Sitting Down With … Chris Oliver

(WINDSOR, ON) – Chris Oliver recently announced his surprise resignation from the head coaching position with the Windsor Lancers men’s basketball program. FanZone had a chance to sit down with him to discuss his decision and to learn just how much of a role basketball plays in his and his family’s life.

Why now?

The easy answer is that it’s just the right time. It’s the right time for me, it’s the right time for my family. Other opportunities professionally, but also the age of my daughters, the time in my wife’s career, just opportunities for me to be able to support her and obviously be more present in my daughters’ lives. So, that’s a big part of it.

It’s hard , because no matter when you decide to do it, there’s not a right time for your current roster. Like, obviously, there are players on this current roster I’d like to see through their four or five years, just like in the past there are players I’d love to see their four or five years.

So, it’s really hard in terms of that, making a decision, because it’s definitely your current roster that influences it the most. You feel such love and loyalty to those players.

It was challenging to do it at this time, but it’s the right time personally.

It did seem to be a little bit out of the blue.

I’m glad it was out of the blue because, personally and professionally, whatever I was going through or certainly our program goes through, we always want to keep that in-house. That’s our team, winning or losing, whatever we’re going through, that’s what we want to work through within our team and not make it public.

And, that’s something our players have always done a great job of within our program. And, certainly, I’ve always respected whatever my players have been going through as well.

I didn’t want this to get out until it was for sure. It’s not an easy thing to decide. I think there were moments near the end of the season where I felt like this might be the time. But, until you’re really removed from the season, it’s impossible to make that decision.

Chris Oliver checks the score board during OUA action in Windsor on 26 January 2014. By games end, the Lancers had bested the Waterloo Warriors 75-65.
Photo by Ian Shalapata.

The perception is that the University wasn’t willing to step up with the needed resources to advance the program. Was it a matter of not having the resources or directing those resources elsewhere?

Every university in Canada has the same challenges. I mean, there’s just limited resources and I would say that’s generally basketball in Canada right now; that the expectations far out-weight the resources.

We’re influenced, especially in this city, but in every city in Canada, now, when we watch the NCAA and we see the level of basketball, we see the level of support, we see the level of money, and that’s not the reality. That’ll never be the reality in Canada. Those expectations are not a part of any U Sport program.

But, there’s definitely been many opportunities for me and for our program to take that next step and for whatever reason we weren’t able to.

I don’t want everyone to think this was about resources, or this was about this current roster, or this current record, or whatever. We’re one year removed from a Final Four, so we’re not that far removed from the success that we’ve had within this program.

There’s challenges for Windsor, there’s challenges for any program moving forward, about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to define themselves. At this point, I just didn’t want to be a part of that process.

For me professionally there’s other opportunities and there’s other ways to go. What that actually means, I don’t know yet.

Former Windsor Lancer Greg Surmacz avoids the reach of a Saint John defender during NBL Canada play on 15 March 2013. Surmacz was a much sought after recruit by Chris Oliver to the Lancers program.
Photo by Ian Shalapata.

What is that next step that the program could have taken?

There’s not a coach coaching anywhere that wouldn’t want more. That’s the reality. And the specifics of more, again, you can look at other programs within U Sports and say, ‘OK. Are we competing against those programs on an equal level?’ And the reality for, not just the last few years, but probably most of my years here, (the answer) is, ‘No.’

That applies to just about every program at our university. We’re at the geographic periphery, so there’s challenges in terms of recruiting students, there’s challenges in terms of our biggest population. We really can’t recruit across the border, which is US students.

Before I got here it was tuition at par. The university made some changes within that time, but we were never able to tap into that. That’s hopefully what the new coach will be able to do. Hopefully there’ll be some changes that way.

In terms of the population, a lot of success we had was in terms of transfers. And the transfer market changed considerably as teams in southern Ontario started to put more resources behind the program.

I think within my time, as I resign now, I think there’s only three coaches currently coaching that started coaching when I was at Windsor. That’s an amazing turnover in terms of coaching as well. And that’s another part of it. I just think there’s been big changes within U Sport basketball in general.

There’s no complaints. We’ve been able to be competitive beyond this year. That’s something we’re really proud of.

Chris Oliver is seen encouraging his charges during an NCAA/OUA Tip-Off Classic game with Marshall University on 17 August 2013. The Lancers split the 4-game series against Division I opponents 2-2, dropping a double overtime meeting with Southern University and the Marshall match-up, but taking two games from The Citadel.
Photo by Ian Shalapata.

