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October 31, 2013BOULDER, Colo. - Colorado men's basketball associate head coach Jean Prioleau was once asked by Bob Hill, former NBA coach with the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, also former head coach at Fordham and the man who gave Prioleau his first shot in the business, what kind of coach he wanted to be.
A younger coach Prioleau immediately responded with "defense."
"He looked at me, he smiled and he said that's pretty good," said Prioleau. "But he's like, what are you going to do when you go back down to the other end and you need a bucket?"
That was the end of the conversation as the two shared a laugh.
Thirteen years later, he is a part of the most successful four-year run that the Colorado Buffaloes have ever experienced in program history. He joined head coach Tad Boyle in Boulder after coaching at Texas Christian from 2008-2010, Iowa State from 2006-2008, Marquette for the 2005-2006 season and five years at Wichita State, where he first paired up with Boyle and fellow Colorado assistant Mike Rohn.
But it was that season with Hill at Fordham, Prioleau's alma mater where he is a part of the Athletics Hall of Fame, where his coaching journey began, following an eight-year career of pro basketball. Despite being asked numerous times if he had any interest in coaching, during his playing days by teammates and coaches themselves, he admits that he wasn't ready to go all-in, at first.
"I didn't really know if I wanted to get into it right away," Prioleau said. "I told myself, one year to see if you like it. I knew, as a player I loved playing the game, but coaching was a different step. Plus I had my physics degree so I was at a crossroads in terms of following an engineering career or basketball. I ultimately retired and went to my alma mater for that one year and it was just like this energy boost. To be able to teach, help guys develop and pass on my experiences on and off the court was my calling."
At that point, he could still practice with the team from time to time, running up and down the floor before any knee problems had set in. Still, the transition from the mentality of a player to a coach was as much mental as anything, he said.
"As a player all you really think about-I'm not going to say it's 100%, but it's over 50% of players-think about just themselves," he said. "Not in a negative way it's just, you're always preparing. You have to think to yourself, 'I have to get my dribbling better. I have to get my shooting better or my passing or guarding my man.' As a coach you have to think about we.
"As a player, I think as you get older or more mature, you start to understand that it is about we, the guy to the right or the guy to the left, your teammates. Not excluding what you have to do, personally to get better, but as you get more mature each player learns that it becomes more about the team. So now, instead of saying 'I need to get my shooting, dribbling and defense better on my own', I'm asking for teammates to join me in that gym, late at night, when no coaches are around, so we can become stronger as a group and not an individual. As coaches, we are constantly preaching these values."
While his time in the Bronx might have been his first taste of the coaching lifestyle, Prioleau said it was the five years he spent at Wichita State, with then head coach Mark Turgeon, Boyle and Rohn, which solidified his dedication to the craft.
"That was the time that really built my foundation as a coach because I was there for five years, rather than being there for two years and then going somewhere else," he explained. "My base and ground roots of coaching came from that time at Wichita. That's where it started to take on a whole new form."
In his fourteen years of coaching, Prioleau has also worked with now Indiana head coach Tom Crean, now Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, and Jim Christian who now leads the Ohio Bobcats. Each coach, he said, does things a bit differently, with their own style and approach. Each coach has enjoyed success, providing nuggets of information that "Coach Pri" can take with him along the way.
Still, while today's young players may model themselves and their games after a favorite college or NBA superstar, Prioleau said that coaches do, and must, stay true to who they are, an attitude that has left him authentic and consistent.
"If you need to voice your opinion pretty loudly, then you do it. It comes down to a feel, which coach Boyle has great feel for that. Consoling guys when they need to be consoled, letting guys know they're doing really well when they are doing really well. That's who he is, genuine and real. I don't think he's trying to be like any other coach. He's being himself and that's what parents, recruits, administrators and program supporters want to be associated with. In the end, our entire staff embodies the same characteristics," he said.
"We are who we are as people. If you're around us long enough you'll understand who we are as people we're just normal people."
Of course, everyone must adapt and grow, which Prioleau says that he has, certainly when it comes to recruiting. He talked about the importance of luring talent to a program and how ultimately, while the "star-system" has found relevance in today's world, it comes down to evaluation.
As for his evaluation skills, there need be no doubts. Prioleau has helped lead Wesley Johnson-a current Los Angeles Lakers forward and former fourth-pick in the NBA Draft-to Iowa State, Paul Miller to Wichita State (2006 MVC Player of the Year) and countless others to his various coaching locales. While he isn't alone in being responsible for Colorado recruiting at a historic level, he's certainly a vital kog in the evaluation machine that has become the Buffs' staff.
Still, he said that he has continually worked at his approach to scouting.
"I've really tried to hone in on basketball IQ. Pass, dribble, shoot has always been the common thread in our recruiting. I think I've been looking into the IQ part, things that don't really show up in the stat-sheet," he said. "Do they have feel for the game, knowing when to pass, not to pass, help side defense? When we're evaluating guys, we try to evaluate those things as well. We as a staff have kind of honed in on that recently."
When not recruiting, or on the court at practice, he and the other staff members are making sure their players attend study hall, checking in on academic progress with Associate Director for Academics Mindy Sclaro (who Prioleau called the "back bone" of the program) and dealing with any number of player related issues like housing and financial aid. In the midst of all of that, they also find time to remind their players of the risks that come along with college life.
As you would expect with such a successful staff, the day will inevitably come back to recruiting, where they pass along call sheets for recruits they've targeted. From there, staff members collaborate to check in with coaches, parents and recruits themselves.
"All of us are inclusive in those things," Prioleau said. "All of us are developing every single time and that's due to the fact that it's how coach Boyle runs the program. In doing that, it helps all of our coaches develop into, maybe one day, being a head coach."
As with many assistant coaches, particularly ones that have as much experience or ambition as those at Colorado, the opportunity to be a head coach is alluring.
However, there are only 351 Division I basketball programs, with a much, much smaller number of jobs that are actually open in any given year. Coach Prioleau understands that offers for such an opportunity are not guaranteed.
"If, that's a big word, if that happens, you have to look at your family first and whether that's a good fit for your family," he said. "It's not really about the situation. It's about, that's an opportunity so you've got to really look into that, especially if you're a first timer.
"You've just got to work hard every single day. That's what we try and do. We try to work to the best of our abilities and make this program advance, winning as many games as we possibly can, and to graduate our players. If we're here for 20 years then we'll be here for 20 years. That means we're having some success and we're winning. If something happens outside of that, then it happens. It's all about this team, this year. It's not about anything else."
Prioleau enters the 2013-2014 campaign with a new title, associate head coach. Boyle said that he hoped the prestige coming along with that title would help his longtime partner land a head gig.
"It means coach has a lot of confidence in me. I feel honored that I was able to attain that title," said Prioleau. "I'm still the same guy, still the same coach. I'm still running up and down and if guys aren't doing well on the court or in the classroom, I'm going to let them know. If they are doing well, I'm going to let them know."
Working with the guards, Prioleau has helped develop a backcourt on this Buffs team that many say is one of the strongest in the Pac-12 Conference, if not the country. His offensive acumen has progressed steadily through his career, to the point where he said that he is really starting to see both ends of the floor, both offense and defense.
"You can't just be one without the other," he said. "You have to have a combination of both going on."
It is all part of the growth that has taken place more than a decade removed from his conversation with coach Hill, at Fordham.
"I never dismissed that statement. I know what I am at the core, and the core is what we are, defense and rebounding," he said. "We are starting to look at both sides of the floor, like we've done since we got here, and trying to get better. All of us are trying to get better."
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