MINNEAPOLIS — Like a player forced to watch tape of a turnover on a fast break, James Whitford cringed when he saw the video of his practice interview.
“Twirling my fingers while I’m talking,” Whitford said. “I was very uncomfortable.”
Fortunately for the former Arizona assistant coach, it was just a run through. When the time came last month for him to sell himself for real, in front of administrators at Ball State, Whitford was ready. At 41, he became head coach of the Cardinals.
For this, Whitford is profusely grateful to an annual seminar intended to prepare prospects for their first head coaching position and to help athletic directors get a feel for who might fit their next opening. The two-day, invitation-only conference is called Villa 7. One of the scheduled sessions is designed like speed dating, with coaches shuffling between administrators to make brief introductions and, ideally, positive impressions.
“I craved every minute. I would’ve soaked up another 24 hours if I could’ve,” Whitford said.
The coaching carousel in major college basketball has only spun faster in recent years, making the hiring process even more critical for schools, and the jobs much more stressful for coaches. For administrators, there’s never a network that can’t be broadened. For want-to-be head coaches, there’s an endless supply of useful advice to tap.
None more valuable, perhaps, than the art of the interview, one commonality between coaching and almost every other occupation in the country.
A subgroup of participants is asked to arrive early to Villa 7 for extra training and exposure, and Whitford was included last year. He sat in front of actual athletic directors and pretended to persuade them to hire him.
“I completely bombed the mock interview,” Whitford said. “It was a great lesson for me. If you’re trying to be a head coach, you don’t get that chance very often.”
Not only did he fidget a bit in his seat, but he also struggled to seem confident without being arrogant. With Arizona and Xavier before that, Whitford was used selling recruits on the university, the basketball program and the head coach, Sean Miller. He wasn’t in position to tout his own prowess.
“It was uncomfortable for me to say, ‘I’m the best,’” Whitford said. “Because you’re talking about yourself in such a way that can be awkward if it doesn’t come off the right way. That’s not the way I was raised, to talk about myself like that. But it was great to hear their feedback and concerns and get a little practice at it.”
Villa 7, held this week in Minneapolis, took its name from the private luxury suite at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas where the conference was first conducted in 2004. It was devised by Mike Ellis, now the senior associate athletic director for administration at Minnesota.
Ellis, a former assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth, was an administrator at VCU when then-coach Jeff Capel began to be pursued by prominent programs. Athletic director Richard Sander worried about who to hire next. So they came up with the idea of this symposium to make connections, alleviate concerns and simply help each other out for the sake of the sport. A donor with some pull got the group into the suite for the inaugural seminar.
“Here are 30 ADs. Here are 30 coaches. How are people going to act in this setting?” Ellis said. “One guy drank too much. A couple sat off by themselves on the side. But what it did was help you identify potential coaches. What we’ve done is give ourselves the ability to look at a lot more clues.”
When Capel left for Oklahoma, VCU replaced him with Anthony Grant, a former Florida assistant and Villa 7 participant. Three years later, Grant went to Alabama. Then VCU hired another Villa 7 alumnus, Shaka Smart, who guided the Rams to the Final Four in just his second season. Smart was a two-time attendee, while an assistant at Clemson and then Florida. The relationship he developed then with Norwood Teague, Sander’s replacement and now the AD at Minnesota, was a catalyst for Smart’s rise to fame.
“This is for coaches who’ve worked their butt off and haven’t had an opportunity,” Ellis said. “And we’re trying to help them build an opportunity.”
Andy Enfield, John Groce and Buzz Williams, whose teams all enjoyed NCAA tournament success this season, are among the 90-plus past Villa 7 participants (men’s and women’s) who’ve since been hired as head coaches. And once they get that job, there are challenges anew. So that’s another one of the Villa 7 sessions: preparing for the first 100 days.
“You’ve just got to be yourself,” Smart said, recalling the advice he took. “You don’t want to take someone else’s 100 days blueprint and try to apply that to your deal. You don’t want to take someone else’s personality and try to completely copy that. Each situation is very different.”
The success of Villa 7 spawned Villa 6, a version mostly for less-experienced assistants at mid-major and low-major schools. Villa 7 has a curriculum specific to women’s coaches, too. Lindsey Gottlieb, who took California to the Final Four last month, was a previous participant. This year, the confirmation list included 44 men, 28 women and 57 administrators.
The program’s growth wouldn’t have been possible, Ellis said, without the partnership with Nike. The sports apparel giant, which has contracts with roughly 75 percent of major college basketball programs, splits the logistical costs of the program with the host, which this year is Minnesota. Past sites have included Charlotte, N.C., the VCU campus in Richmond and Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Participants pay their own travel costs.
“We’re just doing the right thing. It’s not about the payback,” Eric Lautenbach, the senior director of college basketball sports marketing for Nike. “When we wrap the program up and we’re going to catch our flights and you have one of those assistant coaches come up and say with great sincerity that they’re so touched and appreciative to have been a part of it, that’s an unbelievably great feeling.”