By the time I return from vacation, a little sojourn to the desert, Fresno State will have a new men’s basketball coach.
As reported by our man Robert Kuwada, school officials are on track to make a hire early next week after meeting with prospective candidates this weekend at the Final Four in San Antonio.
Although Interim Athletic Director Steve Robertello is in charge of this operation (with help from search firm Collegiate Sports Associates), I’d expect President Joseph Castro to have the final say. This decision is simply too important for Castro to leave up to a subordinate, especially since a permanent AD won’t be hired until June. It needs to come from him.
By all indications, the opening attracted a quality pool of applicants – though perhaps not the overwhelming wave of interest school officials and Bulldogs fans may have hoped for.
Why not? Consider the circumstances of Rodney Terry’s exit. Terry left a program he’d built from the ashes to take a job (UTEP) that at best can be considered a lateral move. In doing so, Terry took a few thinly veiled shots at the place he left behind.
You can bet that raised a few eyebrows around the coaching fraternity. Perhaps even dissuaded a few candidates from tossing their names into the hat ring.
As a result, Fresno State likely will be choosing between a Division I assistant hungry for his first job or an outside-the-box hire with ties to the program and community.
Here’s how this horse race shapes up as we head into the home stretch:
The favorite: David Grace
Grace may not have been the obvious favorite out of the starting gate, but the UCLA assistant has emerged as the front-runner. During five seasons with the Bruins and five before that at Oregon State, Grace earned a reputation as arguably the best recruiter in the Pac-12 Conference.
In 2016, an ESPN.com survey of 60 coaches listed Grace as the No. 7 recruiter nationally and No. 1 in the West. He brought the likes of Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine to Westwood. Before that, he lured Jared Cunningham to Corvallis, Ore. All were NBA first-round picks.
With his deep ties to the Compton Magic, a powerhouse AAU program, the talent will follow Grace wherever he goes. He runs a free-flowing offense, which would be a welcome change from the previous regime.
The 53-year-old did not follow the typical career path. Grace spent 20 years in the Air Force, mainly as a fuel specialist, and served in Operation Desert Storm before becoming a coach in his mid-30s and working his way up the ladder from high school assistant.
He also recently started following several Bulldogs players and Fresno media on Twitter. Which is a definite sign of someone feeling confident about his chances.
Marek’s odds: 2 to 1
Valley ties: Justin Hutson
All the pieces seem to fit. The son of a Bakersfield high school coaching legend, Hutson certainly knows the Valley. As associate head coach at San Diego State, he knows the Mountain West. One of the West’s top recruiters (Kawhi Leonard, Malik Pope), he knows and lands talent.
Hutson’s name shot to the top of the list soon after the opening was announced. But since then, the talk has cooled. Why? For one, he’s not as visible as other candidates. Two, he has a skeleton or two in the closet that may give Castro pause. Regardless, Hutson has a great defensive mind and would be a strong hire.
Marek’s odds: 4 to 1
Inside man: Byron Jones
If Fresno State opts to keep the status quo, then Terry’s longtime lieutenant has put himself in a strong position for an internal promotion by steadying the ship during the last few weeks as interim head coach. But that’s a big “if.”
I personally like Jones. He’s a quality person, has the loyalty of the current players and owns a strong recruiting track record. But can he do enough to separate himself from both his former boss (who didn’t exactly leave on glowing terms) and this field?
Marek’s odds: 5 to 1
Familiar face: Michael Schwartz
Last time the Bulldogs needed a men’s basketball coach, it turned to a Rick Barnes assistant. Schwartz would make it two in a row. He’s spent the last two seasons working for Barnes at Tennessee.
Schwartz previously spent four years as an assistant to Terry at Fresno State, where skill development was his primary responsibility. He also helped the Bulldogs beat out a couple Pac-12 schools for the services of all-time leading scorer Marvelle Harris.
Marek’s odds: 8 to 1
Fresno guy: Quincy Pondexter
Would Fresno State hire a recently released NBA player with no college experience? I highly doubt it. Still, Pondexter would be an intriguing choice. The Memorial High product has expressed interest and would certainly help put butts in seats.
Marek’s odds: 20 to 1
Blast from the past: Rod Higgins
The former Bulldog under Boyd Grant and longtime NBA player, assistant and personnel guy expressed interest and has local support. Just don’t think it got any further than that.
Marek’s odds: 40 to 1
Could a stealth candidate emerge? Certainly. You’d think the search firm has at least put out feelers to Rod Barnes (Cal State Bakersfield) and Dedrique Taylor (Cal State Fullerton). Vance Walberg is another obvious name (and finalist for the job in 2005), but pretty certain that ship has sailed. Another blast from the past – Bulldogs great Melvin Ely – could wind up on the new staff as an assistant.
Marek’s odds: 25 to 1
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee