It was early July – four months after Eastern Washington saw its postseason basketball hopes dashed by the coronavirus pandemic and four months before its next practice – when assistant coach TJ Lipold’s phone unexpectedly buzzed.
The clock read 8:30 a.m. when Lipold, enjoying offseason leisure at a North Idaho golf course, saw the name of his boss, EWU coach Shantay Legans, flash across the screen, prompting a swift, somewhat nervous, answer.
Legans was visiting family in California, but that wasn’t going to create a pause in the 38-year-old’s pursuit of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
“Legs was watching film, and he wanted to talk about adjusting our zone and an out-of-bounds play,” Lipold said “I’ve seriously never met somebody who pays attention to so much film detail.”
If there’s a line between meticulous preparation and obsession, Legans leapt it.
When No. 14 seed EWU(16-7) faces third-seeded Kansas (20-8) on Saturday in Indianapolis, the Cheney school’s third March Madness appearance will be a culmination of that brand of passion that has permeated through his players.
Legans, a 5-foot-10 and once marginally athletic guard who scrapped his way to three-year starter for a Cal Bears team that twice reached the NCAA Tournament, is EWU personified.
EWU, a small, low-budget school that historically gets the most out of its programs despite not having the aesthetics of its peers, is Legans.
A marriage of the kindred spirits has led to three Big Sky Tournament championship game appearances in three tries, a 2020 Big Sky regular season title, a 60-22 record against conference foes and, the crown jewel of the four-year run, a spot on college’s basketball’s grandest stage this weekend.
He still stews over the losses.
“It’s about having that chip on your shoulder, getting the most of what you have,” said the animated Legans. “I learned that my from mother and grandparents.”
Legans, who grew up in Santa Barbara, California, never had a relationship with his father.
His mother, the late Susan Legans, did all of the heavy lifting.
While most of his friends enjoyed middle-to-upper-class life, Legans and his mother shared a one-bedroom apartment as she worked to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and Jordans on his feet.
“She was both parents, really,” Legans said about Susan, who died from health complications at age 70 the day before EWU won a 2020 Big Sky title. “And I had great other brothers.”
Susan needed to keep her rambunctious son occupied while she was at work, though, and basketball helped provide that avenue.
The nearby Goleta Boys & Girls Club ultimately helped turn it into a life-changing pursuit.
A pint-sized Legans was in third grade when he caught the eye of club director and local coach Sal Rodriguez, who made it a point to help develop the beyond-his-years talent.
But as Legans grew confident in his adolescence, he grew difficult.
“They kicked him out of the Santa Barbara Boys & Girls Club and they kicked him out of the Westside Boys & Girls Club,” Rodriguez said. “He talked a lot of trash and was very intense.”
An AAU player for Rodriguez, his incessant jawing only magnified.
“It got to a point where I said I wouldn’t allow him to come on any more trips unless his mother came with him, and she did,” Rodriguez said. “I remember one player telling me ‘Coach, these guys are going to beat the hell out of us (after the game) if he doesn’t stop.’”
The sure-handed lefty would eventually temper much of the trash talk for Rodriguez, one of the most influential men in his life, but not completely stray from it.
Legans channeled that edge at Dos Pueblos High School, where he is still considered by many as the best point guard to ever play for the Goleta school.
California and several other NCAA Division I programs took notice of Legans’ toughness and court savvy. He signed with the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) school in 1999, where he went on to start for three years and enjoyed two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Loyalty toward another life-changing figure steered him another direction when Ray Lopes, who also helped mentor Legans at a Boys & Girls Club, was named head coach at Fresno State.
The Mountain West Conference wasn’t nearly as deep and talented as the Pac-10 in the early 2000s and the city of Fresno didn’t provide the amenities of the Bay Area, but Legans still mulled a transfer in a time when transferring – especially before a senior season – was rarer.
“People told me it would be stupid if you go, but I didn’t care,” Legans said. “But my dream was to play for him and help elevate his career.”
He redshirted due to NCAA transfer rules and as a fifth-year senior averaged 15 points and 5.6 assists.
Legans played professionally for two years overseas before opting to return home, but he had yet to develop any marketable skills for the workforce.
He took a fast-food job at Carl’s Jr. before making the slow pivot into coaching, joining the staff of Rodriguez at Laguna Blanca High School.
Legans was an assistant for two years before making the leap to college.
“I knew he would be a good coach,” Rodriguez said. “Between his X’s and O’s, the relationships he develops. And you see in college with how he recruits.”
As Legans’ status has grown over the years at EWU and he has blossomed into one of the top young Division I head coaches in America, he still treats everyone back home with the same respect.
He keeps in touch with Lopes, Rodriguez, former AAU coach Dave Benezra and several others who had been heavily involved in Santa Barbara-area’s basketball scene.
Legans also helped raise thousands for a Boys & Girls Club by speaking at events in years past, Rodriguez said, and he doesn’t expect that connection to wither, no matter how far Legans’ career takes him.
