BK: If my meager math skills don’t fail me, you made more at Tennessee than the entire budget of the basketball program at Coastal Carolina. Put that in perspective for me. How did that work out?
BP: Yeah that was true. I had four years left on my contract at Tennessee. I thought if I didn’t get the job done in five years, they needed to make a change. I loved the place. My father went there, I had a lot of family there. I would have stayed there and worked so that they wouldn’t have to pay me the balance. I would then have had three years left and I would have just worked to help raise money and help the next coach out or help anybody out in the athletic department. They decided they wanted to make a change real quick. I also talked to Coach Smith, Coach Williams and Coach Fogler. The question we talked about was, how good do you think you would be your fifth year or whoever was going to take over? I think the team was going to be pretty good. I think they had a good chance because it was (C. J.) Watson, and (Chris) Lofton, they had a chance to be pretty good. Coach Smith goes, “You know what, I would get out of there. It is going to be hard for your family because someone is going to come along with that team and win. Get out of town, because I bet you can get another job out there.” That is when this job and several others called.
I think in this situation (Coastal Carolina) if they would
put a commitment to it, like they did at Appalachian State, this could be a
winning program. The President said for me to give him a list of 12 things you
need here to be successful. When I came here one coach was making $30,000, one
coach was making $10,000 and the other was getting paid zero. I needed to have
a good staff. Now the assistants, well let’s put it this way, there is no one
in this conference or at this level that can touch what they are making now. So
they made a commitment.
As far as the Tennessee thing, I told my wife that I don’t have to coach. I have been doing it a long time. I can do other things.
BK: Did you list a few of the other things you could do?
BP: (Buzz laughs) I said I really can do other things and we don’t have to move. We talked about it. My 14 year old who was 12 at the time said, “Dad, we want you to coach.” I said okay. So that is when we looked at this opportunity and decided it was right. It took them awhile to move. They were pretty set in their ways at Knoxville. I told Jan (wife) that with the buy-out money that we had, that it was yours. If you want to build a home for the kids, that was fine. You can do whatever you want to with it. She has the buy-out money and she is going to build us a house.
BK: So are they building it right now?
BP: Yes we are in the process of looking at something’s right now.
BK: In Conway?
BP: Right across the street. I want to be able to get in the golf cart and come to work. The golf course is right there (points to his left). I can go to work, golf course and then home. (he mimics steering a golf cart with his hands).
BK: You were at Tennessee for four years. Why didn’t you get it done, at least to the level that you had in the past?
BP: I am asked that a lot, why didn’t we get it done? We had some tough breaks. I don’t like to look back and say I didn’t have the staff. That wasn’t the problem. It is all in the head guy. When I got the job they dismissed two guys on me right away. Terrance Woods, who led the country back to back years in 3-point shooting, as well as three point field goals made per game at Florida A & M and Harris Walker, a point guard who would have been a starter. They were my two guards. Then Marcus Haislip was ineligible the first semester. He became an NBA Lottery Pick for the Bucks after half a season. Then Ron Slay gets hurt. I think I fought injuries the whole time, that first year. The second year, we were 15-6 at one time and one of my players, John Higgins had signed up for four 400 level math classes and they advised him not to do it. Then he only passed one of the four classes, which made him ineligible. We find out right before the tournament that he can’t play, our starting guard. We got down to the SEC tournament and lose in the first round. We had the third best record in the league and still didn’t get in the NCAA Tournament. I was disappointed we didn’t get in. In the third year we had some young players and we were just fighting to get back. The last year I thought we would be pretty good but (Scooter) McFadgon gets hurt and when he gets back (Jemere) Hendrix gets hurt. We also had some chemistry issues that hurt a little bit. I took over a situation where Jerry Green had done well. If he lost his job something is going on., something is not right. I found out what it was, there were a lot of things that had to change. The mindset had to change with some of the players, academics and all that stuff. That league is tough, it is tough to get a break.
