In the land of giants: Louisville’s David Padgett arrives at ACC Media Day

Photo by Eric Crawford

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

David Padgett’s moment came at lunch in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He’d arrived at the ACC Operation Basketball media day early, milled around in the lobby with the other coaches in the morning and sat for more interviews than he could count by noon.

But it was when the University of Louisville’s interim basketball coach sat down at lunch and looked around the table that it hit him. He was at the big boy table, from a college coaching standpoint — Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, not only the coach of the defending national champions but the coach who recruited him in high school.

“It was kind of surreal sitting there, just for a minute,” Padgett said. “I looked around said, OK, there’s Coach K. Coach Williams, obviously, I’ve known for a long time. Coach Boeheim, I’ve played against his teams. But I’m not a player anymore, and I’m not an assistant coach. I’m these guys’ adversary, I guess. Obviously, they’re extremely supportive right now. That’ll change when we get to the games. But the support has been great.”

ACC commissioner John Swofford, beginning his annual remarks, welcomed the league’s new coaches, Padgett and Kevin Keatts. Both, of course, were assistants to Rick Pitino at Louisville. And the now-fired Louisville coach’s shadow loomed large over the entire day.

“Rick is a great friend and been one of the great coaches in the history of our game,” Krzyzewski said, echoing the tone of others. “It’s not just Louisville missing him, not just the ACC missing him. It’s college basketball missing one of the greats.”

Into that void steps Padgett, with an unprecedented challenge — taking over a Top 20 team just days before the start of practice and trying to replace a Hall of Fame coach.

“I recruited David when I was coaching at Kansas,” Williams said. “He’s such a great young man. He’s got some big shoes to fill and a big job to do. But Rick left a foundation there that I think David will benefit from and taught him some things that I think David will benefit from.”

Padgett says little has changed from a basketball standpoint. He and the players are striving for continuity where style on the court is concerned. But style as a coach? He couldn’t be more different from Pitino.

A symbol of that is the treadmill that sits at the end of the court. It was the destination for practice transgressions under Pitino, and it was usually in service. This season? Not so much.

“I know it still works,” Mahmoud said. “I was on it the first day of practice. But I don’t know if we’ve used it since.”

Mahmoud and Quentin Snider, who represented U of L in Charlotte, said that the team is more relaxed than it was a year ago, but that it is no less determined.

Anas Mahmoud. (Photo by Eric Crawford)

“Coach P had this sense about him,” Mahmoud said of Pitino. “When you walked into the Yum! (Center practice facility), knowing Coach Pitino was there, it was a different feeling. It doesn’t sound right when you say you’re scared when you walk in the Yum! But you know it’s going to be a tough day when you walk in at 8 o’clock in the morning and you know your boss is there. . . . That feeling is gone. But at the same time, you know, you’re used to certain ways when he talks through the speaker, used to going to the treadmill, you’re used to a lot of stuff that’s not there anymore.”

Padgett has had four weeks to get himself up to speed, and he doesn’t pretend he is there yet. He’s hired two assistant coaches. He’s organizing practices. He’s spending a great deal of time with players. He will pop into the locker room at the practice facility and just sit with the players.

They feel comfortable around him. A lot of them still call him “DP,” because that’s what they called him as an assistant coach.

There have been times in practice when a player has taken a play or two off. Where it might’ve been time for an explosion, or a treadmill session, before, Padgett has a different way of handling it.

“I’ve just said, ‘Hey, look. I’m not going to sit here and yell at you or make you go to the treadmill. You guys are juniors or seniors. You’re just hurting yourselves if you don’t bring maximum effort every day,’” Padgett said. “With the younger guys, it’s something that has to be learned. But that’s where our older guys have been so good. . . . I haven’t had a lot of reason to punish these guys. I haven’t had to coach effort even once. It’s a motivated group.”

Padgett hasn’t solicited a great deal of advice, but he has gotten plenty. It has come from everywhere, from former coaches, from friends in the profession, from people who have reached out to him. Trent Johnson gave him some of the best advice: “Nobody else has ever taken over a team three days before the start of practice from a Hall of Fame coach who just got fired.”

Once you recognize that, you realize you’re in uncharted waters, and that advice can only get you so far. The one piece that kept coming up in all his conversations, is the one he has most taken to heart: “Be yourself.”

Photo by Eric Crawford

So who is David Padgett? How does he operate? What does he do in his free time? Does he even have free time?

