My immediate reaction Friday: It’s a loss. It could prove to be a big one. There is a reason those who interviewed at UNLV for the head coaching position in basketball more than two years ago listed Justin Hutson as the assistant they would pursue hardest when forming a staff.
There is a reason Hutson’s name was a big part of what Dave Rice and Reggie Theus sold to those asking questions.
A reason that, when being introduced as UNLV’s coach to replace Lon Kruger, Rice responded glowingly about Hutson to assembled media and fans.
Hutson is terrific, both in teaching skills on the court and pursuing ability off it. In the cradle of prodigious prep talent that California produces annually, few have been better at cultivating relationships and landing players than Hutson the past seven years.
He is a wonderful, detailed coach, specifically at the defensive end. Knows his stuff. Respected by kids. Determined to get better. Loyal.
My reaction a few minutes after learning Hutson reportedly will return to the San Diego State program he arrived from in 2011: It happens. It’s commonplace. It’s one byproduct of having the type of winning program Rice has developed here.
You win and players transfer and coaches are offered jobs. The last thing you want is no one wanting who you have. That’s never good.
Know also that this news is and should be far bigger in San Diego than Las Vegas, that had Hutson instead left for an assistant’s role at UCLA or Arizona or Southern California or the head spot at Cal State Fullerton, a job he deserved and should have landed, his departure would not receive the amount of attention it has locally.
But he is returning to help UNLV’s biggest rival -- while the teams’ fan bases raise their dislike for each other to higher and higher levels each season.
The Aztecs this week lost their best recruiter in Tony Bland to the riches of a USC contract, and were left wondering who could possibly come in and salvage a recruiting class that still has four scholarships available.
To then reland Hutson, the coach who lived with and mentored Bland while the latter was a team manager at San Diego State, is akin to winning a lottery after purchasing just one ticket. Bland is much richer today and the associate head coach of a Pac-12 program because, in large part, of being tutored by Hutson.
But for Rice, this news is merely part of a job that almost every head coach experiences at one time or another.
How the departure will be spun by UNLV is anyone’s guess, but there is no question Hutson as associate head coach desired a much greater role in on-court decisions at the defensive end.
Rice thought otherwise.
His program. His prerogative.
But no one who saw UNLV’s loss to California in the NCAA Tournament can say with a straight face that the Rebels were a well-coached defensive side. Hutson might have had a point in terms of what his role should have been. We’ll never know.
Rice also has an interesting decision to make in terms of who replaces Hutson. Chemistry within a locker room and on a staff is critical to any program’s long-term health, and UNLV’s was far from perfect on both counts this past season. All was not copacetic among teammates and coaches. It’s still very much a work in progress.
Heath Schroyer has emerged as UNLV’s lead recruiter, and Rice obviously has confidence in the assistant as an on-floor defensive coach, despite the team’s obvious deficiencies there, but it certainly wouldn’t be the worst option to pursue a veteran aide astute more in Xs and Os than the best late-night eating options while recruiting.
Rice could do far worse with this hire than an older, more experienced coach who has been through and survived the profession’s rigors, who can lend calm and perspective in times of stress.
Which probably means he will go younger and with a coach at or near the level of his current staff.
Rice has always held true to this belief: That next season, Year 3 of his tenure, will produce breakout results. He never said that about seasons one or two, never pushed the idea the Rebels would be special until the time came when his roster consisted primarily of players he recruited.
I’m not sure if this next hire will alter one way or the other the chances of Rice’s vision coming true, but it’s important UNLV prepare and coach its talent better.
Hutson wanted a bigger role in that regard and didn’t receive it. He’s gone now. It’s a loss. It could prove to be a big one. It’s also commonplace. It happens to good programs all the time.
It’s part of the business, and much bigger news today in San Diego than here.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.