If it’s not the youngest Division I coaching staff in the country, it’s certainly among the most animated.
Eastern Washington and its four full-time men’s basketball coaches have an average age of 33, about as long as Mark Few has been employed at neighboring Gonzaga.
They look the part.
Fourth-year head coach Shantay Legans, 39, is elder statesman, but the former California point guard exhibits a youthful and lively demeanor from the bench
When Legans isn’t gesticulating and talking in the direction of a player or official – or occasionally an opposing coach – his feet are in motion.
He’s fun but shrewd, winning 50 of his 69 games against Big Sky Conference foes with an up-tempo “Let it fly” credo that screams millennial.
“At the end of the day, we want to have a lot of fun,” said Legans, who cracked ESPN’s top 40 coaches under 40 list last year. “But we also know when to hold our guys accountable.”
The collective attitude of the Big Sky-leading and defending champion Eagles (10-6, 9-2) can be assessed from a cursory glance at the sideline.
Associate head coach and former Whitworth standout David Riley, 32, is the staff’s most reserved and analytical figure, but colleagues Bobby Suarez and T.J. Lipold are the most spirited.
Saurez, 30, sports a long and curly mullet and is often jumping from his seat and doling out fist-bumps and advice.
Lipold, 32, is a ball of intensity who brings a defense-first mentality in hype-up-the-squad fashion.
With the coronavirus keeping fans out of the stands, staff members can be seen jumping and flailing their arms in the motion of Eagles wings to help create energy, a scene reminiscent of a cardio class.
It’s controlled chaos.
“Legans demands a lot,” said Riley, whose primary duties include offense, academic affairs and fundraising. “He lets us coach. He really allows us to run meetings. Maybe we’re not old, but we have a bunch of good ideas.”
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Suarez, who spearheads the team’s recruiting and player development efforts.
“It makes us relatable to the players,” said Lipold, who works with post players when he isn’t scouting opponents’ defenses. “We can joke with them.”
EWU, which faces rival Montana (9-10, 5-7) in a two-game series this week, has been among the conference’s most efficient and balanced offensive units in the Legans era, averaging 84 points against Big Sky foes, the conference’s top mark.
The Eagles, who rank No. 1 in several of the conference’s offensive categories, have become a pest on the other end of the floor, too, winning Big Sky games by an average margin of 11 points.
“On defense we play tough, on offense we play hoops,” Lipold said. “This explains what we want to do perfectly. We flow on offense because Legans lets his guys play and gives his players appropriate freedom and doesn’t joystick them. On defense, we want toughness.”
There’s been a lot of production on both ends for a group of generally relaxed players given nicknames by their young coaches.
Junior wing Kim Aiken Jr., the reigning Big Sky Conference Player of the Week, answers to “Cheesecake,” a moniker derived from affinity for sweets his freshman year.
Music is often blaring at practice. The coaches play video games and shooting contests with the players and they’re all plugged into social media.
If there’s an age gap between most of the players and coaches, it doesn’t always show.
The son of one of Australia’s top coaches, senior point guard Jack Perry, appreciates the business and pleasure balance.
“It’s easier for them to have relationships with us because there isn’t a huge age gap,” Perry said. “We get along on and off the floor. They’re upbeat.
“But we also understand that when the ball is on the floor, that they’re our coaches and we try to learn from their criticisms.”
The players respect their opinions, though none of the assistants played a minute of Division I basketball.
Unlike Legans, who started at both Cal and Fresno State and played in NCAA tournaments in the early 2000s, his assistants began their careers on smaller stages.
Riley went the Division III route at Whitworth; Lipold played at NAIA Westmont in Santa Barbara, California; and Suarez didn’t play beyond high school in Florida. He got his foot in the door as a video coordinator at Florida State before becoming a director of operations intern at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“They’re the best guys for the jobs they have,” Legans said. “We’re like a family here. We do a good job of recruiting great humans and from great families. They make it fun.”
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