Who will Steve Pikiell hire as his next assistant coach?
It’s been a few days since it was reported that longtime assistant coach Karl Hobbs was leaving Rutgers for Georgia Tech. Hobbs and Brandin Knight were original hires that have served under Steve Pikiell since he began his tenure in Piscataway in 2016. How Pikiell proceeds in filling such a key role on his staff will be fascinating to watch.
It marks just the third time since head coach Steve Pikiell was hired that he needs to hire a new assistant coach. Pikiell’s longtime right hand man, Jay Young, left after the 2018-2019 season to become the head coach of Fairfield. He was replaced by Steve Hayn, who was an assistant for two seasons. Following the 2020-2021 campaign, Hayn transitioned to a chief of staff role under Pikiell. He was replaced by TJ Thompson, who was promoted from within after serving as Director of Basketball Administration the previous two seasons.
Of the five coaches who have been assistants for Rutgers in the Pikiell era, four of them had long term relationships with the head coach. Young was on his bench for the entire 11 years that Pikiell was head coach at Stony Brook. Hayn served as an assistant with Pikiell at Central Connecticut State for two seasons. Hobbs is part of the UConn tree and Pikiell was his assistant for multiple years at George Washington. Thompson played for Hobbs and Pikiell at GW almost two decades ago.
Only Brandin Knight had no prior working relationship with Pikiell before joining his staff at Rutgers. He worked for Jamie Dixon at his own alma mater of Pitt for almost a decade. His strong ties to New Jersey, ability as a recruiter as well as a basketball coach have proven a valuable asset to the program. He’s now the longest tenured staffer under Pikiell with Hobbs’ departure.
The question is how will Pikiell proceed to fill the open assistant coach spot? There are a lot of different directions he can go. The good news is there is also a lot of very good options to consider.
Brett MacConnell is the name most tied to the opening. The current Princeton associate head coach is a Rutgers alum and former team manager. MacConnell was instrumental in the Sweet 16 run for the Tigers this past March. He is a key recruiter, runs the offense at Princeton and would be a great hire by Pikiell. While he has reportedly turned down two low major head coaching jobs this offseason, there is no word yet as to whether he is candidate for this job. I think MacConnell is a great option and could have a major influence in improving the offense. However, it’s important to remember he doesn’t check the box of having a past working relationship or tie with Pikiell.
One veteran coach who does have a long history with Pikiell is Dave Leitao. He has deep ties to legendary UConn head coach Jim Calhoun. After playing for him at Northeastern, he served as an assistant to Calhoun for over a decade split over two stints. Pikiell played for Calhoun and Leitao before serving as an assistant coach for the Huskies, working on the bench with both of them. Leitao has been a head coach at Northeaster, DePaul (twice), and Virginia. He would bring plenty of experience. Leitao is also the most like for like candidate in replacing Hobbs. His connection with Pikiell is strong. The trust level would be off the charts from the start.
Anthony Latina has been the head coach at Sacred Hearst over the last decade. He lead the Pioneers to a top three league finish in the Northeast Conference three years in a row before this past season. His ties to Pikiell extend back 20+ years and have a close relationship. Latina served as assistant along with Pikiell and Hayn at Central Connecticut State in the late 90’s. They all worked for Howie Dickenmann, who served as an assistant for Calhoun for 14 years at UConn. Having someone like Latina on staff would, like Leitao, give Pikiell a trusted veteran coach who can hit the ground running.
There are two less experienced assistant coaching candidates with intriguing backgrounds who could garner serious consideration as well.
Matt Eisele was an assistant coach for Shaheen Holloway during his entire four year tenure at St. Peter’s. He played a key role in the Peacocks ascension from the basement of the MAAC to arguably the greatest Cinderella run in NCAA Tournament history under Holloway. Before that, Eisele served as Director of Basketball Adminstration and recruiting during Pikiell’s second season at Rutgers. Prior to that, he was head coach at the JUCO level for Miami-Dade where he sent over two dozen players to Division I.
Another is Taliek Brown. He was originally mentioned by Jerry Carino as a potential candidate. He won a national title as point guard and captain for Calhoun’s 2003-2004 UConn team. Brown is the program’s all-time assist leader and served as Director of Player Development for the Huskies under current coach Danny Hurley. Last season, Brown served as an assistant coach under Rick Pitino at Iona. He since followed him to St. John’s where he is Director of Player Personnel. Brown hasn’t worked with Pikiell, but he does have the tie to UConn and Calhoun.
Other names that have been mentioned by others include Fairfield assistant Bryan Dougher who starred for Pikiell as a player at Stony Brook and former Rutgers player Jonathan Mitchell who is an assistant coach at Stetson. How much consideration they get remains to be seen. Although they both have merits work they of consideration, I tend to think Pikiell will go in another direction.
One more thing to keep an eye on is whether Pikiell uses this interview process for more than just filling the open assistant coach spot. This offseason has shown how the transfer portal and NIL have completely transformed roster building year over year. Several programs have created a general manager-type position to adapt to the evolution of high major college basketball. It’s possible that Pikiell considers that type of role as he actively interviews candidates to replace Hobbs. I think it would be a smart move if he did.
The search has been underway for a few days. It will be interesting to see which direction Pikiell ultimately decides to go in hiring his third assistant. With Knight and Thompson, Rutgers has two very strong assistants who have been with the program the majority of Pikiell’s tenure. Finding the right fit to complete his coaching staff is critical. Whether it’s a coach with strong ties to Pikiell and UConn, a Rutgers connection or a wide open surprise, this is an important hire.
I personally think based on how he typically operates, it’s more likely that Pikiell will replace Hobbs with another veteran coach that he has a long history with. Also due to the current dynamic he has in place with Knight and Thompson. I think that personal connection will be a priority over anything else. Leitao and Latina stand out in that regard as potential lead options. It could be another name from Pikiell’s past as well. Stay tuned.
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April 16, 2023 at 11:45 am
Is “Shoes” a candidate?
April 16, 2023 at 6:16 pm
Thanks for the in depth review, Aaron. To be blunt, I’m not thrilled about the idea that Pikiell may put added emphasis on long term ties to himself & UCONN. For me, this isn’t the time in the program’s history to be limiting options. Rather, it’s time to expand the search with a focus on what it will take to bring this program to the next level, i.e. a consistent half court offense. I don’t care if that means going outside the comfort zone of a candidate having a long term relationship with Pikiell and UCONN.
Separately, I like the idea of creating a general manager-type position. For example, NOVA just announced the creation of this position in an excellent article that I think presents the case for Rutgers to seriously consider.
April 17, 2023 at 7:13 am
It would be great to retain the Associate Head Coach from Princeton. Watching them in the NCAA Tournament reminded me they aren’t a Carril type Princeton. They play every basket with urgency, shoot extremely well, make their layups, make their foul shots and move with a frantic pace. If Pikiell is going to propel RU BB to conference championships and make deep NCAA runs he must be willing to step out of his personal comfort zone.