The Hiring of a Head Coach

Posted: May 28, 2013

Ryan McDonough has only been the general manager of the Suns for three short weeks, but he has already won over the Phoenix faithful.

The 33-year-old rookie GM impressed fans and media alike during his introductory press conference on May 9. It will be the introduction he makes during a press conference today, however, that will have fans feeling nostalgic and optimistic for the 2013-14 NBA season.

McDonough took time out of his Memorial Day weekend to talk with about the interview process that led to the hiring of Jeff Hornacek as the team’s 16th head coach. First of all, congratulations on the hire. How excited are you about your new head coach?

Ryan McDonough: I’m really excited to have gotten Jeff as our head coach. He was a guy that a lot of people were saying that I should hire. Frankly, I didn’t really know Jeff, but I had heard great things about him. I obviously remembered him as a player and knew that he was smart and he was tough, and played so hard. I had a lot of respect watching him as a player.

I knew he was working with Utah, at first working with players on their shooting, and then his role expanded over the past few years, to the point where he is an assistant coach on the bench. He helped with all aspects of their operation, including scouting and drawing up plays. For a guy who has not yet been a head coach in the NBA, he has a very diverse skillset, and a lot of experience that he brings to the Suns, so I am thrilled that he is going to be our next head coach. Tell us about the process that you went through in hiring a coach.

McDonough: The process was thorough. We weren’t going to rush into anything and make a rash decision, but at the same time there were a lot of head coaching openings around the league, and Jeff was a guy that we know was in demand. A few other teams had reached out to him and a few more were looking to speak to him, as well, so we got him in as quickly as we could and interviewed him, and he just did terrific. He blew us away in the interview, so we wanted to move quickly and get him locked up, because he fit every criteria that we were looking for in a head coach. There were a number of coaches rumored to be in the running. Was Jeff high on your list of candidates from the beginning?

McDonough: I actually went into my interview with a list of names of guys that I thought would be good candidates. Jeff was on my list, and when I met with Robert (Sarver) and Lon (Babby), he was on their lists, as well. There weren’t many guys that were on all of our lists to talk to and to vet.

But as soon as it was official and I was hired, I had a lot of people reach out to me, a lot of people that wanted to interview, including some big-time names. There were some guys that had been NBA head coaches, some guys that had been college coaches, other NBA assistants and guys that had been recently let go by other NBA teams. There were a lot of very good, very qualified people from a number of different categories that wanted to get an interview. So our challenge was to try to manage all of that, and to try to prioritize, and bring in the top guys as quickly as we could, and Jeff was the first guy who came in and met with us in the office here in Phoenix. He still lives here in Phoenix, correct?

McDonough: He does. He was drafted by the Suns, of course, and was an All-Star here. He’s obviously been back and forth between here and Salt Lake working for the Jazz, but his family is here and he spent the majority of his offseasons here. Obviously, you did not hire him because of his history with the franchise, but how nice is that to have someone who is a part of this team’s legacy, and someone how is so well respected by Phoenix fans?

McDonough: You’re right. The primary reason we hired Jeff is because we think he is an exceptional basketball mind, who had a terrific playing career, a very good assistant coaching career, and we just felt like he was at the right age and right experience to take that next step to be a head coach.

The fact that he does have that rich history with the Suns, that he played here, that he lives here, that he is so beloved by the fans in this community, that was all an extra bonus and really helped us solidify his candidacy. But again, he didn’t need a whole lot of help. If Jeff had no ties at all to the Phoenix Suns, just on his own merits, he is still the guy we would have hired. You mentioned that you didn’t know him going into this process. What were your first impressions upon meeting him?

McDonough: Well, I have heard great things about Jeff from a number of people around the NBA, and when I met him, he was as advertised. He is very bright. He has a good presence about him. I think he has some very natural leadership qualities, so those were my first impressions of him. Then as we sat down and talked a little more about basketball, I was able to see his feel for the game, in terms of how he thought the game, how he would be able to utilize different players on our roster. We also had him draw up a few plays on the white board and you could just see how creative he is, in the different ideas he had.

He’s been around the NBA for a long time, so that’s another plus, that he was very familiar with our team and our players. In fact, we were one of the teams he was responsible for scouting for the Jazz. You know, the assistant coaches handle the scouting reports for the upcoming opponents, so he has studied our team very closely.

Another thing that we were really looking for, was a big-time development guy, who could make our players better, both those players that we have on our roster now and the players that we’re going to bring in in the future. Jeff got rave reviews with his on-court work with players in Utah. When asking him to draw up plays, did you give him scenarios and see how he would react, or just ask him to show you what he’s got in his personal playbook?

McDonough: We gave him different scenarios, one with the Utah roster and one with the Suns roster. We gave him the game time and score, and where the ball is in the situation, just to see how he thinks. He was really, really impressive in doing that.

I think the fact that he actually played in the NBA for so long, as a combo guard, playing some point and some two, and that he has that coaching experience, he was just very comfortable and very natural in terms of the way he drew up plays. But more importantly, he was comfortable in the way he communicated what he was thinking and why he was doing what he was doing. I could see that translating very well to our players. How involved will he be in the draft process as you begin bringing in players for workouts?

McDonough: He’ll be very involved in that process. If he wants to, he’ll lead our draft workouts. Hopefully we’ll have an assistant coaching staff in place by the time the workouts begin, so they would be a big part of it, as well. But Jeff is a good basketball man. Not only has he scouted NBA players with the Jazz for five or six years, but he’s a big fan, so he watches a lot of college games. So I don’t think there will be a huge adjustment period with him, to be honest.

Obviously, he’ll want to study the players a little bit more than he has now that he is a head coach role, but he’ll have significant input into all of our roster moves. That’s another thing that showed really well in his interview; I really liked what he had to say about our players and other players around the league, so he is a very good talent evaluator, as well. When you called and made him the offer to be the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, could you tell how excited he was?

McDonough: Yeah, I could. You don’t want to be presumptuous in situations like this, but we felt that with his ties to the team and the fact that his family lives here, and also because we have a good opportunity to grow and do something special here together, this would be an attractive opportunity for Jeff.

Jeff is a pretty even-keeled guy. I like that about him. He has a great demeanor in that he won’t get too high during the good times or too low when things aren’t going to well. But he was excited. You could hear it through the phone, and then I met with him again that afternoon and we talked about a number of different things, so he is thrilled to be here, as far as I could tell. Finally, what can players expect from Head Coach Jeff Hornacek?

McDonough: I think the players can expect a guy who brings a great deal of experience. He brings that playing experience. He brings that coaching experience. He’s been around the game his whole life. He’s the son of a high school coach from Illinois, so they are going to be impressed by his knowledge and his command of the game.

He’s also going to come in as a guy who has really developed a lot of players, and maximized the potential of guys at different levels. And finally, he is a leader. He just has a lot of natural leadership qualities to him. I think he will be very fair with the players. He will communicate well with them and tell them, not only what he wants them to do, but also why he wants them to do something. I think they will be really impressed with him, and the initial feedback that I’ve gotten from our players has been great.