How many times will Nevada bypass Orlich?
Once is forgivable. Twice is foolish. Three times is downright inexcusable.
For the third time since the mid-1980s the University of Nevada men’s basketball team is searching for a coach. And once again, the Wolf Pack is inexplicably overlooking its best candidate.
This time, Gonzaga’s Dan Monson, Northern Arizona’s Ben Howland and ex-Weber State/New Mexico coach Neil McCarthy are the early favorites to succeed Pat Foster, who last week announced his resignation – effective at season’s end. While worthy candidates, they aren’t the best fit.
South Tahoe High basketball fans have seen him work wonders with a small enrollment over the past 24 years. Two state titles, 15 division championships and nearly 500 prep wins should make Tom Orlich a bona fide candidate for a job that is a mere 75 minutes away.
But the Pack’s braintrust has foolishly ruled out Orlich, 47, as a potential candidate.
“This program at this particular time just needs somebody out of the college ranks. Not that Tom couldn’t do a good job, but we have to stay in the college ranks and preferably a head coach,” said Nevada Athletic Director Chris Ault.
Of course, there’s no guarantee Orlich would leave the Vikings even if the Pack showed some interest.
“I had an interest a number of years ago, but not at this time,” Orlich said. “I have a real unique position at South Tahoe. We’re one of the top programs on the West Coast. It’s fun to be one of the most respected programs and maintaining it. Not many teams have what we have, and you can name them on one hand. I really enjoy it or else I wouldn’t be doing it.”
San Jose State thought it had pried away Nevada’s all-time winningest boys basketball coach from Viking Way in 1982, but Orlich recanted his STHS resignation, shunning an assistant coaching position in a world where basketball isn’t just a game but big business.
“Assistant coaching jobs are the worst positions in America. You’re away from home a lot, you don’t get to coach as much as you’d like and basically, it’s a thankless position,” Orlich said.
Jerry Faust may be responsible for restricting the opportunities of prep coaches. As you recall, Faust parlayed a successful prep football coaching career in Cincinnati, Ohio, into one of the enviable head coaching positions in sports – Notre Dame. But his struggle to keep the team better than .500 led to a quick dismissal.
“He’s a great example of high school level coaching and the Division I level being in different worlds,” Ault said. “He’s the only one I know who’s done that, not to say that somebody couldn’t do it or a program couldn’t take a chance.
“But our situation is we have a program that should be at the top echelon of the Big West. In order to get us there, it’s very important to stay in the college circles and college ranks, just for continuity.”
Orlich finds it amusing that Ault doesn’t remember the roots of his own Nevada coaching career. Before becoming the leader of the Pack in 1976, Ault coached three prep seasons in Reno with the Bishop Manogue Miners (26-2-1 record) and one with the Reno Huskies (9-1).
“Faust really killed it for high school coaches. It seemed to plant a seed in almost every AD’s mind to not let that happen again. But there are a lot of people out there who could get it done,” Orlich said.
Asked to pinpoint the deficiencies a high school coach might have, Ault replied, “It’s a huge transition. There’s not one area. From on the floor to off the floor to the administration to the whole shooting match.”
And let’s not forget recruiting. Maybe Ault didn’t include that in his short list of prerequisites because Orlich has no trouble augmenting the local talent at STHS with the players who seek him out. Some of the more noteworthy transfers to play for Orlich are Mike Corkeron (Australia), Marc Suhr (Germany), Jason Neeser (Reno), Casey Dowling (Truckee), Alan Case (Zephyr Cove) and John Giannoni III (Lodi, Calif.).
“The thing about it is I have a real advantage because I know all the top high school coaches on the West Coast. UNR has had a real problem building their program through JC players. They’ll have one good year and then one bad year. The great programs build with high school kids, not JC players,” Orlich said.
Neeser, who played for Orlich and Foster, believes his former high school coach could get the job done at UNR. In fact, he revealed his toughest practices were on the hardwood at STHS, not Dartmouth or Nevada.
“He definitely has the ability to coach at Division I. With the intensity that his teams play with, I think it would be really valuable for a college team,” said Neeser, who is studying medicine at Dartmouth and has given up basketball. “I found his practices to be much more challenging, and that had to do with our style of play – full-court press and denying all the passing lanes – and the intensity he coaches with. I never found that with the two college coaches I played for.”
The wins continue to mount for Orlich at South Tahoe. Four hundred eighty-seven, 488, 489 … while in the city that has become Orlich’s prep domain, the Wolf Pack is suffering through a disappointing 7-13 season that might make them a nonparticipating host in the upcoming Big West Conference tournament at Lawlor Events Center.
The inconsistency could have stopped a long time ago. A phone call and a friendly dinner at the Cattlemans of California restaurant on Highway 395 between Reno and Carson City could have started something special 15 years ago.
“It’s Chris’ personal philosophy and I have to respect it. It doesn’t bother me that much. They have hired guys in the past who have a history of getting fired. They need to go out and get somebody young, that doesn’t have a lot of status. There’s a lot of great people out there,” Orlich said.
Nevada’s program needs a firm hand, not another college coach who is on the downside of his career. Twenty years from now, Orlich could be closing in on his 1,000th victory at STHS. Ault, think of all the people who’ll come up to you and ask, “Why didn’t you ever hire Orlich?”
It would be shame if the only excuse you could muster was “He’s a high school coach.”
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