Arizona coaches build more than athletes
Arizona head baseball coach Andy Lopez stands at the top step of the Wildcats’ dugout at Hi Corbett Field. Coaching was not his original career plan.
There are countless routes to becoming a college coach, but what many coaches find is that working with collegiate athletes allows them to have their cake and eat it, too.
Ex-Arizona basketball player and current Wildcats’ assistant coach Damon Stoudamire previously enjoyed a 14-year NBA career as a point guard.
Stoudamire has said that a major reason he came back to the university and got into coaching was because of the immense impact former UA head basketball coach Lute Olson had on him when he was a student-athlete.
“Damon and I have talked a lot about what his goals are,” vice president of athletics Greg Byrne said. “[Stoudamire] says that he feels how much he was impacted by coach Olson and his staff, and he wants to try to do the same thing at the college level and have that impact on the guys we have in the program.”
Byrne explained that it isn’t rare for former student-athletes to return to the programs that developed them because they want to be able to do for others what their coaches did for them.
Byrne went on to say that he thinks working in college athletics provides a more rewarding experience than working with professional teams because you’re able to connect with the athlete on a more personal level and get to see, be a part of and affect their development and growth as players.
“You feel like you’re making an impact on their lives,” Byrne said, “and we hope that impact is long-lasting.“
Some people simply fall into coaching, like UA head baseball coach Andy Lopez.
Lopez, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, decided not to go professional, and was set to become a real estate agent when coaching came calling. It all began when he agreed to help out a friend, serving as an assistant coach with Los Angeles Harbor College’s baseball program in Wilmington, Calif.
One thing led to another and soon Lopez received a phone call from the superintendent of schools in the South Bay Union High School District asking if he’d like to be a high school coach.
“He called me up and I think it’s a prank phone call,” Lopez said. “I never applied for a job. [But] next thing I knew I was getting an emergency teaching credential that summer and was becoming a high school baseball coach.”
After five successful seasons at the head of Mira Costa High School’s baseball program, Lopez went on to Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, then Pepperdine, Florida and now Arizona. He is only one of two college baseball coaches to win a national championship at two different schools.
Lopez said that his past relationships with coaches and experiences playing at a collegiate level created a strong desire to stick with his career choice.
“I was blessed to be coached by a guy named Gary Adams at UCLA who was just a classy, fair and honest man. I had a great time playing for him,” Lopez said. “My past experiences really had a heavy influence on my decision to pursue coaching.”
Unlike Lopez, some athletes have coaching mapped out as a final destination.
Last month, when junior guard Nick Johnson and freshman forward Aaron Gordon announced that they would not return next season and would instead declare for this year’s NBA Draft, both added at the end of the press conference that they are interested in coaching after their playing careers wind down.
Johnson said that his aspiration to eventually be a coach is one of the driving forces compelling him to finish his degree, despite declaring for the draft.
He recalled the first day he talked to Arizona head coach Sean Miller. It was Miller who went to Johnson’s high school to recruit him and invest in his development.
Johnson said that from that day on, Miller and the rest of the coaching staff really made an effort to be a big part of his life. The reason he chose to come to Arizona was because of the relationships forged between player and coach and saw his potential. Johnson said that he, too, would like to have that type of effect on someone else’s life and career one day.
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17