COLUMBIA, Mo. — Tennessee basketball assistant coach Kim English is from Baltimore. But make no mistake: Tuesday is a homecoming.
From 2008 to 2012, English and his classmates led Missouri to the most victories in team history over a four-year span, going 107-34 while making four straight NCAA Tournaments. English, one of MU’s more charismatic and candid players over the years, is No. 13 on the school’s career scoring list (1,570 points) and left as one of the program’s most popular players.
But when it comes to his alma mater, “we” and “us” have become “they” and “them” in English’s vocabulary.
He launched a coaching career after he retired from playing, first reuniting with former Mizzou coach Frank Haith at Tulsa followed by two years on the staff at Colorado. Last April, he left the Pac-12 for the Southeastern Conference, taking a job with Rick Barnes in Knoxville, Tenn. On Tuesday, English revisits Mizzou Arena in a new role: a true visitor. The Volunteers (8-5, 0-1 SEC) and Tigers (8-5, 0-1) tip off at 6 p.m. in Mizzou’s first home conference game of the season.
English will have plenty of friends and family in the crowd. But he doesn’t expect any feelings of nostalgia to distract his focus.
“I’ve really never been good at taking in emotional moments or anything like that, because the moment always seems to be what’s most important,” English said Sunday in a phone interview. “Right now I don’t want to do anything more than get a win for our ballclub. That’s what the focus is right now.”
On Sunday, English’s wife, Jessica, and their daughters, Celine and Ari, already were in Columbia visiting with family. Tuesday’s game will be his first at Mizzou Arena in a couple years.
“I think I’ve been in Mizzou Arena for games two or three times since graduating and they were all during the Kim Anderson (coaching) era,” he said. “That was weird, but I’m sure this will be at a different level. But I’m going to be so focused on what we have to do stop Missouri’s really talented players and find ways to score on that really good defense. That’s what will consume me come game time.”
Kim and Jessica still count a handful of people in and around Mizzou as close friends, including former MU All-American and UM Board of Curators chairman Jon Sundvold, plus longtime employees in the athletics department and on the coaching staff, several of whom attended the English’s 2015 wedding.
“More than that,” he said, “countless fans that are like family to us now.”
English, a two-time third-team All-Big 12 guard for the Tigers and the most outstanding player in the 2012 Big 12 tournament, played the 2012-13 season with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons then spent two years playing in France and Italy. Around that time he interviewed for a job on coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff at California but instead reconnected with Haith at Tulsa as his director of player development. The next season Haith promoted him to assistant coach. Haith was English’s link to Barnes, who had hired Haith back at the University of Texas more than a decade earlier.
“Being on the road recruiting, coaches who know each other tend to spend time together,” English said. “When I was at Colorado and just being on the road recruiting, coach Barnes and I built a relationship, just watching games together and going out to eat. When they had an opening he called me.”
Under Barnes’ watch, Tennessee surged to the top of the SEC standings two years ago, splitting the regular-season championship in 2018 and winning 31 games last year. English enjoyed his time at Colorado but couldn’t pass on joining one of the game’s more respected coaches at a program on the rise.
“I just felt like this was an opportunity because something elite was going on at Tennessee,” English said. “The player development has always appealed to my heart strings, digging in and helping players get better. The recruiting that we’re doing is at a really high level. We have a top-three recruiting class coming in next year. The facilities, the fan base are top notch. For Tennessee basketball not to be a blue-blood program like Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, everything about this place is blue-blood, from our fans to the support to the facilities to our travel, the way we train, our nutrition, our strength and conditioning. Every single aspect. It’s really special.”
English already has planned for the next jump. He keeps an 85-page document on his laptop that serves as a blueprint for the program he hopes to run as a head coach some day. In 2018, he interviewed for the position at Missouri State, but when the job went to Tennessee State’s Dana Ford, English wasn’t deterred.
“If that opportunity presents itself I feel good about being ready. But it’s not something I have a timetable on or time frame,” he said. “I’m 31 right now. My only focus, and it’s always been this way as a player and as a coach, is what can we do to make this place as good as it can possibly be.”
On Tuesday, that means preparing his Vols for a familiar opponent — the most familiar of them all.
Here’s the complete interview with English:
Q: Can you anticipate what you’ll be feeling Tuesday night when you’re on the visitor’s sideline at MIzzou Arena?
A: I’ve really never been good at taking in emotional moments or anything like that, because the moment always seems to be what’s most important. Right now I don’t want to do anything more than get a win for our ball club. That’s what the focus is right now. My wife and daughters are in Columbia right now with family. Her sister lives there and her mom’s from Missouri. My wife’s family is all from Missouri, so they’ll all be at the game. But I’m really focusing on what we have to do as a team to beat Missouri on Tuesday night.
Q: Will it seem weird to be coaching against Missouri?
A: I guess I’ll be able to answer that question Tuesday morning when we go to shootaround. We’re staying downtown so maybe I’ll walk down Broadway from practice after having shootaround with guys on our staff. But I have no clue. I think I’ve been in Mizzou Arena for games two or three times since graduating and they were all during the Kim Anderson era. That was weird, but I’m sure this will be at a different level. But I’m going to be so focused on what we have to do stop Missouri’s really talented players and find ways to score on that really good defense. That’s what will consume me come game time.
Q: There’s been a lot of turnover at Missouri since you last played here, but what kind of relationships do you have with Mizzou and people at Mizzou these days?
A: I had a relationship with Cuonzo while he was at Cal. I interviewed to join his Cal staff when I first got into coaching. He hired Wyking Jones and we had a great conversation for an hour when I was playing abroad about getting into coaching and ultimately I ended up at Tulsa.
There are other people that are still around: Jon Sundvold, Ashley Moore with TSF (Tiger Scholarship Fund), Chris Sovich at TSF, (team trainer) Pat Beckman is obviously still on staff, (assistant to the head coach) John Poettgen is still on staff. There are people within the athletic department that I’ve stayed close with and more than that, countless fans that are like family to us now. Jennifer Sovich, Matt Thornburg, Ward and Sandy Bond from the Lake. So many people who were at Jessica and my wedding who are lifetime friends.
Q: What was appealing about this job at Tennessee when you got the offer last spring?
A: I really loved my time at Colorado. I really loved those guys, loved Coach Boyle. They’re doing a great job this season, now in the top 25. I just felt like this was an opportunity because something elite was going on at Tennessee. The player development has always appealed to my heart strings, digging in and helping players get better. The recruiting that we’re doing is at a really high level. We have a top-three recruiting class coming in next year. The facilities, the fan base are top notch. For Tennessee basketball not to be a blue-blood program like Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, everything about this place is blue blood, from our fans to the support to the facilities to our travel, the way we train, our nutrition, our strength and conditioning. Every single aspect. It’s really special. Obviously it was really special the last two years and I think we’re laying the groundwork to get that type of special back in Knoxville.
Q: What was your impression of Rick Barnes back when you were a player and he was the coach at Texas?
A: Obviously I had great respect for him. He’s one of 22 coaches ever with 700 wins. I always looked at him as a mountain of a man from afar. Then when Coach Haith got to Mizzou, obviously he worked for Coach Barnes and they went to the Final Four together in 2003 at Texas. The family ties began then. When I worked for Coach Haith at Tulsa, being on the road recruiting, coaches who know each other tend to spend time together, either watching games or going out to lunch and dinner. I tagged along on some of those encounters. Mike Schwartz, our associate head coach, was on staff with me at Tulsa and he moved from Tulsa to Tennessee. He’s one of my best friends in the business. When I was at Colorado just being on the road recruiting, Coach Barnes and I built a relationship just watching games together and going out to eat. When they had an opening he called me.
Q: Most assistant coaches want to become a head coach. How much are you consumed by taking that next step?
A: I wouldn’t say I’m consumed by it, because the moment is what’s most important. I feel that I’m very prepared from my time with all my coaches I played for: Mike Anderson, Frank Haith, Lawrence Frank, Tom Thibodeau, coaches in Italy and France, and the coaches I’ve worked for, Tad Boyle, Rick Barnes, Frank Haith. I’ve developed a plan. I have a head-coaching program in place, how I’m going to play offensively what we’re going to do defensively, program goals, characteristics, all that stuff. If that opportunity presents itself I feel good about being ready. But it’s not something I have a timetable on or time frame. I’m 31 right now. My only focus, and it’s always been this way as a player and as a coach, is what can we do to make this place as good as it can possibly be. That was my goal as a player at Missouri and my goal as a coach at Tulsa, Colorado and now UT.
Q: Do you have this coaching plan printed out, like filed in a binder?
A: It’s a document on my computer. It’s up to about 85 pages. It’s what I’m going to do when that opportunity presents itself — if it presents itself. It’s not anything I’m actively pursuing. … But it’s not a focus at all. I’d like to think I’m preparing for that opportunity by preparing my current team in my current role.
Q: Tell me about this Tennessee team. Obviously you’ve lost a great player in Lamonte Turner. Where is this team right now?
A: We were shell-shocked in that first game against a really good Wisconsin team. We played better yesterday against LSU. But there’s still room for growth. We have some older guys who have been career role players that are in different roles this year, more in driver’s seat roles. And we have some younger guys who are still figuring it out. I’m really optimistic watching us practice every day, talking to the guys in film. We played better yesterday. I feel like all of our problems are fixable. We have a really good opportunity Tuesday night against what I feel like is a very tough and going to be motivated Missouri team.
What they did with their backs against the wall losing to Charleston Southern, 4-4, and at a tough spot going on the road to play a really good Temple team, they absolutely strapped their boots on and played great. They’re a team and a program and a coach that we have a ton of respect for. Our guys have to be ready for a fight.
Q: Without giving away your scouting report, what are a few things that stand out about this Missouri team?
A: They’ve gotten older. Those guys who were freshmen and sophomores last year, now they’re sophomores and juniors this year. Then they add Dru Smith to that roster. It’s not one guy you can key in on. All those guys are around 11, 10, 9, 8 points a game. Anyone of those guys can have a big night. Mark Smith doesn’t score against Illinois and they still win. And obviously Tilmon is a special, special talent. They’re unbelievably tough defensively. No matter what’s happening on offensively you can count on those guys to battle and compete defensively.