In today’s age of instant media, any major sports event, whether national or specific to a single team, will begin being dissected the moment it becomes news. Naturally, events like the Sterling saga are somewhat rare, as are their relative levels of reaction. But big events spur big reactions, and this was certainly the case last week when the Jazz announced that Ty Corbin would not be renewed as the team’s head coach. And because Corbin’s departure wasn’t a surprise to anyone closely following the team, much of the “hot take”-style instant reaction was centered, understandably, around who his replacement would be. Many possible candidates flew across my Twitter feed, from reasonable suggestions to slight stretches to complete reaches who seemed to only be brought up because they had some connection to both the game of basketball and the state of Utah.
But while current Spurs assistant coach Jim Boylen may have initially seemed like a member of the latter group given his former ties to the University of Utah, the reality quickly became apparent: Boylen is a fully legitimate candidate for the job, and if some rumors are to be believed, is in fact the clear front-runner.
Boylen began in the college ranks as an assistant before an 11-year stint with the Houston Rockets, during which he worked with current Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey. After Houston, he bounced around a couple more NBA and NCAA programs as an assistant (including with Tom Izzo at Michigan State) before taking the head coaching job at Utah in 2007. Things went mostly well for his first two seasons, including a Mountain West Conference title in 2008-09 and a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed. The Utes were upset in the first round, though, and it would prove to be Boylen’s high point with the program. They went a combined 27-35 over the next two seasons and didn’t sniff another tourney berth, and Boylen was fired on March 12, 2011. He was hired as an assistant under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich last offseason with the departure of Mike Budenholzer.
Boylen’s time as Utes head coach has been the main talking point since his inclusion as a major candidate, and with good reason. Brought in to stabilize a program that had lost its way somewhat since the Rick Majerus era, Boylen’s first two years seemed to indicate success on the horizon. But things quickly deteriorated, beginning with that tourney loss to Arizona in 2009; Boylen had rapidly developed a reputation as a combustible head coach, and the results were on full display by his third season. He clashed with the media on multiple occasions, including a memorable rant against an unpaid Utah Chronicle reporter and an infamous snipe-fest with Tribune veteran Gordon Monson after a 20-point loss to BYU in 2010. His seeming inability to handle media pressure that, frankly, doesn’t come close to comparing to the scrutiny he would face as an NBA head coach has worried many who followed the Utes closely during his time. It’s partially in fun, but a few of his rants caught on tape appear in snippets of this clip, kindly pointed out by SCH Editor-in-Chief Spencer Hall on Twitter last week:
Media interactions are one thing, but player interactions are another, vastly more important element, and Boylen’s high-tension nature certainly appeared to spill over here as well. While never confirmed on the level such reports would be in the NBA, stories about players unable to get along with him weren’t infrequent. He had several impact players transfer away from the team during his tenure, including JJ O’Brien, Will Clyburn, and Marshall Henderson, all considered potential stalwarts1. Those who pay close attention to the Utes have raised these concerns to myself and others, as well as questions about how a coach who couldn’t do better than .500 (32-32) in a weak basketball conference will do any better in the far more competitive NBA. They’re reasonable concerns, to be sure.
Of course, they don’t tell the entire story by any means. There are many good reasons why Boylen has remained consistently employed within the NBA and Division I NCAA for 20+ years, and why he was hired by guru Pop himself last summer. Boylen is well-respected as a basketball mind within the league, and this sort of reputation has only grown over the past season given San Antonio’s continued success. His hometown connection, while certainly flawed in the eyes of many, does bring with it a familiarity that would certainly have some benefits, the most notable of which would seem to be the lack of a “grace” period many coaches might receive2. Predicting the success of quality assistant coaches in the league is very tough – my colleague Dan Clayton made the excellent point soon after Corbin’s dismissal that, with all the hubbub over Boylen’s Pop legacy (and other former Spurs assistants who have achieved success as head coaches), the Jazz had just finished canning the protégé of Jerry Sloan, another legendary coach, because said protégé simply didn’t transfer over to the top spot as well as was hoped.
For now, Boylen and Ettore Messina appear to be the leading candidates for the job. Both are currently entrenched in postseason play for their respective teams, and it’s generally speculated that Utah will wait at least a few weeks to make any decisions for this and several other reasons. Enjoy the playoffs for now, Jazz fans, but keep a keen eye out for new developments in the coming weeks.