CINCINNATI - When Travis Steele interviewed to be Xavier’s head basketball coach last week, he told Athletic Director Greg Christopher about changes he would make to the program.
Chris Mack’s long-time assistant and first-time head coach has ideas for putting his own stamp on one of college basketball’s biggest success stories of the last 15 years. He talked about doing more pressing on defense, more recruiting.
But Xavier fans and players shouldn’t expect Steele, associate head coach the past two seasons, to go far off course, just like most people didn’t expect Xavier to stray from its tradition of hiring from within.
“I did a lot of the offense over the last five years. Chris and I would basically design it and call it during the game,” Steele told WCPO Sports Anchor Ken Broo on Broo’s WLW Radio show.
“I would say the offense is going to be very similar. We’re going to be a team that plays fast, but we also want to play together. We want to work together to get a great shot in the half-court if we can’t get anything immediately in transition,” said Steele.
LISTEN to the 10-minute interview:
“Defensively, I believe wholeheartedly in the pack line defense. The one thing I would like to add just a little bit, and I told Greg in the interview, is a little bit more picking up in full-court. I think our personnel next year calls for that because we have such great athletes and versatility on the perimeter. I want to cause a few more turnovers to help our offense put a few more points on the board.”
RELATED: The pack line defense explained
Steele, who was Mack’s top recruiter, called recruiting “the bloodline to our program” and said he planned to be “very, very active in recruiting.”
While acknowledging a head coach has “to delegate more,” Steele said, “I think everybody does it a different way. Tom Izzo, he’s the lead recruiter at Michigan State on a lot of his guys.
“I’m going to probably be a little more hands-on in recruiting to try to take this thing to the next level as far as the player we can get.”
Steele said he didn’t try to wow Christopher with X’s and O’s or talk down the other half-dozen candidates who Christopher interviewed at the Final Four site in San Antonio last week. He let his record at Xavier and the relationships he built there do most of the talking.
“I basically had a 10-year interview,” said Steele, who was hired by Sean Miller in 2008 and served under Mack for nine seasons starting in 2009. “I feel so fortunate. I’ve actually worked for the last three coaches here. I worked for Thad Matta at Ohio State, Sean Miller and Chris Mack."
That obviously gave Steele a huge advantage in the coaching search. Everybody at Xavier knows Steele and how he works, and Steele ensured a seamless transition at a university that values tradition and relationships.
"As you said, I think Xavier being a smaller university, it’s about the people. You see the same people almost every day. It’s built on relationships. From Father Graham (Xavier President Michael Graham) to John Kucia (administrative vice president) to Greg Christopher, everybody’s in the same direction," Steele told Broo.
“The commitment to winning’s here. It’s a special place.”
Steele said he respected Christopher’s decision to interview other candidates, even though Steele said he felt sure he was the best choice all along.
“Greg was very transparent right from the beginning,” Steele said. “When Chris met with our team and decided to coach Louisville, he met with me and said, ‘We’re going through a process. We’re going to interview other candidates. We’ve got to get the best head coach here at Xavier University,’ and I was good with that.
“I told him I respect that process and I wanted Xavier to hire the best head coach. I thought I was that guy. Not being arrogant, but I thought I was the best fit for X, and I thought throughout the process I’d be able to validate that," Steele said.
“I didn’t worry about the competition. I just focused on me and what I could bring to the table.”
The interview process went quickly, Steele said.
"Greg did a realty good job. We were lucky that a lot of the candidates were down at San Antonio. They were all in one spot so this process could be a little quicker than a lot of search processes.
"I know Greg interviewed, I think, at least seven guys in person. But I was confident the whole time. The interview was good. He wanted to know what I would do the same and what I would do different from our current program."
Steele said words couldn’t describe how thrilled he was to get his first head coaching job, though Mack had made it clear he wanted Steele to join him in Louisville if Xavier picked someone else.
“Life is great. I’m still on Cloud Nine. I’ve been on my phone non-stop. I think it’s attached to my ear,” Steele said. “Elation. I was confident throughout the whole process. Excitement. Excitement probably doesn’t do it justice. It was a dream come true for me and my family. Chris Mack and Sean Miller both gave me an opportunity a long time ago here at Xavier and I’m very thankful.
"Those were some of the first people I reached out to – Chris and Sean. They’re the reason I’m here today.”
One of Steele’s first priorities is putting his staff together. He expected to have at least three openings since Mack invited Luke Murray and Mike Pegues to Louisville. But Steele said there was no shortage of coaches interested in coming to Xavier.
“I want guys who are smarter than me, who are going to work with our players and make them better players and better human beings. That’s what I’m looking for,” Steele said.
“I have a pretty good idea of some guys that I’m going to target and try to get. It’s been amazing how many text messages and calls I’ve gotten from people I didn’t even know would have interest in the job. I think that speaks to the brand we have here at Xavier.
"People like what we’re doing and they want to join and be a part of that.”