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Padgett jumpstarted coaching career at UK

“Where are they now” is a periodical series that will take a look back at the careers of former Kentucky basketball stars and John Calipari-coached players and find out what they’re doing post-college. Today we catch up with Scott Padgett, a two-time national championship winner at Kentucky.

Ever since Scott Padgett won a national championship at Kentucky and left for the NBA, all he’s ever wanted to do was come back and coach at his alma mater.

Planted in a coaching hotbed that included legends Joe B. Hall, Denny Crum and Bob Knight, Padgett discovered at an early age that he wanted to be a basketball coach. Watching and playing in Rick Pitino’s high-pressure, full-court style confirmed his childhood desires, and he knew throughout his eight seasons in the NBA that he would one day roam the sidelines with a clipboard and tie.

The perfect opportunity to break into the business came in 2009 when John Calipari was tabbed as the 22nd coach in Kentucky basketball history. Padgett was hosting a radio show in Louisville at the time.

“The day that it was announced he was going to get the job, I was having everybody I knew that could possibly have a connection to Cal at the University of Kentucky try to call and get a hold of him,” Padgett said. “I wanted it bad. There are not a whole lot of things in life that I really, really want, but when I want them I go after them with reckless abandon and I usually get them. It was one of those things where I was going to make it almost impossible for him to say no.”

Padgett had no clue if Coach Cal would give him a chance (Calipari later admitted that he didn’t know much about him), but Padgett viewed it as an opportunity to learn under a future Hall of Fame coach at his former school. What better way to start his coaching career, he thought.

An obstacle stood in Padgett’s way, however. How was a guy like him, who had never picked up a whistle or diagrammed a play, going to get on the staff of one of the hottest names in the business at the nation’s premier basketball program?

“The best coaches in the country line up to get a job there,” Padgett said. “Heck, there are some head coaches that would line up to be Cal’s assistants at Kentucky.”

Up front, Padgett understood he wasn’t going to get an assistant role. All he was asking for was a chance. When he finally got in touch with Calipari and broached the opportunity to him, Calipari remembered his humble beginnings as a volunteer coach at Kansas and decided to give Padgett a try as the assistant strength coach.

“I knew it was an entry-level position, but I knew that if I really wanted to do this, this was the guy that was going to help me get in this game and make things happen for me,” Padgett said. “From day one, he said great and said this is what it is. He said there are certain things you can and can’t do, but we want you to put as much into this and get as much out of this as you can.”

Scott Padgett, right, served as the assistant strength coach at Kentucky during the 2009-10 season before accepting an assistant coaching position at Manhattan. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

Padgett admits he could have done the bare minimum in his position and Calipari probably wouldn’t have cared. But Padgett said his one year at UK was his opportunity to jumpstart his coaching career. It was up to him to get whatever he could out of it.

So instead of just sitting back in a comfortable position at Kentucky with millions of NBA dollars in the bank, Padgett took the entry-level position seriously and soaked in every nugget of coaching knowledge he could. When permitted to do so, he talked with the players and gave them advice. He helped out at camps, offered opinions and watched the head coach’s every move.

“Every coach has his own way of doing things,” said Padgett, who has played under or alongside the likes of Pitino, Tubby Smith, Jerry Sloan, Jeff Van Gundy, Lawrence Frank, Tom Thibodeau and Mark Jackson during his career. “Every coach that I’ve been under, there is not one style that I would say that’s the way I’m going to do it. I’ll use something from all of them.”

But what stood out to Padgett during the 2009-10 season was Calipari’s ability to manage the personalities and psyches of the players. On a team that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton, no player was more important than the other.

“I think (Calipari) was great at three things,” Padgett said. “He was great at motivating players. He knew what buttons to push. I think he was great at marketing the program, and in this day and age with recruiting, that’s almost as important as coaching. And then I think he got guys that would be stars at other places to buy into a team concept. Not only did they not bicker and not fight, they loved each other and they went to battle for each other. That’s hard to do, especially in today’s society.

“He did it sometimes through pushing a button and sometimes by coddling a guy. I’ve been under coaches who they only believe beat them down until they’re in submission. I think there are some kids that can’t handle that. Sometimes if you want to get the best out of them, you have to put your arm around them. I think he knew when to do both.”

When it came time to put those lessons to use in the form of a full-time assistant coaching job at Manhattan, it was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever had to make. It was Padgett’s dream to return to Kentucky, and to leave Lexington again after one season tugged at his heart.

“I told them when I left, I made this move with the intention of coming and having a better seat when I get back,” Padgett said.

Padgett’s decision to leave was business only. Even at Kentucky, Padgett had never recruited a player or coached a game. To think he’d be able to climb the ladder without learning the tricks of the trade was unreasonable. He knew he had to go somewhere else to learn the business.

“You can’t walk into that business and be an assistant at a Kentucky or that level school and never been in the business and do the school justice,” Padgett said. “Three, four years down the road, yeah, I would love to come back and would jump all over the opportunity.”

In the meantime, though, Padgett’s attention is on his team at Manhattan, where he will begin his second season as an assistant and first under former Kentucky player and longtime friend Steve Masiello.

