Tommy Lloyd had long been set to succeed Mark Few at Gonzaga and eventually run the program he played a big role in building into a national power. But there are some jobs an assistant cannot turn down.
Arizona is one of those jobs.
So when the offer was made, Lloyd accepted. And now it’s his responsibility, as a first-time head coach, to return Arizona to national prominence despite lingering NCAA issues created by the previous staff.
“While there are certainly potential obstacles ahead for our program, I embrace the challenge as we build on the foundation in place to compete for the Pac-12 and national championships,” Lloyd said after his hiring was officially announced by the school. “I know how much Arizona Basketball means to the institution, its fans, its community, and the state, and I cannot wait to get started. That work begins now.”
Make no mistake, it will be work.
As previously noted, Lloyd is taking over a program charged with five Level I violations because he’s replacing a staff (led by Sean Miller) that allegedly provided impermissible benefits to student-athletes, accepted bribes, and committed academic fraud. The NCAA has accused Arizona of cheating just about every way you can cheat in collegiate athletics. Punishment is unavoidable. Another postseason ban is possible. And that reality should make the rebuilding process more difficult than it otherwise would be.
Beyond that, some famous Arizona alums really wanted the school to hire a former player — either Damon Stoudamire, Josh Pastner, Miles Simon or Jason Terry. Gilbert Arenas was the most outspoken. He actually spent some time earlier this week publicly trashing the idea of Lloyd being the leading candidate.
“An assistant coach doesn’t have credentials,” Arenas said during an Instagram live session with fellow alum Richard Jefferson before later adding: “You are an assistant coach, OK. You assist.”
Needless to say, Arenas’ position that it’s a mistake to hire an assistant coach because he’s an assistant coach is categorically silly. Roy Williams was an assistant coach before he got the Kansas job. That worked out well. Brad Stevens was an assistant coach before he got the Butler job. That worked out well. Tom Izzo was an assistant coach before he got the Michigan State job. That worked out well.
Whether Tommy Lloyd will flourish similarly, who knows? Nothing is guaranteed. But to be dismissive of a head-coaching candidate because he’s never been a head coach is just, well, dumb. But, dumb or not, that’s another challenge Lloyd is walking into. In a perfect world, he’d be embraced by all. But it appears he’s not a popular pick with Arizona’s alums. So he’ll have to win them over, one way or another, over time.
Can he do it? Of course he can.
Tommy Lloyd’s sharp mind, recruiting ability, and people skills are among the reasons he’s spent the past two decades securing a reputation as one of the best assistants in the nation. Arizona’s possible gain is Gonzaga’s definite loss. If this works out the way the Wildcats want, it’s a decision that could enhance their program while simultaneously damaging a fellow west coast power. And wouldn’t that be something?
Either way, Arizona has its next coach.
No, he’s never been a head coach. No, he’s never run his own program. But he did play an instrumental role in building Gonzaga into something better than Arizona. Now he’ll spend every minute of every day trying to rebuild Arizona into something better than Gonzaga. And if he succeeds, I’m certain, nobody will care that he never previously wore an Arizona uniform of served as a head coach, Gilbert Arenas included.