BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–The fact is, Desmond Oliver didn’t plan on coaching basketball for a living when he was younger.
“Coaching was never in the equation,” Oliver said early this week from Tennessee, where he works as an assistant under Rick Barnes.
Yes, he had helped out Fajri Ansari at Turner/Carroll High while earning his Master’s in student personnel administration at Buffalo State in the early 1990s. But that was mainly to get his “basketball fix,” to stay involved and get some five-on-five run with the high school kids.
His long-term ambition was to get a PhD, preferably at UB, and work in administration on a college campus, where he could be a leader and make a difference in young people’s lives.
But after years in the school grind, Oliver was worn out from studying and taking tests and writing papers. After getting his Master’s, the Buffalo native decided to take a one-year hiatus. Then he’d return to graduate school and get back on his career path.
So why not a year of coaching? His lifelong friend, Rob Lanier, who had grown up two doors away on Buffalo’s tough East Side, told him there was an opening on Jack Armstrong’s staff at Niagara.
Lanier, who had begun his college coaching career under Armstrong, had moved on to St. Bonaventure under Jim Baron. He told Armstrong that his friend had the makings of a fine coach if he took that path.
That got Oliver an interview. “He just blew me away,” said Armstrong, who later became the analyst on Raptors telecasts and has been the leading voice in Canadian basketball for the last two decades.
“Des is just a sincere, good person,” Armstrong said. “And he has that intellectual curiosity. He asked really good questions. He’s one of those guys when you meet him, it’s like ‘This guy is the real deal’. He’s sensitive and thoughtful, a real gentleman.”
Oliver got the job, which was the last spot on the staff and paid $3,000. He lived off-campus for $100 a month in rent. Armstrong made him a jack-of-all trades, trusting a first-time college coach with all manner of tasks in running a small DI program.
“I was the video guy, the academic coordinator,” Oliver said. “I was Jack’s right-hand man when he ran things off in the morning as he talked about the budget. I ran study hall, was liaison between our players and their academics in getting registered. I was mentor, counselor, I mean, everything.”
This was a different sort of education, one that would serve Oliver well later in life. He also handled Niagara’s on-campus recruiting, showing the high school kids around when they came on visits.
“It was great,” Oliver recalled. “I learned so much that year (1994-95). “I worked on scouting reports with assistant coaches. My plan was to leave, to get out of there and go back to school.”
Armstrong had other plans. He made Oliver an offer he couldn’t refuse. After just one year, he elevated Des two rungs on the coaching ladder, making him a full-time assistant and recruiter. Oliver knew nothing about recruiting on the road.
He learned on the fly. His first recruit was a junior-college player named Alvin Young, who had been lightly recruited out of high school. Young flourished at Niagara and led the nation in scoring as a senior. His next big recruit was Demond Stewart, who would eventually lead the MAAC in scoring.
“Those were my first two guys,” Oliver said. “So I figured I knew what I was doing from an evaluation standpoint. A pretty good way to start a career.”
Oliver’s career took off from there. After three years at Niagara, he spent a year at Texas A&M in 1997 and two at Cornell before joining Baron at St. Bonaventure in 2000. When Baron jumped to Rhode Island, he took Oliver with him and handed him the job of recruiting a new roster at a school that had suffered academic suspensions and hit rock bottom.
“It was a mess,” Oliver said. “We had seven scholarships to fill. Jim said, ‘Dez, you’re the coordinator of recruiting, go get me some guys’.
“They had fired the coach and were paying the old staff and couldn’t bring Jim’s staff on for a month. So I worked out of my car, traveling to tournaments, paying out of my pocket and keeping receipts. We signed seven guys. That recruiting class ended up being the class that helped Jim sign a 10-year contract. We went from eight wins to 21 wins.
That was when my career really began.”
Oliver became known as one of the top assistants and recruiters in the college game. After three years at URI, he got an SEC job at Georgia, where he spent five years. Then, after a year back home at Canisius under Tom Parrotta, he worked for five years at Charlotte before joining the staff at Tennessee when Rick Barnes became head coach in 2015.
In Knoxville, Oliver was finally united with Lanier (a cousin of Bob Lanier), who was the top assistant for Barnes. It was a nice Buffalo story, two friends who had grown up together in the Donovan Drive apartments, at the intersection of Ferry and Grider in Buffalo’s inner city, coaching on the same staff.
“Rob’s mom and my mom were there for a long time, literally one apartment apart,” Oliver said. “We started hanging out when I was 10. He was two years older. Rob was a great player, I wasn’t. I was kind of tagging along and ball was something I did as a hobby and I got good at it.”
The neighborhood was rough. Oliver said you had two groups of friends, the ones who took the straight path and the ones who strayed into trouble. He straddled the two worlds for a time, but his mom pointed to Rob Lanier and said, ‘Be like him.’
“I would always see Rob coming home with his homework,” Oliver said. “He’d be out with the guys, but he took care of business first. So I kind of gravitated towards Rob, and my mother encouraged me to.”
Lanier said he spent a lot of time at Oliver’s because they had more food in the house. They also had a telephone. College coaches would call the Oliver house when they were recruiting Rob, who played his college ball at St. Bonaventure.
“Des was her only son, and she was going to protect him and be certain that he knew how to make great decisions,” said Lanier, who left Tennessee in 2018 to become head coach at Georgia State. “She worked her tail off and was a tremendous influence on him.
“I took comfort in being over at his place. His mom created a certain aura around their living space that you had to respect. If she wasn’t comfortable with me, she wouldn’t have let me inside that door.”
