By Hunter Ford
Alabama basketball needs to take a play from the football program’s playbook and hire a proven head coach with a national championship under his belt.
The Crimson Tide football program has excelled since it hired Nick Saban. The basketball program needs to hire away the head basketball coach from the University of Connecticut. No, I’m not talking about the men’s coach Kevin Ollie; I believe Alabama should go after UConn women’s head coach Geno Auriemma.
Auriemma recently cut the nets down after an historic undefeated season and recorded his ninth national championship. If Alabama wants to take its basketball program to another level, it must have a coach like Auriemma. I doubt that a head coach from a prominent men’s program would even consider moving to a perennial also-ran like Alabama. But Auriemma might consider the challenge of taking the Crimson Tide men to the promised land of hoops- if someone would only ask.
The gold standard for Alabama basketball was set by Wimp Sanderson in the 1980s and early 1990s. Wimp guided the Tide to four SEC Tournament titles and eight NCAA Tournament appearances. In his 12 seasons, Sanderson’s teams averaged 21.8 wins per year and made the Sweet Sixteen five times.
That is really modest success compared to true top-tier programs like Kentucky, Duke and UConn. But it’s the best Alabama has ever been.
Mark Gottfried finally broke the Sweet Sixteen bubble by making the Elite Eight in the 2003-04 season, and he took Alabama to five straight NCAA appearances during his tenure. Gottfried’s downfall was his mediocre SEC record. In his ten full seasons (he resigned midway through the 2008-09 campaign) Gottfried’s teams were only above .500 in the SEC three times. He was 8-8 in SEC play the season he took the Tide to the Elite Eight.
My point is that Alabama, even in its Sanderson-led glory days, has never been a true top-tier program. The only way to change that is to hire a proven, national championship-caliber head coach. Once again, Alabama is unlikely to hire away a coach like that from a men’s program. Why not think outside the box?
I realize there are two big problems here. One is that we still have to wait another season for the Anthony Grant era to play out. Two is Auriemma may not want the Alabama job even if it were offered to him. At 60 years old, he is entrenched and well-loved at UConn.
I supported Bill Battle’s decision to keep Grant for another season. However, I’m not optimistic about the chances that Grant will turn things around.
Auriemma was recently interviewed by Sports Illustrated. He was asked what goals are left for him professionally. “I don’t know,” Auriemma replied. “I have never been a goal-setter. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get a lot of A’s in school. I just take a look at what’s in front of me, and I try to do that.”
He was asked by SI what he tells his players when they hear the hype of being preseason No. 1 for next season. His response:
“We, as coaches, always talk out of both sides of our mouth. So to you and any other media that asks, I’m going to say, ‘You have to be kidding me? We just lost two All-Americans, two of the best players to ever play at Connecticut, and you are telling me we are not going to miss a beat? You guys must be out of your minds.’ Then I walk into our locker room and say, ‘Yo, guys, we are going to be pre-season No. 1 and anybody who doesn’t vote us preseason No. 1, we are going to kick their asses because this is Connecticut and we better be preseason No. 1.’ You play both angles depending on your audience. But I think if you come to Connecticut, that is always the expectation.”
In the SI interview, Auriemma was not asked if he would consider an offer to coach a men’s Division I basketball program. If things line up right at the end of next basketball season, I hope Bill Battle will ask him.