Kent takes on WSU project unlike any other in Pac-12

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Ernie Kent, who is somewhat familiar with Houdini escapes, Monday accepted a challenge of a similar magnitude, that of rebuilding the sagging Washington State men’s basketball program.

The Cougars hired Kent, 59, to pull themselves out of an abyss of losing and irrelevance in Pac-12 basketball, following a season that saw them finish 11th on the floor and last in attendance.

Kent went to two Elite Eights in a 13-year run at Oregon, most of which came with WSU athletic director Bill Moos as his boss.

“I have witnessed first-hand his many talents,” Moos said in a statement. “He has proven that he can win championships in our conference. Together we saw tremendous success at his alma mater and I have every reason to expect to see the same at mine.”

It’s fair to say this would never have happened at any other school in the Pac-12 but WSU. And it probably wouldn’t have happened at WSU if not for Moos and his relationship with Kent.

Coupled with Moos’ hire of Mike Leach as football coach two years ago, this makes the Cougars the Home for the Jilted, Scorned and Rebuffed. But part of Moos’ belief is that getting repudiated by his alma mater has sharpened Kent’s desire to show the world he can still do it.

About that tenure at Oregon: Kent plucked Luke Ridnour out of Blaine, up by the Canadian border, and the Ducks won the 2002 Pac-10 regular-season title. That team went on to the NCAA Elite Eight.

But things soured in Eugene, and over the next four seasons, Kent’s teams went 32-40 in Pac-10 games, and in 2007, Kent was all but toast, even as that team rebounded to an 11-7 finish in league.

While the posse was gathering, including Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer, Kent’s team was out of town, making another surprise Elite Eight run with the help of Franklin High product Aaron Brooks. And Frohnmayer was in Moos’ office, asking, “Well, what do we do now?”

They had no choice but to keep Kent. The Elite Eight was the reprieve from the governor at 11 p.m.

Alas, a touted recruiting class went bust, Oregon skidded back in the league standings after that, and Kent was fired after the 2010 season. The Cougars hope they’re getting more like the 2002/2007 version of him than the one that went 9-27 in league over his last two years.

I believe WSU landed first on Boise State coach Leon Rice, the former Gonzaga assistant, and offered him the job. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether Kent has the eye of the tiger to conquer the most challenging job in the conference.

The template for WSU success in the past is young, vibrant and persuasive.

Kent’s news conference isn’t until Wednesday afternoon, but I couldn’t resist texting him Monday: Does he have the energy for this?

Moments later, the phone jangled.

“I’m a workaholic,” Kent said. Of his time on the sidelines, he said, “I wanted to work harder than any head coach, so when this day comes, it’s an easy transition back.”

Monday was a momentous day in Pac-12 basketball, recalling parts of four decades of hoops, dating to when Kent played at Oregon. Mike Montgomery retired at California, and WSU hired Kent — who once coached under Monty at Stanford.

More than momentous, the Cougars are counting on the day being restorative.

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