It might seem crazy, almost naive, to suggest that a third assistant-coaching hire by new St. Joseph’s basketball coach Billy Lange suddenly caused his entire staff-hiring process to make sense.
That’s the way it is, though. Each previous Lange hire came with its own separate logic. The staff as a whole, however, was missing something, maybe several things.
Until the very end.
Some background: Separate from the people who were not happy with how St. Joe’s handled the departure of Phil Martelli, there were those who watched Lange get hired and begin building a staff and wondered if it was a staff that knew all the doors and levers around Philadelphia basketball.
Lange’s first hire made perfect sense. John Griffin, son of a former Hawks head coach, had been the top assistant at Bucknell, seemingly ready to be a head coach somewhere himself. Every staff needs a guy like that, period. One asterisk, though: While Griffin is from Philly, a star at St. Joe’s Prep before going to play at Bucknell, he hadn’t coached in Philly. Rider is as close as he’s been.
Next hire, Brenden Straughn. Eyebrows started to go way up locally. The former Loyola (Md.) assistant has deep connections to the top travel program in the Washington, D.C. area, Team Takeover, and most recruiting experts will tell you the D.C. area is the single most fertile recruiting territory on the East Coast right now. St. Joe’s doesn’t just want that area — it needs that area. Imagine a Hawks program without Delonte West and Isaiah Miles, and you get it.
But what about Philly? Suddenly the Hawks had three coaches and none of them had coached a home college game in or around Philly in the last six years. Only Lange had ever done it.
If Lange’s Hawks are going to succeed, he knows — everyone knows — it starts at home. It’s great that Lange is from just over the bridge in South Jersey or spent years at Villanova and did stops at La Salle and Philadelphia Textile before then, that he remains close to Kyle Lowry, and did more recent years with the 76ers. His staff still needed more to be welcomed locally. Even bringing back a former St. Joe’s player such as Dwayne Jones or John Bryant, both now on the Sixers developmental staff, while great to the Hawk faithful, wouldn’t have automatically moved the needle within local high schools and AAU programs.
So hiring the head coach of Division III Arcadia completes the picture. Don’t believe me. Just listen to Amauro Austin, a Philly Pride honcho who absolutely knows the local scene as well as anybody.
When Arcadia coach Justin Scott was hired, Austin posted on Facebook, calling it a great hire: “He can get St. Joe’s in any and every door in the region and even beyond. And as solid a person as I know. Could be a future D1 head coach.”
It’s not a matter of everyone simply liking the likable local guy. A Division III coach told me roughly the same thing, that he fully expects Scott, who also happens to be the head coach of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines national team, to be a future Division I coach, that he’s proven to be a fine teacher in addition to knowing everybody in the city. No coincidence that Arcadia made the NCAA Division III Tournament this season for the first time.
An interesting part of this, even to Lange: He’d never worked with any of his three assistants.
“In the NBA, it happens all the time,’’ Lange said. “But in college, it never happens. Two of them, I didn’t know before I got the job. John, I knew. … “
… Including, Lange pointed out, the long-distance shot Griffin hit that knocked Navy out of the Patriot League playoffs one year.
“When I was with the Sixers, we interviewed John three different times for three different jobs,’’ Lange said. “The G League head-coaching job when I first got there. The shooting coach a year later. And then a player-development coach this time last year.”
In that process, Lange said, they got a little closer.
“In my mind, I started to think, ‘I’ll hire this guy when I become a head coach,’ ‘’ Lange said. “I didn’t even care about the level. Whether it was NBA or college. I would have brought him anywhere.”
As a head coach, Lange knows he needs a chief of staff, “a connector, a guy who sets the pace internally, even with our own players … who sets that tone, who knows what I want.”
It turned out Straughn had actually worked at Lange’s Navy camp when Straughn was a Division III player. Lange didn’t know that until they got to talking about this job.
“I’ve grown a good network in that DMV [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] area,’’ Lange said, mentioning that he’s got six people he has real trust in down there back to when he was Navy’s coach. “I called them. I had a criteria that I was working for. Between the six, I would say they gave me 12 names, 14 names. He was the only name that was said by each person.”
After talking for maybe an hour, Lange said, “I did a little bit more research on him, asked him to do a few things, a couple of little projects. I wanted to see how he thought. He did it. Just like, how would you structure a roster? What would your contact list be? Who are the first few players we would go after? Who are the coaches we have to always stay in touch with regardless if they have players?
"I just wanted to see if he got it. What type of players does he think we could get from that area up to Philadelphia? And he’s good. He worked at Merrill Lynch. He knew how to put all that stuff together. I was like, wow, this is impressive.”
So Straughn was in. One more assistant job to go. Lange didn’t want to rush the hire.
“The way I learned about Justin, I’m calling people I know in Philadelphia about basketball players,’’ Lange said. “His name keeps coming up.”
Scott had coached for the K-Low Elite program. Lange has stayed very close to Kyle Lowry. Lonnie Lowry, Kyle’s brother, runs that program.
“It wasn’t just Lonnie Lowry — it was numerous people,’’ Lange said. “I’m, like, man, people are speaking passionately and enthusiastically about Justin.”
This being Philadelphia, that does not always or even usually happen.
“No,’’ Lange said.
Lange has made other moves, but the three assistant hires are the key ones. Toe Boyle stays on, moves from director of operations to scouting and analytics specialist, in charge of video and helping with data collection. Amanda Casale comes over from the Sixers to become director of basketball operations, managing the scheduling, travel, game ops, the managers. She’d been a basketball operations assistant for the Sixers. Strength coach Eric Lang comes from the Houston Rockets. Michelle Thomas will be program services specialist, managing the office.
“We have data analytics as a major,’’ Lange said. “I’m looking to see, can we recruit some students to come help us? No different than you have court managers. You now could have analytics managers.”
All that’s great, but Lange knows it starts with getting players. How conscious was Lange about getting the staff right in order to be welcomed in every gym around here?
“I love this city,’’ Lange said. “The bulk of my career has been right here. What I love about it is the loyalty and the passion and the authenticity — I’m aware of all that. This is why I took my time on the hires. I wanted to feel Hawk Hill. I needed to feel Philadelphia. I needed to feel the vision. I needed to understand our roster, what people think of St. Joseph’s basketball. I was aware that in this transition of the coaching there were a lot of hurt feelings out there. A lot.”
It was important, Lange said, not to take it personally. As he settled in and did his research, he said, the most important thing was to get the staff right.
“It’s not just, did the person play high school basketball in the city of Philadelphia,’’ Lange said. “It’s way deeper than that. … If we can be strong in the city, if it can get stronger, that would be pretty special. Let’s be amazing in the city of Philadelphia.”
If he can’t be humble enough to see that he needs to understand all facets of the city, beyond just basketball, Lange said, he doesn’t belong in a leadership position.
Did Lange get it all right? His last assistant hire makes that a much easier sell. A couple of summers ago, I was reporting on a story at the Chosen League, a league then operating out of the playground courts at 10th and Olney. There was a big crowd. Within it, I noticed one college coach, the head coach at Arcadia. Division I coaches wouldn’t have been allowed to be there during that closed recruiting period, but D-III coaches were, and the new St. Joe’s assistant stood along the baseline watching one of his own new recruits.