Desmond Oliver grew up on the East Side of Buffalo, in the Donovan Drive apartments near the intersection of Ferry and Grider. It was the ’80s, and it was a little rough.
“Back in the day, people thought going into my neighborhood was like going into the jungle,” Oliver said by phone last week from Tennessee. “Like their life was in jeopardy. But to me, my neighborhood was the greatest thing on Earth.
“But if you hear how tough it is, and how everyone is fighting, you think it’s worse from the outside, looking in.”
Oliver sees parallels in his current situation.
On April 5, he was hired as the head basketball coach at East Tennessee State University. At age 51, after 27 years as an assistant coach at nine different schools – dating back to his early days at Niagara under Jack Armstrong – he finally has his dream job.
People on the outside thought Oliver was stepping into the most treacherous neighborhood in college hoops. The man he replaced, Jason Shay, had resigned after one season at ETSU, amid a public backlash over his support of his players’ decision to kneel during the national anthem last season.
So Oliver, the first African-American head coach in school history, confronts a dual challenge: To maintain a winning tradition at East Tennessee (which averaged 26 wins from 2015-19), while regaining the support of fans, donors and state politicians who reacted negatively to the demonstrations.
Oh, he also has to gain the trust of his players, most of whom believe Shay was forced out for backing their protest. Oliver also had to re-recruit some of the eight players who entered the NCAA transfer portal after Shay’s controversial departure.
Oliver knows he has a challenge in store, but he seems undaunted. For one thing, he spent the last six years as an assistant at the University of Tennessee. He knows the state well and is no stranger to Johnson City, the home of East Tennessee.
After his first two weeks on the job, he found that it wasn’t quite the political hornet’s nest it appeared to be from the outside. He said it wasn’t a clear-cut case of Shay being nudged aside because he supported his players kneeling, either.
“I can’t go into detail,” Oliver said. “To me, it’s way deeper than that. But I dealt with that in my (initial) press conference. The kneeling question came up a lot, way too much.”
It’s hard to blame the Tennessee media for pushing him on the subject. Shay’s resignation was national news, and it would be naive to suggest the kneeling flap wasn’t a major reason.
Shay agreed before the 2020-21 season to support his players and kneel with them during the anthem as a protest against racial injustice. In mid-February, it became a public firestorm. All 27 members of the Republican caucus in the state senate objected. So did many of the university’s boosters and fans.
One car dealership, which had provided loaner vehicles to the ETSU coaching staff, ended the arrangement. The owner, who was on the university fund-raising board, said he objected to the players and coaches kneeling during the national anthem.
A columnist in Tennessee called the circumstances surrounding Shay’s exit “shameful,” an embarrassment to the state and university. Sadaidriene Hall, a freshman who transferred after Shay left, said donors are “mad because Coach Shay is a white man standing up for the Black community.”
Oliver once did a personal study of the head jobs given to Black college coaches. He found that they were generally jobs in bad, losing situations. In this case, he takes over a program with a long winning tradition, and an uncommon political challenge.
When Oliver took the job — one week after the Derrick Chauvin trial got underway in Minneapolis — cynics were asking on social media if he had taken the “no kneeling pledge.” Oliver has made it clear he doesn’t think kneeling is an effective strategy.
“My answer was, ‘The same thing I did at Tennessee,’ ” Oliver said. “I encouraged our guys to think about how to use their voices to create change. Talk about what’s going on in their society by communicating with people in classes or dorms, as opposed to doing something some folks might not understand.
“Our guys at Tennessee did that. They went on Zoom calls and talked to classmates. They had real conversations about what’s happening with the police, I mean, real talk. What I’m doing here now is trying to get my guys to communicate better. I’m working with the media department on how to handle those tough questions. Have a voice and speak intelligently. Be thorough, do your research and know what you’re talking about.
“Don’t offend people, but have a voice. And so far, so good.”
Oliver worked for this opportunity for 27 years. He’s been an assistant at Niagara, St. Bonaventure and Canisius, at Georgia, Texas A&M and Tennessee, at Cornell, URI and Charlotte. He’s handled every aspect of college coaching and bristles at the notion that he’s mainly a recruiter, though he’s a very good one.
They say nothing prepares a coach for that short but significant move from the assistant’s chair to the head coach’s.
“Honestly, it really hasn’t been like that for me,” he said. “I’m sure I will feel that way at some point, when there’s something I haven’t done before. But after 27 years in the business, I’ve done pretty much everything.”
Rob Lanier, who grew up two doors away from Oliver in Buffalo and is now the head coach at Georgia State, said Des will have “unique challenges” at ETSU, but said his old friend is well-prepared to meet them.
“Des has always been a worker and a people person,” said Lanier, who worked with Oliver at Tennessee before taking the Georgia State job. “He loves that area. His family is there. He feels like it’s home to him. It’s not like he’s coming there as a transplant from somewhere else who doesn’t understand the region, the climate and some of those dynamics there.
“So I think he’s uniquely prepared for a unique situation,” Lanier said. “He’s been in East Tennessee. He knows some of those feelings in the air that created that complex situation there. It does take a unique communicator to strike that balance with the fan base there really loves that program.
“Des can still do that without compromising his own principles.”
Oliver said being African-American was in his favor. But he said his intimacy with Tennessee was a bigger factor. He compared it with a person from Rochester taking a job in Buffalo.
“I was at UT, an hour and a half away,” he said. “So I knew a lot of people here. It was easy to make the phone calls and find out what was going on, and what really happened. To be aware of what to do if I got the job and how to step in and have an impact.
“I’ve had a chance to sit down and talk with some of those supporters and honestly, they’ve been great. The people in the Black community I’ve met have been great. Everyone has been really, really good.”
What it came down to was being himself. Being honest with people. It’s worked for him since his days as a young assistant at Niagara, making $3,000 and recruiting guys who became stars.
“I think of myself as a relationship-builder,” Oliver said. “Recruiting is like talking to donors. I talk to donors every day. So I recruit every day. My job is to get people to buy into us, whether it be Tennessee or now ETSU. It’s recruiting all the time. Donors or my current team, it’s getting guys to trust me.”
Evidently, he’s already gotten through to some people. Eight ETSU players entered the transfer portal, which has been very crowded during the COVID-19 era. But several were walk-ons, players who had marginal impact last season.
Oliver’s first recruiting success at ESTU came last week, when brothers Ledarrius and Ty Brewer removed their names from the transfer portal and decided to stay. Ledarrius led the Buccaneers in scoring last season and was first-team Southern Conference. Ty was a valuable contributor off the bench.
“Getting those guys back wasn’t easy, because I didn’t beg them,” Oliver said. “The whole thing was being myself and spending time with all of our guys and coaching ’em up and communicating with them. Knock on wood, the majority of our guys seem to have bought in so far.”
There’s tradition in Johnson City. ETSU won 130 games in five years under Steve Forbes, who left for Wake Forest after the 2019-20 season. Oliver calls it a “mid-major plus” job where he can attract major talent. He told his staff to recruit the best class in the SoCon this year and then do it again.
“Maybe once or twice there’s been a minor discussion about what’s going on here in the South,” Oliver said. “My thing is, that’s our nation. That ain’t just Tennessee. That’s our country right now that needs healing.
“So we all have to go hold some hands at some point in time and sing Kumbaya and find a way to get closer again, because our nation has gone through a lot the last several years.”
He’s spent 27 long years waiting for his chance to be a head coach, to make a stand. It shouldn’t require having to take a knee.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.