Everything is magnified in a coaching search.
As the Gophers seek out their next men’s basketball coach to replace the fired Tubby Smith, tiny pieces of information and normally trivial facts become gold mines, treasured nuggets of knowledge.
Every move university administrators make, no matter how small, is meaningful to reporters and to the Gophers fans that breathlessly await an announcement.
Multiple outlets reported Thursday that Minnesota made a strong push to hire Iowa State coach and former Timberwolves player and executive Fred Hoiberg. But Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard announced later Thursday that Hoiberg agreed to a 10-year, $20 million extension to stay at his alma mater.
However, for Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague and senior associate AD Mike Ellis, the two leading the search, the most consequential decision might have come years ago, spawned from a spontaneous four-hour conversation in a Virginia office.
“We came out with the primitive idea of Villa 7,” Ellis told the Star Tribune last summer.
That extended talk took place back in 2003 when Ellis was at Virginia Commonwealth, three years before Teague’s arrival there. Ellis and other school administrators were pondering the precarious scenario of trying to find a replacement for then-Rams coach Jeff Capel, who was at the time flirting with Auburn.
What started as a solution brainstorm for a singular problem has blossomed, a decade later, into a networking giant. The way the project connects up-and-coming coaches with athletic directors has earned deep respect nationwide and ultimately set the new Minnesota administrators up for the biggest coaching search of their careers.
“There’s no one more prepared to make a quality hire than those guys,” said Dan Muller, a Villa 7 alum and the coach at Illinois State. “Search firms and other ADs call them every time there’s a job opening — for a recommendation. ... The quality and quantity of assistant coaches that they know intimately and personally, there’s no firm, there’s no athletic director in the country that can match that.”
Northeastern’s Bill Coen, another alum, said Villa 7 is “widely recognized as one of the best professional development series for basketball coaches.” It happens on one weekend every year with participants hand-picked by Ellis. There are social hours, icebreakers, speakers and luncheons. The ultimate goal is that athletic directors come out with more ideas for their next hire and assistants get a chance to make an impression.
As it turned out, VCU didn’t need to fill Capel’s job right away. But when he eventually went to Oklahoma in 2006, the school was ready, hiring Anthony Grant — a Villa 7 alum — to VCU. When Grant moved on to Alabama in 2009, Ellis and Teague found Shaka Smart the same way. Both brought new levels of success to the Rams, a program that wasn’t previously looked at as a basketball school.
Teague and Ellis are hoping the years of hard work will pay off once more and the pair exercises their vast contact book. Not every candidate the Gophers will reach out to is from Villa 7, of course — Hoiberg, for example, is not. But it certainly gives the program a plethora of options as it tests the waters of who could be interested in the job.
“I thought that the concept was pure genius,” Coen said of Villa 7. “Obviously college basketball is all about relationships, and I think that’s the absolutely perfect venue to get to know people and develop a stronger network.”