MORGANTOWN — Save for a few framed pictures and some finger paintings from his young children perched on the mantle of his fireplace, Josh Eilert’s office in the WVU basketball practice facility is still rather bare.
A thick binder filled with WVU’s plays sits in a file organizer on top of a cabinet that otherwise is empty.
“My six year old insisted I put those up,” Eilert said of the finger paintings. “How do you turn down a six year old?”
One train of thought would have you think the setting is fitting, because Eilert is only the Mountaineers’ interim head coach who is about to embark on a season that could go any number of ways.
It would be easy to say the journey begins Monday, the first day of full preseason practice for the 2023-24 season, yet Eilert, his staff and his players have seemingly already been on a journey of a thousand miles.
It began with a summer of confusion that saw former head coach Bob Huggins resign in June following a DUI arrest in Pittsburgh, but even that simple statement doesn’t come without controversy.
In the days that followed, Eilert was named the interim, charged with taking over a team with a roster that resembles very little of what it did a season ago, all while a legal battle between Huggins and WVU filled the background on whether or not he officially resigned in the first place.
Just to get to this first day of practice, Eilert had to decide on a staff, recruit new players to replace ones who had transferred, block out the noise that came with Huggins’ resignation and somehow put his stamp on a program that may or may not even be his seven months from now.
In a sit-down interview with The Dominion Post, Eilert discussed the ins and outs of it all, including his optimism for the new season, one in which he has completely changed the Mountaineers’ offense.
Eilert said WVU’s offense will look completely different from seasons gone by, which is where we begin the interview.
The Dominion Post: What are the early obstacles you need to overcome with practice starting?
Josh Eilert: I’ve thrown a lot at them so far. We’re trying to figure out how far I can push early to pick up a new offense. I’m not carrying over anything we did offensively, so far anyway. We’ve taken a whole new approach on offense.
It’s got a lot of NBA influence to it. Mainly Da’Sean (Butler) and I have sat down from Day 1 and grinded out a lot of different actions we’d like to target, mainly based on the personnel we have so we can maximize their strengths.
TDP: I hear NBA and I start thinking corner 3-pointers and point-guard play, is that what you have in mind?
JE: It will look different. In the past, coach Huggins had his offense, and, probably in my mind, it lacked a lot of spacing. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad. If you look at it analytically, I want to get to the point where we’re getting a lot more open shots.
A lot of ball screens and the corners will be filled, just a lot more spacing.
TDP: “Head coach” Josh Eilert, has that title truly sank in yet?
JE: There’s days I wake up in some sort of trance and I shake it off and realize the things I need to get done that day and it hits you. It’s like, ‘I’m the head coach at West Virginia.’ I smile and get excited and get ready to attack the day. I’m excited, obviously, and very grateful to take on the opportunity.
TDP: The opportunity came after Bob Huggins’ resignation on June 17, going back to that day, did you realize how much that moment was going to change your life?
JE: I never really put much thought into being the next head coach here by any means. My immediate thought was, ‘OK, what do I got to do? What’s best for my family?’ I immediately started doing damage control with my family, because they’re the ones who rely on me every day. I was trying to tell them everything would be fine. Dad was going to figure this out.
I’d have a job whether it was here or someplace else. In the same breath, I’m also thinking we’ve got all of those guys who I’m also responsible for. They had just as many questions. I had to have just as much foundational support with them as I did my family. I tried to take on both of those roles immediately.
TDP: How have you been able to move forward in things such as recruiting with the interim tag?
JE: We’re moving on like we have the job long term. We’re treating it no different than if I had a five-year contract. The big question obviously is will Josh Eilert still be here next year when he’s got only seven months left on his contract? We don’t look at it like that. We look at it like I’m going to be here with a long-term contract. That’s the only way I think you can possibly approach this situation and be successful.
When we talk to recruits, certainly we address the elephant in the room, but we also portray our confidence in the situation. Certainly recruiting will be a challenge, because other teams are going to point at West Virginia and ask guys what they’re doing? Why waste your time? Will they be there next year? We’ve got to hit that head on and it’s certainly a challenge.
TDP: James Dickey was brought on the coaching staff as an advisor, but what will his role actually be?
JE: I think coach Dickey is like the ultimate glue guy. I always say, when building a roster, to never underestimate a great glue guy. He’s that for us. He’s been down every road and seen every challenge there is to see in this business. He absolutely has zero ego. He just wants to be the guy who can help guide myself or our assistant coaches and he sees things with a different lens. Not only has he been a head coach, but he’s also been assistant and in support roles. He’s been awesome and we’re excited to have him. He’s a good old country boy at heart. I’m a good old country boy at heart, so we hit it off in that regard. He has a great amount of knowledge and wisdom to share.