“The flight home is about an hour, so there’s some,” Padgett said. “The job is always there. What I’ve kind of enjoyed doing the last couple of weeks is going home and when the kids go to bed or my wife goes to bed I’ll turn on the TV, and with the baseball playoffs and now the World Series, I’ve enjoyed watching that. I’ve never been a big NBA fan, because I like watching sports that aren’t basketball, just because it’s not basketball. I love watching college football. Golf is down-time right now. I love watching golf. I love watching other sports, because it’s sports, but it’s not basketball. I think you need little escapes like that. But I also wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning saying, ‘We didn’t run our press offense very well today, we need to work on that tomorrow.’ And my phone is plugged in next to the bed and I’ll type up a note, and I’ll sit there for an hour and not go back to sleep, but that’s just part of this profession.”

Padgett also is a father of two boys, age 4 and 1. They’re too small to realize what a whirlwind their dad’s life has become. They just know when he gets home, whenever that may be, that dad is home. And Padgett said that’s a welcome jolt back into the real world.

“It’s actually really good, because every day when I come home, whether it’s 5:30 or 8:30 at night, I’ll walk in the door, probably exhausted, and what I want to do is lay down on the couch, and here come my sons, running up to the door to me, screaming ‘Dad, Dad,’ and jumping into my arms,” he said. “That’s what keeps everything in perspective, to be honest. They are the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see before I go to bed at night. It keeps a good balance. My wife, Megan, has been extremely great throughout this whole thing. She’s been absolutely supportive. She knows it’s been overwhelming. It’s been overwhelming for her. She has a tougher job than I’ll ever have and that’s staying home and taking care of them. My 4-year-old is two inches taller than I was at the same age, so that gives you an indication, they’re a handful. They’ve been a great escape for me. My family has been great, my in-laws have been extremely supportive. I’m been lucky that way.”

Padgett is new to being a head coach, but he has naturally extended some hands to open the program a bit. He showed up at the women’s basketball luncheon because he wanted to show support for other programs. He has women’s coach Jeff Walz or his players watch practice if they want to. He builds bridges to former Cardinals, and has invited many of them to a practice later this week, along with former U of L coach Denny Crum, whom he sought out at the last Red-White Scrimmage to talk about what he was seeing.

In short, he’s being himself.

Perhaps it was who Padgett has demonstrated himself to be that motivated Mahmoud to look up the email of interim U of L president Greg Postel’s assistant, to ask to have input into who the interim coach would be after Pitino was placed on leave.

Padgett conducts a radio interview at ACC media day. (Eric Crawford photo)

“Dr. Postel called me back, which I appreciated, and Deng (Adel) and I met with him,” Mahmoud said. “He told us his kid’s a big U of L basketball fan and would get a kick out of him sitting down with us. And we just told him that it would be better for us to have David Padgett as coach, rather than bring in a new coach with a new system right before the season had started. He told us he had already decided to give it to him, but needed to make sure he was not involved with all the things being investigated. But it was good he listened to us.”

Padgett said the gesture means a lot to him. From the minute the news broke, Padgett spent a great deal of time with the players, listening to their concerns, and he spent just as much time on the phone with their parents, because he was once that kid whose college coach had left for another job, and he knew that the unknown was the biggest fear.

That Mahmoud reached out on his own and went to Postel on Padgett’s behalf says something.

“It’s very humbling,” Padgett said. “It reiterates why you get into this profession. To make a difference. And obviously I’ve done something well enough in the last couple of years to earn that support. And at the same time, I think they knew they needed as much continuity with this thing as possible. Hindsight will be 20–20 when the year’s over, but I think it’s the best situation for them. And to have their support and the support of their parents was very humbling.”

Padgett couldn’t answer a question about what his sideline demeanor will be like. He said he’ll likely find out during the first game, along with everyone else. But from his first day, he has acknowledged his debt to Pitino, while affirming his own requirement to be himself.

He managed it fine at ACC media day. He walked into the interview room, calm, wearing his black Louisville golf shirt. He sat his cup of coffee down in front of me, at a table, and said, “Try not to drink it.” He stepped up to the microphone, and raised it as high as it would go. This part, he knows, is easy. Winning is the hard part. After he left, they had to stop the proceedings to move the microphone back down to normal height. If the goal was to be himself, even in the land of ACC coaching giants, the 6–11 Padgett held his own.

“My goal working as an assistant to coach Pitino was to become a head coach someday, something he’s been extremely successful with,” Padgett said. “Did I expect it to be in this fashion? Obviously not. But the way he trained me got me as ready as I can be. If I’d worked for somebody else, I probably wouldn’t be quite as ready. . . . There’s going to be a learning curve for me. But every day I’m learning.”

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