Thrust into an interim head coaching role just a few games into the season, third-year Morehead State assistant Preston Spradlin followed the advice of mentor John Calipari and put all his effort into the players.
“I just tried to keep my focus on these guys right here,” Spradlin said Tuesday, motioning to the players in attendance at his first news conference without the “interim” tag at Johnson Arena. “I really did not want to worry about me. I did not want to worry about this job. I didn’t want to worry about getting the job. I didn’t want to add any pressure to myself that our performance as a team would indicate me getting or not getting it.”
After a national search that spanned three months and included more than 100 applicants, Morehead decided to let the man who steadied the ship take the helm. The 30-year-old becomes the program’s 14th head coach and the youngest Division I men’s coach in the country. The terms of the four-year deal were not announced.
“Coach Spradlin earned this job,” Morehead State president Wayne Andrews said during his introduction. “He stepped into a very challenging situation this year, and he did it with dignity and respect and pride. And he brought the team together. We had a really good season because of that.”
While the Eagles finished with a 14-16 overall record, they went 10-6 in the Ohio Valley Conference to finish second in the OVC East. The impressive conference run had many fans calling for Morehead to hire Spradlin during the season.
Spradlin took over a team that could have spun out of control after head coach Sean Woods’ suspension in November. Woods was accused of assaulting two players during a road game in Evansville. He subsequently resigned after charges were announced.
Two losses in a row turned into eight, but Spradlin focused on the process and the players rather than the results.
“I wanted them to feel comfortable. I wanted them to feel free and loose to play and ask questions and to learn,” he said. “If you don’t get excited to come to practice every single day and be with your brothers and be with your teammates and play for a great university and a great community like everyone that’s standing right here, then you’re not in it for the right reasons.
“When you lose eight games in a row, it’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s hard to come into practice every day and be bought into what your 30-year-old fake head coach is telling you.”
Spradlin brought a different tone as head coach, said Djimon Henson, a freshman guard.
“It was intense, but it was a different level of intensity,” Henson said. “But practice was good. It was very competitive.”
Outgoing senior Xavier Moon was among the players in attendance Tuesday.
“I’m excited and I’m not even coming back,” he said. “That should say a lot.”
DREAM COME TRUE
Spradlin has wanted to be a coach for as long as he could remember. His family nodded as he talked about having such aspirations as early as 3 or 4 years old.
A native of Pikeville, he was a 2005 graduate of Betsy Layne High School and earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 2009 from Alice Lloyd College. He always intended to be a high school coach, but the more he was exposed to the college game, the more he loved it. His wife Misty could see it.
“I owe a lot of credit to her because in college, she said ‘you know what? Why don’t you chase this dream? And I’m going to help you do it as best I can,’” he said. “That’s not an easy thing ... for her to do that and be behind me.”
Spradlin spent five years on Calipari’s staff, ending in 2014. Calipari and longtime assistant John Robic were among the first people Spradlin texted with the hiring news. Robic attended Tuesday’s announcement.
It was Calipari’s advice that helped get Spradlin through the team’s losing skid.
“It’s not about you,” Spradlin said of Calipari’s steadfast theme. “‘Just make it about the players each and every day and you’ll be fine.’ I owe him a lot of credit for that.”
After a season’s worth of games, interviews, weekly highlight shows and other obligations, Spradlin said he never really felt like the head coach of the team. Even after the announcement, the realization of what he had accomplished and what he would be doing did not sink in until Tuesday at the podium.
“We have a unique opportunity here,” he said. “We can provide an intimate college basketball experience. March Madness is going on right now, but it happens right here in Johnson Arena every single week. All we’ve got to do is get people excited, get that human aspect. They’ve got to know our players. They’ve got to know our coach on a personal level. That’s what I want to get started, so people can get excited and have ownership of our team and turn it into their team.”