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November 15, 2012

Arizona assistant Whitford sees 'unfinished business'



For all of the offseason departures and changes within Arizona's basketball program, one move that did not happen may be the most important of all as the Wildcats opened the 2012-13 season this week.

James Whitford, the top assistant for head coach Sean Miller, seriously flirted with the Miami (Ohio) head coaching job and met with former athletic director Brad Bates around the time of last season's Final Four. A one-time assistant for 11 years at the program, Whitford was the No. 1 candidate and nearly accepted the job.

Although Miller said it would've been bittersweet to lose him, Whitford had the full support of his fellow coaches. But something just wasn't right.

"It was a hard decision not to go, but it was an easy decision to come back," Whitford told GOAZCATS.com. "My family, first and foremost, loves Tucson. My wife loves it here, my kids are real happy here. It was a place that we didn't want to leave."

On the court, there was a sense of "unfinished business." As someone who has yet to reach a Final Four, Whitford saw the potential of the No. 3-ranked 2012 recruiting class in the country, coupled with the senior leadership of Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.

Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, who Whitford once coached before the staff left for Tucson, was not yet in the fold, but his addition has only added to the expectations.

"I really feel like our culture and our talent level and our program is at an exciting place," Whitford said. "To come back here and compete for another Pac-12 championship and try to go to a Final Four was an easy decision, and that's why I did it."

But it also goes beyond basketball. The relationships with Miller and the players are special to him.

Whitford has been on Miller's staff, along with fellow assistant coach Emanuel Richardson, for the past seven seasons. But the friendship with Miller started 20 years ago at Wisconsin, and it blossomed when Whitford joined Miller at Miami (Ohio) as an administrative assistant in 1994.

"He's helped me advance my career in many ways," said Whitford, a one-time student manager for three years in Madison, Wisc., where Miller was a volunteer assistant for the 1992-93 season. "Bigger and more important than all that, he's just a true friend. When I was involved with the Miami of Ohio job, I sensed that he really would've loved for me to stay here - he told me that. But, I also really sensed that above and beyond it all, he had my best interest totally at heart, even if he felt like that might be a detriment for his program.

"He still cared for me, first and foremost. You learn the most about people in adverse times. I didn't need to know any more about him because I know a lot about him enough, but it was just more proof for the kind of person he is and why I'm really thankful to be working for him."

Miller has said as much about Whitford's efforts, too.

When Whitford was still considering the job in late March, Miller went through the list of standout recruits his top assistant has put in a Wildcats uniform. Miller called Whitford the "point-man" in landing Hill, 2011 conference player of the year Derrick Williams, and 75 percent of this year's highly touted class in Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Gabe York.

Whitford's father, William, a law professor at Wisconsin, said his son has always been able to relate to people as a popular child growing up in Madison. And it is no different in the recruiting world, where relationships between prospects and the coaches can be the difference in landing a commit and falling short.

"Everybody likes James," William Whitford said. "I've always thought he's had a great capacity to understand where a wide variety of other people come from. To me, this is the most essential skill of teaching: Being able to listen and try to understand who you're communicating with.

"I do feel that in his coaching … he really likes the teaching aspect, whether he's teaching basketball skills or life skills. And I think he's able to relate to a lot of players. I think you kind of saw that capacity when he was a child, and it related to being a popular kid."

Ray McCallum, the head coach at Detroit, was on the same Wisconsin staff with Whitford and Miller. Years later, he had the unique experience of watching his son, Ray McCallum, get courted by Arizona in 2010.

The lead recruiter: James Whitford.

McCallum eventually joined his father in Detroit, but dad said "little Ray" was not a lock just because it involved family.

"Boy, they had a great shot at him, and I felt really good about James and Sean at Arizona because we were all on staff together," McCallum said.

Whitford first got acquainted with McCallum on the basketball court - but in a pickup game setting - at The Shell on the Wisconsin campus.

Known for his "feisty, very competitive, hard-nosed" style, Whitford then talked with McCallum about joining the staff as a manager. A recommendation from his high school principal helped seal the deal, McCallum said, and Whitford's drive was apparent from the beginning.

"This young man said, 'Hey, this is what I want to do, this is what I'm committed to do,'" McCallum recalled. "You talk about setting the tone; first guy there, last guy to leave. No job too big, no job too small. He would just take on anything.

"He helped us build a program. He was a big part of laying the foundation at Wisconsin from his position. We think the world of James."

Over the years, McCallum said, Whitford developed a "great eye" for talent. Just take his son, for example. Ray Jr. developed into an All-Horizon League first-team selection as a sophomore last season, landing on preseason watch lists for both the Naismith and Wooden awards, as well, and finishing in the top 20 for the Bob Cousy Award.

When it comes to landing recruits, however, that is where the Arizona assistant has separated himself.

Look no further than that personable charm his father saw while growing up.

"He's genuine, and that comes through," McCallum said. "What I've seen from James, what he's done from California recruiting to the East Coast to knowing everybody in the Midwest - I mean, he's tied coast to coast.

"He's just one of those guys, he's a relationship guy. He's just committed to the kids in the program and their families, and that comes through."

But Whitford said things are not quite the same anymore on the recruiting trail, with the temptation of the NBA and leaving school after one season on the minds of many of the nation's top recruits.

Even an off-the-grid talent such as Williams left after two successful seasons, Whitford noted, while former longtime NBA veteran and ex-Wildcat Sean Elliott stayed for four seasons.

The times have changed and the coaches have to adjust, Whitford said.

"[Williams and Elliott] were probably similar levels of player in college," Whitford said. "You have to think at a different level recruiting-wise now. You have to have much more depth in your recruiting and you have to have more alternative plans because different things can happen. So it's definitely created a lot more alternatives in the way you think about recruiting."

Eventually, Whitford said, he will put another effort into landing a head coaching job, and McCallum is confident that "he's on his way."

"What he's done in his background, he's done nothing but win and be apart of winning foundations," McCallum added. "He's probably getting this notoriety now, but coaches in the business have known for the last five or six years where he's worked himself into. He's just not going to leave for any job. He can go and take a top program over."

The timing must also be appropriate. Whitford has watched other assistants around the country land jobs, only to see the fit not quite line up.

In late March, Miller said everything from Whitford's ability to coach defense to his understanding of how to run a program would make him a good head coach.

"I can't imagine anyone being more prepared with more experience, better person, more ready to be a head coach than James Whitford," Miller said.

Whenever that next challenge comes, Whitford said, he will be ready for it.

For now, though, Whitford is "operating from a position of strength" and focusing on turning another dream into reality.

"I would say I'm blessed to have one of the best assistant coaching jobs in the country," Whitford said. "I'm excited about our team - not only this year, but I feel like we hopefully have it in a place where we can be successful for this year and the years to come. The thought of getting Arizona back to a Final Four and competing for a national championship, that's a dream come true for me."

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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