CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Pete Gillen has stopped playing coy. The formerly coquettish basketball coach of Providence College is now openly open to suggestion.
If Ohio State cares to include him in its search for Randy Ayers' successor - and it certainly should - Gillen is going to have his ears open. His Friars advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 Sunday with a 98-87 upset of second-seeded Duke, but their coach's comfort level is decidedly low.
''It's been hell,'' Gillen said of his third season in Providence.''It's been very hard. All we get is criticism. Expectations are unbelievable, and they're not commensurate with the reality of the situation.''
It's a tough town
Pete Gillen sometimes shows a tendency toward paranoia, but his concerns in Rhode Island are real. He is the only game in a demanding town, and his success thus far has not fully satisfied the fans. The Friars (23-11) may have reduced some of the unrest Sunday, but they did not remove it.
''The East is a critical place,'' Gillen said. ''In the Midwest, you guys stabbed me, but I didn't know I was bleeding. Here, they just get can openers and pry your eyeballs out.''
Providence closed its regular season with three straight losses, disharmony among its players and growing disgust in the stands. Only by an act of will was Gillen able to stifle his rising rage. Only by winning two games in the Big East Tournament were the Friars able to advance to the NCAA Tournament. This is Gillen's eighth career tournament appearance.
''We lost three in a row at the end of the season, and they were going to send me to freakin' Guam in a freakin' kayak,'' Gillen said. ''Everybody had bags on their head around campus. I went to an alumni reception and a guy says, 'Good luck in the NIT,' and I'm ready to punch him. The alumni were killing us. The media in Rhode Island were killing us. They said we were failures. We won 19 games (during the regular season), and we're failures. They ripped our hearts out.''
He'll listen to OSU
Gillen goes on like this for a while - quite awhile, in fact - and then he catches himself. In the next breath, he says he's happy at Providence, but it is said with perfunctory politeness rather than clear conviction.
If Ohio State Athletics Director Andy Geiger happens to call, he's not likely to be put on hold.
''I haven't heard anything,'' Gillen said during Sunday's victory celebration. ''No alumnus. No administrator. No intermediary. No talent-search guy. I'm very happy at Providence, but this is such a vicious cutthroat business that if somebody calls, you have to listen. Not that I'll go, but you have to listen because guys get fired in the blink of an eye.''
The grass-roots campaign for University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins is growing in Columbus, but Gillen is probably a better fit with OSU's image-conscious administration. He is charismatic and clever, frenetic and funny, a blend of Eastern savvy and Midwestern sensibilities. He wins games; he graduates players; and his sideline conduct does not grate on sensitive spectators.
Some years ago, I asked an Ohio State official about Bob Huggins' employment prospects with the Buckeyes. ''We like the other guy in your town better,'' he said. The other guy, at the time, was Pete Gillen.
There are other candidates, of course. With its Big Ten exposure, its new arena under construction, and its financial package reputed to be worth close to $1 million per year, Ohio State ought to be able to woo just about anyone short of John Wooden. Speculation has so far centered on Huggins, Southwest Missouri's Steve Alford, Clemson's Rick Barnes, South Carolina's Eddie Fogler and Stanford's Mike Montgomery.
Pete Gillen, in all likelihood, is probably a longshot. Yet he beat Duke's Mike Krzyzewski Sunday in a tournament game in North Carolina, and that ought to count for something.
''I really don't want to speculate (about Ohio State),'' Pete Gillen said. ''My name is Wes. I've got my own mess in Providence.''