Where to now? What role will Basketball Immersion play in your post-Lancers history?

Short-term Basketball Immersion is certainly part of it, but long-term I don’t know. I’m open to opportunities and that’s really the main thing. I don’t know.

I have had opportunities the past few years. Networking and knowledge are the two ways you move to another job, move to another position, and different things like that. Basically I screwed up because you’re not supposed to leave your job up until you’ve got your next job. But I did that with full awareness that I have opportunities.

There was a bigger picture beyond the next job in terms of me moving on. I’m grateful for that, grateful for the opportunity to be involved in my daughters’ lives at this important time of their life.

Through Basketball Immersion and through my time at the University of Windsor I’ve been able to build a brand that’s spread knowledge throughout the coaching world and I’m grateful for all the coaches that have reached out and have been interested in learning a little bit more about what we do.

I’m proud of my role at the University of Windsor in doing that. The university should be proud too. We brought national attention to the university because of some of the things that I’ve been ale to share.

On which goals did your teams fall short? How about you personally?

It depends on how you define it. If you define that on wins and losses then, again, I think every coach wants to win more than they lose. We did that as a whole. I certainly think, at the highest level, wanting to win a National Championship; that was always the goal. We went into every season with that goal.

I don’t think I coached any game where I didn’t think we could win. That’s a mindset where we put our program at a national level. That was the ultimate goal.

I have a real personal satisfaction in everything that we did. It goes beyond wins and losses. It goes in terms of how we represented ourselves.

It’s been very emotional since my resignation became public, and even before a little bit. The people who’ve reached out have been so gracious with their appreciation for what we’ve done with this program. It does bring me back to what you said, that we’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m proud of that, but I’m a competitor.

Do I wish we’d won more? Absolutely. Do I wish we had achieved the highest level possible within my profession within my time? Absolutely. I don’t think it was from a lack of effort from the players or the coaches. Sometimes it’s just not getting it done.

Does coaching in Canada provide more opportunity to develop players as opposed to in the US where there is more of a prevalence of one-and-done?

When you’re talking Duke, Kentucky, then ya, there’s less development. It’s more about what you’ve got. I would say generally, throughout the US, they have the same opportunities to develop players and in some ways more opportunity because they have more coaching staff and more resources.

I’ll defend any coach in Canada, pretty much at any level of sport, and that’s that we’re under resourced. And I think what a great job we do. I’d put a Canadian coach, at least that I can speak to in U Sport basketball, against any coach in the world and believe that they can hold up against them.

Just the problem comes back to resources.

I have to make decisions everyday, as a head coach, about what is going to be to the best benefit of my players, because I’m by myself. Whereas an NCAA Division I coach would have four full time assistants, they would have support staff beyond that. They would have full time people devoted to their social media, their administration, and all these different things and you go, ‘Wow. I’ve gotta decide if I’m going to show Ian film today of him, or am I going to work on our scouting report to help my players get better for that specific game?’

Those decisions are challenging. I believe, in a way, its made me a better coach, because you really have to learn how to prioritize what actually makes an impact. But, at the same time, you always want to do more for your players.

You can ask my wife, Jen, she knows that my job is not defined by 9-to-5, or anything like that. Those hours and that effort you put in, those are all unseen hours that nobody sees, but you do everything possible to allow your players to succeed.

I come back to pride, in a sense, that myself and my volunteer coaches put a lot of time into this program.

(L to R) Lien Phillip, Josh Collins, and Enrico Diloreto, each seen in action against the Waterloo Warriors on 26 January 2014. The trio is part of what Chris Oliver calls the ‘greatest recruiting class in Lancers history.’
Photo by Ian Shalapata.

To the players you’ve recruited to the Lancers over the past three or so seasons, what do you say to them regarding their commitment to UofW?

Well, I hope they all stay. I have nothing but sincere interest in this program continuing. I think my sabbatical year and Ryan Steer taking over was a wonderful example and I said this to whoever asked. The program is bigger than me now.

That’s what I’m really proud of what we’ve done.

Whether it’s the fund raising, the money in the bank, so to speak, that we have within the program, or you talk about the expectations, or you talk about the level of commitment that we try to recruit players to understand before they come here. That’s all bigger than me.

My expectation is that those players will stay and they’ll continue to contribute to the program and move it forward to the level we believe this program should be at.

