How Tommy Lloyd gained support from former Arizona legends who criticized his hiring

By | March 28, 2024

LOS ANGELES – Gilbert Arenas’ phone started buzzing nonstop when word began to leak that Arizona was hiring an outsider as its new men’s basketball coach.

Outraged texts appeared one after another in a group chat consisting of Arenas and dozens of other former Arizona players.

The group chat’s preferred candidates were legends from the Lute Olson era who were climbing the coaching ladder. The former players lobbied for Arizona to take a chance on Damon Stoudamire, Miles Simon or Jason Terry, like Michigan did with Juwan Howard or Memphis did with Penny Hardaway.

When Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke offered the job to Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, many former Wildcats players felt unheard and betrayed. They struggled to understand how Heeke could entrust Olson’s program to a man none of them knew, to a man with no head coaching experience.

“Everyone was angry,” Arenas told Yahoo Sports. “We said we should keep it in the house and give it to someone who put on that uniform, but we felt like our voices weren’t being heard.”

Over the next few days, frustration poured out of the group chat and into the public eye. A. J. Bramlett responded to a report that Lloyd got the job by posting,,This can not be true. The damage caused by decisions like this without alumni feedback will erase the support of all of us.” Richard Jefferson Called Coaching Search ‘A Debacle’ wrote a lengthy post on social media Urging Arizona in all caps to “IMPROVE THE PROCESS.”

The most outspoken of all was Arenas. In an Instagram live video with Jefferson, Arenas said the job should have gone to Stoudamire because “he has the credentials.” The three-time NBA all-star said “an assistant coach doesn’t have the qualifications” to coach Arizona and declined to say Lloyd’s name “because he doesn’t deserve it.”

Three years later, Lloyd could easily be beaming. He could easily clap back by pointing to his 88-19 record in Arizona, to his two Pac-12 titles, to his multiple Sweet 16s.

Instead, on the eve of Arizona’s round of 16 NCAA Tournament matchup with Clemson on Thursday in Los Angeles, Lloyd is showing his trademark humility. He insists that Arenas, Jefferson and the rest of the former Arizona players “had a right to feel that way.”

“This is a great program,” Lloyd said, “and it’s a great legacy and a great tradition. If I didn’t know myself so well, I probably would have wondered what on earth they are doing hiring an assistant coach from the WCC.”

March 27, 2024;  Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Arizona Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd during a press conference ahead of NCAA Tournament West Regional at Crypto.com Arena.  Mandatory credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsMarch 27, 2024;  Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Arizona Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd during a press conference ahead of NCAA Tournament West Regional at Crypto.com Arena.  Mandatory credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

March 27, 2024; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Arizona Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd during a press conference ahead of NCAA Tournament West Regional at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What Arizona saw in Tommy Lloyd

Two days after the 2021 national title game, just as college basketball appeared to be peacefully entering the offseason, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke took a sledgehammer through halftime.

Heeke fired Sean Miller, opening one of the sport’s rare jobs with championship potential and sending the coaching carousel spinning again at breakneck speed.

It wasn’t the NCAA investigation into his program or the five Level I charges that doomed Miller. Arizona had supported him for years amid that turmoil. What prompted Heeke to make a change was that Arizona hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2017 and had slipped from the top of the Pac-12 to the muddled middle of the pack. As Heeke put it that day when speaking to reporters: “Competitively, we have not been as successful as we wanted.”

When Heeke talked to basketball people he trusted about the Arizona job, he would sometimes ask the question, “If you had to hire an assistant, who would you consider?” Maybe the answer would be the same 95% of the time.

“They would say Tommy Lloyd,” Heeke told Yahoo Sports. “That kept happening.”

After going to high school with former Gonzaga coach Dan Monson and working in the Pacific Northwest for nearly two decades, Heeke knew enough people who knew Lloyd to ask about him. The more Heeke learned, the more he enjoyed it.

Lloyd had come to Gonzaga as an assistant in 1999, was promoted to assistant coach two years later and gradually became Mark Few’s most trusted lieutenant. It’s not just that Lloyd was college basketball’s best international recruiter, bringing the likes of Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos to Spokane. Lloyd was also a versatile coach who engineered Gonzaga’s offense and was instrumental in game planning and player development.

Among the other candidates Heeke interviewed during the search were Stoudamire and Simon. Stoudamire had built Pacific into a winning program after stints as an assistant coach in the NBA and at Arizona and Memphis. At the time, Simon worked as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers after previously serving in the same role at Arizona.

It didn’t take long before Heeke’s choice was clear. He wanted Lloyd.

