Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Interview: Vassar Coach BJ Dunne

There are some really great Jewish sports stories in college basketball, especially with college coaches coming through the ranks. These coaches gather once a year during the Final Four for bagels and lox (not a joke). One of these terrific coaches is BJ Dunne who has been incredibly impressive in his young coaching career. He is the Head Men's Basketball coach at Vassar which is a Top 10 academic institution and recruits nationally. Earning the head coaching job at a young age comes with a lot of challenges but Coach Dunne has met them head on and thrived. It can't be easy as a young coach to command the players attention, let alone respect. But from hearing Coach Dunne's story there is a reason why he is so successful; personable, intelligent, and loves the game.

 
1) Tell TGR about yourself?
Grew up in Medfield, MA. Attended Bates College and have been the Head Men's Basketball Coach at Vassar College for the past four years. Currently live in Beacon, NY with my fiancé.

2) What got you interested in coaching basketball? Did you play first?
I have always been in love with the game of basketball. I was shooting hoops as soon as I could walk. My grandfather got me a UNC practice uniform when I was about 8 years old and I never took it off. Before my family had a basketball hoop I would shoot into a milk crate in my driveway. However, I thought my athletic career was going to take a different path-I had a lot of Division 1 interest for lacrosse but a shoulder injury my junior year of high school directed my recruitment towards basketball and it couldn't have worked out any better. I played for two of my closest friends in the coaching profession today, Joe Reilly and Jon Furbush at Bates College. Being a student-athlete in the NESCAC allowed me to fulfill my dreams of playing college basketball at the highest level in Division 3. My coaches mentored, developed and challenged me to attack my academics and athletics with relentless enthusiasm, passion and energy. My teammates became my extended family and my coaches and teammates helped shape my passion for coaching.

The summer heading into my senior year at Bates College I interned with the newly formed Maine Red Claws in the NBA D League. The experience I had with them was amazing-I had my hands in everything from ticketing, to promotion, to player personnel. I loved the player personnel piece. I used to sit in the President's office and we would break down NBA Summer League games and work on a list of players who would not make NBA rosters. I loved evaluating talent but I quickly realized that in this current role I would never truly engage or have the opportunity to work with the players on the floor. It was at that moment that my love for recruiting and the desire to be on the floor and coach was cultivated.

3) What has the journey been like to a head coaching job? Did you coach elsewhere?
I have been so lucky in my journey. I played for two great coaches but more importantly great people. I have had the opportunity to work for Coach Brennan at Babson-the 2016-17 National Coach of the Year and 2016-17 National Champions as well as Coach O'Brien at Emerson College, former Head Coach and National Coach of the Year at Ohio State. I am so thankful for the administration and support at Vassar College for hiring me at the age of 25, which made me the youngest coach in the country at all levels.When I made the transition to the first chair on the bench it was humbling and exciting. I wake up every day and I get to do what I love with some of the people who I love the most. My student-athletes make what I do so rewarding. They give me a purpose in life and the opportunity to make an impact every day is something I value over winning games. Just the other day one of my former players texted me to tell me he was accepted to Duke Law School-how awesome is that?!

4) What are your career goals? 
My first season as a head coach, I was 25 years old and we had the best season in program history. We won 19 games and advanced to the conference championship game and I was honored to be named the Conference Coach of the Year.I had people telling me I was headed here and there and I was on the fast track to the Division 1-someone even compared me to Brad Stevens-which was amazing because he an inspiration to me. Things were moving so fast for me it was hard to take a step back and enjoy the small victories in my life. I am getting married to my best friend, love of my life and best teammate I could ask for in June and we are so excited to start a family and have them grow up in a college environment. I am so proud of my fiancĂ© and it is special for me to watch her go after her dreams too.At the end of the day, I do have lofty career goals. I want to be remembered as the best Division 3 basketball coach ever. I love this level. It is the purest form of athletics where passions for sport extend into the classroom, community service and extracurriculars. While I have personal goals I also want to attend many of my players weddings, help them learn, grow and develop into leaders and watch them accomplish their dreams. Nothing means more to me than when one of them asks me to be a personal reference for an internship or job application.


5) What is the biggest challenge about coaching D3? How does your recruiting process differ from D1?
I think the biggest challenge is our time with our student-athletes is limited. We only can work with them in the gym from October-March (if we are lucky enough). I love being around my student-athletes-they are what make this job so much fun and rewarding for me. The more we can spend with them the more opportunity we have to not just improve them as basketball players but as people.

Our recruiting is so different from Division 1. I envy Division 1 coaches-they have a strict calendar and Division 3 is like the Wild, Wild West! We constantly feel pressured to be out almost every weekend beginning in April and finishing in August because if we are not out evaluating or showing a recruit love, our competition is. This takes us away from our family and friends and can honestly wear a coach down traveling and spending so much time in a gym. I hope at some point they regulate Division 3 recruiting. I think this will enhance the basketball that is being played and recruits won't get burnt out!

Our process also differs in the admissions process. Vassar has some pretty high academic standards-we are a top 10 Liberal Arts College so we have to find not only good basketball players but players who can be admitted on their own merit. Very little support in the application process is given by the coach and the only financial aid received is government based for what the family qualifies for. No scholarships for athletics are offered at our level.

And lastly, building a strong connection at our level is really important in the recruiting process. Unlike Division 1 where coaches can get on the phone and call their contacts, us Division 3 coaches really work to build and maintain relationships with our recruits and find out what they are about and what their interests are outside of basketball. They are playing at this level for the love of the game and the academic and post-college opportunities we can offer them. It is important to let them know I will do everything in my power to give them the best possible student-athlete experience and access to all that Vassar has to offer them.

6) What was your Jewish upbringing like?
My grandparents instilled a strong Jewish pride in me at an early age. We went to Temple on the high holidays and I attended religious school up until my Bar Mitzvah. After my Bar Mitzvah it was a challenge to continue to attend Temple because of my busy schedule but we always celebrated the high holidays.

Having an opportunity to serve as the Head Coach of Team USA at the European Maccabi Games ignited a new sense of pride in being Jewish. Being in Germany, the largest congregation of Jews in Germany since the Holocaust made me feel so proud to be Jewish, to represent my country and to be with so many others who shared the same religion and passion for sport. The way I would describe how my Jewish life folds into my coaching career is being proud of who I am. I've worked diligently to instill a sense of pride in our team. Being Jewish has allowed me to connect with something that is bigger than myself-we often ask that of our players too.

7) What else should people know about BJ Dunne and/or Vassar basketball?

We have a really strong group returning next season and we are very enthusiastic about our team's potential. We return 94% of our scoring and 86% of our minutes. We also return from injury one of the best players in the league and feature a strong recruiting class. Basketball has afforded me the opportunity to make some incredible friendships. I wouldn't have met my future wife if I was not a coach! Life is good-I hope that people work to celebrate the small victories in life, stay positive and live with tons of energy. Life is more fun that way and energy, passion and enthusiasm are highly contagious-share them!

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