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Coach Dives In And Helps Rejuvenate Army

 

This article was originally published in The New York Times on January 1, 2010, and was written by Kevin Armstrong.


WEST POINT, N.Y. — Army Athletic Director Kevin Anderson had been interviewing coaching candidates in the Hilton Hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare airport when Zach Spiker, a 32-year-old Cornell assistant, walked in wearing a Big Red polo shirt and carrying two bags. Anderson turned to his associate Bob Beretta and said, “Who ordered the pizza?”

Spiker, with his slicked-back curly hair and quick smile, looked more like a delivery boy than a Division I men’s basketball coach. Cornell’s head coach, Steve Donahue, had recommended him the day before and, by chance, Spiker was in Illinois on a recruiting trip for the two-time defending Ivy League champions. In the five hours he had to prepare for and drive to his interview, Spiker had his wife, Jen, and Donahue research Army’s returning players, team statistics and Anderson’s background.

“I was impressed that he got ready so quickly,” Anderson said.

Hired three days after that Sept. 30 interview, Spiker took over the Army program 10 days before the start of practice. In the almost four months since, he has spent only three nights at home with his wife and 10-month-old son, Charlie.

On the court, Spiker has spearheaded a 9-3 start with youthful energy and defensive commitment. Thanks in part to his insider’s knowledge of the Ivy League after five seasons at Cornell, the Black Knights, who have never been to the N.C.A.A. tournament and have not had a winning season since 1984-85, are 4-0 against teams from that conference.

“Our guys are on their feet so much each day that we’re structuring everything to be stronger in March,” said Spiker, whose team plays in the Patriot League.

The Army position opened under unusual circumstances. In the summer, Anderson announced that Jim Crews, the coach for seven seasons, had been given a three-year contract extension after leading the team to an 11-19 record. On Sept. 24, Anderson fired Crews for what he told the team was a “collection of events.”

In a phone interview Monday, Anderson declined to comment on Crews, citing a binding agreement “to not discuss the matter.” Crews, who relocated to Kentucky to live near in-laws, declined a request to be interviewed.

Josh Miller, a point guard, was among seven seniors who went to Crews to express their gratitude for his efforts. “He’s not here, but that doesn’t mean he’s not part of this,” Miller said of Crews.

Spiker, who kept Crews’s staff intact, moved immediately to understand the emotions of his players, seizing upon what he called “speed bonding” and taking part in team conditioning drills.

“His hair goes all over, but he’s there to the last stomach crunch,” Miller said of Spiker.

As a 5-foot-10 guard at Ithaca College, Spiker knew his future was on the sideline. His first role after college was as an unpaid graduate assistant at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

“He’s a character hire, not because of one of those family tree mafias,” said Damon Stephenson, who served with Spiker at Winthrop.

For income, Spiker washed cars at Griffin Motors until noon most days. For food, he ate free at Jersey Mike’s, a deli down the road. After ingratiating himself, he slid behind the counter, slipped on an apron and prepared sandwiches.

“That’s Zach,” said the Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer, who worked with Spiker at Winthrop. “He’d wash his hands, slice the bread, cut meat and put on trimmings.”

Still, Spiker craved more responsibility. After two N.C.A.A. appearances with Winthrop, he applied to be an administrative assistant at West Virginia, where his father, John, has served as trainer since 1975.

When John Beilein was introduced as West Virginia’s coach in 2002, Tony Caridi, the play-by-play announcer for the Mountaineers, plugged Spiker, a native of Morgantown.

“Zach Spiker, who we didn’t know, had developed his fan base,” said Jeff Neubauer, a member of Beilein’s staff.

Spiker’s father did not want his son to be a patronage hire.

“I never talked to John before Zach got the job,” Beilein said.

Working in the office as Beilein’s right-hand man, Spiker began to cultivate contacts.

“He’d speak to callers for 20 minutes,” Neubauer said. “The toughest transition is from that role to the court. You work with coaches, but they don’t see you coaching.”

Everything Spiker did was up to N.C.A.A. codes — including his love pursuit; he was introduced to his future wife, then a women’s soccer assistant, at a compliance meeting.

“She’s still a stickler,” Spiker said, “which is good.”

The call to on-court teaching came from Donahue, on Beilein’s recommendation.

“He did things I didn’t know assistant coaches did,” Donahue said.

Military life has brought new challenges for Spiker. At the last practice before the home opener, he told his players they would review a few details at the next day’s shoot-around. The players stared blankly. They would be in class all day.

“I told Zach to embrace the place and understand the total mission,” said Wake Forest Coach Dino Gaudio, who coached Army from 1994 to 1997.

Anderson is convinced that in Spiker he has a copy of the former women’s coach Maggie Dixon. In 2005, Anderson hired Dixon, then a DePaul assistant, 11 days before the season. By 2006, she was the league’s coach of the year and led the Cadets to the N.C.A.A. tournament before dying of a heart ailment at 28. She was buried among generals in the campus cemetery.

“I hate to do this to Zach, but I feel a similar energy,” Anderson said. “I saw what this place was like when she had things going. I believe he can deliver.”

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