“I don’t want to say we weren’t dealing with incumbent head coaches and other people, but it quickly narrowed down to hey, this is the guy,” Heeke said. “It was a little out-of-the-box, but we felt confident in Tommy’s skills, his energy level as a recruiter and that he had the coaching skills to get the job done.”

Of course, the question remained whether Lloyd would want the job. After all, he had it written into his Gonzaga contract that he would be next in line if Mark Few decided to retire. The Zags had just played for the national title days earlier. Arizona still faced the possibility of an NCAA penalty.

Luckily for Arizona, Lloyd was interested. He had never thought about leaving Gonzaga before when other schools were pursuing him, but this was different. Arizona was Gonzaga’s poster child for a long time. It was one of the programs the Zags tried to emulate.

At his introductory press conference, Lloyd admitted he was nervous when he approached Mark Few in the Gonzaga weight room and revealed Arizona was interested in him. Lloyd remembers Few putting him at ease by telling him, “Are you kidding me? Who would have thought five years ago that we would be playing in two championship games and Arizona would want Gonzaga’s assistant coach to be their head coach?”

“He said to me, ‘If you can get that job, you should take it,’” Lloyd continued. “Believe me, he’s never told me that before.”

March 23, 2024;  Salt Lake City, UT, USA;  Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd during the second half of the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament against the Dayton Flyers at Vivint Smart Home Arena-Delta Center.  Mandatory credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY SportsMarch 23, 2024;  Salt Lake City, UT, USA;  Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd during the second half of the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament against the Dayton Flyers at Vivint Smart Home Arena-Delta Center.  Mandatory credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

March 23, 2024; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Tommy Lloyd during the second half of the second round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament against the Dayton Flyers at Vivint Smart Home Arena-Delta Center. Mandatory credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

‘Give him a chance’

In retrospect, Gilbert Arenas said, the frustration with the new addition among former Arizona players had little to do with Lloyd.

“It could have been Phil Jackson,” Arenas joked. “We would still have been in the same turmoil.”

Ex-Arizona players were aggravated by the fact that they were no longer consulted during the week-long decision-making process. AJ Bramlett, the leading rebounder on Arizona’s 1997 national championship team, said he and other former Wildcats “felt a little left out and not part of the process.”

“You want to feel like you have something to say and are heard,” Bramlett told Yahoo Sports. “I think that’s where some of the problems came from.”

Ex-players also felt that Heeke and Arizona President Robert Robbins may have chosen Lloyd before even speaking to Stoudamire, Simon and other candidates. Reports that Lloyd was the “heavy favorite” contributed to that perception, they said, as did erroneous leaks about how much money Arizona planned to offer.

“Seems very ‘Rooney Rule’ to me,” Jefferson wrote on social media at the time. “Imagine walking into an interview knowing that terms have already been leaked for someone else not associated with your university or with head coaching experience.”

For Lloyd, the first step toward gaining the support of former Arizona players was a Zoom call with them shortly on the day of his introductory press conference. Bramlett remembers leaving that conversation impressed that Lloyd didn’t tiptoe around the elephant in the room, and that he tackled the criticism he’d heard head-on.

“Hey, I know some of you weren’t happy with the process,” Bramlett remembers Lloyd saying. “I’m going to show you who I am and that I appreciate this program. I’m going to show you that every day with the way I work and the product I put on the track.”

The zoom call broke the ice. Arizona’s performance in Lloyd’s debut season melted it for good. Playing at a dizzying pace reminiscent of the Olson era, Arizona compiled a 33-4 record and claimed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

It also helped that Lloyd made sure former players felt welcome when they stopped by to visit or attend a game. And that Lloyd retained former Olson team manager and Miller assistant Jack Murphy as his assistant head coach and named former standout Arizona point guard Jason Gardner as his director of player relations.

“I remember Murph saying he’s a good guy and giving him a chance,” Arenas said. “I thought, OK, Murph, if you give him the stamp of approval, I can’t argue with that.”

The change of heart toward Lloyd among former Arizona players has been notable in recent years.

Arenas speaks highly of Lloyd after getting to know him when Arizona began recruiting his son, five-star prospect Alijah Arenas. Earlier this month, Jefferson played “Bad Boy for Life” with Lloyd in Arizona’s victorious locker room earlier this month after the Wildcats defeated UCLA to capture the Pac-12 title.

“All of our comments three years ago were really just because we cared,” Bramlett said. “We cared about U of A basketball, the school and Coach Olson’s legacy. We wanted to make sure this was handled with care and built upon. He has shown that he is the man to do that and we are happy to have him at the helm.”

Lloyd is the first to say he understands where Bramlett and the rest of the former Arizona players were coming from when he was hired.

“I wasn’t an Arizona guy back then,” Lloyd said, “but I tell you what, I am now.”

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