Oliver was a late bloomer as a player. He played one season at DeSales Catholic in Lockport, then a year for Bill Van Gundy (father of the NBA Van Gundys) at Genesee CC. He played three years at Dominican, a Division II school outside New York City, where he was a starter, a team captain, and RA in the dorms.
“It’s taken me awhile to do a lot of things,” he said. “I got married at 33. I was a dad at 34, had my second at 40. I played one year of high school basketball and got a scholarship. It’s taken me awhile to get things, but once I’ve gotten it, success has followed.”
Success certainly followed him to Tennessee, which has return to prominence since Barnes — seventh among active DI coaches in wins — took over five years ago. In 2018-19, the Volunteers were ranked No. 1 in the nation in late January and a Final Four contender before losing to Purdue in the Sweet 16.
That ’19 squad was led by several of Oliver’s recruits, including an overlooked talent named Grant Williams, who is now playing for the Boston Celtics. Last year, Tennessee brought in another strong recruiting class, one that has the Vols being ranked as high as 10th in preseason college polls.
Jeff Goodman, a respected college hoop writer for The Stadium website, noted the “crazy resurgence” in recruiting at Tennessee. Last summer, Goodman conducted a poll of SEC coaches, who rated Oliver as the third-best assistant coach in their conference.
“I’ve known Des a long time, and I feel the same way as his colleagues,” Goodman said. “He grinds it out on the recruiting trail, and is also a respected coach.
I’d be surprised if he isn’t a head coach soon.”
It’s surprising that Oliver, after 26 years of grinding as an assistant at every level of the game, hasn’t landed a head job by now. He’s in the same boat as his good friend, Carlin Hartman, the Grand Island native who is a top assistant at Oklahoma and still waiting for his first college head job at age 48.
Oliver has come close. Two years ago, he was runnerup for the head job at Kennesaw State, a Division I program north of Atlanta. He was also in the running for the Georgia Southern job, which went to former Texas Tech assistant Brian Burg.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt I’m going to get my chance,” Oliver said. “The thing for me is finding the right situation, a job where it’s a great fit and my family and I can go there and do some special things and change lives.”
Armstrong said he’s deeply disappointed that Oliver hasn’t gotten his big chance. He said he has spoken to Oliver about it often and feels his frustration.
“There’s no doubt he has the eye for it,” Armstrong said. “He can teach the game, he has all the prerequisites of being a head coach. He understands the Xs and Ox, the tactics. He’s a genuinely good person. I take a lot of pride when I look at him and I say, ‘Why hasn’t he had a chance yet?’”
There’s a risk in being pigeon-holed as a recruiter, which tends to happen with black coaches. Lanier doesn’t believe that’s an issue with Des. He said it’s an asset to be a good recruiter and gives a coach the chance to prove himself. Still, one has to wonder.
“I’ll say this: As an African-American coach, if you can’t recruit, you won’t keep a job,” Oliver said. “We don’t get the same opportunity to just be a basketball guy and not have to worry about recruiting. I have to be a guy who knows basketball and has a good mindset and teach the game as well.
“I’ve always done that. I never had a job where I didn’t do scouting reports, or do player development, and wasn’t responsible at a high level for developing our players on the court.
“If anyone ever had the notion of me just being a recruiter, let’s sit down and talk basketball for awhile. I’ll do a good job of convincing them otherwise.”
Oliver said he did some research when he was up for the Kennesaw job and found that black coaches in all sports tend are more likely to get the more demanding head jobs with downtrodden programs.
“Guys jump and take it,” he said. “They assume, ‘Because I was a great recruiter, I’ll do it at this next institution’. When you’re in last place, it’s hard. You’re there for five years and bang, you’re fired and you’re starting all over again.
“I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be diligent and patient — and I have — and be prepared to take a good job, or a job that has potential, and turn that job into a gold mine.”
Kennesaw State went 1-28 last year under first-year head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim. Maybe it was a blessing that he didn’t get that job. He can be patient and wait for a better opportunity, knowing that this Tennessee team has a chance to go very far.
“We have a real good nucleus of guys,” Oliver said. “We have guys who are hungry. We’re deep. This team doesn’t have a Grant Williams. But man, we’re talented. And if our guys can play within Covid and social distance and stay healthy, I do think this team can do some amazing things and have a chance to at least get to a Final Four.”
As Oliver said, he’s come late to things all his life. He developed late as an athlete and settled on coaching late, and the choice has been good for him.
But he’s ready. At age 50, Oliver believe he’s more than capable of running his own program. Armstrong and Lanier both say being a head coach is like being a CEO. That would suit the part of Oliver that aspired to go into college administration.
He says his wife would be perfect for it, too. Oliver said Annette, a Toronto native, is a great people person, one of those connectors who keeps in touch with dozens of her old friends.
“So I know she’ll be an incredible ambassador to me being a head coach,” he said. “She’ll love those engagements, going to parties and raising money and meeting boosters and alumni. She’ll love those affairs for sure.”
Oliver seems born to such things. You wonder if he might have been a college president by now if he’d said no thanks to Armstrong and given up coaching.
“Well, shame on me!” Armstrong said with a laugh. “He’d have his PhD by now. What is he doing coaching? Is he nuts? He’s so smart and capable on other fronts.
“There’s no doubt in my mind Des could be a head coach. A Division I head coach has to be a CEO. You got to have those management skills, to see the big picture. He has all those things. Some lucky school and some lucky athletic director is going to get him.”