Under the strong recommendation of Calipari, Padgett originally landed the job under Barry Rohrssen, but a 6-25 season and a first-round exit in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference ended his five-year tenure.

Padgett said everything that could go wrong did go wrong in his first year, but it had nothing to do with Rohrssen’s ability to coach. Injuries and eligibility issues left the Jaspers without four of their top seven players for the first couple months of the season.

 “I think the toll of the injuries and losing five in a row started a snowball effect,” Padgett said. “It was one of those things where we had a young team and I don’t think they could handle it those things quite like a veteran team. We found ways to lose games where in the last two minutes of the game it was a one-possession game. It made for a frustrating year.”

Ultimately, his first season at Manhattan gave him a better appreciation for the coaching business and how unpredictable it can be.

“You never want to go through that, but going through that season will make me a better coach because it helps you learn about the psyche of guys,” Padgett said. “One of the biggest challenges right now isn’t talent or players or numbers. One of our biggest challenges is changing that 6-25 mentality that they had a year ago. We have to get them to put forth the effort to become a winning team and understand the little details.”

Manhattan’s administration actually tabbed Padgett as one of three finalists for the head coaching position before going with Masiello, who Padgett first met at one of UK’s camps in the early 1990s.

Padgett won’t make any guarantees for this season, but he expects his team to surprise a lot of people. He credits the improvement to the return of some healthy veterans along with a four-man freshman class that Padgett helped recruit.

One of those signees is a Kentucky native, 6-foot-5, 190-pound guard Donovan Kates, who led Christian County High School to the 2011 Kentucky State Championship. Kates is a prime example of what Padgett can do.

His Kentucky pedigree allows him to get in the door of kids most other coaches can’t, an important advantage for a school like Manhattan, which is competing against anywhere from 15 to 20 Division I programs in the tri-state area.

“Let’s put it this way: if it comes down to me and some other MAAC school going after a kid in Kentucky, I’m getting him,” said Padgett, who leads up the recruiting efforts for the Jaspers in the Kentucky/Indiana region. “I can get in the door and get in a conversation with any kid just by saying, ‘This is Scott Padgett, assistant coach at Manhattan. I used to play at Kentucky and won a national championship there.’ As soon as I say that, they perk up. You’ve got to use everything you can in this business and it’s helped. Being at Kentucky made a name for me.”

Padgett’s time as a Kentucky player was the stuff of legends. He came to the program as a relatively unknown prospect and nearly ended his collegiate career in his first season when he failed to meet academic requirements.

Scott Padgett hit a number of big shots during his UK career (1995, 97-98), but the biggest may have been in the 1998 Elite Eight comeback against Duke when he hit a 3-pointer with 39.4 seconds left to break an 81-81 tie. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

“My freshman year was tough,” Padgett said. “I played the three and the four and we had four pros in front of me at the two positions and I wasn’t ever going to see the floor. I got frustrated early and had my freshman year that I had where I flunked out. It was a very upsetting year.”

The 6-foot-9 forward sat out all of the 1995-96 season before returning to UK for the second half of the 1996-97 season. Playing alongside future NBA players Derek Anderson, Jamaal Magloire, Ron Mercer and Nazr Mohammed, Padgett became an integral part of the team, scoring 17 points in the NCAA national championship game against Arizona.

After finishing as the national runner-up in the 1996-97 season, Padgett returned for his senior year and led the Wildcats to the 1998 national title. On the season, he averaged 11.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He finished his career with 1,252 points and 651 rebounds.

Padgett says there are too many memories to pick just one, but one thing he’s always carried with him is what he calls a “band of brothers.” Even a decade and a half from their days at Kentucky, Padgett still keeps in touch with former UK players Allen Edwards, Jeff Sheppard, Cameron Mills, Jared Prickett, Heshimu Evans, Mohammed and Magloire.

Almost echoing what John Wall said a few weeks ago during his visit to Lexington, Padgett says that once you’re a Kentucky guy, you’re a Kentucky guy for life.

“That place is the Mecca when it comes to college basketball,” Padgett said. “It will always be home to me and the fans have always been great to me. Even when I had my rough start, I still had a ton of support from my fans. There is nothing cooler for me, even as a coach, than coming out of that tunnel in front of 24,000 strong. There is nothing better than that.”

Not even a successful NBA career that led to six appearances in the playoffs. Padgett played most of his career with the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets (he also spent time with the New Jersey Nets and Memphis Grizzlies), but none of it equaled his time at UK.

Padgett quickly learned in the NBA that it’s a business first and a basketball league second.

“In the NBA, if you’ve got somebody who is equal in talent to you and is competing for playing time with you, you’re not best of friends; you’re mortal enemies,” Padgett said. “If you’re playing, you’re causing me to lose money, or if I’m playing I’m causing you to lose money. If that’s how it is with teammates, how can you really enjoy everything? You’ve got to go out there every night and battle the best players in the world on the other team while you’ve got battles among teammates. It’s just not the same.”

Is that to say Padgett didn’t enjoy his time in the NBA? No. He’s extremely grateful for the time he enjoyed and the money he made in the NBA. But when Padgett looks back at his successful career, he says Kentucky, even in the bright lights of New York, will always have his heart.

“It was the best time of my life,” Padgett said.