Who Can Turn Around UH Hoops?

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 17, 2010
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Let the interviews begin. The hiring process for the University of Hawaii’s next men’s basketball coach is under way with the typical closed-door meetings that accompany million-dollar business deals - which this is, considering the salary requirements of the future coach and his staff.

The semi-secret group is in the process of pondering statements, checking resumes and discussing coaching philosophies and academic commitment while making sure the candidate understands and appreciates Hawaii’s unique challenges.

Outside of distance, budget restrictions and talent, the final question is the most discussed and worthless to consider. Whether or not the coach in question can spot the differences between a musubi and malasada is irrelevant. What matters is can this person coach and recruit while keeping an eye on academics as he ponies up to boosters for bigger endowments?

Hawaii is not alone in its love for the local guy. With every job opening comes the requisite questions about local connections, even if the favorite former player or assistant coach hasn’t hit the area high school recruiting trail in more than a decade.

But whereas most states consider such experience a tertiary condition for employment, in no place is having a common connection more imperative than in Hawaii. Within this island state, there is no greater title of acceptance than being called “local.” The often-heard criteria of 15 years in state residence necessary for the honorary title is an anniversary greeted with pride by continental imports. But while questions about a candidate’s ability to understand the culture is a relatively simple query, it comes with an inherent danger - it signals a demarcation of acceptance that could discount highly qualified applicants.

At least in public, such hiring criteria is nonexistent. During halftime of the Wahine basketball game against Fresno State March 10 on ESPN 1420, UH athletics director Jim Donovan said residence history has no bearing, and that the only requirement will be talent, hard work and a history of success. Good luck.

That said, those wanting some honest commitment to certain culture understandings cannot be dismissed out of hand. The university has a history of ill-suited hires who could-n’t and wouldn’t do things the local way. And make no mistake about it, culture matters. Anyone moving from New York to South Carolina would be well-advised to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with how things are done in the Gamecock State before making wholesale changes. And with memories of Evan Dobelle, Herman Frazier, Fred VonAppen, Jim Bolla and a certain applicant’s father fresh in everyone’s minds, a little caution is in order.

But let’s not forget that the school’s last best hire was a man constantly touted for his appreciation of the local way of doing things even though he quickly alienated the state’s biggest supplier of Division 1 talent. That June Jones’ local ties were based on two, one-year stints separated by a decade and propagated by self-interest is conveniently forgotten.

The men’s basketball coach is the toughest job on campus. The program is forever hampered by isolation, a lack of cash, virtually no in-state talent and a rather disinterested fan base. Any coach getting far enough to be interviewed will need to convince the committee and Donovan that his skill sets are enough to overcome these difficulties. (The implementation of a student activities fee could be part of the bargaining, though it won’t likely be implemented until fall.)

At this point, X’s and O’s take a back seat to sales-manship, especially since no one on the committee has any on-court experience, and whoever is chosen will have to get through a labyrinth of successful businesspeople before having the chance to sell the idea of mid-Pacific basketball to distant recruits. Who that person will be is anyone’s guess.

The most popular name is former Punahou standout Gib Arnold. Arnold is the son of the not-so-popular Frank Arnold, who spent two years at UH before leaving Manoa in a Nero-inspired blaze of destruction. The recently unemployed junior Arnold was an assistant at USC for five years, where he built a reputation as a fine recruiter with ties to Europe and Africa. Prior to joining USC’s staff, he was 57-14 as head coach at College of Southern Idaho. The other big name is St. Mary’s assistant coach Kyle Smith, who comes with a recommendation from former Rainbow assistant and current Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon.

How the reported Punahou mafia affects the search remains to be seen, but Arnold has been very open about his interest and is calling Hawaii a dream job - all of which is pleasant to the ears, but should

be taken with a grain of salt. Should he be hired and be successful, Arnold will begin looking elsewhere. And that’s not a bad thing. Any coach who comes here not interested in bigger opportunities is not someone you want running the program.

With booster commitment and intelligent hiring, the program could become a sought-after spot for coaches looking to build their resumes on March Madness invites. UH could be Butler.

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