If UCLA Calls, Earl Watson Will Answer

Feb 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns interim head coach Earl Watson against the Toronto Raptors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns interim head coach Earl Watson against the Toronto Raptors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

If you are normally already at work – or are still asleep – on Tuesday mornings at 8am, finding a way to listen to Arizona Sports 98.7 tomorrow (March 21) will be worth the interruption to your normal morning routine.

Around the time of the NBA Draft this summer, Phoenix Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough may not only be working on what additions he will be adding to the roster via the draft, free agency, and trades, but he may also be working on a list of possible interviewees for his new Head Coach. While McDonough is highly unlikely to fire Earl Watson this summer, Watson may find it prudent to resign so he can take the position as Head Coach for his beloved Alma mater: UCLA.

A number of things need to happen before a phone call from UCLA’s Athletic Director Dan Guerrero to Watson even happens. Yet as wild as it might seem that Watson might skip out on the remainder of his Phoenix Suns coaching contract, the possibility of that occurring is likely far more probable than any other mid-summer conspiracy theories playing into reality.

As it stands, the Indiana Hoosiers have fired their Head Basketball Coach Tom Crean after nine seasons that included three Sweet-16 appearances. UCLA Head Coach Steve Alford is an Indiana Hoosiers legend and by all accounts is at the top of the list of choices by Indiana to replace Crean. UCLA is currently in the Sweet-16 themselves so Alford is pretty much un-touchable at the moment (although there undoubtedly are discussions happening in the background gauging his interest), but if the Hoosiers are keen in recruiting Alford back to his  Alma mater, the moment UCLA is knocked out (or wins it all) his phone will be ringing.

Should Alford leave UCLA for Indiana, Dan Guerrero will have a short-list ready to begin his own interview process and and seems plausible that Earl Watson will be on that list. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead put together his personal short-list (which you can read here) though it does not include Watson. However, ESPN’s Jay WIlliams discussed this morning that he believes that Watson would be an ideal choice.

Whether UCLA agrees with Williams remains to be seen, but they have the time to wait. UCLA is still alive in the tournament, and while one loss ends the season and gets the coaching ball in motion, many of their potential college basketball suitors are probably still active at this moment as well. So if Watson is at or near the top of their list, they will have to wait a little while anyway to begin the interview process in earnest, and will not have to wait much longer for the Suns’ season to end (which is now only 31 days away) before Watson is unfettered and available to talk as well.

Now why would Watson want to leave an NBA Head Coaching job for UCLA?

It appears that while his loyalty is strong to the franchise and players under his watch right now, coaching for UCLA is his dream.

According to an interview he did on Arizona Sports 98.7’s Doug and Wolf less than a year ago, Watson would only leave coaching in the NBA for one – and only one – college coaching opportunity:

"“I can’t go to another living room and lie; I can’t go recruit a kid and say, ‘This is the best school for you,’” he told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM  back on April 12, 2016. “I would be lying because of a paycheck.”“So there’s only (one) school I would coach, and we all know what school that is.”Spoiler alert: He was talking about UCLA."

Thus, if UCLA came calling, Earl Watson would answer.

From Watson’s Perspective

From Watson’s perspective, leaving the Suns for UCLA would provide him with several pluses that he would not receive in the Valley of the Suns. For instance, UCLA would likely pay him more than he is currently earning with the Suns. Secondly, he would have full autonomy as head coach of UCLA, whereas with the Suns he is forced to walk to company line, which recently has included benching Eric Bledsoe – much to both their chagrin. He is also inherently on a very short leash. While the Suns are in a period of tanking (I mean, rebuilding) and have not put much pressure on Watson to win, as soon as they flip that switch into wannabe playoff contenders, the clock will tick fast. If he does not win right away, he is apt to be fired quickly. Even including two Coach of the Year award winners, since John McLeod was relieved of his duties in 1987 after thirteen and a half seasons as Head Coach, Suns coaches average only two seasons  at the helm. Since John Wooden retired from his position in 1975, UCLA Head Coaches have lasted just over 4 seasons. Watson would be buying himself at minimum the next four years to his Head Coaching career, though with any luck and success, could guarantee himself a much longer tenure.

From UCLA’s Perspective

From UCLA’s perspective, Watson would offer them a John Wooden disciple.  Watson’s strategy of coaching with love and treating all players as part of a family tied together with an unbreakable bond of brotherhood, would not only connect to those kids who might enter the program without that sort of relationship in their personal lives and appreciate that type of a fatherly figure as their head coach, but he would excite all those older fans who saw, knew, and revered Wooden giving Watson the chance to be bring that mentality back to the school. Watson is already a life-coach of sorts and a teacher with programs in California that help to mentor youth basketball players. But more importantly he is also big in the AAU scene as well. Although many coaches in the country would be able to efficiently tap into those areas of recruiting just by being  the Head Coach of UCLA, Watson would have the ability to reach out to kids, coaches, and parents that he has helped and mentored already for many years. Additionally his NBA playing experience (13 years) and coaching experience (three years) would also be career distinctions that would not only comfort the fan base, but also endear himself with future recruiting classes as he would be able to offer first-hand knowledge and experience as a former NBA player and Coach to those kids who seek to reach the professional ranks.

From the Suns’ Perspective

From the Phoenix Suns’ perspective, coaching changes are never easy  per se, but one occurring now would be far less potentially negatively impactful on the franchise than if it were to occur in two or three years. Changing head coaches now would occur when the core of the roster has only had Watson for a little over one season, thus it would not be that great of a shock to the system should he leave. Bringing in another head coach now before this upcoming draft class would still allow the franchise to bring the entire youth movement forward as one without much of a hiccup. Watson has also been nothing but a consummate professional with the franchise. Even when things have been forced upon him that have been uncomfortable or that he disagrees with, he has been willing to stick to his responsibilities and not ruffle any feathers. His professionalism and niceness has earned him the chance to at least test the waters and see if UCLA would be interested in his services. The Phoenix Suns could give him a few days following the end of the season during the early offseason dead-time to pursue this opportunity before the franchise must nail down his intentions to continue with their summer plans. Also, should Robert Sarver and Ryan McDonough be willing to allow this to happen, he would not be moving to another team in the NBA, so the conflict of interest – and the breaking of any professional tampering rules – would be all but non-existent.

More from Valley of the Suns

From my perspective I have always believed Watson to be better suited for college coaching than the NBA. His style seems to be far more relatable to kids trying to earn an education, than professionals trying to earn a paycheck. Yes, it seems to have worked thus far in Phoenix (although not with wins), but the long-term viability of such a system is far from guaranteed. With the end of the season literally one month away from ending, UCLA will be in the position to wait for him, and would certainly let him know ahead of time if he is not a finalist for the job allowing him to publicly announce that he has no interest in leaving the Suns for UCLA, ending all speculation early. Plus already with NBA coaching experience, he still could return to the Association later in his career should the UCLA job not work out.

All that being said, whether Steve Alford leaves and Earl Watson receives that call, and whether or not Watson would actually leave the Suns remains to be seen. Just do not pass off the chance of this occurring as anything other than real and viable. It’s only a matter of the right pieces falling into place.

Now what does Arizona Sports 98.7 FM have to do with all of this? Doug and Wolf will be interviewing Watson for their weekly segment with the Suns Head Coach tomorrow morning at 8am.

They will be asking Watson specifically about this very topic.