Nothing like a basketball coaching search, Drexel athletic director Eric Zillmer will tell you. He was talking about the one in 2016 that resulted in Zach Spiker coming to Drexel, although it does not matter which school is looking for a coach, how big or small — the whole basketball world has a perfect candidate for the job.
“You’re in your office and the secretary tells you, ‘There’s a Larry Bird on the phone, you want to talk to him?’ ’' Zillmer said.
He meant Larry Bird-types called?
“I mean Larry Bird called,’' Zillmer said. “And he’s going to tell you what you should be doing.”
From the applicant pool, Spiker, the Army head coach at the time, had Zillmer’s quick attention, partly because the AD had deep family roots up at West Point. (Zillmer’s father, an academy graduate, is buried there.) Spiker also had an interesting background before Army, including as Steve Donahue’s Cornell assistant for an NCAA Sweet 16 run.
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Spiker might not have been Larry Bird’s candidate, but Zillmer talked to John Beilein, then Michigan’s coach, who had Spiker as his administrative assistant when Beilein first got to West Virginia. Beilein told Zillmer that Spiker was going to think of this as a problem-solving situation, creativity required. That word came up a lot. Creative guy.
Enough problems were solved during 2020-21 that Spiker and his Drexel Dragons are headed to the NCAA Tournament, facing Illinois on Friday in the first round, so it does beg the question …
Who is Zach Spiker?
A former Division III player, at Ithaca, Spiker has been around college sports from the womb. Not the son of a coach, but of a trainer for West Virginia’s football team. As competitive as the next coach — and sometimes as verbally chippy as most after losses — Spiker also keeps track of the wider world, and has been known to check in when he spots some suffering going on. (Son of a trainer.)
Of all Beilein’s former aides who moved on, Spiker might be the one who keeps in touch most frequently with Beilein, according to Beilein himself, who says they talk every couple of weeks, and have a joke about Spiker leaving a message on what they’ve come to call the Bat Phone — “meaning, don’t wait three days to call back,” Beilein said.
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“I think he’s very creative — he’s always trying to do things a little different,’' said Donahue, now down the street at Penn, noting that Spiker, whom he had hired on Beilein’s recommendation, really pushed him to start recruiting the Midwest when they were at Cornell, since they were not getting the East Coast recruits Donahue was first going for. They were on a campus, Spiker pointed out, that looked like the Midwest.
So they scoured the Midwest, joking about how they’d stop the car and drop off a coach in each town — not too far, Donahue said, from how they actually did it. Cornell’s Sweet 16 team emerged from those trips.
Listening to players more
Catching up to Spiker on the phone last Friday before practice. Five years in at Drexel, how is he a different coach?
“I think I listen to our players a little more,” Spiker said. “There might be a better connection, or it might be me adapting to the times.”
So when point guard Cam Wynter texts him and says he really likes some specific offensive action, Spiker listens. When junior Matey Juric tells him, “Nobody really likes that layup drill before practice …” Noted. And removed?
“I had to do it a couple of times just to tick him off,” Spiker said.
Of his seven seasons at Army, Spiker, now 44, noted, “Such a perfect place to be a young coach. But also maybe it didn’t prepare for the next one.”
Jeff Meyer, who worked with Spiker on the Winthrop staff two decades back, when Spiker was an unpaid graduate assistant, and remains a close friend and mentor, remembers visiting West Point with Beilein to study leadership there when Spiker was there, seeing Army’s basketball coach set up little rest pods for players, “to allow them to rest and refresh,’' cutting practice a little shorter than it might be otherwise, since the two and a half hours typically devoted to basketball were a bit of a respite.
“He was telling me, these kids are up early, they’ve got all these responsibilities,’' Meyer said. “It was on point to understand the makeup of the team.”
Makeup still matters. Note to Drexel recruits: A trip to Sabrina’s Cafe just up 34th Street for breakfast can be as important as a ballgame. Spiker tells about one prospective Dragon who ordered a Sabrina’s specialty, the heaping portion of Challah French Toast stuffed with cream cheese, topped with bananas. In Spiker’s telling, the recruit added a side of bacon, and bring him some eggs, too.
“Listen, these are big portions.”
“I’m a big eater.”
By the end of the meal, the recruiting, unbeknownst to the recruit, was over.
“I can’t finish it,’' the recruit said.
Spiker took that as: “One, you didn’t listen. Two, you’re full of yourself. Three, back it up and finish.”
(Spiker notes that player went to an Atlantic 10 school, then transferred on from there, he’s not even sure where.)
Ever since, it’s a joke with his assistants when they take another recruit to Sabrina’s. He leaves a piece of bacon the plate. Are they done recruiting him? They’ll jab their boss: “Are we wasting our time here?”
