MINNEAPOLIS -- "So tell me your story."
If that sounds like a question that would begin a typical job interview, it's because it was -- sort of. Kevin Keatts, a second-year assistant coach at Louisville, was asked that question while sitting across a narrow table from Charlie Cobb, the athletic director from Appalachian State, last week at a downtown Marriott in Minneapolis. The exchange was the opening volley for Keatts' stint in the "Speed Dating" sessions that were part of Villa 7, a Nike-produced networking fest that sought to introduce up-and-coming assistant coaches to potential employers.
Keatts explained to Cobb just how he ended up at that table. He grew up in Lynchburg, Va., played a little ball at Division III Ferrum College, started his coaching career as an assistant at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, spent two years as an assistant at Marshall, was hired back by Hargrave to be a head coach ("I tricked 'em into hiring me," he quipped), and then two years ago was plucked by Rick Pitino to join him at Louisville -- where, of course, Keatts' team won the NCAA championship last month. His primary focus at Louisville is recruiting, so when Cobb asked what he looked for in a prospect, Keatts had a ready answer. "The first thing I look for is character," he said. "We won this year because we had character kids. Their true character shows on the basketball court."
The opportunity to tell his story to an athletic director was a major boon, but Keatts, 40, had already notched a big win just by earning a seat at that table. Unlike the case with most networking confabs, attendance at Villa 7 is by invitation only, with maximums set at 50 for mens assistants and 35 for women. An invitation is a vital sign that he or she has reached an elite level of assistanthood, which is (they hope) the last step before landing a head coaching gig. More than 100 Villa 7 alumni have since gotten their big breaks, and while many factors go into the selection of a basketball coach, it's not hard to connect the dots. As Tennessee assistant Jon Harris put it, "The one thing you hear consistently is that they're not going to hire somebody they don't know."
It's especially hard to get invited to Villa 7 if you coach at a school like Louisville, which is sponsored by Nike's arch-rival, adidas. (The only other mens coach from an adidas school in attendance was Michigan's LaVall Jordan). The annual list of invites is culled together by Eric Lautenbach, the director of college basketball sports marketing for Nike, and Mike Ellis, the associate athletic director at Minnesota and one of the founding fathers of this event. Lautenbach and Ellis spend much of the year canvassing their networks to identify candidates. They cap the number because, said Lautenbach, "if we opened it to anyone who wanted to come, we'd have hundreds."
Business cards were exchanged so frequently at this year's Villa 7 that the attendees should have been carrying them in holsters. That kind of hand-to-hand contact is just as valuable for the administrators who sit on the other side of the table. Indeed, Villa 7 originated out of what Ellis called his own "selfish interest." In 2004, when Ellis was associate athletic director at VCU, his school's basketball coach, Jeff Capel, nearly left for Auburn. Ellis, who had spent 13 years as an assistant basketball coach at VCU, realized that it was only a matter of time before his school would need another coach. In a desire to discover potential candidates, he gathered several dozen administrators and assistant coaches in Las Vegas for a few hours the day before a bevy of recruiting events were to be held in that city. The gathering was held in a villa at the Mirage hotel. The number on that villa? You guessed it: Seven.
The meetings went even better than Ellis expected. "It was like a test tube experiment. It just worked," he said. Sensing potential, Ellis reached out to Martin Newton, who at the time was living in Lexington, Ky., and working for Nike's college basketball marketing department. (Newton is now the athletic director at Samford). Newton had been searching for counter-programming against another college basketball networking event in Southern California that was put on by David and Dana Pump, the twin brothers who at the time worked for adidas. Newton convinced Lautenbach that Nike should take partial ownership of Ellis' event, and Villa 7 was born. Most years, it is held at Nike's campus in Portland, but this year it took place in Minneapolis because Ellis moved there last year after his boss, former VCU athletic director Norwood Teague, was hired as the AD at Minnesota.
