At Rider, an assistant realizes his dream

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- He has no head-coaching experience. Not even a game on a high school sideline. He’s been nothing but an understudy and backup singer to the very successful front man. And he’s young; really young to become a head coach.

That’s what they said about Don Harnum 14 years ago when Rider University rolled the dice and promoted him to follow in the very successful footsteps of Kevin Bannon.

And that’s what they’re saying today about Kevin Baggett, who until a few days ago spent his entire career as a basketball assistant.

But Harnum, now the athletic director at Rider, remembers well what it felt like to be Baggett, to be waiting and hoping and praying that someone would just give you a chance. So when Tommy Dempsey surprisingly left for Binghamton, Harnum did just that: He tabbed Baggett as his new head coach.

“The only negative is that he’s never been a head coach before and to me, the positives outweigh that one negative,’’ Harnum said. “Having that as a personal experience, knowing someone took a chance on me when I was young and a little green helps me a lot, but I also know this is the right guy for this job.’’

It shouldn’t be a risky move. The next generation of coaches has to come from somewhere, and if no one has the courage to try something new, then how will the next wave ever grow and prosper? Brad Stevens wasn’t incubated in a test tube. He was a longtime assistant to Todd Lickliter. A wizard didn’t conjure up Shaka Smart with a magic spell. He was an old-fashioned boots-wearing coach who plied his way through the assistant’s ranks before landing at VCU.

Neither had a lick of head-coaching experience before they landed at their current jobs. It’s worked out pretty well.

Baggett graduated from Saint Joseph’s in 1989. Ever since he’s been climbing -- turning in assistant’s gigs at UMBC, James Madison, Howard, Western Kentucky, Coastal Carolina and the last six at Rider.

He worried, like plenty in his position do, that no one would have faith in him.

“When I first started, I’d say, ‘If I’m not a head coach by the time I’m this old, then I’m getting out,'" Baggett said. “And then I’d keep pushing the date back.’’

Someone at the introductory news conference asked Baggett why he wanted to be a head coach and by way of an answer, he told stories about a 7-year-old boy who, with his brothers’ help used to bend coat hangers to fashion a hoop in the house and put his pajamas over his basketball clothes -- “they were our warm-ups,’’ he said; who, as a high school freshman, had to pull sticks of Twizzlers out of his socks before entering his first varsity game; who, as a brash college freshman, tried to show up his upperclassmen teammates before being decidedly put in his place.

Basketball isn’t what he does.

It’s who he is.

Baggett didn’t want to be the boss because he wanted to be a big shot. He wanted to be the boss because it was his dream job; no different than a mid-level businessman hoping to become CEO or a cub reporter hoping to be named a national columnist.

It’s easy to forget that basketball coaches are just like the rest of us, starting out with wide-eyed dreams and then waiting patiently and impatiently for those dreams to come true.

Baggett offered a refreshing reminder of that at Rider. He was visibly emotional as he thanked everyone from his wife to his parents to his high school buddy to his former college teammates -- including Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint and St. Joe’s assistant Geoff Arnold who attended the news conference -- for helping him on what he called his "journey."

“When Coach Harnum told me that he was promoting me, I think I sort of looked through him for a minute because I was thinking of all the people who had helped me,’’ Baggett said. “In my mind I was going all the way back, and when we were through talking, I went back to my office and cried like a baby."