November 6, 2017 at 4:47 PM
LOUISVILLE — He reckons he might be the tallest head coach in Division I men's basketball unless his 6-foot-11 perch rates second to Patrick Ewing. His low, measured voice might qualify as soothing, as if he should speak on radio in wee hours. He keeps cherry cough drops on his desk because his new job has vexed his dulcet larynx.
His keel is, like his mother's, even, such that his father said, "Boy, if you would see him an hour after a game, a lot of times you're not sure which way it went." His former teammate, fellow big man and longtime friend, Ellis Myles, said, "He's definitely shy; he's still a shy guy now."
Here he is, the relative calm after 16 years of brilliant storm, and here he is after one of the odder promotions in the zany annals of coach promotions. You find David Padgett, 32, in Louisville's basketball facility, in the upstairs office of the head coach, beyond the lobby and its two — two! — posters detailing Rick Pitino's rarefied knack for winning. You find Padgett five weeks after this whole place went inconceivably rocked, when the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York issued its report about college basketball skulduggery, and Louisville and Pitino turned up in that report, and Louisville fired Pitino at the dawn of a 17th season that did not come.
You find Padgett after his do-I-still-have-a-job phase of that unforeseeable week of late September, which preceded his I-don't-have-any-assistants phase, just after Louisville named him interim head coach following four seasons assisting Pitino, and nine years after five seasons playing for Pitino. (He named Trent Johnson, the former head coach at Nevada, Stanford, LSU and TCU, as a top assistant.)
You find him after his parents had flown a red-eye to Indianapolis upon his appointment, and after that exchange on Interstate 65 southbound when his father, Pete, a former 27-season high school coach in Reno, Nev., looked at his wife and David's mother, Debbie, and said, "What in the world?"
This is weeks after Pete Padgett said to David, again in a car, "What do you think," and after David Padgett said, "Hey, I don't have time to think."
Now that one storm system has cleared, there are three things about this situation that one could construe as evocative, curious or funny. The first involves an organized Walk To Defeat ALS, in San Diego, on Oct. 15. The second involves the state — er, commonwealth — of Kentucky, and its exhaustive basketball history, particularly that part in March 1998. The third is that Louisville, a program about which the term "death penalty" has gotten uttered of late, might be really, really good.
Mention that, and Coach Padgett might even laugh.
"As long as I don't screw it up," he said.
At the Walk To Defeat ALS, Pete and Debbie Padgett spotted Steve Fisher, the retired former San Diego State coach, and boy, was that some coincidence. In all the colorful and checkered history of American college basketball, Fisher's plight from March 1989 might bear the closest resemblance to this situation. Back then, as a 24-7 Michigan prepared to take its No. 3 seed into the NCAA tournament, Bill Frieder, its head coach, prepared to coach Michigan in March and then relocate to Arizona State in April.
Bo Schembechler, the Michigan athletic director with the distinctive disdain for nonsense, did not cotton to the coach-Michigan phase of Frieder's equation. Uttering his deathless line, "A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan," Schembechler suggested that Frieder relocate straightway, and elevated the assistant Fisher who, six games later, had a national championship and an extension.
In conversation with Pete Padgett, Fisher offered his counsel, and David Padgett intends to accept. The towering similarity: Both inherited well-built programs in weird circumstances.
"Most coaching changes are situations where somebody either takes another job somewhere else or they didn't win enough games, so they get fired because of that," David Padgett said. "This coaching change was so unique because it wasn't a situation where we won six games last year and all of a sudden they wanted to make a change. We know the circumstances. But look, there's going to be a personality difference. There's no question about that.
"I mean, Coach Pitino's one of a kind. And his style" — one might call it loud — "was obviously extremely successful, but with that being said, there's more than one way to coach a basketball team, and I just need to coach this team the best way I see fit. Now, does that mean I'm going to be their best friend and Mr. Nice Guy every day? No, not even close. If I don't think they're doing what I expect or I demand, I'm going to let them know about it. And that's been the biggest transition so far, is me just going from the assistant coach, good-guy role to all of a sudden now, you know, and I don't like the cliche 'good-cop, bad-cop,' but now, I'm not going to be their best friend every day anymore, because that's what the assistant coaches are for."
"I don't think it's hard at all," Myles said, "because the kids respect him."
"This is a situation," Pete Padgett said, "I don't know if anybody would ever be prepared for this."
Rich enough is the basketball lore of Kentucky that the commonwealth has a post-Pitino precedent. In May 1997, Pitino, then 44, left the University of Kentucky after seven seasons, three Final Fours and one national title, for the Boston Celtics. Even the people who appreciated his work — and that would be all of the people — sometimes exhaled, especially those who worked around the program. He was both great and exhausting.
From there, Athletic Director C.M. Newton hired, from Georgia, Tubby Smith, who steered the Wildcats into uncertain February waters, and then to one luminous, lovable 1998 national title. Similarity: a transition to a voice somewhat quieter, which went reflected in Louisville players' comments at the recent ACC media days. Differences: Kentucky then had voluminous NCAA tournament experience, and Louisville now doesn't have to embrace a new system.
Cameron Mills, who played for Kentucky and is a radio host in Lexington, recalls some sort of players' meeting from around February. "Up until that point, we had not sold out to Tubby's system," Mills said. "We had kind of reluctantly bought in bit by bit, and we had never said, 'Okay, this guy knows what he's doing,' because we didn't know that. Because we had no proof that he did, and he did it differently than a coach who did know what he was doing, so how could this be the right way, too? . . . I don't remember, but I remember there was a decision that was made, kind of a conscious decision that was made, and this was mentioned, this, verbatim, was mentioned: 'Look, if we don't play within his system, we don't believe in our head coach, we can't do anything special. There's no way. We're a house divided.' If we sell out completely to what he's saying and doing, then we've at least got a chance, if he happens to know what he's saying and doing, and he turns out he did."
If there's a science to what a fresh coach can do in a first season, the Cardinals could serve as a test case. With senior leadership (guard Quentin Snider, 7-footer Anas Mahmoud), junior leadership (6-foot-10 Ray Spalding, 6-7 Deng Adel), and four good freshmen, Louisville seems exquisitely constructed. Myles sees "a lot of interchangeable guys," and that "the sky's the limit." Pete Padgett sees his nerve endings quaking because, in one of those strange realities of sports, it's apparently harder to watch an offspring coach than an offspring player.
They refer to an understated giant whom Roy Williams recruited to Kansas, who then transferred quietly to Louisville after Williams left for North Carolina, who considers his sit-out, 2004-05 season his most valuable, toiling with Myles and learning from a Final Four team. He played two seasons in Spain's Canary Islands (2008-10) and, with his then-fiancee and now-wife, Megan, often spent Saturdays at beachfront restaurants sipping midday red, before they lost their minds and returned. He's a way-of-life basketballer who played for his father in high school, after his father played for his grandfather in college (at Nevada). Said Pete Padgett, "I started sitting on the bench with my dad when he was a junior-college coach in California when I was 5. And I'm 63. This is kind of what we've always done."
Said David Padgett, upstairs in the building with the Pitino posters in the lobby: Pitino always did demand intricate involvement from assistants. "Now obviously, when you're in charge, it's a different feel," the acting head coach said, "but inadvertently, he really prepared me for this position. Obviously, we didn't expect it or hope for it to be this way, but with that being said, I think he prepared me as best he could."