Of course, they all have freedom. That’s the reality and that’s one thing that hasn’t hit Canada that’s certainly impacted the US more; is that the transfers are out of control in the US right now. That hasn’t had as big an influence in Canada so far.

I’ve talked personally with my players. I’ve had many conversations with them. There’s certainly a lot of emotion involved, but generally the No. 1 priority for all of them, as I’ve tried to focus them on, is regardless of whatever they think right now, they’re hitting exams and they need to succeed academically. And then we’ll continue to have conversations beyond that.

I’m going to support them as long as I can and certainly as long as it takes for them to get a new coach in place.

(R to L) Chris Oliver, Isaac Kuon, and Windsor Express head coach Bill Jones at the press conference announcing the signing of Kuon by the National Basketball League of Canada club, on 18 September 2012.
Photo by Ian Shalapata.

Speaking of players, who standout in your mind over the years?

I think it all starts with Greg Surmacz. He’s still playing at an elite level overseas in Poland. Just an incredible talent, but also the story of recruiting Greg is the classic how we built this program.

I remember driving to Danville, IL, pretty soon after I got the job. I knew Greg a little bit from a few years before, but I drove to Danville for the GEICO National Championships and I just sat in the stands for three days and said, ‘Greg, what are you doing? You’re so talented. You don’t get to play offense here. Come back and play offense.’

Fortunately he bought in and I think his career took off from there because he got a chance to be the type of player that we knew he could be.

So that story and his contributions to our early success with the Greg Allen’s, Kevin Kloostra’s, the Ryan Steer’s, I mean all those guys were such a part of those early years. So, that was awesome.

How can you separate Enrico (Diloreto), Josh (Collins), and Lien (Phillip)? They’re different players and unique people, but arguably the greatest recruiting class in the history of the university. It’s just incredible what those guys achieved as a group.

All timers in terms of statistics, but also in terms of win leaders. Successful at the nationals. Different things like that so those guys were a tremendous part of it.

Beyond that, so many players I don’t want to leave one out. I would say one that fills me with pride is Isaac Kuon. Not just because he became a coach later, but also because of his story.

Where, number one, he was told he was never going to graduate from university. I was told that by many people. ‘What are you doing? This guy is not a university student.’ And he ground it out and found a way to get it done.

Talk about a success story at Windsor; All Canadian, team success, became a better man, but, became a Canadian citizen.

I remember all those moments; and, talk about unseen hours. While I’m trying to coach the team I’m helping that dude with his citizenship, organizing things and helping him understand the process, and filling out paperwork; all those different things that go into it. There are so many amazing stories like that.

I have to throw in (Mike) Rocca. Talk about a dude that represents everything that I do as a coach. He represents it all. He did it all and became a huge impact player that everyone will remember because of his work ethic to develop and, obviously, his talent.

Sarnia native Mike Rocca (10) is seen during OUA action against Queen’s Gaels on 11 September 2013. Oliver contends that Rocca’s dedication, determination, and talent provided an example to his peers as the type of effort needed to succeed in basketball.
Photo by Ian Shalapata.

You said, “Mostly, in terms of future opportunity, I don’t have one, but we’ll see where the universe takes me.“ Has the universe gotten in touch yet?

The universe has gotten in touch and I’m grateful for that. But, nothing imminent. A year with my family and a year to focus on them might be in the cards, but then again it just depends on the opportunity.

You think about some of these things and the coaching lifestyle in different places in the world and you just go, ‘Is that what I want to do right now?’

I don’t have those answers for you. But, it is early in the process, some of the conversations, and we’ll see how they go. I wish I had more to share, even to start rumors, but I don’t really.

As an assistant coach for seven seasons between UVic and Mac, the teams qualified for the National Tournament six times. Was that too much success, too early in your career?

No. It was just the reality of the circumstances. Joe Raso, to this day, is arguably the most successful OUA coach. He had it all figured out in terms of getting to nationals, the wild card process was different back then, just the way he ran a program. He was a tremendous mentor for me.

Guy Vetrie at UVic, as well, was a completely different personality, but shared so much with me and helped me form my identity as a coach.

Win, lose, it didn’t really matter in that process. Obviously it was wonderful being part of winning programs, but for me it just presented me the opportunity to be able to grow as a coach.

I had a great mentor, once, John Zdrahal, who told me that I would never be a good coach until I coached a bad team. I was very, very humbled by that. When I went to Queen’s I realized exactly what he was talking about. It’s real easy to go into a situation where you’re coaching at Mac and you have all this talent.

