The program began in Las Vegas in the early 2000s, and was held this year on computer screens.
Still, it remains cutting edge, and now stands as a harbinger of things to come, and thus an even more helpful preparation for aspiring head college basketball coaches.
TopConnect 2020, the brainchild of Dr. Richard Sander of East Tennessee State University, was held recently via Zoom calls. It involved approximately 60 men’s assistant college basketball coaches and about a dozen women’s coaches, all among the best and brightest in their fields. The idea was to connect these men and women, who want to be head coaches someday, with the athletic directors and search firms that might be deciding their professional fate sometime in the future.
Sander first came up with the idea in 2003, when he was the athletic director at Virginia Commonwealth University. A year earlier, he had hired Jeff Capel III (currently the Pittsburgh head coach) as VCU’s head coach. After Capel led the Rams to an 18-10 record and a tie for second place in the Colonial Athletic Association in his first season, Sander could see Capel was a rising star and that Sander needed to be prepared for the day Capel would leave. (Capel coached VCU for four seasons before moving on to Oklahoma.)
“Our next coach is probably going to be a Power 5 assistant,” Sander said, recalling his thought process at the time, “and me, as a mid-major AD, I’d never had an opportunity to connect with those folks or engage them or anything, so I said I need to figure out a way to do that.”
So, Sander gathered approximately 15 other athletic directors from mid-majors and they attended an AAU tournament in Las Vegas where college coaches, head coaches and assistants, were scouting prospects.
Sander said, “We had a seminar during the day and a reception at night so we could engage with the top 30 assistant coaches in the country. I did some research, found out who those (coaches) were and invited them to the reception. Then we did a day-long thing in the spring in Charlotte with about 25 assistant coaches.”
Soon, it became a yearly event, officially named Villa 7.
Villa 7 lasted into the 2010s but eventually ended. Sander, who ended his association with Villa 7 in 2009, retired as VCU’s athletic director and then became the athletic director at East Tennessee State in June 2013, after having been the interim AD for several months. Sander later started a doctoral program in global sports leadership there. His current title is director for the Center for Global Sport Leadership and executive in residence and assistant to the ETSU president.
Sander said that Lyle Wolf, then the director of basketball operations at Virginia Tech under Buzz Williams (one of the coaches who had come through Villa 7 as an assistant), approached Sander and said, “I’ll do all the work if you use your experience and your connections.”
Thus, the program began anew. Sander said, “It’s kind of the same concept, although we’ve gotten much more involved in providing interesting and compelling content and information to these assistant coaches.”
The Villa 7 name had been taken by another entity so Sander switched to TopConnect.
“Our mantra is connect, prepare and lead,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is prepare the next generation of head basketball coaches by giving them an opportunity to connect with mid-major athletic directors.”
Besides Williams, assistants-turned-head coaches who have come through the program include Anthony Grant (currently at Dayton), Steve Forbes (Wake Forest), Shaka Smart (Texas), Kevin Keatts (North Carolina State), John Groce (Akron) and Greg Gary (Mercer).
The coronavirus pandemic forced this year’s edition of TopConnect, held June 11-12, to take place via Zoom calls. The main drawback was obvious.
“In the past,” Sander noted, “there was a social situation, a more relaxed situation, so that wasn’t really available (on Zoom). When you’re dealing with somebody in person, you get a better feel. … It’s not just starting from scratch. You get a little bit of an idea of who they are and the way they present themselves and the way they communicate.”
The positive was that more people were able to participate, not only coaches and athletic directors but other guest speakers.
“It’s going to be easier for them rather than having to go to a site,” Sander said. “That was the positive about it.”
And it likely was good practice. Sander and several assistant coaches I spoke to who participated in TopConnect 2020 envision initial interviews in coaching searches being conducted remotely via Zoom, especially as cash-strapped athletic departments try to save money in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s definitely, from a monetary standpoint going to be smarter to do that,” Arizona State men’s associate head coach Rashon Burno said, “until you get down to your final two and you want to ask face-to-face questions and have face-to-face interaction. I think Zoom is definitely going to change how certain athletic departments go about doing interviews.
