Billy Hahn, a self-proclaimed ‘dinosaur’ of a coach, wants one more chance to be a full-time assistant
NEW ORLEANS – The lobby of the Hilton Riverside has all the warmth of an Applebee’s, with a lily-pad bar, dinging elevators and a statue of a trumpet player that seems to jump from the ferns if you glance the wrong way. But it is close to the convention center and even closer to the French Quarter, which makes it the ideal place for college basketball’s coaches to make it their headquarters during the Final Four.
And on the day before this season’s national semifinals, the Hilton lobby is clogged with opportunists and schemers, clad in double-knit golf shirts, school logos embroidered on the chest – all of them listening for rumors of jobs, looking to grab the next rung, anything that will keep them climbing. Billy Hahn hides behind them. He isn’t wearing a logo but rather a white dress shirt and blue shorts. His hair is slicked back. When he talks, his voice has the scratch of so many nights spent shouting on the sidelines.
Unlike other men here, Billy Hahn isn’t looking for the next rung up. He is looking for a job.
He doesn’t advertise this because he has a job, a good one in fact, on Bob Huggins’ staff at West Virginia. The problem is that his job is in basketball operations, which means it has limitations on how much actual coaching he can do. And all Billy Hahn knows how to do is coach. He has coached everywhere from Morris Harvey College in West Virginia (now called the University of Charleston) to Davidson to Maryland, where he was an assistant on a team that went to the Final Four and helped recruit another that won the national championship. He has been a head coach twice, burned once and that experience tainted his name, which had always been clean.
Oh, yes, Billy Hahn can coach. But he’s 56 and all these signs keep telling him it’s a young man’s game. It’s the young men who keep getting the jobs. They are tall and robust and look good in double-knit golf shirts with school logos on the chest. Billy Hahn isn’t tall. And he was always more about basketball than appearance.
“I’m a dinosaur,” he says.
He looks around at these men who call themselves coaches but who know a fraction of what he does, who haven’t seen the defenses he has scouted, cut the nets he has, shown players the proper way to dribble. A dinosaur? No way. Billy Hahn is more like a boxer locked in a heavyweight fight, 11 rounds over, blood on the mat, the bell ringing, coming out for one more round.
So, subtly, he sends out a handful of texts and emails, coded with hints that if the right possibility comes along, a chance to be a full-time assistant again, he’s interested.
“I want to be on the floor again,” he says.
Then he waits for replies.
Billy Hahn loves basketball. Loves the game. Loves it. The game is about respect, you see? Years ago at the Final Four, at these coaches’ conventions, they held big clinics and men such as Dean Smith and Bob Knight lectured for hours about motion offenses and zone defenses. They were some of the best talks Hahn has seen.
“You couldn’t get a seat,” Hahn says. “Everybody would be like, ‘Ooooh, John Thompson is talking! Ooooh, Dean Smith is talking!’
“It was a big deal. You had to be there. That stuff doesn’t happen anymore.”
Hahn stops. His eyes look sad. Over at a nearby convention hall, a coach is giving a lecture to a crowd of maybe 50. The stands aren’t full. Nobody is listening.
“That’s how it’s all changed,” he says.
These young coaches now? Most of them are just in it for the money. It makes Hahn sick. They don’t get it. They don’t want to. Work to them is glad-handing a runner at an AAU tournament, throwing around promises of a starting jobs and open paths to the NBA. These young coaches don’t own the tape. They don’t scout. They don’t know what they’re watching.
Everyone wants to blame the one-and-done players for the problems in college basketball, but those who have been around a while know better. It’s the coaching that’s dying.
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Now, in the Hilton lobby, Charlie Coles walks up. For years, Coles was the coach at Miami (Ohio), perhaps best-known for having a heart attack on the sideline in 1998. Almost died, too. But doctors brought him back and he went on to coach another 14 years. He’s 70 now. Figuring that was enough, he retired last month.
His eyes catch Hahn’s.
“We didn’t do it for the money, did we?” Coles says to Hahn.
“No, you know we didn’t,” Hahn says.
Hahn steps outside the hotel and spots Johnny Dawkins, the former Duke point guard who now is the coach at Stanford. The night before, Stanford won the NIT title in New York and Hahn wants to say congratulations.
“As long as you do it right, you can live with yourself,” he tells Dawkins as the men shake hands.
“That’s right,” Dawkins says.
Billy Hahn is done being a head coach. That decision was made for him when he was forced out at La Salle in 2005 after three of his players were accused of rape. But even without the allegations, he wasn’t wining at La Salle, nor did he have any big seasons at his other head-coaching job, Ohio, for three years in the 1980s. His record as a head coach is 80-98.
Some men are better as assistants. That’s just the way it is. He understands this. He probably was at his best at Maryland or in his first couple of years at West Virginia – scouring camps and small high schools for players, game-planning for opponents and working one-on-one with kids in practice. All the politics that come with being a head coach – the banquets, the glad-handing, the kissing up to disingenuous university administrators – that’s not really him.
When things went bad at La Salle, they went bad fast. A player from the University of New Haven women’s team accused two of Hahn’s players of raping her when she was too intoxicated to stop them. During the investigation, it was learned that a La Salle women’s player said she had been raped months before by another of Hahn’s players. Ultimately, none of Hahn’s players were convicted. The first two were found not guilty, and the third never was tried after the woman bringing the allegations decided not to testify.
Hahn was gone long before the trials. He and Explorers women’s coach John Miller were forced to resign for violating school policy because they had not reported the rape accusation when the La Salle women’s player came to them. Both coaches insist she asked them to not tell anyone when she spoke with them in the spring of 2003. They say they were doing what she wanted. Not that their words mattered. No coach was surviving that.
