Updated: February 8, 2012 at 12:00 am
A.J. Kuhle should become Air Force's men's basketball coach. Kuhle, currently an assistant at the University of Denver, understands the challenges of resurrecting a program. He’s done it twice.
Athletic director Hans Mueh has promised a “wide-open” search for Air Force’s next coach, and he’s made it clear interim coach Dave Pilipovich is one of the candidates.
Yet Mueh openly embraces the possibility of Kuhle returning to his alma mater.
“I love A.J.,” Mueh said, “I loved him as a player. I loved him as an officer of the Air Force. He wants to come back here. That’s not a secret.”
When Kuhle arrived at Air Force in 2000, fresh from an impressive high school career in California, the Falcons basketball program ranked among the worst in the nation.
When he departed in 2004, the Falcons were soaring as the reigning regular-season champs of the Mountain West. They had delivered a severe scare to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. The team had been completely transformed. Kuhle understands the work required to rescue a program from the depths.
And that's where the Falcons again dwell. Air Force is 1-6 in the Mountain West this season and losers of 47 of its last 56 conference games.
During Kuhle's senior season, Clune Arena was a happy, loud, jammed destination. Now, Clune is quiet and empty. A devoted core of 1,500 fans have refused to quit on the Falcons, but most of those who traveled to Clune during the Falcons glory days of 2003-2007 have found other things to do on winter nights.
Reynolds never fit at Air Force. He was too focused on the restrictions and limitations. He complained about not being able to accept transfers or recruit international players. He complained about just about everything.
He had his moments. Reynolds recruited Michael Lyons, one of the most gifted athletes in academy history. Reynolds lifted his team last season after the Falcons lost to crosstown rival Colorado College, willing the Falcons to a 6-10 record in the Mountain West. It was his finest hour.
But he couldn't sustain the momentum. This season's Falcons are unfocused. They look lost and unmotivated on the court.
Reynolds was intense. Too intense. His grim approach to the game left Mueh scrambling to find someone who can inject, in his words, “a little bit of laughter, a little bit of fun” into the program.
The program requires an optimist who believes a winner can be constructed despite all reasons for doubt.
Kuhle, 29, is that optimist. He's in the middle of a successful renovation project at DU. When Kuhle arrived at DU with former Air Force coach Joe Scott in 2007, the Pioneers were stumbling around in college basketball's basement. DU had finished 4-25 the season before. It was an ugly scenario, similar to the Air Force scenario from 2000.
On Saturday, DU defeated Middle Tennessee State at Magness Arena. Middle Tennessee had defeated UCLA and boasted a 10-0 record in the Sun Belt Conference. The victory pushed DU to a 17-7 record. A snoozing program has been awakened.
Here's my favorite Kuhle moment from his Air Force career. It says everything about his approach to the game. During Kuhle's senior season at Air Force, the Falcons traveled to Salt Lake to play Utah. The Utes had finished 115-26 in conference play over the previous decade. Air Force had finished 28-113 during the same time.
Kuhle dropped three straight 3-pointers to erase a big Utah lead. He dropped these 3s while listening to the howling disapproval of Utah fans.
But it got better.
Late in the second half, Utah went inside to 6-foot-10 center Tim Frost, who rose for what seemed an uncontested dunk.
Kuhle swooped into the scene. Kuhle stands 6-4, maybe.
Didn't matter. He blocked Frost's dunk. Kuhle was flying above rim level as he saved Air Force's victory.
The next day, Kuhle acted as if the play was no big deal. That's his style.
"I ultimately jumped higher than him," he said of the block.
On that play, Kuhle trampled the odds. There was no logical way he could block Frost's dunk. He blocked it anyway.
That’s why Kuhle is the right choice. He’s all about defeating the odds instead of complaining about them. He understands the culture of the academy. He understands the challenges.
And he has a history of defeating all challenges.