WHY OKLAHOMA AD JOE CASTIGLIONE IS THE BEST
March Madness had a different meaning for Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. In the latter half of the month, within a week’s time, he found himself running concurrent coaching searches for men’s and women’s basketball.
That’s not particularly unusual.
OU is one of five Division I schools to have new men’s and women’s coaches in place for the 2021-22 season. But the dual searches, in addition to the quality of the coaches being replaced, made the multi-tasking, the under-the-radar interviewing and the swiftness of the hires unique.
Women’s coach Sherri Coale announced her retirement on March 17. A week later, men’s coach Lon Kruger followed suit. Coale had coached the Sooners for 25 seasons, reaching 19 NCAA Tournaments and three Final Fours. Kruger had been in Norman for 10, playing in seven NCAA Tournaments plus reaching the Final Four in 2016.
“Having two hall of fame coaches announce within a week that they’re planning to retire and having to find their replacements while the NCAA Tournament is going on, that’s pretty unusual,” Castiglione said. “I can’t think of a similar situation. I had generally discussed the possibilities (of their retirements) with Sherri and Lon, but I didn’t anticipate their decisions to come so quickly.
“So, we had two searches going simultaneously. I would literally get off the phone with a candidate for one job and get on the phone with a candidate for the other job.”
Castiglione is regarded as one of the best athletic directors in the country; a Sports Illustrated survey of his peers a few years back named him the best in the business. When he took over at Oklahoma in 1998, the football program was a wreck, and the athletic department $15 million debt. His first home run hire was Bob Stoops, who was hours away from being named coach at Iowa, his alma mater, before Castiglione swooped in.
Two years later, Stoops led the Sooners to a national championship. And under Castiglione’s leadership, the athletic department has won 18 national championships and is profitable to the point it contributes $9 million annually to the school’s academic budget. Castiglione’s shop has one of the top 10 athletic budgets in the country; in 2018-19, the most-recent reporting year, it was nearly $160 million.
Eight months ago, Castiglione pulled off an administrative and recruiting double play. He conducted two stealth coaching searches and convinced the two coaches he hired to basically leave jobs they loved and cities they called home.
Oklahoma hired Porter Moser from Loyola on April 2 (one week after Kruger’s retirement was announced) and Jennie Baranczyk (pronounced bah-RAHN-check) from Drake eight days later (22 days after the job opened).
Most athletic directors maintain and update lists of coaching candidates for each of the sports their school sponsors. Moser and Baranczyk were each high on Castiglione’s ready lists. That was the easy part. The coach you want is not always the coach you get.
Baranczyk, 39, is an Iowa native who was a star for the Hawkeyes in the early ‘80s. She prepared for her first head coaching gigs with eight years as an assistant at Kansas State, Marquette and Colorado. That was her only time spent away from her home state. Nine years ago, she was hired at Drake – located in her hometown, the campus 10 minutes from her high school. She won three Missouri Valley Conference regular-season titles and was twice named coach of the year.
Castiglione convinced her to leave home.
“It was hard to leave Des Moines,” she said on the day she was hired. “I grew up there. I grew up as a coach there. It’s a tougher decision but it’s also one where it’s Oklahoma and it’s a pretty awesome opportunity. It’s an opportunity that’s really going to make me grow.”
Landing the Big Name
While Baranczyk’s success is known only to those who closely follow women’s basketball, Moser has been a hot commodity since Loyola became 2018’s Cinderella story with a run to the Final Four. The Ramblers again stepped into the spotlight last March, knocking off No. 1 seed Illinois to reach the Sweet 16. Moser had built a program capable of NCAA runs and was content at the Jesuit school in Chicago. After all, how great is it having Sister Jean as your biggest fan?
“It had to be something special to leave Loyola,” Moser said during an interview last July at a summer evaluation event. “When you’ve built something, it’s hard to walk away. But then I talked to Joe, and he’s just got this clear vision of the basketball program. It aligned with my vision.”
As the comedians will tell you, timing is everything. Moser was adamant that he would not discuss other jobs while his team was still playing. The Ramblers lost to Oregon State on March 27 three days after Kruger retired. Jobs at Minnesota, DePaul, Marquette, Indiana, and Utah were open, and Moser’s name was mentioned for all.
“The timing was good, Lon had retired and then we lost, and it was bang-bang,” said Moser, who was an assistant coach at Texas A&M when the Big 12 opened for business. “I talked to Joe on the phone, then we Zoomed. It’s not that he sold me. He’s not a salesman. He was the opposite of that. You know when you hit it off with somebody. We had a great conversation on the phone.
“I had always considered Oklahoma’s brand in basketball, it’s success. And the one thing that would draw me away from Loyola was that so much is moving to the Power Five – transfer portal, name-image-likeness. Our window of opportunity at Loyola was always just barely cracked open. Our Final Four year, we won our MVC tourney opener by four points, then won the auto bid. If we had lost to Northern Iowa, we probably wouldn’t have got in. And how crazy is that?”
Working The Process
While Castiglione keeps his superiors informed of the hiring process, he serves as a one-man search committee. He uses search firms to vet and check backgrounds of those on his interview list, but operates on the credo that if one more than one person knows a secret, it’s not a secret for long.
“It’s just how I’ve always tried to operate, and we’ve all seen some best-laid plans coming close to blowing up because of a news leak,” he said. “I always keep the athletic directors of the candidates informed but I also want to try and keep it private in order to make sure the candidates feel a level of trust.”
While the pandemic has made Zoom meetings and interviews a normal occurrence, a face-to-face meeting was still a requirement for Castiglione.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to hiring someone in this type of position, without meeting face to face,” he said.
He flew to Chicago to meet with Moser and his wife in a hotel conference room the day before he accepted the job. There were several women’s candidates who traveled to Norman for their interviews. Baranczyk’s interview involved a clever bit of subterfuge.
On the night of April 5, there was a reservation at The Ranch steak house in Norman. The name for the private party was “Aubrey Graham.” That’s the legal name for the rapper… Drake. Castiglione credits Armani Dawkins, his chief of staff, with the pump fake to keep the reservation secret.
Building on Success
A major lure for both new OU coaches was their predecessors. Coale and Kruger were retiring of their own accord and were leaving behind programs as close to pristine as you’ll find. Whoever was hired, they wouldn’t be dealing with the bitterness of a fired predecessor or having to navigate NCAA investigations or sanctions. Moser is the first OU men’s coach in nearly three decades who takes over the job and doesn’t have to deal with NCAA sanctions left from the previous coaching staff.
It’s mere happenstance that both Moser and Baranczyk were each coaching in the Missouri Valley Conference. For both, the opportunity to move up in class was enticing. Coaching at Oklahoma in a Power Five conference means a wider recruiting base, larger media exposure, easier access to the NCAA tournaments, and more financial resources. The new coaches will do it their way and their success will be measured as it is in any athletic endeavor: victories.
“There’s no exact science when it comes to hiring coaches,” Castiglione said. “In the time they’ve been on campus, Porter and Jennie have certainly proven that we were right in being excited they took the jobs. They came from strong programs they had built, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had turned us down and stayed. They’ve shown that they’re good fits.”