Kent needed WSU, and WSU needed him

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PULLMAN — Ernie Kent has started up again, wearing those dapper suits, preaching the gospel, swearing it can be done, doing what he was meant to do.

“This morning,” said his daughter McKenzie, “he had a smile on his face like he was a little kid.”

This is an incongruous matchup, the 59-year-old basketball coach and the most remote outpost among the BCS conferences, but Kent is adamant that won’t matter.

Wednesday, when he was introduced as Washington State’s new basketball coach, he said to get your tickets now.

“We’ve done this before,” he said. “You’ll have crowds in this building again. There’s going to be energy and there’s going to be passion.”

He even said, “I’m totally confident you have a winning basketball team sitting there. My job is to bring it out of them.”

He seemed to be referring to the Cougars.

Kent was both polished and passionate in his first day on the job. They had his news conference on the floor of Beasley Coliseum, before which he met with his new team, the one that went 10-21 this season.

Then he was walked over to Bohler Gym, where a few hundred students gathered at the invitation of the athletic department for pizza and pop and a few words from the new coach.

“He’s a great dude,” guard Royce Woolridge told the waiting students over a live mike.

This is the reinvented Ernie Kent, the one who had bursts of mad success in 13 years at Oregon, coupled with bottomed-out seasons like 2009, when the Ducks lost 16 of 18 league games. Here, they understand numbers like that.

Kent went back to TV, and to marketing, and to the NABC, and Wednesday, he invoked a Madison Avenue term: “I rebranded myself.”

So odd that the experience would land him at a place that, in its history, has been to only one more NCAA tournament (six) than he went to at Oregon. But the athletic director is Bill Moos, his old, familiar boss in Eugene, and like bar patrons locking eyes when the lights come on at 1:45 a.m., they needed each other.

The finances reflect that this isn’t merely an idle fling. Moos says Kent’s five-year rollover deal is for $1.4 million annually. No, that’s not Tom Izzo money, but it’s around the middle of Pac-12 salaries, and for comparison, when Tony Bennett left WSU in 2009, he was making $1 million. And he won 52 games in two years.

There are multiple incentives in the contract, and the guess here is that Kent is probably confident he can attain some of them. Meanwhile, Moos says Kent’s buyout is initially $2 million, decreasing with time.

Moos allotted $650,000 for Kent’s assistants’ pool, and Kent has already brought aboard ex-teammate Greg Graham from the Kamikaze Kids days of Oregon in the 1970s, and Silvey Dominguez, Air Force assistant who worked under Kent at St. Mary’s back in the ‘90s. Since Graham is 57 and Dominguez 60, what it tells you is that Kent is supremely confident in his own ability to relate and recruit.

He’ll go back to the Midwest — he grew up in Rockford, Ill. — but he’s also been persuasive in the Northwest, selling a good graduation rate, selling a fast pace now enhanced by college basketball’s touchy new rules on perimeter defensive contact.

“That was music to my ears,” Kent said.

As for Kent the recruiter, Moos said, “He can get in living rooms. And he’s a closer.”

Kent saw what the rest of us saw when he watched the Cougars this season, a team that usually fought the good fight despite the crush of losses.

“They have tremendous character, and you can work with that,” he said.

But it takes more. All the losing produced a halting team that couldn’t shoot and didn’t seem to believe in itself. Kent talked about each player having once dominated, even in high school. “That’s what I want to find in them,” he said. “Where’s that player, where’s that confidence? I don’t see that all the time.”

Kent told that to the players, in a talk heavy on off-the-court responsibility.

“We don’t have any excuses any more,” said DaVonte Lacy, the best player.

Nor wins, nor fans. Ernie Kent 2.0 will try to change all that.

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