Men's Basketball, WVU Sports

Predictions, smokescreens and intrigue: A behind-the-scenes look at Wren Baker’s journey to hire Darian DeVries

MORGANTOWN — The following is not meant to read as some mystery novel set in the 1950s, although Wren Baker’s life throughout the month of March probably felt very similar.

As the WVU athletic director set out on a search that eventually led him to Darian DeVries as the school’s men’s basketball coach, Baker certainly had his fill of intriguing plot twists, calculated guesses and even carefully operated behind some well-placed smokescreens.

The backdrop included enough late-night runs through unfamiliar airports, taking him from one part of the country to the next to the point where one had to wonder if Baker knew what city he was in when he woke up each day.

“There were definitely a lot of miles put in,” he now says with a smile, likely reliving the memories in his mind. “From the very beginning, I told the people on our (search) committee that once we finalized our list of candidates that I would do whatever was necessary to go out and do the leg work. I wanted to make sure we saw everyone face-to-face.”

All of it fills a behind-the-scenes story that led Baker to DeVries, a successful coach at Drake University, who also spent 17 years as an assistant at Creighton.

DeVries signed on to become the school’s 23rd men’s basketball coach on March 24, and was introduced publicly last Thursday.

That was, at least for Baker, the final stride in a journey of 1,000 steps.

It began with Baker, his team of confidants and an assessment of the entire playing field.

To get to the ultimate goal of hiring a coach also meant to avoid as many land mines as possible.

The team was informed in the early morning hours of March 13 that the school was going to move forward with a search for a new coach after spending the season with Josh Eilert as the interim.

At that time, Ohio State was also searching for a coach, so was Louisville; two schools with great tradition and deep financial pockets.

In the days that followed, Michigan fired Juwan Howard. Vanderbilt fired Jerry Stackhouse and Oklahoma State — a fellow Big 12 member — had let Mike Boyington go.

This is where the calculated guessing came into play, at least it was calculated in Baker’s view.

A former men’s basketball coach himself, as well as a past member of the NIT selection committee, Baker’s roots and connections are cemented in the world of basketball.

“It is such a competitive market, and there could be other jobs that came open,” he said. “Some people thought USC was going to come open. There were rumors that Arkansas could potentially come open.

“I was trying to stay up with where everybody was and who they were looking at. Ben Murray was on our search committee, and he was amazed, because I was calling out who I thought people were going to hire four or five days before they got hired.”

Which led to the intrigue and a smokescreen.

The one school that threw a curveball into the mix was Ohio State, which decided to promote interim coach Jake Diebler.

“That one I did not necessarily see coming,” Baker admits.

Ohio State’s decision likely helped Baker in that he had stated from the outset he was not interested in getting into a bidding war over a coach.

Against Ohio State for the possibility of DeVries’ services, that would have been a poker hand WVU would not have won.

Former Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May became a sort of smokescreen. While May was likely on Baker’s list of candidates, he was also a top choice for so many others.

“Particularly with coach May, because I have a friendship with him, I knew his ballpark pecking order a couple of weeks ago, which allowed me to work through our process,” Baker said. “I think there were several schools waiting on him, but I wasn’t doing that, because I kind of knew where he was on things.

“There was a lot of speculation about him, because people picked up on how well I know him. I allowed that speculation to continue, because it was a good smokescreen. I wanted people to keep speculating.”

May went on to sign a five-year deal with Michigan.

A last bit of intrigue came the day before WVU announced DeVries’ hiring with Oklahoma State’s opening. Suddenly there was a buzz on social media that the Cowboys were also going hard after DeVries.

By that time, Baker said WVU’s offer had been made and a handshake agreement was in place. A contract hadn’t been officially signed, though, because Baker and DeVries’ agent were still working on some of the finer details of the deal.

“I felt confident, by that point, I knew he had us really high on his list,” Baker said. “Not just because he was saying that, but I was hearing from others in the industry that other schools had also reached out and he was very cool or lukewarm to them, because this was the job he wanted. At that point, that’s when you know you’re headed down the right path.”

As far as the travel, Drake and DeVries were playing in the NCAA tournament in Omaha, Neb.

James Madison coach Mark Byington — now the head coach at Vanderbilt — was coaching the Dukes in the NCAA tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. Baker flew there to interview Byington.

And the WVU women’s basketball team was playing in the NCAA tournament in Iowa City, Iowa.

“I zigzagged back and forth,” Baker said. “I haven’t added up the nautical miles, but I’ve flown a lot of miles.”

In the end, it led to DeVries, which through all of the intrigue and smokescreens, Baker admits was the Mountaineers’ top candidate all along.

“Just how balanced (Drake) was and how good they were, especially defensively,” Baker said. “They were great at defensive rebounding, which I think is a very disciplined stat. They play at a pace I thought our fans would enjoy. When you looked at all of that together, in addition to just winning, he was about as rounded and well-balanced as any of the analytics we looked at with any of the coaches.”