Rick Pitino is a top target of influential boosters to be the next head men’s basketball coach at UCLA, an industry source told me.
Casey Wasserman, a billionaire UCLA alum who was influential in the hiring of Chip Kelly as UCLA’s new football coach, and John Branca, a graduate of the UCLA Law School and an entertainment lawyer who is the co-executor of Michael Jackson’s Estate, both want Pitino, the source said.
“They’re going after Pitino, that’s their No. 1 choice,” the source said.
“Casey Wasserman is the most powerful person at UCLA,” the source added. “He runs everything.”
Meantime, a source close to Pitino said he is “very interested in that job.”
UCLA fired Steve Alford last week and replaced him on an interim basis with Murry Bartow, who led the Bruins to a 92-70 win over Pac-12 rival Stanford in his debut on Thursday. Bruins Nation said Alford was due about $4.5 million.
Pitino, 66, is now coaching EuroLeague power Panathinaikos of Greece for the rest of the season. He is the only man to lead two schools to NCAA championships (Kentucky and Louisville) and also led Providence to a Final Four. Pitino also coached both the Knicks and Celtics in the NBA.
Pitino was fired at Louisville in October 2017 in the wake of the Brian Bowen/Adidas scandal, the third high-profile scandal that occurred on his watch at the school. Still, Pitino has never been directly tied to either the alleged payments to Bowen’s father, or to the escort parties in the Billy Minardi dorm that were orchestrated by Andre McGee. It’s possible Pitino could face NCAA penalties at a future coaching stop.
“What would have to happen is the UC Board of Regents would have to approve of Pitino,” the source said. “That’s the issue. That’s where the viability comes in because if the Regents shoot him down, then Pitino’s out.”
Not everyone is convinced UCLA would actually hire Pitino.
“I can’t see UCLA Deans and Professors and the UC System signing off on Pitino given the trail of carnage,” said a second source close to UCLA “The risk is so great that other skeletons can unexpectedly fall out of the sky.”
This is not the first time Pitino has been linked to UCLA. In 2001, when Steve Lavin was the head coach, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann reported that then-UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis had reached an agreement in principle for Pitino to coach the team.
At the time, Pitino reportedly called UCLA “one of the premier jobs in college basketball.”
Pitino has made no secret of his desire to get back into coaching and took the job in the EuroLeague as soon as it was open.
He also recently told ESPN he wanted to coach at the NBA level and didn’t need to be involved in decision-making. UCLA is one of the most prestigious jobs in college basketball.
“I’m not looking for any of that [power/control] at this stage of my life,” Pitino told ESPN. “I want to develop teams and develop players and build a winner. I value analytics. I want to fit into an organization. At this stage, that’s all I’m interested in.”
This fall, Pitino visited several college programs to teach and impart wisdom. Among his stops were visits to Syracuse, Cincinnati and Manhattan.
“I don’t know exactly what’s he’s going to do,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told me before he took the job in Greece. “Obviously, he’s got a lot of things underway. I still think he has a lot of energy for the game of basketball. What will happen with that, I’m really not sure.”
Meantime, several other names have been linked to the UCLA opening.
“It sounds more like a [Fred] Hoiberg or an [Eric] Musselman, or one of those guys,” the first source said of who is favored after Pitino.
Hoiberg, 46, was fired last month by the Chicago Bulls and could be an appealing option. Still, he built Iowa State into a Sweet 16 team by relying heavily on transfers, and it’s not clear that approach would be viable at UCLA, which has traditionally recruited blue bloods out of high school. (Hoiberg’s former assistant, Matt Abdelmassih, has helped rebuild St. John’s largely by relying on transfers.)
Hoiberg may also be more inclined to wait for an NBA opening after the season, a source close to him told ZAGSBLOG.
“There will be openings in the NBA… I think he will consider that first,” the source said. “Chicago owes Fred 5 million this year and next… he will be in no rush.”
Musselman, 54, might end up being the best option. He played college ball at San Diego and has coached in college, the NBA (with the Warriors and Kings) and overseas in China, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
He is 95-29 in his career at Nevada, including a 14-0 mark this season. Because his current team has several fifth-year transfers, leaving after this season might be ideal.
Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan would be a home run hire, but is considered a long shot.
Other names that have been bandied about like Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Villanova’s Jay Wright also seem like long shots. Why would those coaches leave successful situations at their current schools to go to an unsteady one at UCLA?
Earl Watson, 39, the former UCLA standout and Phoenix Suns coach, is also said to be heavily interested in the job. He also has the support of former players, including Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, who played his one year at UCLA under Alford.
“I know Earl personally,” Ball told ESPN.com on Wednesday. “I think he has coaching experience in the league. Obviously he went there, he’s alumni, so I think he’s a good fit.”
“He’s a Bruin and he’s presently available,” the second source close to UCLA added of Watson. “He’s an NBA player and a former NBA coach. He has the support of former UCLA players. He understands this era of recruiting. And he’s a natural leader.”
This article originally appeared on Forbes