Beilein spills about Spiker on the recruiting trail. If they’re in a gym with three courts and Spiker is interested in someone on Court 2, “he doesn’t want anyone to know it,” Beilein said. “He will sit by Court 1 or Court 3. I’ll go over to him, ‘Who are you watching on Court 2?’ ”
Spiker cops to being a rules stickler, noting that longest-serving assistant Justin Jennings came with him from Army, but first was coach of the academy’s prep school where Jennings was when he got married, inviting Spiker to the wedding.
“I was late getting him a wedding gift,’' Spiker said. “I didn’t want to commit a violation.”
(A gift from a college coach to the coach of a player headed to West Point was the issue.)
Born to coach?
Growing up as the son of a trainer, “if you’re a sports guy, it’s like a backstage pass,’' Spiker said. “Sixth grade, hanging around the training table.”
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No need for a babysitter. “Why don’t you go to work with your father today.”
Beilein notes that he didn’t know he was hiring the son of the football trainer when he interviewed this graduate assistant from Winthrop for an administrative assistant job. Spiker kept that from him, but Beilein does remember West Virginia’s radio announcer being very enthusiastic about Spiker.
What Beilein didn’t know was that the same radio announcer, Tony Caridi, had broadcast local high school hoop games when Spiker’s older brother was playing.
“Zach would crawl up in the crow’s nest and make himself part of the broadcast,’' said John Spiker, Zach’s dad.
On the air?
“He wasn’t meant to be, but yeah, he’d say, ‘Well, they’re in a 2-3 zone,’ ” John Spiker said. “He was in fourth grade.”
Future coach alert: “Before he was a teenager, he would start drawing up plays,” Zach’s father said. “There were papers all over the house. I’m sure he thought they were all going to work.”
At a young age, hanging around Mountaineers athletes, “I made sure he was old enough to be around. He saw athletes have their highs and lows. He was good at knowing how to handle himself, when to shut up and when it was OK to talk. He had a good feel for that at an early age.”
His range of bosses is most interesting, from Gregg Marshall at Winthrop at Beilein to Donahue. All successful, all vastly different. (Yes, the same Gregg Marshall who got blown out this season at Wichita State after charges of abusing his players. Spiker stays in touch.)
Meyer, on that Winthrop staff, said Marshall was “a tremendous leader.”
But a demanding leader.
“Zach had a positive demeanor amidst a demanding environment,’' Meyer said.
The example they joke about to this day, how Winthrop was “budget sensitive” one summer, when Spiker was in charge of the camp. “We had like 12 basketballs — at the end of camp, for whatever reason, there were only 11 basketballs.”
This was an issue for Marshall. Where’s the other basketball? We need 12 basketballs.
“The basketball that almost cost us all our jobs, in the middle of June,” said Meyer, who retired last year after 41 seasons working in college hoops, most recently as a Butler assistant. He noted it’s still a joke between he and Spiker: “Don’t turn your back in camp.”
If every stop has lessons, Spiker is a mental pack rat.
“I’ve got a notebook right in front of me,’' Spiker said. “I can also look at [old] practice plans, right in front of me. During the pandemic, I’d look at some of those things. I kind of locked myself in a closet off my bedroom, ordered a bookcase to put in there.”
With Beilein, he said, “I was in a lab really. I really only was asked to plug in the projector. But I made a notebook.”
He kept sheets of paper, then later sent them off to a printer to be bound. Halfcourt offense, transition D, “a section for turnovers, our halfcourt shot selection, a culture section.”
All this is relevant now, March Madness achieved at Drexel after 25 seasons away from the NCAA Tournament, but you can go back to mid-February when the AD who hired Spiker announced he was leaving his post. At the time, the Dragons were on a break, 8-7 at the time, after incremental improvement in Spiker’s first four seasons. Did Zillmer’s announcement make Spiker wonder if he himself was on thin ice?
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“I didn’t,” Spiker said. “If you get sped up and allow our mind to go to a place where you literally don’t have any control, that’s really hard. … Don’t try to outsmart fate. It’s not my job to run the [AD] search. Would I have called a different play because of it? Do my guys even know?”
Now, all moot. This talk was two days before Selection Sunday. Conversation eventually veered toward Drexel’s NCAA seed and plausible opponents. Spiker had talked to bracketologist Joe Lunardi the night before, he wasn’t disengaged from the topic.
But Drexel’s coach pretty quickly said, “Timeout, timeout. I’ve got to go to practice. It’s meaningless to speculate.”
This isn’t speculation, just a fact: The college hoops world noticing Drexel has nothing to do with a job search, just a job done. Larry Bird is not calling Drexel again any time soon.