ATN: Passing the baton

After helping to build Randolph into a contender in the ODAC, Clay Nunley moved to conference rival Roanoke during the offseason.
Randolph athletics file photo

By Ryan Scott


For those who don’t know me, I’m Ryan Scott, and this is my first Around the Nation column. We’re hoping to shake the format up a bit, moving beyond the kind of features that our regional writers do so well and covering broader issues across Division III – some serious, some less so. Basically, I’ll be interviewing coaches and players to answer questions that you or I have about the game, with a healthy dose of my own opinion thrown in. I want your input and I’m hoping for some good interaction, both in the comments section and on the message boards. Without further ado, let’s kick off the 2016-2017 season.

Playing well in transition

We sent nine basketball coaches with 20+ years of experience at one school on to the next phase of their lives this summer. Bill Brown spent 23 years coaching the Wittenberg men. James Lancaster spent 22 at Aurora. At Western Connecticut, Bob Campbell and his glorious beard retired after 32 seasons. Just this week Rich Rider retired after 22 seasons at Cal Lutheran.

It’s always a challenge to change leadership, whether it’s on a sports team or in an office. It’s even more difficult to take over in the midst of a culture two decades in the making. What’s more, every situation is unique, with its own set of challenges and its own special way of tackling the transition.

My first call was to Rowan, who’s embarking on a truly exceptional swap. Joe Cassidy, the men’s head coach for the last 20 years, will now serve as Associate Head Coach for local legend and former pro, Joe Crispin, who’s been on Cassidy’s staff the last two seasons. I am not sure either man would’ve come up with this role reversal on their own, but both have embraced the Athletic Department’s innovative transition plan.

Joe Crispin is overseeing an unusual transition at Rowan.
Rowan athletics file photo 

Says Cassidy, “I really enjoyed being an assistant with John Giannini, I really enjoyed being an assistant with Eddie Burke, and I plan on enjoying being an assistant with Joe Crispin.”

Crispin agrees, “There are very few people who could do what Joe has done and do it so comfortably; it’s a credit to him. I get his wisdom and his experience – and I listen, most people who know me would be surprised by that.” Coaches know, but it’s hard to explain just how difficult pulling something like this off actually is. Crispin said, “It’s a very unique situation. Coach Cassidy doesn’t have this huge ego. He’s willing to do what he did, not just graciously, but authentically. It’s beyond rare.”

I wondered, even with two coaches who know each other well, whether there have been any awkward moments. Both coaches claim smooth sailing, although Cassidy was honest enough to point out that no games have been played yet. “What I decided from the beginning is we’re gonna make it work, so we’ll make it work.” Which is probably as good of advice for marriage as it is for coaching. It’s also easier said than done, of course, but it seems like Rowan has the right foundation to pull it off.

Not every transition is as designed and planned out as this one, but down the AC Expressway Stockton has been unofficially transitioning for several years, with interim coach Scott Bittner, who’s been on staff for a decade, gradually taking over duties from legendary coach Gerry Matthews, who retired after 30 season in Galloway.

“The paperwork is ten times what it was,” says Bittner, “It used to be all I worried about was the next practice, the next game, now I have budgets and schedules. It would have been so much more overwhelming if he didn’t give me so much freedom the last five or six years.”

There is more than just a passing of the torch on the sideline, again and again the younger coaches praised their predecessors for leadership lessons.

“Gerry has a special way with the kids,” said Bittner, “No matter how mad he was at a kid, as soon as practice was over he was so great at putting it aside and being really loving. The main thing I learned [from him] is when you do that, the kids will let you challenge them and coach them on the court.”

Following an established coach can also provide benefits in culture. “Bert West made my job so much easier,” says new East Texas Baptist coach, Brandon Curran, who follows West’s 22-year tenure, “Often when you come into a new situation, you’re coming into something that might’ve been broken and have to fix it. They’ve had a great culture here. You can see it in the players, in terms of their concentration, commitment, and effort. We’re just trying to continue to build on that, which is so much easier than trying to turn it around.”

It should be noted that West was retired all of one month – he’s already coaching the high school team in nearby Waskom, TX, but is always available for advice and to lend a hand. It’s similarly hard to keep Page Moir out of the building at Roanoke, where he coached for 27 years. New head man, Clay Nunley, wouldn’t have it any other way. “When I first got the job, Page went out of his way to help me. He answered questions – and I had a lot. He had a lot of insight. I leaned on him a lot those first several months, trying to get adjusted.”

Nunley built the men’s basketball program at Randolph from scratch. I thought it might be difficult going from that situation into one with a lot of history and expectations, but as with most things, coaches just have a different mindset from the rest of us. Nunley said, “I haven’t changed anything. I would like to believe that the standard I hold myself to and the expectations I have are as high as anybody’s.”

Jill Pace (formerly Henrikson) is used to winning, both as a player at Bowdoin and an assistant at Tufts.
Bowdoin athletics file photo
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jill Pace moved across the country to take her first head coaching job at Pomona-Pitzer, following Kathy Connell, a 38-year veteran, the last 20 at P-P. She understands expectations, having played at Bowdoin and spent the past two seasons at Tufts, under Carla Berube. “My expectations are pretty high. Where I come from has a huge impact on how I coach, but I want to be in the moment here at Pomona-Pitzer.”

In terms of leadership style, Pace speaks a lot about collaboration and in ways that are a natural fit for the generation of students now in college. She says, “It’s important to have open lines of communication. Now that we’re in season, we have tons of individual meetings just to get to know each other. My expectation is that the players are talking all the time.” Pace expects players to be comfortable leading and coaching each other, a kind of accountability that requires an intentional focus on honest relationships.

It’s the kind of thing you can plan for, but are never quite sure will come together. Last year I asked John Krikorian, head coach of the Christopher Newport men’s squad about his deep roster of returning, experienced talent, and he reminded me that you can never predict how chemistry or other intangibles will translate from one season to the next. Now maybe he was just managing expectations for a team I voted preseason #1, but it seems to bear out during my interviews this fall.

Even in a program with long-term stability and a great culture, it’s incredibly difficult to transition from one regime to the next. Curran talked about picking Coach West’s brain as often as possible. “They’ve been incredibly successful the last few years. I wanted to know what made the difference.”

Rowan’s men lost 11 games last year that came down to the final possession. Both Crispin and Cassidy brought up how easily a winning season can turn into a losing one – and vice versa. Is it as simple as two coaches switching roles? Probably not, but you can never be sure what will make the difference. Pace tells a great story about her players staging a captains’ meeting to disguise a surprise birthday party for her, cake and all. She said, “Just to have a group that cares so much so quickly about someone new is pretty amazing.”

When all the dust settles in Salem and Grand Rapids next March, the teams that lift the trophies won’t have gotten there through some secret formula – hard work, talent, and a little bit of luck usually go a long way. But those teams will only be there because they’ve put themselves in a position to take advantage of those elements… and there’s a lot of mystery surrounding how to do that.

So even if the name plate hasn’t been changed on the office door or it took until November to update the website, there is still a sense that the new coach isn’t just new, but building and expanding and continuing to improve upon what the outgoing coach spent a good part of their life putting together. Coaches that do it well have one simple goal in mind.

Each of the coaches I spoke with explained their philosophy, but none more uniquely than Rowan’s Joe Crispin. As we embark on a new season in D3hoops, I’ll let him have the final word. “My ultimate aim and mission is to spread basketball happiness, not just that we’ll be successful, but that it will be fun – for players, coaches, and fans.”

Help me

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Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon