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May 21, 2014
Former Illini assistant passes on college career for family, prep coaching
CHAMPAIGN - Jay Price could've continued his college basketball coaching career. Following Bruce Weber's dismissal from Illinois in March 2012 - and subsequently, the dismissal of his entire coaching staff - Price received coaching offers.
Price, a nine-year assistant under Weber at Illinois who also was an assistant at Purdue from 1994-2003, could've tried to start over again at some other program, maybe at a lower level. But he and his family were happy in Champaign. So Price became one of the rare coaching lifers to choose family over career. Price began working at the I-Hotel, a stone's throw away from Assembly Hall. He then took a job as an associate directior of development at the UI's College of Business.
But Price couldn't stay away from coaching too long. On Wednesday, Price accepted a new challenge as the head coach of the nearby St. Thomas More girls basketball teams. Price spoke with OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner about the challenge of taking over the defending champion Sabers, who lost their coach (Chris Mennig, a former UI women's assistant coach) due to a federal investigation into his finances; coaching a different gender; and coaching one of the nation's top girls prep players, Tori McCoy.
Congratulations on the new job, coach.
Jay Price: "Well, thank you. It is a part-time job, sort of. I guess it'll be full-time but I'm still going to be working at the (University of Illinois) College of Business. For that, I'm very appreciative of my bosses Larry DeBrock and Tina Howard for allowing me do this. But my wife is happy because she says, 'Good, you'll have more to do so I'll see less of you.' It may be a quote-unquote part-time job but I'm calling it my part-time full-time job, so I have two full-time jobs now."
How did this all go down? When did this become a possibility?
Price: "When the position opened up, through some people I knew, we got together and talked about it for a little while. The first thing I did was get the blessing of my family. They were all excited about it. The second thing I did was get the blessing of my bosses here at the University and the College of Business. They were great with it. After I got those two things, we proceeded. Coach Mennig did a fantastic job. I've known him a long time, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a basketball coach. He built that program to be a fantastic program with great kids. They're a state runner-up (in 2013) and a championship (this season) and now we're going to (Class) 3A. I'm just going to try to build on what he's done and try to continue to make the program good. Nobody really ever has the program. You're just sort of the caretaker there. So while I'm there, I'm going to try to make this a better program and continue to build on what he did."
Other than just the on-court success, what interested you most in taking this job?
Price: "It's really pretty simple when you get down to it. We've had opportunities to leave the Champaign-Urbana area. We haven't. We love living here. My family and I adore the area. We feel very accepted by people here and this community and we feel a big part of it. And I love to coach. When the opportunity came up to stay where we love living and to do something that I have a humongous passion for, it's like, 'This doesn't happen often. We better grab the bull by the horns and take this opportunity.' So, that's what's so great about it. It's really special to me that we get to stay some place that we love and get to do something that I love, which is coaching basketball."
Matt Bollant has told me that coaching women is much different than coaching men. You coached guys for a long time. I know you have a daughter, but do you have to have a different approach with coaching girls as opposed to coaching guys?
Price: "I coached my daughter's team in fifth grade. I mean, it was different. They tend to maybe laugh more than the guys probably did. So it's something I'm going to learn. But I don't care if it's guys or girls. I don't care who it is. If I'm going to coach you ... we're going to do things right. We're going to do things detailed. We're going to do things the way I think they need to be done, and I'm going to expect the best out of you. Whether you're a male or female, I don't care. We're going to go out there and be tough, we're going to be detail-oriented and we're going to get things accomplished. It's just the way I know how to coach. There may be sometimes where you handle a certain situation differently as opposed to a male to female. But those things are going to work themselves out. It's coaching basketball. The nice part is, I get to get back into it. I've always coached college and to coach high school will be fun to help these young ladies and watch them grow. It's what I like to do."
You've coached big guys throughout your career, including Meyers Leonard. So, what would be the biggest difference between coaching Meyers Leonard and rising junior Tori McCoy, one of the top prep girls basketball players in the country?
Price: "I'm going to show everybody the same thing. ...I have a lot of friends in the women's game. I've gained a lot more friends today in the women's game..."
...How many texts and calls have you gotten about Tori McCoy's recruitment already?
Price: "Oh, I don't know. I've had more people congratulate me more than anything. But I'm excited to be on the other side of a recruitment, to see how that feels. Because we have a lot of talented players on the team, and girls that are getting recruited and girls that are getting recruited in different sports. That'll be fun to deal with all sorts of situations. But basketball is basketball. Everybody does the Mikan (drill). Everybody does the step-back. Everybody does a hook shot. There's different ways to get to it but I'm going to coach everybody on the team the same way, the same way I coached Meyers, the same way I coached Brad Miller and the same way I helped coach Deron Williams. I'm going to expect the best from them and demand perfection. That's what we're going to get to."
Illini fans are going to want you to sway that McCoy recruitment. I know you won't, but how will you handle that as an employee of Illinois and also her high school coach?
Price: "I haven't even thought that far ahead. Right now, I'm trying to figure out our first summer league game and then get in the gym and have practice. I don't think there will be any issues in terms of that. First and foremost, I'm working here at the College of Business. Secondly, I'm a coach. I'll be as involved as they want or as uninvolved as they want. That's something I'm sure we'll discuss when the time presents itself. I'm not going to push myself in places I shouldn't be."
How do you approach taking over for a state-championship-winning coach? Obviously those girls really bought into him as a coach. How do you approach taking over that?
Price: "We're just going to try to build on what he's done. I would be silly to go in and try to change everything. If it's not broken, you don't fix it. They have a great way of doing things over there. They have great success and tradition in winning. They understand what it takes to win. So my focus is to build on what he's done and to continue to move the program forward. We're going to step up into a class that's going to be more difficult competition. It's going to be a lot harder to get things accomplished. We have big challenges ahead of us. I'm not going to come in there and try to reinvent the wheel because that's when you can make a mistake. I'm taking a program that's healthy and has good players and understand what it takes to win championships. Half the battle has already been fought. For that I'm very appreciative.
You've never been afraid to address critics. There's always critics out there in the social media world but former Illini assistant Wayne McClain did an unbelievable job at Champaign Central this past year. Now, you're here coaching the St. Thomas More girls. The negative Illini fans will say, 'Well, two of Bruce Weber's staff are coaching high school now. That shows you what the problem was.' How would you respond to that?
Price: "You know, I wouldn't even...I wouldn't even respond to them. There's no point in fighting stuff like that. I just feel very fortunate that I just get to live in a place that I absolutely love living in, a community I that I feel a huge tie and to get to coach. That's all that's important. I will tell you this, every text - I probably had 100 texts today and e-mails - and Twitter - everybody gets you on Twitter - everything has been 100 percent positive. We're happy and we're lucky and we're glad we're going to be here. I took me a long time to sort of knock out the negatives, so I'm not going to worry about stuff like that. I'm just excited. I have great, great friends who've had to deal with me for two years without coaching. Now, I get to coach too. It's like I won the lottery today, so I'm very excited about it."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU