Later in his eight-year stint under Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller, James Whitford said four teams approached him about head coaching opportunities.
But Whitford said Miller never recommended he leave - until now.
That's one reason the UA associate head coach became Ball State's head coach on Saturday, replacing Billy Taylor, while returning to his Midwestern and Mid-American Conference roots.
Whitford, 41, said Ball State offered a combination of tradition, facilities, academics and a rich recruiting base in Indiana.
"Ball State was an easy job to take - there's a lot of good candidates who went after it because everyone recognized it's a really good opportunity," Whitford said. "But I had a job that was one of the best in the country, so while it was easy to go to Ball State, it wasn't an easy decision to leave."
Though it meant losing his top assistant, Miller helped Whitford make the decision.
"I think Sean looked at Ball State as a great opportunity and he's been completely supportive," Whitford said. "He told me he'd love me to stay but that it was a great opportunity. We both looked at Ball State as having the fundamentals to be successful."
Whitford's departure opens up a full-time assistant coaching spot on Arizona's staff, which is expected to be filled outside the Wildcats' program. It's also possible that Whitford could take some UA staffers with him, but Whitford said he didn't know yet if he would.
Arizona almost lost Whitford a year ago when Miami (Ohio) approached him, but he pulled out of consideration, in part because he wanted to help UA get back to the NCAA tournament after it failed to qualify in 2012. The Cats reached the Sweet 16 this year and may be stronger next season.
"It was a little less hard to leave now because I feel the (UA) program is in a good place," Whitford said. "From a professional standpoint, I really felt ready. For me to continue to progress as a coach, I was ready to leave."
Whitford becomes the second UA assistant coach to leave for a head coaching job in the past three seasons, after then-associate head coach Archie Miller became Dayton's coach in 2011.
Before working with Miller for four years at Xavier and four at Arizona, Whitford was an assistant under Charlie Coles at Miami (Ohio) from 1996-97 to 2004-05. Miami reached the NCAA tournament twice with Whitford as a full-time coach on Coles' staff.
"He was tremendous," Coles told the Star-Press of Muncie, Ind. "I'm talking about really tremendous."
A 1994 graduate of Wisconsin, Whitford first worked full time as an administrative aide under ASU coach Herb Sendek at Miami (Ohio) from 1994 to 1996.
Whitford said he would be borrowing from all the coaches he has worked under.
"I've worked for a lot of people but certainly more with Sean than anyone," Whitford said. "I'm going to take the lion's share of that experience with me to Ball State. But I can't be Sean Miller, Charlie Coles or Herb Sendek - I have to be James Whitford."
Ball State was 15-15 overall and 8-8 in MAC play this season. The school fired Taylor last month after he posted a 84-99 record in six seasons.
Whitford said Ball State first contacted him during the Pac-12 tournament, and then interviewed him in Salt Lake City during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Whitford said he had a second round of interviews in Atlanta this week and was offered the job.
"In a very talented pool of candidates, James separated himself from the pack based on the success he has experienced at multiple institutions and the vision he has for Ball State basketball," Ball State AD Bill Scholl said in a statement.
"James is a tireless worker and a relentless recruiter who has helped Miami, Xavier and Arizona all experience tremendous success within their respective conferences and the NCAA tournament," Scholl said. "He prides himself in developing young men on and off the basketball court and has an infectious positive energy that will be great for our program."
Whitford is scheduled to be formally introduced as the Cardinals' coach on Wednesday in Muncie, Ind. He said he spent Saturday in Atlanta on the phone with UA players and his new Ball State players, while also doing interviews and calling recruits.
"The people in Tucson made this decision hard by being so nice over the past four years," Whitford said. "I'm going to miss Tucson because we had a wonderful experience and the team is in good shape. But I'm really excited about the challenge."