UAlbany basketball assistants are more than faces in the crowd

Wearing University at Albany basketball gear, Chad O’Donnell and Jon Iati walked into an area restau
Chad O'Donnell
Chad O'Donnell

Wearing University at Albany basketball gear, Chad O’Donnell and Jon Iati walked into an area restaurant recently and received congratulations from a couple of longtime season-ticket holders for another thrilling Great Danes’ victory.

The two UAlbany assistant coaches smiled in return, but their grins soon changed to frowns when those same fans asked the assistants where they sat during games.

That tells you how little the average fan understands who the UAlbany assistant coaches are and what they do for the program.

“That shows you that people have no idea,” said O’Donnell. “They watch the action. They don’t see the workings of the team.”

Most of what the Great Danes’ assistants do is behind the scenes, but they are an integral part of every UAlb­any practice or game. Head coach Will Brown understands this, and he pointed out that he depends on his coaching staff every single day. They are as much a part of the winning formula as the players who will compete for their third straight America East Conference tournament title and trip to the NCAA tournament when they host archrival Stony Brook Saturday at 11 a.m. at SEFCU Arena.

Brown has five official assistant coaches in O’Donnell, Iati, Jared Knotts, Blake Metcalf and Josh Pelletier. Longtime area coach Don Bassett, who has coached at the high school, college and pro level, is a volunteer assistant. Three of Brown’s helpers — Iati, Knotts and Metcalf — are former players.

“I am very fortunate to have good, quality people working for me,” said Brown. “I think of a lot of times, people have no idea how important my assistant coaches are and how important they are behind the scenes. They are the first people you forget about. Everyone talks about the players and the head coach. The assistants get very little attention or recognition. I am very fortunate to have the guys I do working on my staff.”

O’Donnell, the associate head coach, is Brown’s right-hand man and the longest-tenured assistant coach in the conference. He is finishing up his 11th season. The native of Mendon, Mass., graduated from Springfield College in 1994 and has been an assistant at Worcester State, Bryant, the College of Charleston, Robert Morris and the University of New Hampshire.

“Chad oversees all of our scouting,” said Brown. “He’s the most detailed-oriented guy that I’ve had on my staff, in regards to breaking down film and putting together a scouting report. He is very thorough. He takes pride in making sure that when it’s his scout, our team is prepared.”

Brown relies on O’Donnell to keep him in check.

“He’s a worker and somebody who is loyal and a person you can rely on. He gets along really well with our guys,” praised Brown. “He’s also a high-energy guy who gets our guys ready to play by keeping them upbeat. You can always count on him. He will get things done the right way, and he is always well prepared.”

O’Donnell knows his roles and makes sure there are no loose ends.

“I’ve become the old man of the America East,” he said. “I like to think that helps out a little bit. Actually, we’ve had great continuity in our staff with little turnover. Most of the guys we’ve brought in are former players who know what we do.”

It was O’Donnell who modified the team’s scouting system.

“There are a lot of different ways to scout, and I enjoy it,” he said. “I put a plan together, and that’s my primary responsibility. During the season, I probably spend more time watching film and figuring out how to stop our opponents.”

When he’s sitting next to Brown on the bench, O’Donnell has a couple of key duties.

“I figure out what play the other team is running, and you can hear me yell out the sets,” he said. “I also give coach some suggestions, and I make sure he doesn’t lose his temper. He’s only received one technical this year, and that’s pretty good when you’re a head coach. I try to develop a good rapport with the referees, so that they know they can talk to me.”

O’Donnell spoke for most of the assistant coaches when he talked about why he’s stayed so long with Brown.

“One of the reasons I’ve stayed here is that I met my wife here, and now I’ve got three kids. I’ve worked with a lot of guys in this business, but when you find someone you enjoy working with and can balance your family life with basketball, it’s the reason you want to stay. I love it here.”

Iati was one of Brown’s all-time best players and scored more than 1,000 points in his career. The former America East Rookie of the Year led the nation in minutes played one season and was one of the Great Danes’ greatest three-point shooters. He was a member of two America East championship teams.

“Jon came through our program as a player, and he was with us for five years,” said Brown. “He knows how I am to play for, and he knows what makes me tick. He’s also not too removed from being a player. I think he’s been really good with the guys as far as getting them to understand what it takes to be successful at this level. He’s a guy who handles the majority of our player development and individual workouts. He’s also proven to be an outstanding recruiter. He’s the guy who recruited Evan Singletary, Ray Sanders and Richard Peters. He’s got a great basketball IQ, and he’s been in the same shoes as the rest of the guys.”

Metcalf was a three-time captain for the Great Danes and appeared in a program-record 133 games. He’s currently the video coordinator.

“Blake handles all our film exchanges and also helps out with our basketball camps,” noted Brown. “He handles all our travel, in regards to meals, shoot-around times and stuff like that. He’s a guy who played with Sam Rowley and Peter Hooley, so he’s close to them. He knows what goes on in the office and what we’re doing. He helped us get to the NCAA tournament as a player, so the guys accept what he says.”

Knotts also played for Brown and was a member of the Great Danes’ first NCAA tournament team.

“He’s our director of basketball operations and helps our office to run efficiently and effectively,” Brown explained. “He oversees Blake and our team managers. He handles NCAA-required paper work and is the liaison from the basketball office to the athletic department.

“The great thing about having three former players on my team is that the players know they have lived through it. All three played in the NCAA tournament.”

Pelletier played for LaSalle Institute in Troy and for the College of Saint Rose.

“[CSR coach] Brian Beaury and I are close,” said Brown. “Brian gave me my first job, and I’ll forever be grateful. He took Blake on as an assistant when I didn’t have room on my staff, and I’ve returned the favor with Josh, who worked for me a couple of years as a grad assistant. He did such a great job for me that when I had a position open, I was glad to bring him back. He’s shown me a terrific work ethic, and he comes from a basketball family. His brother was a good player, and his sister is the athletic director at HVCC.”

As a volunteer coach, Bassett lends his experience and friendship to Brown on a different level. He coached local high school programs at Catholic Central and Troy High School, was a member of the College of Saint Rose coaching staff and also coached for the Albany Patroons.

“He’s forgotten more than most people know,” said Brown. “When I got the job at Saint Rose, I shared an office with him for three years. We became very close. After I got back from coaching junior college basketball [at Sullivan County Community College] I wanted to see if Don would be my special assistant. We had younger guys on the staff, and he’s been good for them. He’s also been good for me to lean on, because he has experience at all levels. He settles me down and keeps me even-keel. It’s great to pick his brain.”

Brown said that even though he and Bassett have drastically different styles of coaching, they click.

“Donny always wants to play aggressively and force the tempo with quick shots. I’m more of a halfcourt, control guy on both ends,” said Brown. “We like to joke and try to find a happy medium. He’s the kind of guy who will always give you an honest answer. He’s a tremendous resource for me.”

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