Grant calls Alabama his ‘first choice’

Published 9:52 pm Sunday, March 29, 2009

TUSCALOOSA — Anthony Grant sat down with his oldest son and talked about the chance to “be significant,” to take an Alabama program that has never been to the Final Four and build it into a basketball power.

A job was soon to be open at Kentucky. Rumors were swirling that Florida’s Billy Donovan, Grant’s former boss, would take over that juggernaut program, leaving that post available. But Grant said during his formal introduction Sunday evening that ‘Bama was his first choice.

Why? He answered that Friday morning in a conversation with 13-year-old Anthony Jr.

“I explained to him the opportunity that Alabama presented, the opportunity to be significant, to accomplish some things that had not been accomplished, to blaze your own trail,” Grant said. “As compared to maybe some other opportunities that the media and maybe everybody thought would have been attractive and maybe something that caused us pause.”

The 42-year-old Grant called Alabama officials and accepted the job that morning, two days after visiting the campus. Kentucky later fired Billy Gillispie, but Donovan announced he was staying put at Florida, which had targeted Grant when his ex-boss briefly took an NBA job before deciding to return two years ago.

Neither Grant nor Alabama athletic director Mal Moore would discuss terms or length of the deal, reportedly in the $2 million range.

Grant said he appreciated the significance of being the Tide’s first black men’s basketball coach and hardly viewed the football program’s “overwhelming magnitude” as a downside.

He does have some experience with fashioning a formidable hoops program at a so-called football school. Donovan has won two national titles at Florida, the first at the end of Grant’s decade-long tenure as a Gators assistant.

“People told him Florida was a football school and it couldn’t be done there in basketball,” said Grant, pointing also to the dual success at Oklahoma and Texas. “There was a commitment all the way through the organization that it could be done.

“That is proof positive that it could be done.”

Grant and his family were greeted by several hundred fans and Alabama’s pep band, cheerleaders and dance team upon landing at the Tuscaloosa airport Sunday. His four children were all decked out in crimson gear. Ten trustees and university President Robert Whitt lined the seats on the opposite side of the stage.

A warm welcome for easily the most visible black coach in school history.

“Being the first African-American head coach in a major sport at Alabama is something that I don’t take lightly,” Grant said. “It is a tremendous honor.”

Grant takes over a program that has missed the postseason three years running, a span when he was leading VCU to three regular-season Colonial Athletic Association titles and two NCAA tournaments.

Moore said he and executive athletic director Dave Hart went to Richmond Sunday to interview Grant at his home “with the intention to hire him.” Moore said he didn’t speak to any other candidates about the job.

“The feedback that we always got on Anthony Grant was consistently strong — he’s a family man, he’s a good citizen, he’s a great coach, great recruiter,” Moore said. “You just had the feeling the more you researched him that he was that perfect package.”

At least one of Alabama’s returning players was already familiar with Grant, who met with the team Sunday. Freshman center JaMychal Green was on the U18 USA Basketball national team over the summer, and Grant was an assistant coach.

“He’s a tough guy. He stayed on me a lot,” Green said. “He just pushed me to do my best.”

Mikhail Torrance even did a little research: “He averaged 24 wins a season,” he said.

“I’m just ready for the season to start and turn this program around,” Torrance said. “This is my senior year, so I don’t want to go out a loser.”

Grant, a Miami native, said he was hooked on college football after watching the Hurricanes win a national championship when he was effectively snowed in his freshman year at Dayton.

He also said he has frequently borrowed from something Tide coach Nick Saban told his team before winning a national title at LSU: “Play to the identity that we’ve created all year.”

“I am a Nick Saban fan,” said Grant, who met with Saban on campus and at the Sabans’ home Wednesday. “I love college football. When my son saw the stadium, his eyes lit up.”