TAMPA — The University of South Florida's athletic department will use Eastman & Beaudine, a Texas-based search firm, in helping to find candidates for its men's basketball coach opening.
USF could easily tap into another search firm, a one-man operation.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Whether it's Manhattan coach Steve Masiello (who played and coached for Pitino), Florida assistant John Pelphrey (a standout when Pitino took over the program at Kentucky) or a handful of others, USF athletic director Mark Harlan will have lush options if he chooses to investigate the Pitino coaching tree.
Then there's the X-factor of Tampa resident Chris Sullivan, a co-founder of Outback Steakhouse, Kentucky graduate and USF benefactor. Sullivan and Pitino, founding members of Tampa's Old Memorial Golf Club, are close friends and confidants.
“I think USF is a great job,'' Pitino said. “I think any job is a great job when you can look at your competitors and say, 'I can recruit every bit as good if not better than you.' I didn't think USF could do that in the Big East, but that's pretty much the case right now (in the American Athletic Conference). They have nice facilities now and they're going to be able to get good players.
“I can recommend (candidates for USF). I'm always open for feedback and advice. As far as the decision itself? That's up to the hierarchy of USF. But I really feel like this is a program that's going to be a tremendous opportunity for someone.''
That someone could be Pelphrey, who Pitino calls “one of the smartest basketball players I've ever been around in my life.'' Pelphrey works for UF coach Billy Donovan, another Pitino protégé.
That someone could be Masiello, who was a ballboy with the New York Knicks in 1989, when Pitino first coached in the NBA. Masiello later played for Pitino at Kentucky, then spent six seasons on his staff at Louisville. Thursday night in Orlando, Masiello's Jaspers (25-8) lost 71-64 in a second-round game against Pitino's Cardinals.
“I've known Steve for a long time and he's an excellent coach who has been trained the right way,'' said Donovan, who was 29 when hired as Florida's head coach in 1996. “Rick Pitino prepares his assistants the right way and they have success. That's something I've learned as a head coach. You're responsible for training your assistants.
“When I was 24 years old under Coach Pitino, I was forced to scout. I was forced to coach. I was forced to teach. I was forced to break down film. I was forced to make decisions. So, when I got the head coaching job at Marshall at age 28, I didn't feel like I wasn't prepared or, 'Geez, this is overwhelming.' Coach Pitino exposed me to everything, trained me the right way and I was ready.''
Masiello, who is 60-39 in three seasons as Manhattan's head coach, acknowledged the same level of training.
“Obviously, I learned so much under him and he is responsible for where I am in my basketball career,'' said Masiello, who wouldn't comment about his potential interest in the USF opening. “I pay him all homage in the world. Without him, I don't know where I would be.''
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who brought Pitino back to college basketball in 2001 after he resigned from the NBA's Boston Celtics, quickly noticed Pitino's talent for identifying promising young coaches, then cultivating them.
“Rick is selfless and he cares about teaching his people the right way,'' Jurich said. “He takes them from A to Z. A lot of coaches can take you from A to M, but can't get past that point or don't try to get past that point.
“People talk about the Rick Pitino coaching tree. But this is one magnificent tree. These aren't just good coaches. These are men who are leaders and men who are super achievers. And you trace it all back to Rick.''
Ask Pitino about his coaching tree and you'll get a deferential answer.
“I think they make me more successful than I make them successful, to be honest with you,'' Pitino said. “They work so hard for me and with me. We're tireless workers, but we know it's the players. Get great players and you're a great coach. Get good players and you're a good coach. Get mediocre players and you're a mediocre coach.
“I'm proud of my guys. We build bridges together. We'll cross it together.''
Pitino wants his protégés to land in programs where they can thrive. He sees USF as one of those programs.
“It's a sleeping giant,'' said Pitino, 61, already inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. “It's a great university in a great city. Consequently, you can accomplish great things there.''
Even though USF is coming off a 12-20 finish, which cost Stan Heath his job after seven seasons, Pitino clearly sees potential. The question had to be asked: Would Pitino be interested in the USF job?
“No,'' he said, laughing. “But if I was 30 years younger? Yes!''