Hartman: Saunders ultimately decides he's the best choice to coach Wolves

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 12:37 AM

There wasn’t any doubt that Timberwolves President Flip Saunders was dying to get back into coaching, despite the insistence of owner Glen Taylor that he wouldn’t allow Saunders to do both jobs.

The one exception in Saunders’ mind was if he could get a superstar coach to guide the Wolves. And Saunders said he tried, starting out with his former ESPN colleague Jeff Van Gundy.

“The first guy that I went to and tried to get was Jeff Van Gundy. He was the first guy,” Saunders said Thursday, when word came out that he would coach the Wolves next season. “… He’s a guy that Glen and I were comfortable [with] and would have hired him off the bat. I feel like he’s the best coach, the best coach out there and has a lot of the same philosophies.

“As Jeff said to me, I talked to him this morning, and he said, ‘Whenever I go somewhere I want to feel that I’m the right guy for that job.’ He said, ‘The reason I didn’t go to Minnesota was because I felt you were the right guy for the job, not me, and I was uncomfortable.’ ”

Tuesday, Saunders and Taylor met in Mankato. Taylor gave Saunders permission to coach if he so desired and after talking to a number of advisers, Saunders decided to take over.

“I would say within the last 48 hours [I decided],” Saunders said. “I went down to Glen on Tuesday with the idea that I gave him options. I said, ‘These are the viable coaches we can go after.’ In different situations some of those coaches might have been the right coach, but for where we’re at and the type of team we have, where we’re at and the whole situation, we just weren’t ready to go that way.”

Did Saunders have any idea why Taylor decided to reverse course and let him coach?

“Anytime you enter in a situation like this, what you never want to do is to have somebody that is going to tarnish a relationship,” Saunders said. “That was a concern as we came down to it.

“But I believe as we approached it and talked about it, and once it was brought up, we felt we had a comfort level and we decided to move forward. I believe this. I believe that Glen talked at the beginning and said, ‘If you were out there and working at ESPN, you’d be the first guy I’d come to hire to coach the team, but you’re here and you’re in a position. The biggest thing, the hurdle we want to get over is, we want to make sure that things were going to stay the same with me being the president, Milt [Newton] being the GM, and doing things. But the other thing is also going to be the situation where if I was coming in, then at a time where I felt it was the right time to bring somebody else in to coach, that that would happen — whether that’s a year or two years or three, we’ll have to wait and see when that is.”

Talked to candidates

Saunders didn’t offer the job to Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger as reported, though they did have discussions. Joerger, a Staples, Minn., native, ended up signing a contract extension with the Grizzlies on May 27.

“First of all, the interview process was interesting,” Saunders said. “We talked to a lot of people, a lot of good people. Some college guys, [Michigan State’s] Tom Izzo is a friend of mine, [Iowa State’s] Freddie Hoiberg. When you go through that situation they have things they want to do. To coach at [the NBA] level is difficult because there’s a lot of factors that get involved. So when it came down to it and we started going through everybody, I went to Glen this week and I said, ‘Here’s some options we have.’ Then Glen said, based on where our team is right now, I think you’re the best viable option to coach this team and move forward.”

Was Saunders serious about Joerger?

“We were serious,” he said. “We never got to a point with anyone — what do people consider? We were going down the road where was he going to be able come, even if he could come? That I don’t know. When you start getting into this there’s a lot of factors that get involved.”

Asked if he would have hired Joerger, who went 50-32 this past season in his first year as an NBA head coach, Saunders said: “A lot of that, we weren’t to that point in the situation. Do I like Dave Joerger? I liked him. I think he is a good coach and has done a good job.

“I can’t answer that because we never got there. It’s like anything, when you’re going through a situation, until you get to the end and you know everything you have, that’s when you hire a guy. Until that point, and we never got to that point because we never really — their guy [Grizzlies owner Robert Pera] wasn’t going to let him come. There were a lot of guys I liked, do I like him? Yeah, I like him. I like a lot of guys.”

Yes, but if you read this column on a regular basis, you were not surprised to hear Saunders take over as coach. I knew that Taylor would give in and allow Saunders to act as both president and coach because Taylor always has regretted the firing Saunders as coach in 2005 after the Wolves had gone to the Western Conference finals the year before.

And Saunders, 685-577 in his NBA coaching career including the postseason, returning to the bench makes sense given the uncertainty over Kevin Love. If the Wolves hired a coach and then ended up trading Love, there would be no guarantee that the new roster would fit the coach’s style of play.

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