You start (thinking), 'Oh, if so-and-so leaves here, then this guy might be going here, I heard this guy's leaving here and this guy's leaving there,"' LaRue said. "That's just become part of the business of coaching."

There are several intriguing subplots following the latest offseason cycle of hirings and firings.

The son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino left his dad's staff to work for his father's most famous protege: Florida's Billy Donovan. The elder Pitino then replaced his son with his best friend: veteran Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, who was taking a job once held by HIS son. Kevin Willard spent six years on Pitino's staff before moving to Iona in 2007.

And just think: Maybe none of those moves at Louisville takes place if Mark Gottfried doesn't first step down under fire at Alabama. When the Crimson Tide hired Anthony Grant from VCU, the Rams hired the Gators' Shaka Smart to replace him -- creating an opening on the Florida staff and an opportunity for the younger Pitino.

"It's amazing how much trickles down when a head coach leaves," Richard Pitino said. "People don't realize how much an assistant coach leaving changes everything, and really all it takes is one job for it to do that."

A series of dominos had to fall just right for LaRue to even consider leaving his job as boys' basketball coach and athletic director at Forsyth Country Day School, a private high school in the western suburbs of Winston-Salem.

It started with Olsen's sudden retirement. Russ Pennell served as Arizona's interim coach last season, and the school lured Sean Miller from Xavier in April to make him the permanent replacement. Xavier then filled its vacancy by promoting assistant coach Chris Mack, who named Wake Forest assistant and Cincinnati native Pat Kelsey to his staff.

That created the opening long sought by the 35-year-old LaRue, who's so closely intertwined with Wake Forest that he still has the trophies he won as an 8-year-old at the school's summertime camps. The former three-sport star for the Demon Deacons in the 1990s has sponsored the informal summer league in Winston-Salem for many current college and pro players, a job he had to give up because of NCAA rules that govern assistant coaches.

"I didn't want to have to bounce my family around from place to place to take the next domino that fell," LaRue said. He added that he was "waiting for an opportunity like this to come available locally where I could do it and not have to follow the trail."

The trickle-down that followed the hirings of Calipari at Kentucky, Anthony Grant at Alabama, Tony Bennett at Virginia, Miller at Arizona and Mark Fox at Georgia wound up creating opportunities for coaches of all ages and experience levels.

-- It led the 63-year-old Willard to leave Holy Cross and finally join his old friend's staff at Louisville, something he said the elder Pitino had asked him to do "a hundred times." Once rival schools began to use his advanced age against him in negative recruiting, he turned the Crusaders program over to Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney.

"This was an opportunity, being best friends, and having the Holy Cross program in great shape and being a year away from where I would have to give it up anyway ... to do the right thing by the program," Willard said.

-- It prompted the younger Pitino to step out from his famous father's shadow and join Donovan, whom he views as being "like a family member" because of his close ties to his dad.

"Not many people could say they worked for Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino," Richard Pitino said.

-- And it landed a former Wisconsin player his first job as a Division I assistant.

Freddie Owens, a two-year starter for Badgers coach Bo Ryan from 2002-04, spent last season as a graduate assistant at Iowa State. During the trickle-down that followed Bennett's departure from Washington State, a spot opened up on Montana's staff, and he was hired in May to fill it.

Since then, it hasn't taken Owens long to learn one of the coaching fraternity's most important lessons: The only constant is change -- especially during hiring season.

"It's a great feeling once you get (that first break), but leading up to that point, you work really hard, you try to get a good reputation throughout the coaching profession so in case an opportunity did open up, you would hope to get your name thrown in there because of your reputation," the 27-year-old Owens said.

"But at times it's a little stressful because you really don't know what your future holds," he added. "This is one of the few professions where you just don't know what's going to happen, year in and year out."