Before they departed for gigs at different universities after the season, three members of the Clemson basketball support staff had one last round of dinner and drinks together at the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis.
They invited a handful of video coordinators, equipment managers and graduate assistants they knew who worked for other programs. They swapped stories, shared ideas and exchanged career advice. And by the end of the night, they realized the evening had been so entertaining and informative that it shouldn't be a one-time-only event.
"We were like, 'How can we take that to the next level?'" said Andy Farrell, now director of basketball operations at DePaul. "We started brainstorming and we decided, 'Why don't we do a conference for support staffers out in Las Vegas?' We knew assistant coaches and head coaches would be out there for recruiting, so we decided to invite all our friends out there, get a couple of guest speakers and maybe invite some other support staff members who we wanted to get to know."
Farrell and his friends spent the next few months calling basketball offices around the country, obtaining contact information for support staffers and informing them of their idea. What those efforts spawned is the Rising Coaches Conference, an annual gathering of support staffers each July during which attendees network with one-another and listen to some of the top coaches in the nation speak about their career paths, philosophies and expectations for the next generation.
Forty-four support staffers paid $85 apiece to attend the event in July 2010. Almost double that came last year. And Farrell is capping attendance at 100 for this year's third installment, which will be held next Wednesday to Friday at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
"It's good for networking amongst peers," Farrell said. "Guys from Cal State Northridge or Maine or schools I'd never have reason to associate with, they've become close friends of mine now who I talk basketball with and bounce ideas off of.
"And in addition to that, we're able to learn from the assistant coaches and head coaches who speak. We want to be in Jerrance Howard's shoes at SMU. We want to be in Cornell Mann's shoes as an assistant coach at Iowa State. To be able to network with these coaches is so valuable for us. I can't think of one coach who at the end of his speech didn't give out his cell phone number and email address and say, anything you guys need, let me know."
It's no surprise interest in such a conference would be high because the path to the Division I coaching ranks has never been murkier or more competitive. Whereas aspiring coaches used to climb the ladder from graduate assistant or director basketball operations to assistant coach to head coach, many top programs are making less traditional hires these days.
Korey McCray jumped from the AAU ranks to an assistant coaching gig at UCLA last year in part because Ben Howland believed his ties to players in Georgia could jumpstart the program's recruiting. New Memphis assistant Damon Stoudamire parlayed a long NBA career and two years coaching with the Memphis Grizzlies into a spot on fellow Arizona alum Josh Pastner's staff. And the visibility Hubert Davis gained in seven year as an ESPN analyst was one of the reasons Roy Williams tabbed him to fill the vacant spot on North Carolina's staff this spring even though he has no prior coaching experience.
With only about 1,000 Division I assistant coaching gigs out there and so many plum ones going to guys who aren't former support staffers, Farrell has tried to work tirelessly to stand out.
Once Farrell feels like he has mastered a certain task -- be it editing film, updating the recruiting database or coordinating travel -- he'll ask for more responsibility so he can learn something new. As a result, he's risen from student assistant under Brian Gregory at Dayton from 2003-07 to graduate assistant under Anthony Grant at VCU during the 2007-08 season to three seasons as a video coordinator and now one as director of basketball operations under Oliver Purnell at Clemson and DePaul.
"In order to get to that next level, you really have to have a passion for what you're doing," Farrell said. "I can truly say I can't see myself doing anything else. There are those nights you're working 20 hours a day, you haven't slept and you're on a two-game losing streak, but there's no place you'd rather be than in the office studying game tape, making game plans and things like that. If you really love what you're doing, then you're able to keep doing it."
Farrell calls the jump from director of basketball operations to full-fledged assistant the hardest one he'll ever have to make, but he's confident he can do it because he has seen peers he met through Rising Coaches make it happen.
Fellow Rising Coaches co-founder started as a manager at Clemson and is now an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio). Mike Fly parlayed his success as a video coordinator at Florida State into an assistant coaching position at Florida Gulf Coast. And James Kane spent three years a video coordinator at Alabama and VCU before joining Murray State's staff last season as an assistant coach.
Although Farrell admits the knowledge and connections those coaches gained at the Rising Coaches Conference is just a small part of their success, each of them have told him they gained a lot from attending.
"The feedback they gave me was that going to this conference made them better coaches and made them realize some of the values they needed to take the next step forward," Farrell said. "It prepared them for the interview to move forward and it's preparing them to take that next step from assistant to head coach."
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