Scott Padgett wants his Samford University basketball team to reach new heights by going to the NCAA Tournament every year, just like mid-major Gonzaga. Not just once a lifetime like the Birmingham, Ala., school did in 1999 and 2000, losing in the first round both times.
“We’re all on board to take Samford to the same level as a Butler and Gonzaga, and we have everything that we need to be successful and to get to that point,” said ex-UK standout Padgett last March after signing a new four-year contract extension.
Before becoming the head coach at Samford in 2014, Padgett spent several years as an assistant at Samford, Manhattan College and UK.
Padgett, 39, said he came to Samford because of athletics director Martin Newton’s “big dream” vision in developing and helping student-athletes in winning the national and conference championships in all sports.
Padgett, a Louisville native who played on two Final Four teams at Kentucky under coaches Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, was asked last week about his coaching career. Who influenced him to enter the job-hopping or unstable coaching profession?
“Growing up in the state of Kentucky I was very lucky to have some of the greatest coaches in the history of the NCAA coaching in the state or surrounding states,” recalled Padgett, a two-time All-SEC performer who also played eight years in the NBA. “I was always someone who looked up to the coaches that I grew up watching in the 80s. Obviously, you had great coaches at Kentucky in Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton and finally you have Rick Pitino.
“At Louisville they had Hall of Famer Denny Crum. Down at WKU you had Clem Haskins. In the state of Indiana you had Bobby Knight at IU, Digger Phelps at Notre Dame and Gene Keady at Purdue.
“I admired something about each of these coaches from my youth. When I truly decided I wanted to be a coach though was when I was a freshman in high school and Rick Pitino came to Kentucky. I thought he was cool with his fashion. He played an exciting style of play, and he was very charismatic.
“At that time I didn’t know that I would play at Kentucky and if you asked me other than a Kentucky basketball player who I’d want to be when I got older I would have said Rick Pitino. Obviously, I have had many other influences along the way like Tubby Smith, Jerry Sloan, Jeff Van Gundy and John Calipari, but I knew long before I met any of them that I wanted to be a coach someday.”
Padgett — who was an NBA first-round draft pick in 1999 (No. 28 overall by the Utah Jazz) — also added that he still playfully uses Eddie Sutton’s famous comment during the late 1980s when then-UK coach referred Kentucky as the big brother and Louisville as the little brother.
“I still jokingly say that to some of my friends who are Louisville fans. All in good humor,” Padgett said.
Last season was Padgett’s first as the head coach, guiding the Bulldogs to a 13-19 mark. And he was one of the 10 finalists for the 2015 Joe B. Hall award, which is presented annually to the top first-year coach in college basketball.
Padgett learned a lot about his new position last winter, but he loves the responsibilities that come with his job as the program boss.
“I think the most surprising thing that I learned in year one was that there is so much more that goes into being the head coach other than just Xs and Os and recruiting,” he said. “Ultimately as the head coach everything that goes on in my program is my responsibility.
“You definitely have to delegate responsibility to your assistants, but I have to know everything from housing to academics, meals, travel, athletic equipment, treatments, dealing with players issues (family-related, girlfriends, etc.), off-court issues, fund raising, meeting and speaking to boosters, community involvement, on court coaching and game preparation, and a huge one — the budget.
“At the end of the day the buck stops here, which is a lot of responsibility and I love it. However, one wrong move can affect so many lives — Samford University, my family, my staff, all of our players and the fans. That’s why I have to stay on top of my game every day and keep this program moving forward to reach our goals — SoCon (Southern Conference) championship and we will get there.”
For the upcoming season, the Bulldogs will have three Kentuckians on their roster — sophomore guard Christen Cunningham of Lexington Henry Clay High School, freshman forward Matt Rose of Lexington Christian Academy and senior guard Darius Jones-Gibson of Lexington Tates Creek (who transferred from Barton County Community College in Kansas).
“(The state of) Kentucky has been very good to our program,” said Padgett. “I feel that there is always great mid-major talent in the state that is often under recruited. As long as I’m the coach at Samford, we will always recruit Kentucky hard. We have really gone into Lexington and been able to pull out three very talented players.
“Darius Jones-Gibson is a senior starting shooting guard. He is a tough hard-nosed competitor that does a great job in our press and is a very good downhill driver. He was second in our league in free throw attempts last year because of his ability to get to the rim. He will be an all-league type player this year. He was third-team, all-league last year. He is one of
“Christen Cunningham is a sophomore starting point guard. He has started since his first day on campus. He is a true point guard that makes everybody on the team better. He will be another player capable of making an all-league team this year. He was runner-up for freshman of the year last year. I thought he should have won.
“Matt Rose is a freshman forward who has the versatility to play either forward spot. His big strength is his ability to score either in the post or behind the arc. We expect big things from Matt this year.”
Samford will begin the 2015-16 campaign on a challenging note in a few weeks. Padgett’s Bulldogs travel to Louisville to face the Cardinals and Rick Pitino, whose program is currently mired in a big controversy involving female escorts. They will meet on Nov. 13 at KFC Yum! Center (7 p.m. ET on ESPN3).
What are Padgett’s feelings about coaching against Hall of Famer Pitino?
“Obviously, Coach Pitino is one of the great coaches in NCAA history,” he said. “I was blessed to be able to play under him for three years at UK and learned a lot from him. He is one of the big reasons I decided to get into the coaching profession. It will definitely be an exciting time for me to go against one of my mentors and to be in my hometown.
“However, my No. 1 objective in the game is for our team to come out and play to the best of their ability, improve, and try to get a win. It will definitely be weird looking down the sideline and seeing him down there though.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at [email protected]