BK: How did your academic people who work with your kids let a player take four upper level math courses?
BP: I can remember to this day talking to them and they said, “We don’t think John should do this, but coach you can’t tell a young man what to do because that is academic fraud.” I asked John about taking four 400 level math classes, but he wanted to do it and he is a good student. The head of the math department talked to him and so did his advisor.
BK: Now just so I understand, 400 level are senior classes?
BP: Yes, tough classes.
BK Was he an engineering major?
BP: Yes, I think he was just trying to get out of there and he needed those classes. He should have taken two and some other electives. Then take two more in summer school. We would have paid for it for five years. It just didn’t work out and some of that was just tough luck. It all happened when I first got there. I went back to Tulsa for two weeks to get my family moved back and that is when it all happened. But you can’t look back.
BK: What is Bruce Pearl doing to make it work? Is he doing anything special or could any good coach have walked in and won with those players?
BP: I am a big believer whether it is a corporation or sports team, I think that sometimes a change will bring confidence and new life to people. Just like with Pete Strickland (prior basketball coach at CCU) he had great kids. Pete probably beat them down a little bit, like I beat those kids down at Tennessee and someone comes in and gives them that extra life, extra confidence.
BK: Now you started out real slow last year. I kept checking the scores and as the season progressed you guys started to get on a roll.
BP: Yes, we won 14 of our last 16 and at one point we won 12 in a row. That was the third highest winning streak. It was Gonzaga, Memphis, then us.
BK: What did you walk into here?
BP: Oh, it was great kids. There were no problems academically, no troubled kids or anything. They just needed confidence and they needed something positive. I think Bruce has done that same thing at Tennessee. I thought we had some talent there. Heck in one class we had two Parade All-Americans. They just needed some new life and he has given it to them. Bruce works extremely hard and he will do a great job there. It is a great job.
BK: Was it hard getting the players switched over to your system?
BP: I told them it may seem hard now, but if you listen to me and do what the coaches tell you to do, we will get this thing turned around. We can’t point fingers at people, you have to stay positive. But we are going to stay strong, fight through this and get better. The only thing that matters to me is that as we get down toward the of conference play is that we are playing our best and we can win the tournament. These kids believe in us, they kept fighting and pushing so that we ended up winning 14 of the last 16 games.
BK: You talked a little about the difference in recruiting at big schools versus smaller schools. What is your recruiting philosophy at Coastal Carolina?
BP: First of all I am going to treat you as a human being first, student second and an athlete third. They are going to go to class and graduate. If you don’t want to do that this is not the place for you. We always try to lay that out there first. We are playing a style that is open-post, passing game, so we need people who have pretty good skills. For us to get the big, big kid, let me tell you Bill, it is hard. If you get that then maybe you have something where you can’t keep up with everybody, so we have to be very selective in terms of what we do inside. I would love to have a big guy, but the way we are playing I am going to need a big guy that has pretty good skills. If the big guy has skills he’s not coming here, he’s going to Cincinnati. He may be so good he goes to Cincinnati for just one year and then he goes off to the next level. We just try to find people with good skills, you know pass, catch and people who are love the game….gym rats.
BK: What is Coastal Carolina known for? What are the selling points when you recruit players?
BP: First of all we are five or six miles from the beach. Then in addition to the location there is the warm climate. We have the number one Marine Biology School in the country. It is a growing, booming university. The enrollment is going up over 10,500 and it is just going up every year. You can get a good solid education at Coastal Carolina.
BK: Down here you are not buying games, so your scheduling philosophy is a little different than it has been at other schools. Can you tell me a little about it?
