Long before he burned through his cell phone battery every day wooing high school hoops prospects, Illinois-Chicago coach Howard Moore spent his workdays delivering a slightly different kind of sales pitch.
Moore worked as a sales rep for a pair of Chicago-area corporations his first three years out of college hawking everything from cut sheet printer paper, to payroll services, to office supplies.
Had he remained in sales, Moore probably would have zoomed up the corporate ladder thanks to his work ethic and innate ability to connect with people. Instead, the former Wisconsin forward opted to quit his job in 1999 and pursue coaching because he didn't find sales quite as fulfilling as a career in basketball.
"I hated the cold call days," Moore recalled with a chuckle. "Every week, I'd block off my mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to noon, and that was my time to get in the office and just cold call. I dreaded going into the office those mornings."
The early career change has turned out to be a wise move for Moore because the same qualities that made him a rising star in sales have translated well in his current profession. He forged a reputation as one of the Midwest's best recruiters in five years as an assistant at Wisconsin, parlayed that into the head coaching position at UIC in August 2010 and quickly laid the foundation for this season's surprisingly sudden turnaround.
Pegged to finish in the bottom two in the Horizon League again this season after three straight 20-loss seasons, UIC instead appears capable of challenging league favorites Valparaiso and Detroit this winter. The Flames boast an 8-1 record that includes a 50-44 road win at Northwestern and a 64-55 home victory over a Colorado State team that returned its top players from an NCAA tournament season last year.
Improvement defensively is most responsible for UIC's turnaround.
Not only are the Flames limiting opposing teams to 35.3 percent shooting from the floor and 25.3 percent from behind the arc, they're also doing an effective job keeping opponents off the free-throw line. A greater understanding of Moore's physical Wisconsin-esque defensive philosophy has helped, as has the arrival of 6-foot-9 UCF transfer Josh Crittle to serve as a rim protector in the paint.
"Being a Bo Ryan disciple, it's always been about defense for me," Moore said. "The difference is players have really bought into the defensive identity. They've really embraced it. We want to be Chicago's blue-collar college team, the team the city can identify with. It's the city of broad shoulders. Well, we want to emulate what the city is about as a basketball team."
Between his workmanlike attitude, Chicago roots and successful track record as a recruiter in the city, Moore was a natural fit for UIC when the abrupt retirement of longtime coach Jimmy Collins left the Flames without a head coach.
Moore grew up only a few miles from UIC's campus and starred at Taft High School before accepting a scholarship offer from Wisconsin. Though he played sparingly for the Badgers from 1990-95, his affable personality endeared him to teammates, coaches and the Madison Community.
Tom Molaski, a Wisconsin player just prior to Moore's arrival, got to know Moore during alumni basketball games and other functions in Madison. When a sales position opened in 1996 at the corporation Molaski worked for in the Chicago suburbs, Moore was one of the first people Molaski thought to hire.
"I always really liked Howard and I thought he'd be great in sales because he just has that engaging, charismatic personality," Molaski said. "If you knew Howard, you liked Howard. The accounting people loved Howard. The people in the warehouse loved Howard. The truck drivers loved Howard. The other sales people loved Howard. The customers loved Howard. He just has that kind of impact on people."
Even though Moore enjoyed most aspects of his job besides cold calls and rose quickly within the company, he always questioned if it was the proper career path for him. He liked sales. He loved basketball.
During his three years working for Molaski, Moore played in four or five different rec leagues and dabbled as an assistant coach at his former high school, then later at the University of Chicago. It was Howard's former high school coach, Frank Hood, who planted the idea in his head that he should switch career paths.
"He said, 'You know, Howard, you have a lot to offer. You have a good feel for the game. I can see you're passionate. You should think about getting into coaching," Moore said. "I tried it out at the University of Chicago and structured my sales schedule around practice. It was the best decision I ever made."
In 1999, Moore resigned from his sales job and accepted a full-time director of basketball operations position under Bradley coach Jim Molinari, who had recruited Howard out of high school as the coach at Northern Illinois. Moore earned a promotion to assistant coach the following year, solidifying in his mind that he had chosen the proper career path and that he had a chance to become a head coach down the road.
"The two things I really liked about Howard were he has tremendous integrity and tremendous people skills," Molinari said. "There were a lot of things Howard still had to learn at that point before he could be a head coach, but if you're starting with those two qualities, you have a great chance to be good at whatever you do."
Accepting the UIC job in August 2010 was a risky choice because of the unusual timing of the move, but Moore felt as though the job was too good a fit to pass up. Though the undermanned Flames lost 46 games Moore's first two seasons and weren't able to make much headway in the Horizon League, the quick start this year suggests he has the program on the right track.
He has implemented a defensive philosophy and stuck with it despite early adversity. He has hired a staff that complements his strengths and weaknesses well. And he has elevated the program's talent level via a combination of four-year recruits and transfers, many of whom have Chicago ties.
Senior guards Gary Talton and Daniel Barnes, UIC's leading scorers this season, are both junior college products Moore plucked out of Texas and Illinois respectively. Forward Hayden Humes is an Indiana native who Moore landed after the versatile junior left Toledo after one season. And next season Moore will replace some of the departing backcourt talent with Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow, a standout defender during his tenure with the Boilermakers.
In Moore's first season at UIC, his team upset Illinois in Chicago, a fluky win the Flames treated as their Super Bowl, and then followed with 17 losses in their final 19 games. This year's team, while pleased with the victories over Northwestern and Colorado State, has taken the more measured, level-headed approach of a group of players who expect success.
"We're pretty humble in our approach," Moore said. "We know 8-1 is a great start, but we also know nobody's handing us a trophy. We're very eager to show this team can achieve a lot of success, but we're going to keep grinding until we get there."