“Shantay told me ‘Hey, if I make it big, I am definitely going to give back any way I can,’” Rodriguez said.
Getting his foot in the door
If former EWU head coach Kirk Earlywine had even a normal budget, Legans likely would never have set foot in Cheney.
Earlywine was looking for a third assistant when an eager, 27-year-old Legans with no previous collegiate college experience reached out to him in 2009.
On the recommendation of a colleague, though, Earlywine knew he wasn’t in a position to turn many applicants away.
“We didn’t have enough money to bring in anyone with much experience, let alone get an interview” said Earlywine, an Indianapolis resident who will be in attendance Saturday. “So we brought him on. It was almost embarrassing what Legans was getting paid back then, because the nation was also coming out of a (2008) recession.”
Earlywine didn’t make it easy, though.
In their initial phone interview, Earlywine presented several difficult scenarios to Legans to gauge his basketball IQ and to see if they shared similar philosophies.
He passed with flying colors, accepted the position and made his way to the Inland Northwest.
“There was a likability to him that would be a contrast to me. I was hard on the guys. When you’re a head coach, you look to people who can complement you,” Earlywine said. “He had the age, background as a player and demeanor that would be good with the players. But there was also a toughness to him. An edge to him where the players wouldn’t walk all over him. That’s not any easy balance.”
Legans impressed Earlywine with his on-the-floor knowledge, but he still had much to learn about nuances of Division I coaching, much it that had little to do with the game itself.
“It was awesome what (Earlywine) did for me in bringing me on,” Legans said.
But it wasn’t exactly the golden era for EWU basketball, as Earlywine posted a 42-78 record (24-40 Big Sky) in four seasons before he was fired in 2011.
When EWU elected to hire a successful Division III head coach from nearby Whitworth, Jim Hayford, Legans was retained.
Legans went on to become the new leader’s primary recruiter. In Hayford’s run from 2011 to 2017, when the Eagles often finished in the upper tier of the Big Sky standings and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
The talent he added to Hayford’s roster included eventual Big Sky Conference Most Valuable Players Jake Wiley (2017), Bogdan Bliznyuk (2018) and Mason Peatling (2020) and current fifth-year senior guard and two-time All-Big Sky talent Jacob Davison.
Legans also got a short-time commitment from Jordan Davis, who went on to become the Big Sky MVP in 2019 at Northern Colorado.
Tanner Groves, who emerged from under-the-radar Shadle Park High School recruit to 2021 Big Sky Conference MVP earlier this month, also committed to Legans in 2016, the start of Hayford’s final season in Cheney.
“Legans was who I was mostly in contact with,” Groves said.
His current roster doesn’t feature a single transfer, either, in contrast to most Division I schools.
“He and his staff have done an outstanding job of evaluating players,” Earlywine said. “I’m not sure if he had a player who had another Division I offer. Guys who nobody else wanted, saw something in them, and developed them.”
Legans admittedly didn’t know where his career was headed – or what his long-term goals were – until his met his wife in Cheney, ex-EWU women’s basketball player Tatjana Sparavalo.
Before the couple had two children and Legans was promoted to head coach, he credits his wife for helping organize his future.
“She would tell me to starting writing things down on paper, to set goals,” Legans said. “That was big.”
A fun culture
Among Legans, Lipold, David Riley and Bobby Saurez, the average of age of EWU’s coaching staff is 33, one of the youngest in the country.
The Eagles (78 points per game) play a fast, loose and wide-open brand of basketball that is reflective of their coaches’ personalities.
While 3-pointers are hoisted at a heavy clip (548 attempts) and everyone on the bench – from team managers to graduate assistants – is spirited, the Eagles also adhere to a workman’s approach.
EWU surrendered an average of just 55 points in its three Big Sky Tournament games and yielded 80 or more points just once during the season.
Players are approachable and sport a collective grade point average over 3.0.
Legans understands that he won’t be able to attract talent to EWU based on facilities, conference prestige and a major fan base.
So he sells them on development, fun, family and something Eagles have been able to do a lot in recent years – winning.
Legans’ regular season Big Sky winning percentage (.726) ranks fourth all-time.
Old enough to have learned a few things, young enough to understand his players, Legans’ open-door policy with his players and assistants fosters a positive culture.
“He’s a player’s coach. He treats us all with such great respect,” Groves said. “He doesn’t treat us like he is way above us. It’s like we’re a big family. He’s more of an older brother. We always joke around.”
Not that his assistants don’t occasionally feel his wrath. He keeps them on their toes.
“I would text (my assistants) like 3 a.m., and I would get annoyed when they didn’t respond fast,” Legans said. “But I’ve gotten better at that.”
Lipold doesn’t mind.
“Stuff like that is why we’re so prepared,” Lipold said. “I wasn’t accustomed to anything like that before I got here.”
Legans, whose name has appeared on several lists as a potential coaching candidate at bigger schools, deflects the praise he has received leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
“I have been working with some great, unbelievable people here,” he said. “Our guys work hard.
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