Several nationally recognized basketball figures have expressed interest in succeeding Armond Hill as Columbia's head coach, including NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In a letter to Athletic Director John Reeves obtained by Spectator, Abdul-Jabbar expressed a "sincere interest" in filling the vacancy, and the NBA legend was seen on campus last evening.
Additionally, former Duke star Bobby Hurley is known to be a candidate, along with Iona assistant Tony Chiles, Northwestern assistant Paul Lee, and Columbia assistant Bill Johnson.
Reeves declined to comment on the search until the position is filled. A knowledgeable source, however, indicated that the search process will accelerate over the next two weeks. The source also indicated that Chiles, Lee, Hurley, and Johnson are all candidates and that interviews have been scheduled or conducted with Chiles, Hurley, and Johnson as of Monday.
The source also said that Columbia contacted former New York Knicks Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy about the position, but he declined consideration.
Abdul-Jabbar's only experience as a head coach came with the Oklahoma Storm of the USBL in 2002. The Storm went 17-13 in Abdul-Jabbar's only season, but went on to win the USBL championship. He also served as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers in the latter half of the 1999-2000 season, worked in a Seattle Supersonics training camp, ran a training session for the Indiana Pacers, and has worked individually with numerous NBA and NCAA players. In the 1999-2000 season, Abdul-Jabbar was an assistant coach at Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Ariz., on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. He is currently employed as an analyst for CBS Sports.
Abdul-Jabbar is from New York City originally and attended the now defunct Power Memorial Academy on West 61st Street. He was a star center at UCLA from 1967 to 1969, winning three national championships under legendary head coach John Wooden, whom Abdul-Jabbar has called his coaching mentor, before being selected first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 draft. He led the Bucks to the 1971 NBA Championship and won five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. The 7'2'' center won six NBA MVP Awards and is the all-time NBA leader in points scored.
Hurley's interest in the Columbia job was first reported by Dan Wetzel on cbs.sportsline.com. Hurley won two national championships with Duke in 1991 and 1992 and was selected seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 1993 NBA Draft. An auto accident in his rookie season hampered his career as a player, and he left competitive basketball in 1999 after being released by the Vancouver Grizzlies. He recently has expressed a desire to go into coaching, a profession in which his father and brother have been extremely successful.
Early conventional wisdom held that the search committee would focus on good assistant coaches or, as Reeves termed it two weeks ago, "diamonds in the rough." And even though such big names as Abdul-Jabbar and Hurley are being considered, it does not mean that Reeves will necessarily make a celebrity hire.
Chiles is one highly respected assistant, rated as one of the top-40 mid-major conference assistants on hoopscooponline.com. He was also a top point guard for the Lions in the late 1980s before graduating in 1989. At Iona, Chiles has won a reputation as a well-connected New York City recruiter, while being associated with one of the better teams in the MAAC. He was also a candidate for the Long Island University coaching job last year. Chiles confirmed he had applied for the position but declined further comment.
Lee was captain of the Columbia basketball team in 1985-6 and was an assistant coach for 10 seasons under both Jack Rohan and Armond Hill. In 2000, Lee moved to Northwestern as an assistant when Bill Carmody took the head coaching job there.
Despite his connection to the Princeton offense used by both Hill and Carmody, Lee indicated that he would not necessarily employ such a system.
"I don't think you can be successful at that place doing just that," Lee said of the Princeton offense. "There's just too much familiarity [in the Ivy League], and Princeton is going to take the best guys who run that system."
Columbia Assistant Coach Bill Johnson has been with the Lions since 1997 and is also on the list of top-40 mid-major conference assistants. Johnson was often credited by Hill for the team's defensive success; with Johnson acting as a defensive coordinator of sorts, Columbia consistently ranked as one of the nation's best teams in points-allowed. He graduated from Nebraska in 1988 and was a Cornhusker assistant when the school won the 1993 NIT. Johnson declined to comment on the coaching search or to confirm his candidacy.
Since Hill was dismissed on March 10, Johnson and Assistant Coach Walter Townes have been working to oversee the team during the transition, including completing the recruiting process for the Class of 2007. The team is currently in its Ivy League-imposed rest period, meaning that coaches are not allowed to run practices or have basketball-related contact with players. Johnson, Townes, and volunteer assistant Doug Stewart, however, have been working hard on the recruiting trail, staying in contact with prospective players with whom Columbia has been in contact since last September.
"We're going back out to reassure recruits that they chose Columbia for what the school is about," Townes said.
"There was a reason why they were interested in Columbia beyond one person and those things are still there," Johnson said, citing the city, an Ivy League education, and a chance at playing time. "We're working hard to represent Columbia the best we can until a new coach is in place."
Recruits will be notified on April 2 if they are accepted, and, like all other admitted students, will have until early May to decide whether they wish to attend. Columbia's affirmative action policy requires a 30-day open application period before a new coach is hired. But as minority candidates, Chiles and Abdul-Jabbar could be named to the post before the end of 30 days.