TAMPA — The University of South Florida's search for a new men's basketball coach headed in a different direction Wednesday — after an inexplicable, incredible and borderline tragic turn of events in the 11th hour forced USF to reject its No. 1 candidate, red-hot Manhattan College coach Steve Masiello.
Late Tuesday night, after Masiello had agreed to a five-year deal at more than $1 million per season contingent on verification of his résumé, the process collapsed after a series of fabrications left him out of explanations and red-faced with embarrassment.
Masiello, 36, was rejected after Eastman & Beaudine, the search firm retained by USF for a $60,000 fee, determined that Masiello had lied on his résumé and never received his bachelor's degree from the University of Kentucky.
The UK Office of Public Relations confirmed to The Tribune that Masiello was a student there from 1996-2000, where he was a walk-on basketball player for coach Rick Pitino in his first year, then for coach Tubby Smith in his final three seasons. According to UK records, Masiello never received a degree.
In Masiello's official biography with Manhattan College, he is described as “a 2000 graduate of the University of Kentucky with a degree in communications.''
According to USF policy, the head basketball coach must possess minimum qualifications of a bachelor's degree and at least eight years experience at the high-school level or higher.
USF released a statement Wednesday that said “an agreement in principle'' was reached with Masiello, but “through the verification process it was determined the candidate's credentials could not be substantiated and therefore he did not meet the requirements for the position. The national search continues and USF looks forward to introducing a new coach at the appropriate time.''
Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan, the former associate athletic director at UCLA whose official USF start date was Monday, has several potential options.
Massachusetts sixth-year coach Derek Kellogg, who has turned around the fortunes at his alma mater and guided the Minutemen to an overall 24-9 mark this season, including a 10-6 record in the Atlantic 10 and the school's first NCAA tournament bid since 1998. Kellogg was a point guard for the powerful Marcus Camby-led UMass teams in the mid-1990s, playing for John Calipari, whom he later assisted at Memphis. Kellogg's teams play a high-energy, up-tempo style, and he has successfully recruited players from Florida high schools.
Louisiana Tech third-year coach Mike White, a bright young coach who seems destined for bigger things. White's Bulldogs played Wednesday night at Florida State with an NIT Final Four trip to Madison Square Garden hanging in the balance. White, son of Duke athletic director Kevin White and brother of University of Buffalo athletic director Danny White (who was considered for USF's AD position), played at Ole Miss and is also known for a fan-pleasing style. White's Bulldogs were 29-7 heading into Wednesday night's game at FSU.
Any number of coaches who have become suddenly attractive after NCAA tournament appearances. One possibility is Mercer coach Bob Hoffman, whose Bears gained national headlines with an NCAA tournament upset of No. 2-seeded Duke last week. Hoffman told the Macon Telegraph that he already has interviewed for the USF job, but he hasn't heard back.
Assistant coaches such as Florida's John Pelphrey, a Billy Donovan protégé who made NCAA tournament appearances with South Alabama and Arkansas, or FSU's Stan Jones, Leonard Hamilton's longtime right-hand man who is familiar with the state's recruiting landscape.
USF is seeking to replace Stan Heath, who was 97-130 in seven years and 12-20 this season, concluding with a nine-game losing streak. Heath was given a contract extension in July 2012, following USF's NCAA tournament appearance, and was fired March 14 with four years remaining on his deal. USF is on the hook for a $1.5 million buyout payment to Heath.
“USF has upgraded its facilities and they can win in that league (American Athletic Conference),'' ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “It would be attractive to a lot of people.''
It was ultra-attractive to Masiello, whose Jaspers nearly pulled a second-round upset of Louisville during the NCAA tournament, falling 71-64 in the final minutes at Orlando's Amway Center last Thursday night.
Masiello was 60-39 in three years, including a 25-8 finish this season, and was endorsed by Pitino, his mentor, and Tampa businessman Chris Sullivan, Pitino's close friend, the co-founder of Outback Steakhouse and a USF benefactor.
But upon closer examination, Masiello's candidacy came apart like a house of cards.
Initially, USF fans and boosters had the same question. How did it get to this point? But the search firm performed its due diligence, vetting Masiello and picking apart any areas of concern, sparing USF the potential embarrassment of introducing its new coach at a high-profile news conference, then having to fire him a few days later.
The more pertinent questions: How did Masiello's background escape the administration at Manhattan College? Wednesday, the school released a statement that it “learned there is a question of the validity'' of Masiello's degree. Masiello was placed on leave while the school examines the coach's academic background.
Why wasn't it noticed at Louisville, where Masiello served six seasons on Pitino's staff before his appointment at Manhattan?
“I wasn't aware of it, the fact that he didn't graduate,'' Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. “He played for Rick (Pitino at Kentucky). Rick was comfortable with him. Rick knew all about his background.''
Pitino, who utilized a 12-year-old Masiello as his ball boy with the NBA's New York Knicks, told ESPN he was “shocked'' and “had no idea'' Masiello never graduated from Kentucky. “When I left (UK for the NBA's Boston Celtics), he was on track to graduate.''
Masiello could not be reached for comment — by anyone. And it's not yet known what kind of presence — if any — he could have with Manhattan's basketball program. According to the Quadrangle, Manhattan's student newspaper, Masiello met with his players on Tuesday morning and informed them of his move to USF.
Masiello never made it to Tampa.
Harlan and the search firm were moving on Wednesday, investigating other options, no doubt more wary of anyone's reported academic background.
Masiello and USF — seemingly a made-for-each-other match just 24 hours earlier — were headed in different directions.
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