Teague personally experienced the benefits of Villa 7 in 2007, when he spent some quality face time with an impressive young assistant at Clemson named Shaka Smart. As Teague was leaving his hotel room at 5 a.m. the following morning to catch an early flight, he found a handwritten thank you note that Smart had slipped under his door. "My first thought was, he wrote that note somewhere between midnight and five a.m.," Teague said. After Smart got hired as an assistant at Florida, he did a good job staying in touch. So when Teague's basketball coach, Anthony Grant, left to take over at Alabama in 2009, Teague had a pretty good idea whom he wanted to tap as Grant's replacement.
Likewise, when the University of New Orleans found itself with an unexpected head coaching vacancy in the summer of 2006, that school's athletic director, Jim Miller, spent some time at Villa 7 with a little-known assistant coach at Texas A&M. A few days later, Miller hired that coach, Buzz Williams, who has since become the head coach at Marquette. The marketing materials that Nike distributed last week listed every single "success story" that has come out of Villa 7. Ten mens assistant coaches who were hired last year are former Villa 7 attendees, including Joe Dooley (a former assistant at Kansas who was hired by Florida Gulf Coast), Kareem Richardson (Louisville to Missouri-Kansas City) and Dedrique Taylor (Arizona State to Cal State Fullerton). A few hours after Arizona assistant James Whitford was hired to be the new head coach at Ball State last spring, he called Lautenbach to say he would never have gotten the job had he not been invited to Villa 7.
After a laid-back cocktail hour Thursday night inside the University of Minnesota's football locker room (which also included a bean bag tossing tournament out on the field, with contestants shivering against the chill), the coaches spent all day Friday sitting through panel discussions. The speakers ranged from Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey, who gave an energetic Power Point presentation on a head coach's first 100 days, to old-schoolers like Kansas State's Bruce Weber and Oklahoma's Lon Kruger. The panelists also included Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney as well as Troy Dannen, the athletic director at Northern Iowa. "When you come in for an interview, I want to know what you know about our institution, and what you know about our league," Dannen told the coaches. "That's my first priority."
What was striking about the conversations was how little of it was devoted to Xs and Os. UAB coach Jerod Haase emphasized the importance of delegating responsibility. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg warned that harsh criticism comes with the territory. "Twitter is going to be the downfall of our society, but you have to be prepared for it," he said. Kruger emphasized the need to maintain integrity, while Weber revealed that whenever he takes a new job, he doesn't move his family for the first three to six months. "It's a sacrifice, but we're in the office every night until 11:30 or midnight," Weber said. "You have to do it if you want to get going in the right direction. That's going to help you with your family anyway."
While assistants like Keatts, Jordan and Kentucky's Orlando Antigua were on hand to represent the blue bloods, invitations were also extended to mid-level assistants like Dayton's Tom Ostrom and Xavier's Ashley Howard as well as a few coaches from smaller schools like Northeastern's Jim McCarthy and Davidson's Jim Fox. In Fox's case, this was his fourth Villa 7, and while he joked that he didn't know "if that's a good thing or a bad thing," he was happy to benefit from the exposure. "I'm fortunate that a lot of people respect Davidson," he said. "The main thing is we have to keep winning. They'll only hire someone from Davidson if Davidson continues to win."
The same could be said for Louisville, which is why Keatts was so eager to press all that flesh. By the time he reached his last interview on the speed dating hour, he had every reason to be talked out, but he still conducted his interview with Stephen Ponder, the associate athletic director at Ole Miss, like it was the most important conversation of his life. Keatts repeated some of his favorite lines about getting his first coaching job ("I tricked 'em into hiring me"), running an elite prep program like Hargrave ("I saw a lot of bad transcripts") and working for Rick Pitino ("His big thing is, good is the enemy of being great.") Was it the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Maybe, maybe not, but Keatts wasn't taking any chances. As the two men shook hands, Keatts smiled broadly at Ponder and asked, "Can I get a card from you?"