Assistants face long road to top
In his early 20s, VCU's Shaka Smart took a position as an assistant coach at California University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school. The wide-eyed Smart, who joined the program in 1999 after completing his playing career at Kenyon College, was younger than some of his players.
He'd held his post -- his first coaching gig -- for only a year when he learned that a Big Ten school needed a new assistant. Smart, admittedly naive then, thought he qualified but wanted a second opinion, so he asked his boss, former head coach Bill Brown.
"I said, 'Hey, do you think this is a job I could get?'" Smart told ESPN.com. "That's how oblivious I was. I just didn't know. I didn't know any better. You learn along the way."
The life of an assistant coach in college basketball is a perplexing one. Specific blueprints for elevation to bigger and better jobs don't exist. Unlike their bosses, assistant coaches aren't always invited to the events and functions frequented by the athletic directors and presidents who make the final decisions on new hires.
So they endure the grind and hope -- pray -- that the men and women behind the curtains of college basketball will pull the strings necessary to make their coaching dreams come true.
This week, dozens of assistant coaches and administrators are meeting at the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore. The Villa 7, an annual event sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth and Nike, aims to connect aspiring assistant coaches with some of the game's top decision-makers.
The event, which helped Smart and a multitude of future head coaches earn their first jobs, offers a speed-dating session that helps assistants network and establish those critical relationships.
"It's an honor to be involved with it. And it's a great chance to put yourself in a situation where you'll be in front of some people [who] make the decisions," said Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals, who's attending the event this week.
But a lack of head-coaching experience is a giant obstacle in their collective plight. Most schools, even at the mid-major level, would rather hire someone who's led a program than a reputable assistant coach who hasn't.
Former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber's free-agent status lasted for a few weeks until Kansas State signed him. Former Wildcats head coach Frank Martin wanted a fresh start, so he bolted for South Carolina.
Southern Methodist didn't seek an assistant on the rise to fill its opening. The Mustangs tapped 71-year-old Larry Brown, who hasn't coached college basketball since the late '80s.
"One of the things you have to overcome is the fact that you've never been a head coach," said new Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson. "That's a question, and that's not necessarily at the big head-coaching [opportunities]. That comes into effect when you're going after jobs in the smaller leagues.When you've been an assistant, they want to know how is he going to be? He's never been a head coach before. I'd say that's a question that comes up."
But the offseason also offered proof that qualified assistants still matter.
Winthrop's Pat Kelsey (former Xavier and Wake Forest assistant) and Florida International's Richard Pitino (former Louisville and Florida assistant) -- both under 40 -- became head coaches for the first time.
Virginia Tech locked up Johnson, who was an assistant with the Hokies before he took a job as a Clemson assistant last month. He returned to Va. Tech when Seth Greenberg was fired. And Mississippi State hired former Clemson assistant Rick Ray after Rick Stansbury retired.
Ray received the offer as he stood in a line for a beignet, a sweet Southern treat, during the Final Four in New Orleans.
"I was trying to debate, 'Do I stay in line and try to get this beignet or do I take the phone call?' Obviously, I took the phone call," said Ray, who added that searching for head-coaching positions is typically a fruitless effort for assistants.
Ray credits his former bosses (Purdue's Matt Painter and Clemson's Brad Brownell) for boosting his reputation, especially among search agencies. Ray was an associate head coach at Clemson. And that position, Ray said, helped him earn his new post with the Bulldogs.
"What was huge for me was getting that title of associate head coach. I think when you get that title, it lets athletic directors and administrators know who's a person on that staff to identify as probably the next head coach or a person [who's] ready to step out and become a head coach," he said. "What happens is that a lot of people [who] go looking for jobs or searching for jobs really don't have a chance to get that particular job."
Kelsey said he never worried about becoming a head coach during his time as an assistant at Wake Forest and Xavier. When the late Skip Prosser offered him a job as Wake's director of basketball operations, he also gave the young coach some advice that he's consulted throughout his career.
"He said, 'Your job as [director of basketball operations] is everything but basketball. It's all the administrative stuff. Don't worry about the next job. You crush it where you're at and you worry about one thing: trying to be the best director of basketball operations in the country,'" Kelsey said. "And for better or worse, that was my M.O., that was my approach. For three years I kept my nose down and just grinded. Every time his feet hit the floor every morning, I wanted him to be thankful that he hired me."
The early coaching jobs solidify the work ethic that carries some of the top assistant coaches to head-coaching positions down the road. Pitino admits that his father's name enhanced his clout in coaching circles. He's just 29 years old, and prior to taking Florida International's offer, he'd been an assistant for his father at Louisville and for Billy Donovan at Florida.
Some coaches work for a decade and never achieve similar fortunes. But his career started with an administrative assistant position at the College of Charleston. There, Pitino did whatever was required.
"At that level, the administrative spot, you do all the grunt work. At that level, you don't have the type of support you would have at a Louisville or Florida," he said. "Everybody's gotta do a little bit of everything. I was doing laundry. We were all doing it. Even the other assistant coaches were doing it."
Smart spent a decade as an assistant before he accepted VCU's offer in 2009.
Boals made just $6,000 during his first job as an assistant coach.
Illinois head coach John Groce, once a top assistant for Thad Matta at Ohio State, remembers a time when he taught high school math, coached a freshmen prep team, assisted the varsity and scouted for his alma mater, Taylor University.
"It really helped prepare me for the grind and the hard work and the effort and the crazy schedule that you have to tackle once you get that opportunity at the Division I level," Groce said.
But it's not a money grab for most. Many hungry assistants say they seek an opportunity to run their own programs but only if it's "the right fit." Somewhere between those standards and their struggles to meet the people who can make that happen, they try to stay focused without getting caught up in concerns about the future.
And they all know that the latter won't necessarily feature a job they've pursued for years.
"This is one of those professions where you have to be an apprentice for a long time before you get your own shot," Smart said. "I was an assistant for 10 years. There are a lot of guys who've done it twice as long or longer, and they're still in the hunt for that first opportunity."
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