The SI.com Successor Series will examine who might replace some of the biggest head coaching names in college basketball when they inevitably leave their posts. It is intended as pure speculation -- fodder for discussion in the long hoops offseason. That said: Down the line, we reserve the right to claim we knew it all along.
Rick Pitino will be 62 years old when next season begins, but he has a contract that runs until he his 69 and he said Wednesday that he can continue to coach "for a long time." Still, when the time comes for him to step aside, he'll surely work diligently to have a hand in his own succession plan at Louisville. The national title he won two years ago probably cinched his ability to influence what happens next there, even with a strong athletic director like Tom Jurich in place. It also would be a bit foolish for any AD to ignore the counsel of a Hall of Fame coach with a deep and impressive assistant coaching tree.
If Pitino has a say, look for the search to be a family affair. His son, Richard, is likely set up to take over for the Cardinals – if he has enough success at Minnesota, where he is about to start his second season as head coach, and potentially elsewhere. If the job is not a hand-me-down for whatever reason? A Pitino acolyte who shares the coach's beliefs and approach, if not his surname, would almost certainly become the top target.
Only in the case of a strange and unexpected power struggle with Jurich or a different AD would this evolve into a wild-card job opening. So who are the various possibilities?
If Pitino left tomorrow
Richard Pitino, Minnesota head coach
Mick Cronin, Cincinnati head coach. The 42-year-old Cronin had a short stint at Louisville as an assistant, serving under Pitino from 2001-03, but the two remain tight. And if the Cardinals go outside the family for their next head coach, Cronin would have a lot going for him as a prime candidate. He's spent his entire college coaching career in the area – as an assistant at Cincinnati and Louisville and head coach at Murray State before moving on to the Bearcats – and he's averaged 25.3 victories in his past four seasons at Cincinnati. He was recruiting coordinator for the Cardinals and helped pull in a top 10 recruiting class in his first season with them. Moving to a job less than 100 miles down the road would likely answer any misgivings Cronin might have about leaving his alma mater and hometown gig, and moving up to the historic ACC from the fledgling AAC might eliminate any other doubts that linger.
Chris Mack, Xavier head coach. Mack seems somewhat unlikely given that he has no ties to Pitino, but this is where a strong AD like Jurich might throw around his weight if he so desired. Mack has won 66 percent of his games at Xavier with four NCAA tournament berths and four seasons of 21 or more wins. He's qualified for the job in every way except having spent time next to a Pitino on the bench. But no one could argue with Louisville taking a long, hard look at him.
Shaka Smart, VCU head coach. He'll always be the biggest name on the market, and surely some sectors of Cardinals fans would crave a high-profile, proven commodity, no matter if bloodlines insist otherwise. Maybe he'd get involved with a family connection by proxy as a former assistant to Florida head coach Billy Donovan, who was a longtime aide to Pitino – thus a protégé of a protégé. Smart would probably be the first call if the current coach didn't have a son in the biz, and he may get a call anyway.
Long shots and long-range plans
Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers head coach. Now this would be a bombshell. Vogel was a student manager at Kentucky when Pitino was head coach there, started as a video coordinator for the Boston Celtics under Pitino and then graduated to assistant coach in Boston from 2001-04 after Pitino returned to the college ranks. Nothing in Vogel's background suggests an urge to coach at the collegiate level, as he's spent his entire coaching career in the NBA. But if he tires of the pro life, and if other options like Richard Pitino fall through for various reasons, Vogel would be a massive-splash hire.
Kevin Keatts, UNC-Wilmington head coach. Keatts was Pitino's associate head coach and spent three years on the Cardinals sideline before taking the UNC-Wilmington job this offseason. Keatts would have to win at Wilmington and maybe one more stop after that, but if he does he could become a candidate.
Andy Enfield, USC head coach. Enfield was an assistant under Pitino with the Celtics from 1998-2000 before a six-year hiatus from coaching to go into the private sector. He took Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed in 2013, then moved to USC and grinded through an 11-21 record this past season. Would he be willing to leave the West Coast if he gets his program humming in Los Angeles?