“I think wasting money on hotels and flights,” Burno added, “isn’t as productive as it once seemed in interviewing candidates when you can do a two-hour Zoom call. Granted, the personal interaction is not there but the substance can still be there in terms of the questions and the answers. I can see more Zoom calls taking place in the future.”
“One of the things we will talk about in the future,” Sander said, “is you need to make sure that you can make a good first impression or a good continuing impression through Zoom, because absolutely Zoom will become a real tool for athletic departments to make decisions on personnel in hiring situations because it will be relatively easy.”
As for this year’s event itself, “It was almost overwhelming,” Hofstra men’s assistant coach Mike Farrelly said, “because you got so much information in such a short period of time. I said to somebody I’m almost going to have to go over these notes every month for a year to let it soak in.”
Burno said, “It gives you an opportunity to know what administrators are thinking and looking for when they interview candidates. It’s really helpful for coaches to get this type of feedback.”
Vanderbilt assistant women’s coach Kelly Komara said, “As an assistant coach who’s never had an interview going for a (head coaching) job, you don’t really know what they’re looking for. It really was a good foundation to understand at each level what ADs would like to see in an interview, what they expect from you and what they don’t want to see.”
The participants surveyed all enjoyed the “speed dating” portion of the program, in which the assistant coaches did quick one-on-one interviews with multiple athletic directors.
About The Historic WestSide
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a Content Contributor Today!
“It was a really fast way to get a lot of quick experience with interviews,” Minnesota women’s assistant Carly Thibault-Dudonis said, “and I think in this scenario it was really unique because from here on out, Zoom will be a part of the interview process because it obviously helps the budget to not bring a bunch of people out to interview. So, it’s great to get experience doing it over Zoom, trying to find ways to connect and bring out your personality over a computer screen, so that was great practice for me.”
“Obviously, these are people I hope hire me at some point in the coming years,” Farrelly said. “To get to know them better, to get to know their points of view, their perspectives better, was amazing, in addition to making some good connections individually as well.”
Farrelly also found it helpful, “Getting inside an AD’s mind, what they want, what they look for, both in a head coach and in an interview setting. How do you win that moment?”
Besides current and former head coaches such as Grant, Forbes, Muffet McGraw, Phil Fulmer and Mike Smith, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, panelists also included search-firm representatives and media members. Those media members included Seth Greenberg and Debbie Antonelli and Stadium basketball insider Jeff Goodman.
“They talked about how to bridge the gap between coaches and media,” Komara said. “It was a great perspective to hear them talk about it. It really made me think in a different way how important a relationship is with the media.”
Seton Hall men’s assistant Grant Billmeier noted, “They talked about how you should go about dealing with the media, what to discuss and what not to discuss with them. They were very honest about what impresses” them about college coaches.
“It had a variety of different things and I learned a ton from taking in this experience,” Seton Hall men’s assistant Billmeier added. “It wasn’t just one particular thing. First-year coaches talked about hiring a staff, and things their first month on the job they wish they would have done differently.”
“I think a lot more people were able to take part because” it was virtual, Thibault-Dudonis said. “The disadvantages are you don’t have the face-to-face networking whether it’s between panels or sessions, so that means reaching out after it’s done and trying to get to know people that way as well.
“Building a brand on social media,” she added, “learning from a search firm, there were a lot of different people with a lot of different perspectives, which was great.”
Billmeier said of Sander, “He doesn’t do it for any kind of recognition. He does it for the next generation.”
Sander said, “I’ve been very fortunate to have a long career at VCU, and fortunately our president at ETSU, Dr. (Brian) Noland allowed me to do this and encouraged me to do this. ETSU is really trying to make a difference and change lives and we really want to become the go-to place to help coaches grow and prepare and eventually lead.”
Toward that end, Sander plans to build on the annual TopConnect symposium with a series of sessions called Lunch With Doc. The first session will take place Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern and features Coaches for Action, an organization recently founded by 21 minority assistant coaches from the Big East Conference for the purpose of educating and bringing awareness to social injustices. Sander will discuss Coaches for Action, its mission and future initiatives with three of the founders, assistant coaches Dwayne Killings and Justin Gainey of Marquette and Kyle Neptune of Villanova.
Subscribe to get the WestSide411
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe