A young man sat patiently in a small Glenbrook Gymnasium classroom, awaiting a decision that could unite him with his lifelong dream. The athletic director then walked into the room and made it happen, he hired the jubilant 24-year old as Castleton’s new head basketball coach.
Twenty years later, Stan Van Gundy climbed to the top of the coaching ladder and was calling the shots for the NBA’s Miami Heat.
Many people probably wonder how a small-town, former Division III basketball player went from coaching a school with only 1,500 students to coaching larger-than-life athletes like Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.
“You know, sometimes you just get really lucky,” Van Gundy said in a recent telephone interview. “Obviously you have to work hard, do your job the best way you can, and hope you get big breaks along the way.”
Born into the family business of coaching, he learned about the profession from his father Bill, who had over 40 years of experience as a basketball coach.
“My father was by far the greatest influence in becoming a head coach because of the passion and energy he brought to coaching,” Van Gundy said. “That’s where I learned what coaching is all about: The time you need to put in, the attention to detail, and the interest you need to have in your players.”
After graduating from SUNY Brockport, Van Gundy began his career as an assistant coach at the University of Vermont from 1981-83.
A coaching vacancy was then created at Castleton State and Van Gundy decided to apply for the job.
“I thought the fact that the salary was as low as it was would be good because it would limit the pool of candidates,” he said. “I didn’t know what kind of a chance I would have, but went down to the school and had an interview, which went well enough to be invited back a second time.”
When offered the position, he accepted it without hesitation and excitedly drove home to Burlington to inform his parents.
“The chance to be a head coach at 24 years old and run my own program was too much to pass up,” he said. “It was great getting the job and it was a great experience coaching there.”
“Just Three Great, Great Years”
Stan Van Gundy had an immediate impact as Castleton’s head coach and led the team to a 26-2 record in his first full season.
While he realizes his three-year record with Castleton is better than any other head coach’s record with the school, Van Gundy will not take full credit to the success his team had.
“The process really started with Matt Kilcullen and Matt brought in some good players. The core of what Matt had brought in and then with Chrispin White, those players had some time there together and were able to mature. I was fortunate to come in and take over a very good group of players.”
White, the former Spartan center and current Director of Community Service at the school, had a great deal of respect for his coach and enjoyed playing for him.
“From day one, he was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic,” White said. “Stan had us playing a more exciting brand of basketball and made sure everyone knew their assigned roles.”
Van Gundy was not much older than his players, and according to Chrispin White, it was crucial to the team’s success.
“Since we were close enough to him in age, we all respected him and related to him on a personal level,” he said.
In his three seasons at Castleton State College, Van Gundy had a record of 68-18 and led his talented 1984-85 squad to the NAIA National Tournament.
Van Gundy still keeps in contact with his Spartan players and remembers his experience at Castleton like it was yesterday.
He said he has always kept a place in his heart for the school that launched his career and for the players who helped him move up the coaching ranks.
“All the clichs you hear about teams, that group was really a team and guys made a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I also had a great deal of fun and it was everything college sports are supposed to be. I have always been grateful to each one of those players because they gave me three great years. Nothing since then has approached the experience I had at Castleton.”
All Roads Lead To Miami
After his three seasons with Castleton, Van Gundy had assistant coaching stints under legendary coach Nick Macarchuk at Canisius and Fordham. He took over the head coaching duty at Division II UMass-Lowell and stayed there for four seasons until his younger brother’s connection with then-Wisconsin head coach Stu Jackson got Stan an assistant coaching job with a major college program.
Jackson was impressed with Van Gundy and handed him the head coaching duties after they worked together for two seasons.
“When Stu left, that was an incredible break to get the head coaching job at a Big Ten school,” Van Gundy said. “And nine months later I got fired and ended up in Miami.”
Van Gundy once again got some help from his brother Jeff, who at the time had worked under Pat Riley as an assistant with the New York Knicks.
“Riley left the Knicks and wanted to bring Jeff down to Miami to work under him with the Heat, but couldn’t because Jeff was still under contract in New York,” he recalls.
“He was searching for assistants and my brother said ‘hey, you should interview my brother, you’ll like him,'” Van Gundy said.
Riley hired the older Van Gundy as an assistant coach, and Stan held that position with the Heat for eight years until he was given the head coaching job in October of 2003.
The Heat Is On
Van Gundy was hired right before the start of the 2003-04 NBA season, which did not give him much time to prepare for the season. To make things worse, the Heat had a tough first month of the season.
“We got off to such a terrible start at 0-7, and I used to laugh with my assistants at that point that I just wanted to win 10 games,” he said. “The worst season ever in the NBA was 9-73 and I didn’t want to be in the record books. I remember even when we got our tenth win, we were probably 10-18, and people thought I was crazy, but I felt like breaking out the champagne.”
Early in the season, Stan had the opportunity to coach against his brother Jeff’s Houston Rockets. It was only the second time in NBA history that two brothers coached against each other, with Larry and Herb Brown being the first.
“My brother and I were just two small-college players from a small town and a small high school,” he said. “We were sort of nondescript guys who caught some good breaks and worked very hard, and there we were coaching against each other and making history.”
Stan Van Gundy helped turn his team around during the second half of the season, and the Heat made the playoffs with a 42-40 record. The very next season, Miami added one of the most dominant players in NBA history to its roster, Shaquille O’Neal.
“There’s no one else in the history of the game that’s going to be 7’1, 335 pounds and be able to run and jump and play the game,” he said of Shaq. “Other than free-throw shooting, he was a very skilled player.”
The Miami Heat were a tough team to beat in his second season with the franchise, and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to the Detroit Pistons in a classic seven game series.
The Family Man
Only 21 games into his third season with the Heat, Stan Van Gundy decided to step down from head coaching duties and handed the job over to team President Pat Riley.
There must have been a reason for Van Gundy, who started off with nothing and had to work his way up the coaching ranks, to give up something he loved doing.
“The simple answer to that, and the true answer, is that I got to the point where I really missed my family,” he said. “I knew I was missing a lot, but now that I’ve been home for 10 months, I didn’t realize how much I was missing.”
When asked about his relationship with current Heat President and head coach Pat Riley, Van Gundy declined to comment.
The former Castleton coach is currently a scout for the Heat, fulfilling his contract to the organization.
“I simply make suggestions about what they ought to do to players I like and don’t like, and let them know about the talent of players on other teams,” he said of his current role. “It’s good in that I still have a lot of time with my family and if I want to get back into coaching, I have been watching a lot of basketball and stay current on what is going on in the NBA through my role with the Heat organization. It’s really the perfect situation for me now.