Sunday, December 17, 2017

USF athletic director Mark Harlan rights ship after rough start

TAMPA — Good thing USF announced a new basketball coach Tuesday. Had it waited one more day, new athletic director Mark Harlan would have been out of suits to wear to the news conference.

"I'm down to the wire," said Harlan, who has been living on the edge and out of a suitcase since starting his job March 24. "This is my last one. This is it."

Of course, had this whole hiring thing been done right in the first place, Harlan wouldn't have run out of clothes. All this jazz would have been wrapped up a week ago.

This isn't exactly how Harlan envisioned his first week and half as an AD.

"I think there are always moments when you look at yourself in the mirror and you say, 'Okay, is it going the way it needs to go?' '' Harlan said. "And I would be disingenuous if said I didn't have a few of those moments."

Did it go the way anyone associated with USF wanted it to go? USF folks grit their teeth and put on a stubborn front, but the answer, if everyone was being honest, was a resounding no.

Maybe it wasn't avoidable. Maybe USF did its best. Maybe the process worked the way it was supposed to.

I would argue against all of those things, but it really doesn't matter. The bottom line was, literally, embarrassing. Every time you saw USF in the crawl at the bottom of ESPN, it was about how another coach wasn't being hired.

Even Harlan admits the past two weeks have felt like a year.

Well, the storm has passed. For now. The Bulls finally have a coach who a.) wanted the job and b.) didn't have to lie to get it.

If this was baseball, USF was down in the count 0-and-2.

Strike one: Manhattan coach Steve Masiello was found to have lied about having his college degree after USF offered him the job and "agreed in principle" to a deal.

Strike two: USF, according to some reports, offered the job to UNLV coach Dave Rice, who, it would seem, was only interested in getting a raise and stayed at UNLV when he got it.

So down to its last strike, USF took a mighty swing and hired someone who has never been a college head coach — University of Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua. It's far too early to see if Bulls have hit a homer.

Antigua has a solid resume, looks the part and he certainly sounded great in the news conference. Then again, don't all coaches sound great in the news conference? Coaches are pretty much undefeated in the news conference. Even Stan Heath sounded like John Wooden in the news conference.

At least Antigua recognizes that.

"Talk is cheap," Antigua said. "You've got to show."

Antigua is an interesting man. He was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in the Bronx and schooled in Pittsburgh. (And, yes, for the record, he does have his degree from Pitt.) He played for the Globetrotters. He was once shot in the head. He was homeless for a while as a youngster.

It's all rather inspiring.

But if he can't recruit and develop and win, all that other stuff doesn't mean a thing. That might sound cold and harsh, but this isn't a Saturday morning church league where everyone gets a snow cone after the game. This is college basketball and it's high time USF joins the fun.

It will try to do so with a coach who was not the school's first or even second choice.

"I think I was my wife's second choice, too, but it worked out," Antigua joked. "We've been together 20 years."

As far as Harlan goes, he deserves high marks for rallying Tuesday. He faced the music, answered the questions, took on responsibility.

He didn't blame the search committee for anything. He admits he changed the process after the Masiello misstep. He said he was discouraged at times. He didn't fire back at critics even if he thought they might have been unfair.

"I think criticism is fair," Harlan said. "It's part of this job. A lot of what I was reading wasn't necessarily accurate, but that's part of the deal, too."

And in the end?

"I don't think anything blew up in my face," Harlan said.

Some athletic directors are on the job for years without having to replace a football or basketball coach. Harlan had to start his job early to try to find someone to fix a basketball program that seems eternally broken.

None of this was easy and none of it went smoothly.

"I would say it has been an interesting experience," Harland said. "There is a lot of richness in it. … Now that we are here at this date, it feels great."

Ultimately, Harlan believes the process worked and after all the drama, USF ended up with the right coach.

Let's hope so. No one wants to see USF go through this again anytime soon.

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