Recently I got an email from a man named Michael Wolf. From time to time there are athletes and coaches left off lists we put together. After his wife sent him TGR, Wolf wrote in and he has been added to a growing list of Jewish coaches. We asked him if he wanted to be interviewed and here we are. Wolf is an assistant coach at Portland. Portland represents the WCC. Like the Pilots program, Wolf is on the rise.
1) How did you get your start in coaching College basketball?
After playing small college basketball, I returned to my high school to serve as an assistant coach. We were fortunate enough to have 2 6’10” sophomores who ended up being McDonald’s All-Americans and have enjoyed a 10yr NBA career (Jarron and Jason Collins). That certainly makes you look like a good coach but it also gave me the chance to meet a ton of college coaches during those 3 years. I drove across the country and back over 2 summers working Division 1 college camps and met a ton of people that way as well. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to coach High School or College but figured I needed to experience college basketball to know what I was deciding about. Either way I knew I’d need a Master’s degree to advance in my profession. I applied to the Education program at Stanford and after I was accepted I called Trent Johnson (then an assistant at Stanford and now the head coach at LSU) and asked him about helping out in the program while I was there. I had gotten to know their staff while they were recruiting Jason and Jarron. It became an incredible year of learning and I just tried to be a sponge in every aspect of the program I could. I’m sure my coursework in the Ed school sufffered a little but in my mind I was there for the M.A. in college basketball and the degree in Education was a nice bonus. It was also where I first met Eric Reveno, our head coach here at Portland, who was an assistant on that staff at Stanford as well. Unfortunately I have the student loans to prove that it was a purely volunteer position and my wife can attest to the fact that I worked more like an investment banker despite the lack of salary.
2) You played at Tufts, how was that experience?
Tufts was a phenomenal experience for me as I got to leave Southern California and embrace an entirely different part of the country. Boston is an amazing city to be a college student in with so many schools nearby and the rich history of the city itself. Basketball was a big part of my life and I had an opportunity to play with a great group of guys who are still some of my closest friends even though we are scattered around the country. We had a very talented group who needed someone to pass, screen and knock down the occasional open 3 so it was the perfect role given my limited abilities. I was also really good at staying out of their way at the right times. D3 basketball in the NESCAC is really something special as there are these elite academic institutions with nationally competitive basketball programs. People tend not to realize how good basketball is at that level because it’s not on TV but the difference between our league and division 1 was maybe an few inches inside, a half step on the perimeter and, at least in my case, a few inches below the rim.
3)You run something called the Hoop Group. Tell us a little bit about that.
I am no longer involved in The Hoop Group but it is still the largest grassroots basketball organization in the country in terms of the number of young basketball players that come through their programs. It is headquartered at a 100,000 sq ft warehouse with 4 regulation NBA basketball courts on the Jersey Shore (no, “The Situation” and “Snooki” do not play pickup games there). The Hoop Group runs the nation’s longest running overnight summer basketball camp located in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, the nation’s largest college exposure camp series for high school players in addition to a massive operation of AAU travel team tournaments and winter high school showcase events. They have their hand in a few more basketball related businesses but I have a hard time keeping track of them all now.
4) How does Portland look for next season? Any big recruits?
We are coming off the best 3 year stretch in the history of the school so the bar has been set pretty high in terms of expectations, however we lost 9 players in the last 2 classes and all but 1 of them are or will play professionally (and the last one still might find himself a chance to play). It’s an exciting time to be here as we continue to build a championship program and we feel the last 2 classes of recruits are more talented than any of the previous classes, at least at the outset. If they can work as hard as our recent groups have then we could put together something pretty special in the next few seasons. The league as a whole has improved dramatically in recent years and with the addition of BYU to a group that had 5 teams win at least 19 games, it should make for a very competitive WCC season. We return one all conference guard in senior Nemanja Mitrovic and the challenge for him will be to take a leadership role and expand his game from being just a phenomenal shooter into a more complete player (if he’s reading this he should be thinking DEFENSE first!!). We signed 4 players this year that filled our needs perfectly including a Dutch junior national team post player, a local skilled combo guard from Portland, a post player from Southern California who was recently named 3rd team All-State and an explosive athletic wing from the Fresno area who was ranked in several national services as a Top 100 recruit (the first in our time here).
5) Whats it like competing against Gonzaga?
The challenge of playing Gonzaga is why I love college basketball. They have been the gold standard in our league for over a decade and it’s always a great opportunity to test yourself against the very best. Coach Few has managed to build something pretty special up there and it is a great atmosphere to play a college basketball game. With the level of talent they possess year in and year out combined with how well coached they are, it forces you to be at your best in order to compete at that level. Watching them have success on a national stage and knowing that we’ve been within 3 points with under a minute to play here the last 2 years, its a great barometer for where your program is on a broader competitive scale but in order to achieve our goals of winning championships and getting to the NCAA tournament we know we have to go through them at some point.
6) Saint Mary’s has made a big jump in the WCC, can Portland do the same?
Over the last 3 seasons, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Portland have the most combined wins in the conference so it’s been rewarding to know we are competitive in that group but have not had the national . We have split the regular season games with St. Mary’s the last 3 seasons with each winning at home but they’ve been able to take care of business against the rest of the league and earn themselves the championships we are fighting for. We feel like we are not at the top of the mountain yet but we can certainly see it from where we are now. Watching their success and knowing that we’ve had our way with them at times makes us more committed to the challenge of finding our way to play at that level more consistently.
7) What are your future coaching plans?
I love what I do every day and the challenges of being a college basketball coach. I am lucky to be passionate about my job and am probably one of the cliched people who “never worked a day in his life” because of it and I intend to continue to do it as long as someone will let me. I’m really focussed on the task at hand and helping Portland basketball continue to grow. We started this process together as a staff 5 years ago and we all still feel there are some milestones and goals yet to be accomplished. Obviously I’d love to be a head coach some day but for now my wife and children love Portland as much as I do so as long as they are happy, it allows me the ability to continue doing what I love doing here.
8) Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach? Why?
As a Jew, I’m sure I’m supposed to say Red but I grew up in LA in the 80’s so I not only have been a Laker fan my whole life but a Celtic-hater as well. My time in college in Boston with Beantown roommates and teammates only hardened my disdain for the Green and White as we argued deep into the night about Magic vs Bird and those great teams of the 80s. As a professional now in this business I have been able to distance myself from the irrational parts of being a fanand I respect so much what Coach Auerbach accomplished. Empirically speaking though, Coach Jackson has won 11 titles with 2 different organizations and coached so many different types of teams and talent sets in an ultra-competitive modern NBA that I think he gets the nod. What he was able to do in such clearly differentiated segments of his career is the most impressive to me but I’d be happy to carry the clipboard for either of them.
Thank you to Coach Wolf for his time. We will be following.
And Let Us Say…Amen.
– Jeremy Fine