By Scott Robertson
Desmond Oliver knew he wasn’t going into just any coaching job when he accepted the position of head coach for the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team. On one hand, expectations for performance are consistently high, with multiple conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances dotting the program’s history. On the other, a rift between the team and a large portion of the community, including significant donors, was caused by the team kneeling for the National Anthem before three games last year.
At the Monday press conference in which Oliver was introduced, he was asked how he planned to get the team and the community back to supporting each other.
“My plan is to get our players out and go into the community and talk with people face-to-face,” Oliver said. Oliver was able to defuse discussions of such a display last year when he was an assistant at Tennessee by asking Volunteer players to talk with people before making public gestures such as the ones they were seeing on TV. “That’s what they were seeing in the NBA, and they were like, ‘well, the pro teams are doing it.’ Our guys didn’t really know how to handle what they were feeling. I said, ‘Listen, if you really want to have people dialogue and hear how people feel and make change, then talk.’”
Oliver said he especially encouraged players to talk with, “people who don’t look like you.”
That’s the same approach he plans to take in Johnson City.
“We’re going to be out there talking to everybody,” Oliver said. “On-campus, off-campus, business. Those guys in Knoxville weren’t just out shaking hands. They were all having real talks and telling their story.
“That’s the only way to clear up misperceptions about what you intended or didn’t intend – is to talk about it. Sometimes those talks are going to be uncomfortable. But what I want to do right now is educating young people to the point they can communicate and express themselves in the right way.”
As far as producing championship basketball teams, Oliver said the first step is to stop the bleeding of players transferring out of the program. “First, we have to re-recruit our guys because quite frankly, we’ve got some talent on this team. They can play. They’re talented. But more importantly, we’ve got some good dudes.”
Once he has a team of players who want to be at ETSU in place, Oliver said, “My vision for the program is simple. I want to continue winning championships…clearly, right now we are not close to being ready for that. There’s a long way to go. We have a lot of work
Oliver spelled out the four priorities in building the team’s performance back to championship level with the acronym DRRE. The D and the first R stand for defend and rebound. “It takes absolutely no talent to do either of those things,” Oliver said. “It just takes a mindset. It takes effort. It takes a staff committed to work on those things everyday at practice. We will strive to be one of the best in the country at defending and getting rebounds.
Running will be a priority, with Oliver wanting his team to be able to score consistently within eight seconds. “I’m not talking street ball,” Oliver said. “I’m talking about players having the confidence and freedom to take the shots we practice.” The final letter in Oliver’s acronym for success if E for execution. “A lot of teams that play fast, when teams slow them down on offense, they can’t score. I want to be unique in that we have enough discipline on our team because of how we live our lives every single day, that when we call a play and I tell our guys to post up for whoever has a mismatch, they will run a play and execute it.”