MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — WVU’s interim men’s basketball coach Josh Eilert doesn’t have to look far for motivation this season.
It’s sitting right in front of him in his office at the WVU Coliseum.
Plastered on the formerly blank white wall is a collage of photos from Josh Eilert’s introductory press conference in June. As a self-proclaimed family guy, it’s natural that his wife and children make multiple appearances, but sitting in the background of one of the eye-level photos, the word “interim” is loudly displayed on a graphic in big gold letters on the media room’s televisions.
It is unavoidable to the wandering eye.
“I stare at that every day,” Eilert said.
Whether it was intended or not, the graphic from the press conference is an explicit reminder of the temporary nature of his current role within the athletic department.
“I think I can provide a lot of growth for myself by staring at that every day, and understanding that, okay, I am the head coach,” he said. “I am the head coach for 10 months, and that’s the way I look at it. So, I have the opportunity to prove myself and build this program to where it needs to be. Now, is there a lot of pressure? Absolutely, there’s a lot of pressure, but I’m excited to take that on, and excited to take that challenge.”
Former WVU head coach Bob Huggins resigned June 17, and Eilert was introduced as the interim head coach nine days later. By that point, several players had already entered the transfer portal. Some returned right away upon Eilert’s promotion. Others said farewell to the Mountain State for good.
Between managing the transfer portal window that opened upon Huggins’ resignation and the ensuing roster turnover, not many coaches — if any — have needed to execute changes in as swiftly a manner as Eilert did in July. Throw in the fact that he’s never been a head coach, and his mentor of over 15 years was no longer in the picture, and Eilert was in a league of his own.
“There’s no case study for this,” he said. “I couldn’t go back and look [and see] who’s been through this. Who can I call? There really wasn’t that case study to where I could make that phone call and get some guidance. I did talk to several people that went through similar situations.”
Of course, one of those mentors was Eilert’s former player and current Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla. If anyone knows the burden of the interim tag — and how to escape its suffocating grip — it’s Mazzulla.
“He said [to] just look at it as the greatest opportunity of your life,” Eilert said. “In a lot of ways, you’re playing with house money, and I am. I’ve got a chance to show myself, prove myself and be a leader of this organization.”
Mazzulla’s situation in Boston wasn’t quite the same as Eilert’s. Unlike Eilert, the former WVU forward had previous head coaching experience from when he previously served as the leading man at Fairmont State, but his advice was tranquil enough to comfort the first-time head coach.
Out of all the phone calls Eilert took in late June, Mazzulla’s was admittedly the most influential.
“That’s helped me sleep at night when I’m staring at the ceiling trying to figure out how I navigate this challenge or that challenge, and a lot of it is out of your control,” he said. “You bring a great attitude to work every day, and you carry on as a leader of the organization.”
Eilert and WVU director of athletics Wren Baker did their best to thwart any speculation towards the future of the long-term head coaching position, but two things remain abundantly clear from their words over the summer: The search for a long-term solution will begin at the conclusion of the season, and Eilert will have plenty of opportunities this season to prove himself as a candidate for 2024 and beyond.
“As far as a set criteria of ‘here’s these boxes and if you check them the job is yours,’ I think there [are] too many things in sports beyond your control,” Baker said in June. “We are really looking at what kind of job did you do, controlling the things you can control, [and] helping your people get get better as players. [Did] you pour into them, and are you the kind of coach that values the person above the player? All those go in to the decision matrix.”
With the preseason program in full-swing, the roster is set, and a lot of the drama from the summer has been pushed to the back of Eilert’s mind. Frankly, he doesn’t even consider himself as the interim head coach.
He prefers a different title.
“I look at myself as the CEO of the basketball program,” he said. “And [I will] put people in the right positions to succeed, and I think everybody is pulling in the right direction, and we’re off to a great start.”