TDP: During the transition, just how crazy was it in trying to keep the roster in place?
JE: The problem with the whole situation was all of our guys were up for grabs. Everybody across the country knew if they needed one more piece, they could look at our roster as some type of buffet so to speak.
I hated the way it went down. I had a lot of guys coming to me who weren’t even in the portal and saying, ‘Coach, I’m getting hit from all angles.’ What happens is I think guys are using third parties to reach out and see if there is interest in other schools. I don’t think there was direct contact from other schools, but they find a way to get it around it. All of our guys were up for grabs with other schools. That offseason was really the wild, wild West in some ways.
TDP: Was there a moment where you felt it necessary to put your stamp on the program?
JE: I think the majority of the stamp is already out there. They know what to expect now. I’m going to hold them a lot more accountable with what we’ve been teaching in the preseason. I’ve made it clear that we’re just not going to keep teaching the same things over and over.
I think they have an idea of how my practices will be structured and what we expect. There was a point when all of the noise was going on when I sat them down and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m your head coach. I’m going to be here for you.’ I put it in the perspective in saying we know who the leader is and we’re moving forward.
TDP: Is it troubling at all for you that this job didn’t come in a more traditional manner?
JE: No, because I got the opportunity. I’m pretty sure a lot of young people are told to be ready for that opportunity. If you’re not ready for it, then you’re not going to see success. I’ve always told our guys, whatever job you have, do the best you absolutely can, because that’s how you’ll get noticed. Don’t get too wrapped up in where the next step is. Take care of the step you’re on.
TDP: Is it weird just sitting in this office behind Huggins’ old desk?
JE: I’ve sat in almost every office in this building, so this is probably my fourth office I’ve had since I’ve been here. It was a little emotional. So many times I’ve sat at the other side of this desk and looked across at a Hall-of-Fame coach who gave me my start. Coming in here to blank walls and fresh paint and trying to turn that page, it was awkward. It was awkward, because of how it all went down. I didn’t get it the conventional way, which is how life happens sometimes.
TDP: As far as the roster, RaeQuan Battle is still waiting on word from the NCAA over his eligibility waiver, what can you tell us about that?
JE: RaeQuan is very special. We’ve got that waiver hanging over our heads and we’re waiting to see where that’s going to land. From a practice standpoint, we’re operating for both scenarios. We’re trying to get certain guys some more reps to make up for that void if we do run into it, which would be a crying shame if (the NCAA) doesn’t approve his waiver. If he doesn’t get it, he would have to sit out and play next year.
It’s all in the NCAA’s hands at this point. They kind of gave us a direction, if we submitted it in a timely fashion, which we did, they would have a decision before the first competition. I would think we would know by the charity exhibition. That’s my target. I would get a little antsy if it goes past that.
TDP: From the guys who played last season, who has shown improvement?
JE: Kobe Johnson has probably made the biggest improvement from last year to this year. Last year, there were times we couldn’t get him to take two shots. There’s days now where he’ll go 4 for 5 from three. His confidence level has drastically improved and that’s something we’ve been looking for in him for quite some time.
TDP: Jesse Edwards and Kerr Kriisa are two new guys this season, are there any comparisons to be made to past WVU players?
JE: We haven’t really had a Jesse. We haven’t really had a Kerr and we haven’t had a Jesse. Kerr is absolutely pass-first and sometimes he’s very reluctant to take a shot. He just wants to run the show.
Jesse is more of a prototypical NBA big. We’ve had the old-school bigs here before with guys like Devin Williams and Sagaba Konate where we could throw it on the block and let them pound it and force our will. Jesse isn’t that guy. He’s a long rim-runner who can be a lob threat. You can’t isolate him and he can beat you off the bounce at the top of the key. To find a comparison, I would have a hard time finding one. It’s a thing of beauty to watch Jesse and Kerr operate in the pick-and-roll.
TDP: Finally, during everything that’s happened, have you ever let yourself wonder what if this works out and you become the full-time head coach?
JE: Honestly, I don’t think of the alternative. I’m under the impression that it is going to work out. I’ve had a couple of people tell me how could I ever see this as something other than playing with house money? They’re right, I am playing with house money.
One way or the other, I’m going to have an absolute great experience and I’m going to pour my heart into the job and do the absolute best I can. I’m going to do things the right way. If things don’t work out and I’m not the right person for this job, I hope people can look back and say he did everything he could to keep everything intact and we appreciate his service and I’ll go away quietly. But, I’m not going to go away quitely without doing everything the right way and pouring my heart into it in the process.