But, at Queen’s we really had to figure out what we could become, how we could become that, and that process I believe led to our quick turn around at Windsor, because we already had talent. I didn’t come in with a void of talent. Queen’s helped me learn more about establishing culture, identity, and then the effort it took to become better.

At Queen’s you went from 4-and-8 to a .500 program in three years.

Maybe if I looked back I would be more proud of that than anything. That’s a really hard place to win and since then they got a new building, they put more resources in, a new Athletic Director, they have a full time assistant, they’ve done all these things to commit to basketball.

I was proud we improved that program every year and I believe that if I had stayed there we would have continued to improve the program.

But, there was a ceiling there and I felt at Windsor there wasn’t that ceiling. And I was right.

There wasn’t the same ceiling that existed at Queen’s, in terms of all the different periphery things that are involved in a program. Since then, they’ve changed leadership, they’ve changed their philosophy, and they’ve done a really good job there.

Before your 14-year tenure, Mike Havey coached the Lancers for 13 years. Should stability in coaching be a search priority when the Lancers select the next head coach and how do you recruit for that?

You can’t ever assume somebody’s going to be there. Even 14 years for me, people were surprised by the resignation, but some people were surprised that I was actually there for 14 years. Like, that’s just how it rolls together sometimes.

I loved my time at Windsor and I think that’s a big attraction for whoever comes here. I would be more than happy to talk to anyone; the proximity to the US, access to basketball in the US, the community of Windsor, which has been so gracious and supportive.

My wife and I had no experience beyond the drive to the University from Highway 401, where we played games occasionally as coaches, or as a player in her case. And we still marvel at the realities of Windsor and how much we enjoyed being here.

My daughters were born here, my wife and I got married here, there’s all these incredible memories which go beyond this incredible community. I think that would be a big sell to someone’s long-term interest in this program.

The University of Windsor itself, being a unique position in the sense that a coach is in the professor’s union, so a strong job in terms of security, support from a very good union. That’s another factor whereas a lot of positions are administrative oriented.

And then, the new coach is going to see a new building, so that’s another part that’s going to be a part of their stability. For me it still seemed to be a long way away.

For a new coach it’s going to be in their immediate future, and I think that’s going to be a big impact on, whoever comes here, wanting to stay here as well, because anything is going to be an improvement on our current conditions. That’s going to be something to help the next coach hopefully move the program further.

In terms of the new building, nobody has asked me what I would like to see in design aspects. What type of input did you have into that?

Not much. They certainly had meetings with us. They’re trying to manage this massive project while trying to run an athletic department and Kinesiology department, and all this different stuff goes with it. Some feedback is solicited and some feedback is not and at the end of the day, I’ll be honest, I didn’t dive deep into it.

Certainly there are some things I hope are there, too. I hope they’re taken care of, and I think they were. But until we see it built I’m not sure any of us will know what it will look like.

Will you see it? Will you come back to have a look?

Absolutely. It’s about people. The relationships we have here will never leave us. And that’s going to be such a big part of our future and our life and our daughters’ lives as well. The relationships Jen and I have developed in this community go way deeper than you get any place.

We will always come back to see those people. I have nothing but sincere interest in the men’s basketball program succeeding and moving forward. Could there be a greater compliment than that? To be honest.

I think people look at it sometimes in the wrong way, saying, ‘Now you left and now they’re successful.’ No, I would say that’s a great compliment to what we put as a foundation. And I really do hope that someone moves it forward and that I’m a part of that in some way.

Semi-Pro. Best basketball movie ever.

How do you answer that? It’s such a good movie. I still think the greatest basketball movie hasn’t been made yet. That one’s a tremendous, tremendous funny look at the world of basketball, and there’s Hoosiers and different ones, but maybe this Michael Jordan documentary that’s coming out is going to be it.

I just love basketball so much. The poetic nature of it and the stories that come from it. It’s so fun just to be in that world of basketball.

basketballBasketball ImmersionChris OlivercoachingDanville IllinoisDukeGEICO National ChampionshipsGreg AllenGreg SurmaczGuy VetrieHoosiersIsaac KuonJen OliverJoe RasoJohn ZdrahalJosh CollinsKentuckyKevin KloosraLien PhillipMichael JordanMike HaveyMike RoccaNCAAOUAQueen's GaelsRyan SteerSemi-ProU SportUniversity of WindsorVictoria VikesWindsor Lancers