TAMPA – When Orlando Antigua, the University of South Florida's new men's basketball coach, walked into the Sun Dome for his introductory news conference on Tuesday afternoon, he immediately captured everyone's attention.
He wore his University of Kentucky national-championship ring from 2012.
He talked about leaving today for the Final Four in Arlington, Texas with UK, where he hopes to again be cutting down nets on Monday night.
He spoke with passion, thanking a long series of friends and mentors. He spoke momentarily in Spanish to people watching in his native Dominican Republic.
He recognized his family, stopping to compose himself and salute his 20-year-old son, a Marine sitting in the front row, who is away on leave to enjoy the biggest week of his father's coaching life.
He promised a USF team that would play as fast as possible, with a commitment with withering defense, with a recruiting approach that would sell the school's assets and attract top-flight players who can help the Bulls reach previously unattainable goals.
“He's so dynamic,'' USF president Judy Genshaft said. “His background is one that matches tough times and challenges, how he has overcome things so well. I think he's exactly what we're looking for.''
Antigua, UK's top assistant under John Calipari and a catalyst behind the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class for five consecutive seasons, signed a five-year USF contract worth $4.75-million and the value could increase by reaching incentives. Antigua's salary begins at $900,000 and escalates by $25,000 each season.
He replaces Stan Heath, the seventh-year coach who was fired March 14 after a 12-20 season that closed with a nine-game losing streak. Heath had four seasons remaining on his contract and is due a $1.5-million buyout payment from USF.
First-year USF athletic director Mark Harlan officially began on March 24. That's the day he offered the job to Manhattan College coach Steve Masiello, who accepted and signed a five-year deal. But Eastman & Beaudine, a search firm employed by USF, determined that Masiello lied on his resume and never received his bachelor's degree from the University of Kentucky, so he was rejected and the search continued.
Harlan said he spoke to seven coaches about the job, but “ultimately, after sitting in a room with his man (Antigua), I knew he was the one.''
Antigua said he was naturally curious about the USF job when learning about Heath's dismissal. He was aware of the Masiello fiasco, but not consumed by it because UK was in the middle of its NCAA tournament preparations.
When Antigua finally met with Harlan in Dallas “a few days ago,'' there was an instant connection.
“Give me your plan, your 100-day plan, your recruiting plan,'' Harlan said, recounting his line of questioning. “What's a practice going to look like when I come into the arena? He flat nailed it.''
Antigua said he didn't have a problem getting the job after Masiello's very public rejection.
“I think I was my wife's second choice, too,'' said Antigua, who played at Pittsburgh (1991-95) and later coached there (2003-07) with Jamie Dixon before joining Calipari's staff in Memphis, when the Tigers were 2008 national runners-up. “But that has worked out. We've been together 20 years.
“I just know that things happen. I'm really excited that fate intervened and I'm the one who's sitting here in front of you.''
USF players attended the news conference and had a brief meeting with Antigua, who said he didn't know much about the program's personnel and wouldn't have an opinion until he studies each player “especially off the court, what makes them tick.'' He also met with the holdover assistants, who will have an opportunity to be hired on his staff.
When Antigua begins his job after UK's run, though, there's no question about his ultimate priority.
“We must win and give you guys a product you can support,'' Antigua said. “It's about evaluating the kids, the proper kids, identifying your needs, then going out and getting that. We got the results at Memphis and Kentucky of having success, so that makes it a lot easier. We've got to do that here. We've got to have success.''
As Antigua considered the USF offer, Calipari provided some inspiration.
“He said that it (USF program) is a sleeping giant, an unbelievable opportunity,'' Antigua said. “He said, 'Go get the job and go surprise people. Go make history.' That's what he said.''
Properly motivated, Antigua is determined to make those lofty goals happen.