MOREHEAD — Upon being introduced Monday as the school's 13th men's basketball head coach, former Kentucky point guard Sean Woods promised to turn Morehead State into the "Gonzaga of the South."
Coincidentally or not, Woods sought advice from Gonzaga Coach Mark Few before eagerly accepting the Morehead State job on Friday.
"First and foremost, if you want to be one of the big dogs, you've got to go play the big dogs," Woods said of Few's words of wisdom.
Apparently, Morehead State will follow that recommendation next season by playing 15 games against teams that played in a post-season tournament earlier this spring. Those opponents include Kentucky. Morehead State is scheduled to play Woods' alma mater in Rupp Arena on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Director of Athletics Brian Hutchinson said.
Woods acknowledged his predecessor at Morehead State, Donnie Tyndall, who moved to Southern Mississippi earlier this spring. "Donnie laid a foundation and gave a blueprint for what it takes to be successful," he said.
Morehead State played in the post-season three of the past four years, a string of success punctuated by a victory over Louisville in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
"The program is in great shape," Woods said. "I promise you I won't mess it up."
That is at the heart of what Morehead State looked for in hiring its next coach. Or as Hutchinson bluntly put it, "Don't screw it up."
Woods, who played for UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said he intended to "piggyback" on the success Morehead enjoyed with Tyndall as coach.
"Take it two (or) three steps further," he said. "That's what we're going to get done here. I promise you."
While pledging to "bring national notoriety to Morehead State," Woods distanced himself from his own moment at basketball's center stage. That came as a UK player, most notably when he made the penultimate basket in the famous 1992 NCAA Tournament loss to Duke in the so-called Christian Laettner game.
"I'm the head men's basketball coach of Morehead State," he said. "I'm not the Sean Woods who was a basketball player who played at the University of Kentucky."
When asked why he seemed to suggest he'd be happy if people forgot he had been one of UK's Unforgettables, Woods said, "Because I don't want people to just look at me as the kid that came home. ... I don't work for the University of Kentucky. I played there. My main emphasis is to get Morehead State where it needs to be. Kentucky's already there. I'm not sitting on that sideline."
In the past four seasons, Woods coached at Mississippi Valley State, a school noted as the alma mater of football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and little else. The program won 14 more games in Woods' fourth season than in his first. This past season he was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year and winner of the Ben Jobe Award, which goes to the top minority coach in Division I.
"Eighty percent of my time there was trying to be creative and get things done," Woods said of Mississippi Valley State's modest basketball profile. "... I'm coming into a situation that is the Taj Mahal from where I'm coming from."
For example, Mississippi Valley State's ceaseless need for money led to bizarre schedules. The first home game in 2011-12 came on Jan. 3, and followed road games at Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida and Wisconsin.
Of the chance to play a more traditional schedule as Morehead State coach, Woods said brightly, "I get to win games, now."
Ironically, a painful-to-watch loss to Western Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament "First Four" event in Dayton last March helped Woods get the Morehead State job. His team led 53-37 with 4:51 left. With President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron in attendance, MVSU collapsed down the stretch and lost 59-58.
"I think he did everything he could to stop it," Hutchinson said of Woods and the loss. "He really handled it well, with a lot of grace."
When asked after his introduction as Morehead State coach if he'd gotten over the loss, Woods smiled and said, "I'm over it now."