BP: When we had 27 games I would say we need to have at least 14 at home. Now I say we need 15 at home out of 29. If we can get all Division I games, that is what I want. But it is so hard for us to get all Division I games because the following year I would have to travel so much I would go over my budget. I have to be careful and watch that. So the athletic director told me go play two (money games) and get me some money off of the two. So we went to Xavier this year and Florida State. Next year our football team will play a big opponent and which will bring in a couple hundred thousand dollars, he doesn’t care then with all that money. I will still do it to give our kids a chance to play somebody in a top six conference. My philosophy is that home games are very important so I want to get 15 of that 29 at home. If we get all Division I games then we hit a home run but it is so hard.
BK: You started the season on almost a death march. You go to Xavier, a very good team that just beat Villanova, then go play a very good Campbell on road and finally you come home to play a decent Wright State team, who I guess was the pansy of that group. That is a very tough way to open a season.
BP: I knew Xavier was good, they gave us a good amount of money, $65,000. We had played them at Tennessee my last year and were supposed to play them again. Shaun (Miller) had called me and said, “Hey they are not playing us, do you remember the details.” I told him I didn’t have the contract but they have to give you the money, why don’t you give us some of that money and we will come up and play. So that is what we did. With Campbell we were doing a home and home, so we had to go on the road to play. It is a tough place to play. The court is not even regulation. Instead of the regular 94 feet it is only 90 feet. So it is not even a regulation court they play on. Then Wright State, I will tell you what motivated our guys so much is that they just won at Miami of Ohio. So that kind of got our guys attention a little bit.
BK: Let’s talk RPI. It is a whole new ball game now in terms of RPI than when you played a SEC schedule. Would you rather play a low Division I team like Prairie View A & M or a Division III team like Asbury College? Asbury won’t hurt or help your RPI, but a win at Prairie View might lower your RPI.
BP: At the Big South level, when you are a one-bid conference I don’t think RPI means anything. Unless you are really good like Winthorp. They may want to look at it a little bit. I don’t mess with it. Once you get into league play you are not going to get yourself up there.
BK: You coached at Tennessee next to a woman’s basketball legend, at a school where woman’s basketball is big. It is only big in a few places. What was it like coaching next to a legend?
BP: I thought it was a privilege to have someone like Pat Summitt being right next door. I remember when I got the job Roy Williams told me to do him a favor. He wanted me to cultivate her and spend time with her. I would ask her questions. She has a tremendous mind for the game. And that is what I did and I learned a lot from her. I asked her a lot of questions and got to know her very well. The families did too. I miss her a lot. Her fan support and the men’s is totally different. It is a different crowd. With 30 some years of success and she gets it started every year.
BK: When we were talking earlier you told me you called her up when you moved into your office here. What did you tell her?
BP: I said you are going to be jealous. I have my own shower and bathroom. She was like, “Ahh, I can’t believe that!”
BK: You had one of the biggest offices I had ever seen, but no bathroom?
BP: No bathroom. You leave your office to use the restroom after a big win or big loss it would take you twenty minutes to get back in there.
BK: So you had to walk down the hall and talk to everyone?
BP: Yes, it took a lot of time.
BK: When you looked at this job to saw good kids and potential? Did you also know about the new arena they were going to build?
BP: I knew about it. The president told me he was 80 percent sure that it might make it. He did not guarantee it. As time has gone on it has come together. A company gave $3.6 million to put their name on it. So it is coming and it is probably two years away. It will be something nice to have . It is going to have ECHL hockey in it.
BK: Do you see the arena as a catalyst for growing the budget and the program?
BP: Yes, right now the seating in the new arena can go anywhere from five to seven thousand. To me the smaller the better. Any coach will tell you, a place packed is better than a big facility. You get the home court advantage that way. I will have practice courts, weight rooms, it will be really special. I think that helps in recruiting. Everybody wants something new.
BP: I would think if we are playing well and playing a good team I would think 5000 people. We could play University of South Carolina right now on a weeknight and I don’t know if we could get 5000. A lot of people leave this area in the summer, so they come back for the winter. You can draw room some of those people.
BK: Well coach thank you for taking an hour of your time today.
BP: Any time Bill.