FORT COLLINS — If Colorado State fires Larry Eustachy after it concludes a second investigation into his program, the Rams should take a serious look at Becky Hammon as the next men’s basketball coach.
We’re not there yet.
But we’re heading that direction.
Right now it’s not fun in Fort Fun. The situation with under-fire coach Larry Eustachy — that’s the code word, “situation,” I heard most often Monday at Moby Arena as CSU prepared to visit Air Force — is awkward and taut and potentially very expensive. The university is trying to make it less expensive by conducting a “climate assessment” of the men’s program, to learn if it can let go of Eustachy with cause to avoid handing over close to $3 million in buyout money. That's my take on the school's latest inspection of his program, at least.
Again, we’re not there yet, but we’re heading that direction — with Eustachy on his way out after six successful but tense seasons and a new, fresh, drama-free coach taking over in Fort Fun. The writing’s on the wall.
And on Prentiss Nixon’s sneakers.
He’s a stud, Prentiss Nixon, the kind of guy you want on your team. If I’m starting a squad of in-state ballplayers he would be on it, along with McKinley Wright IV at CU and Lavelle Scottie at Air Force and Andre Spight at UNC, hard-nosed and competitive go-getters who hate to lose more than they like to win. And Nixon has Eustachy’s back, to the point he’s scribbled a hashtag on the Nikes he’s going to wear at Air Force on Tuesday: #LarryE. See, while it’s easiest to portray Eustachy, who’s been placed on administrative leave during the “assessment,” as some sort of hot-headed lunatic who’s bad for college athletes, that’s only one side of the story. I asked Nixon, a junior, for his side.
“Coach is a teddy bear at the end of the day,” Nixon said.
The coach who’s the focal point of a university probe for the second time in four years — a teddy bear? Please, go on.
“It started off rocky when I was a freshman. He put me in my place and told me I have to earn everything I get here. I really respected that,” said Nixon, the team’s leading scorer at 18 points per game. “He coaches me hard. People see that as disrespectful to me. But at the end of the day I’m not soft. I’m tough. I’m tough-minded. I get through it and I’m better for it.”
Would a young man raised in Chicago do it all over again?
“I would come play for Larry 10 out of 10 times — no matter where’s at,” Nixon said.
I’m not saying Eustachy’s coaching style is right or wrong. I'm saying it’s dated, and a grown man should know by now the same short-fused approach that was OK in 1988 isn’t OK in 2018. I’m also saying the sixth university he's worked for should know what it's getting into when you ride with him. Twice.
CSU signed up for the Eustachy Show. It not only signed up in 2012, when he was hired after volatile (and winning) stints at Southern Miss and Iowa State, but also when the Rams doubled down in 2014. That’s when then-athletic director Jack Graham delivered a 90-page report on Eustachy’s program and recommended the coach be fired. CSU stuck by Eustachy, which is like telling a kid to stop egging the neighbor’s house while rolling out a dozen more eggs.
Now here we are, in an awkward and tense spot with millions of dollars at stake and a 62-year-old coach who’s not going to back down from school president Tony Frank, athletic director Joe Parker or anyone else who stands against him. Think it was merely coincidence Eustachy reportedly told his players that Frank had assured him his job was safe? (Frank reportedly denied he said that.) Eustachy’s too calculated for that. He's always wanted CSU to be his final stop, and one thing I know is he won’t go quietly into the night.
“He’s (a) pretty tough hombre. He’s seen it, done it,” said interim coach Steve Barnes, who was high school teammates with Eustachy and has worked alongside him at a half-dozen schools.
The university’s climate assessment is ongoing, and Eustachy is prohibited from communicating with players and staff for now, Barnes confirmed. Given the clear distrust between the administration and head coach, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Eustachy is coaching here again in 2018-19.
The college coaching community is watching the CSU "situation," in part because coaches don't expect much turnover in the west. CSU is considered a good job in a winnable league, and guys seem to like it. The one that stands out isn't a guy. Becky Hammon is a boss, the greatest player in CSU history and a highly respected assistant coach with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.
The Rams aren’t there yet.
But they’re heading that direction.