There is an inflection of confidence in Tennessee State head coach Dana Ford's voice that a Lieutenant Colonel would normally exhibit while explaining his plan of attack to his troops.
The 32-year-old Ford is the youngest head coach of any Division I men's basketball or football program, but there is no sense of youthful exuberance in his voice. The third-year head coach just orchestrated the biggest turnaround of any team in Division I, guiding the Tigers to a 20-11 record in the Ohio Valley Conference -- a 15-win difference from the previous year’s record of 5-26.
Ford earned his stripes as an assistant after his playing days at Illinois State, serving on his alma mater's staff from 2012-14, after a previous stint on the Tennessee State staff from 2009-11.
However, Ford learned "how to be a CEO," as he puts it, from his three stints coaching under Wichita State’s Greg Marshall. Marshall hired him as a grad assistant at Winthrop in 2007, then brought him on in the same role to Wichita State in 2008, then re-hired as an assistant coach in 2011-12.
At Tennessee State, Ford says the credit goes to his players, who have stepped it up on and off the court. He has had nine players make he honor roll with a 3.0 GPA or higher, and says that classroom success translates onto the court.
Changing the culture of a program from a losing mindset into a 20-game winner is never an easy task. Ford said that it was a close loss early in the season to Middle Tennessee State (69-66) that was the "aha moment" when he knew this team had something different.
"The year before, Middle Tennessee had beaten us like a drum and we knew that they would be a top tier team," he said. "After that game, we felt like we could play with anybody."
Following that loss, the Tigers went on a seven-game win streak that helped further the belief that they could become a force to be reckoned with in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC).
Following his team's impressive turnaround, Ford has garnered multiple coaching accolades, including being named OVC Coach of the Year and the Ben Jobe Award Winner, presented to the nation’s top minority coach in Division I.
Ford did feel there were some advantages of being in the under-35 head coaching fraternity.
"I think we can penetrate the kids a little faster because we can adjust easier than somebody who has done things a certain way for 20 years," he said. "The ability to communicate and relate are probably two areas that [age] can help us."
However, the age gap from 21 to 29 is seemingly much larger than 31 to 39.
"I did try a dunk contest with the players during my first year here and it was just embarrassing," he said. "I have not touched a ball since."
During the offseason, Ford was mentioned as a candidate for several other coaching positions, but he seems focused on continuing to build the program at Tennessee State, where the Tigers are finally a contender in the Ohio Valley. When asked if he felt any additional pressure moving into next season after receiving recognition Ford said, “Not really. When you’re hired to be a head coach at age 29, you’re going to feel pressure every day. I’ve got the same amount of pressure on me as I did on April 21, 2014 and it’s a welcome pressure.”
The Tigers have compiled an impressive roster of talent and should be a contender heading into this season, regardless of whether Ford is ready to admit it. OVC Player of the Year candidate Tahjere McCall, who averaged 14.6 with 5.1 rebounds per game, will lead the team. The senior guard was also named OVC Defensive Player of the Year in 2015-16. The Tigers also return senior forward Wayne Martin, who averaged 11.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, and is one of three legitimate big men on the roster, who will be needed to offset the likes of Belmont's Evan Bradds, who is the reigning conference Player of the Year.
The Tigers also added talent via the transfer market with senior guard Jordan Reed, who sat out last year after playing his first three seasons at Binghamton and earning two all-America East accolades. They’ve also added Georgia Tech transfer Chris Bolden, who appeared in 86 games for the Yellow Jackets and started 40 games.
After just three years in charge, Ford has his Tigers poised to make a run at the NCAA tournament come March. He may be the youngest coach in Division I, but he's built a contender.