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Gimino: Cash must carry the day in coaching search

Louisville coach Rick Pitino watches his team play Morehead State last month in Dayton, Ohio. Pitino is one of the people rumored to be in the running for Arizona’s head coaching job.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino watches his team play Morehead State last month in Dayton, Ohio. Pitino is one of the people rumored to be in the running for Arizona’s head coaching job.

The rumors are still flying, but the stakes have changed.

Arizona might be willing and able to offer a package reasonably north of $2 million per season for a new basketball coach. That’s mighty fine coin, even for the best of the best.

Or it was about 48 hours ago.

Kentucky jettisoned Billy Gillispie after two seasons, and then, in true college basketball blue-blooded fashion, opened the vault for Memphis coach John Calipari.

“Market value is market value,” Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said in February. “It goes up some days and very seldom does it go down.”

Not even in these trying economic times.

There will come a point when coaches’ salaries reach a breaking point, but that day is not today. Calipari will reportedly earn $35 million for eight seasons at Kentucky, making him the highest paid coach in college athletics.

“That’s a whole different monster,” outgoing Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said of Calipari’s new salary.

“They’re talking about Monopoly money.”

Arizona might not have much choice but to print some of that itself.

Livengood and school president Robert Shelton can’t afford not to start tossing some around.

The biggest mistake Arizona could make is to not stretch its budget to the limit to try to hook the biggest fish. That is Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who would be a 100 percent lock to do great things at Arizona.

Not to say the more-accomplished Pitino is entirely driven by money – I don’t think he is – but how does he look at Calipari’s new deal and not say, “Give me some.” It might not be about money, but it certainly might be all about ego.

The same is true for any of the other big names out there.

It was reported in Memphis on Tuesday that Calipari told friends Arizona had offered him a “blank check” to be its head coach.


Who knows?

I hope it is.

I never got a chance to ask Livengood, who did not return a message left for him Tuesday afternoon. He is usually great at that sort of thing, so the good news is he must have been really, really busy dealing with, oh, only the most important athletic department decision of the past quarter century.

If it takes money to get it done, then spend away.

Even his detractors would have to admit that Livengood has been fiscally responsible, keeping his program in the black and not taking any state money to run the athletic department.

This is no time for fiscal conservatism, though.

Think of it this way:

Does Alabama regret giving football coach Nick Saban $4 million per year two seasons ago?

Absolutely not.

But the Crimson Tide sure does regret wasting a combined eight seasons with unproven guys like Mike DuBose and Mike Shula. Each could barely eke out a winning record.

Alabama found its way because it spent money. Just as Kentucky did Tuesday.

Did Calipari’s move put Pitino out of Arizona’s price range? Pitino makes $2.3 million per year.

Heck, is he even interested?

I’ve heard a thousand different things – and so have you if you’ve spent would-be productive work hours on fan message boards – very little of which you can take to the bank.

OK, none of it.

Including this farfetched tidbit: A Phoenix source told the Citizen on Tuesday night, through somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, that Pitino and Arizona had reached an agreement.

Hard to believe, but I’ve been wrong before.

Anyway, it was Livengood himself who set the standard back in the fall when he said it was important for the new coach to “win the press conference.” There aren’t many coaches who could do that simply by showing up.

A young up-and-comer might work out just fine, but it’s not a chance Arizona basketball wants to take. Maybe that’s why this is taking so long – because the Cats are still trying to work something out with the A-list talent.

Meanwhile, the silence is unnerving.

While the Cats fiddle, Kentucky has a new head basketball coach. Alabama does, too. Same for Virginia.

None of it makes it look like Arizona – which has had more than five months to think about it, make third-party contact and arrange back-room deals – is on the right path.

Buy, hey, this is what Livengood wanted. He dropped the cone of silence on this search from the start, so congrats to him for his success in this area.

“I asked Jim who the next coach was going to be,” Pennell said, “and he wouldn’t tell me.”

It might still work out all right, and Arizona might yet win the press conference.

Unfortunately for Arizona, given the developments at Kentucky, the price of achieving that likely just went up.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com



NCAA Tournament record of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose winning percentage (.745) is fifth among active coaches behind Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.763, 71-22), Florida’s Billy Donovan (.759, 22-7), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (.750, 30-10) and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (.746, 53-18)

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