Hahn remembers everything about the day he and his attorney went to negotiate the terms of his resignation: how the president and athletic director stared at their laps, how he told them he wasn’t going to say a word until they looked him in the eye, how he made them keep looking as they dismantled the last pilings of his college head-coaching career. Then he was done.
“I became radioactive,” he says.
The cases lingered for two years, keeping him from searching for a new job. It wasn’t until the legal proceedings were finished that he put out his name during the Final Four. An offer came: Assistant coach, with a decent salary, benefits, a country club membership, the whole deal.
Hahn said yes. He called a real estate agent and put his Philadelphia house on the market. It sold in a day for more money than he was asking. The new school’s human resources people sent tax information forms. He was making plans for his new job in a new city, with a new team and new players, when his phone rang.
“Billy, I can’t hire you,” the coach said.
The coach hadn’t thought to ask his athletic director. And when he did and the athletic director heard “Billy Hahn” and “La Salle” and “rape,” the athletic director shook his head. Over the next few weeks, three other coaches called with job offers. Each time, Hahn told them the same thing: check with your athletic director. Each time, the coach called back, mumbling the same apologies.
Last Friday, Hahn said he saw the first coach who couldn’t hire him. As he does every year when he sees Hahn at the Final Four, the man Hahn doesn’t want to name out of respect stammered and shrugged.
What could he say?
When Hahn was unemployed, there came a series of what he calls “life preservers.” The first came in 2006 from Rob Kennedy, who operates a series of basketball camps. This gave Hahn a chance to work again, to teach kids basketball, and after all that had happened, it was his salvation. The second life preserver came from his former La Salle assistant Bill Dooley, who loaned Hahn and his wife, Kathi, a summer house on the Jersey shore with the provision he be out by June. This gave him one end of a season to find a new job.
Then came the third life preserver. Huggins had just left Kansas State for West Virginia and needed an assistant. Would Hahn be interested?
Of course Hahn was interested. But what about the athletic director?
“Don’t worry, it’s done,” Huggins said.
And everything that happened at La Salle?
“It’s done.” Huggins replied.
What about his reputation?
“Billy,” Huggins said. “It’s done.”
Two times while sitting at breakfast in a New Orleans hotel restaurant, Billy Hahn cried when he mentioned Bob Huggins. He does this because he knows Huggins has a reputation for being surly. He cries because he knows this isn’t true, and if it weren’t for Huggins – whom he alternately calls “Hugs” and “Huggy” – he probably wouldn’t have a basketball job.
Mostly he cries because he thinks Huggins is one of the best men he ever has worked for and doesn’t like that Hahn’s considering leaving.
During Hahn’s first season in Morgantown, Kathi was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. For the next several months, she fought the disease, enduring treatments until the doctors told her it was gone. A month later, the Hahns drove to Hilton Head, S.C., to celebrate. While there, Kathi felt something in her glands. They drove to the hospital, where doctors immediately packed her in an ambulance and sent her to a hospital in Savannah, Ga. It was there she was told she had leukemia. Devastated, Hahn called Huggins and delivered the news.
As he had a few months before in offering the job, Huggins told Hahn not to worry. Then he sent a private plane to fly the Hahns back to Morgantown.
“That’s why Bob Huggins is the best ever,” Hahn says.
Hahn never has asked where the plane came from. To this day, he doesn’t know. Somehow it doesn’t matter. This is the Huggins he knows.
“It just shows you ‘Hugs’ is a decent, decent man,” he says. “People don’t get to see that side of him.”
Three years after that day in Savannah, Kathi has beaten her leukemia. She has survived. Hahn wonders if this is why La Salle and everything along with it happened. Maybe he was supposed to be in Morgantown, near the hospital that has been so good to Kathi. Maybe if they had stayed in Philadelphia, they wouldn’t have found doctors as gifted as those at West Virginia’s hospital. It has been a wonderful place. It let him coach again. Let him work with players. Got him to another Final Four, in 2010. Brought him back to life.
But things change. Last spring, Huggins told Hahn he needed him to stay in the office rather than recruit. West Virginia had seven new players and he needed a more experienced coach available at all times. He said he was switching Hahn’s job with that of Jerrod Calhoun, a young assistant who had been the basketball operations director.
Huggins gave Hahn the title of special assistant to the head coach, but the new job had restrictions. Basketball ops guys, as they are called in the profession, can’t recruit, or step on the court during practice, or even coach actively on the bench. It’s still a good job, in a big conference, but it’s not the same. This spring, Hahn told Huggins he wanted to look for a full-time assistant’s job.
“For the first time in my life, I can’t be on the floor,” Hahn says. “I can’t do any instruction. I have all the limitations of a noncoaching position. After 35 years, it’s hard. I totally understand. I know why [Huggins] had to do it. But still … “
His voice trails off.
God, he misses coaching.
“I want to get back on the floor,” he says. “I want to pull players in my office to show them tape, show them how they can get better. I don’t know if it’s going to happen or if it’s going to happen in the ACC or Big East or SEC.”
He knows he has to sell himself, but he hates to do it.
On the afternoon before the Final Four begins, a message appears on Hahn’s phone. He squints at it, types a reply, waits a few moments, then jumps to his feet.
“I’ve got to go,” he says
“I might have something,” he replies.
Hahn marches toward the hotel door, past the elevators, past the trumpet player in the ferns, past the bar where a recently dismissed coach had placed himself in a prominent corner seat, and out into the night.
Might be good.
Then he disappears into the mob of Kentucky and Louisville fans mingling on the corner and heads toward a meeting with someone who might have a job, which will lead to more texts and phone calls after the Final Four is over, all in the hope this could be real.
And there will be one last chance for a dinosaur to roam the floor again.
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