In 2004, a few Jewish college basketball coaches who were in San Antonio, Texas, to take in the semifinals of the NCAA basketball tournament held a Shabbat morning service, kippot on heads and siddurim in hands, before they headed to the nearby Alamodome. Rabbi Bobby Schwartz, the head basketball coach at St. Edwards University, a Division-II school, guided the proceedings. The lay leader was Bruce Pearl, head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers. Also present was Bernie Fine, a longtime assistant at Syracuse, which had won the national championship the previous year; Keith Dambrot, an assistant at the University of Akron; and Seth Greenberg, just completing his first season as Virginia Tech’s head coach.
“It was wonderful to be with our brothers,” Pearl told me about that first meeting. In the following years, the small annual service grew to a larger brunch with a couple of prayers, held on the morning of the first day of the Final Four. A few years in, Pearl—by then head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, one of the country’s top college programs—Fine, and a handful of others formally established the Jewish Coaches Association.
The JCA is exactly what it sounds like, with the caveat that its focus is primarily college basketball. Aside from a few officers, there are no members and no dues. It’s a bunch of guys—yes, mostly guys, although the group includes Coach Andy Yosinoff, who has coached the women’s team at Emmanuel College, a Boston-area Division-III school, for 35 years, taking them to their own Final Four in 2001—getting together to schmooze and eat. What do they eat? It’s a Saturday morning: What do you think they eat? (Here’s a hint: Pearl confessed to using margarine rather than cream cheese.)
“The Jewish coaches are sort of a fraternity in itself,” said Josh Pastner, who played basketball for the University of Arizona—he won the 1997 championship with them—and now, as head coach of the Memphis Tigers, is the highest profile Jewish college coach. “It’s a strong group, and just to have an opportunity to be part of it is definitely an honor.”
This year, though, honor isn’t the word that first comes to mind when you think of Pearl and Fine, two of the JCA’s patriarchs. Last year, Tennessee fired Pearl, and the NCAA slapped him with what likely amounts to a three-year ban on coaching, after recruiting violations came to light. A stellar coach and generally considered a menschy guy, Pearl engaged in practices not far from the standard operating procedures of most major-program coaches (among other things, he recruited high-school juniors a mite too aggressively)—at least until he got caught lying about it to NCAA investigators. (He currently works for the Knoxville-based grocery wholesaler H.T. Hackney and hosts a college basketball show on Sirius XM Radio. Pastner insists he’ll be back soon; Pearl deflected the question.)
Pearl plans to attend brunch this Saturday in New Orleans, but don’t expect Syracuse’s Fine. Last November, two former ballboys accused him of molesting them in the 1980s, prompting Syracuse to fire him at the beginning of his 36th season as an assistant. Fine denies wrongdoing, and at least one of his accusers (who eventually numbered four) has recanted. “To me, he’s been like a grandfather,” said Jason Belzer, a lawyer who represents several of the coaches and is the executive director of the JCA. “You can never suspect anybody like that of something like that.”
Yet for all these rough waters, more than 100 attendees are expected this year—a significant bump from the straggling few in San Antonio back in 2004. Their ranks will include more establishment names and rising stars than ever before.
In addition to Pearl and perhaps Pastner (he has a baby at home), Virginia Tech’s Greenberg, whose Hokies fell short of a tournament spot, is expected, as is Dambrot, now head coach of Akron, which has qualified for the Big Dance in two of the last four seasons.
Just as important, so are a bumper crop of rising stars: assistants and heads at smaller schools who may one day have the big jobs. Jeff Goodman, a senior basketball writer for CBS Sports, identified several promising candidates for head-coach positions at major programs among the JCA’s unofficial ranks. They include Scott Garson, an assistant at UCLA; Ben Braun, head coach of Rice University, a small Division-I program; Rob Senderoff, of Kent State; Harris Adler, an assistant at La Salle; and Yanni Hufnagel, an assistant at Harvard. The Crimson’s most famous product, Jeremy Lin, now runs point for the New York Knicks, but it was only this year that Harvard qualified for its first NCAA tournament since the 1940s. “He’s a rising star. He’ll be a guy that a lot of high-major head coaches go after,” Goodman said of Hufnagel. “He reminds me a lot of Josh Pastner in terms of their work ethic, how relentless they are.” Other standout assistants include Adam Cohen at USC; Jeremy Growe at Xavier; and Sam Ferry at Monmouth. “There’s probably a shitload more,” Goodman added.
Not really. And because of the bleak math—as Goodman pointed out, only about 40 or 50 Division I head-coach jobs are up for grabs each year, and more than half go to assistants already at those respective programs—for the small number of opportunities, you have to help each other out.
Which is where the JCA really comes in. “It’s all about who you know, moving up in the ranks,” said Adler, of La Salle, who is also the JCA vice president. “It’s a great opportunity for other Jews to network, socialize, make friends in the coaching community.” Where the younger guys are eager for the helping hand, the more established ones feel noblesse oblige. “I thought it was really important to try to give back and help young coaches and develop a network,” Virginia Tech’s Greenberg told me. Added Hufnagel, of Harvard: “The one thing that I’ve really grown to be very fond of is the idea of Jewish coaches helping other Jewish coaches.” He continued: “Pastner would probably be the one who has done the most. If he meets you at this breakfast and gives you his cellphone number and you call him, he’s absolutely going to pick up your call—I don’t care how busy he is. There’s a sense of pride.”
Pastner, only 34, won the JCA’s annual prize, the Red Auerbach Award, at last year’s event. Pearl, who won the year before, told me that the brunch drives home the following truth: “We are a minority. We really are a minority, as it relates to coaching and to some of the natural challenges of recruiting.” But there is no reason not to dream big. From one angle, the Red Auerbach Award is audaciously named after the greatest basketball coach of all time—it’s also what the NBA’s coach of the year accolade is called. From another angle, though, it’s just named after one of the many great Jewish coaches of yore.
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