Desmond Oliver all but had his bags packed for Rock Hill to become Pat Kelsey’s successor at Winthrop. Along with Western Carolina’s Mark Prosser, Oliver was a finalist for the job and he had a good feeling as he drove back home to Knoxville.
Then came a phone call he did’t expect from East Tennessee State president Brian Noland.
Oliver had never been a head coach before, and Winthrop, although he felt good about the interview process, hadn’t said yes yet.
While Oliver waited for Winthrop to call back later that evening — which never happened — the proposition of making the move just 105 miles down the road from Knoxville continued to sound all the more intriguing. Noland and ETSU Director of Athletics Scott Carter moved quickly, and on April 5 the Bucs named Oliver their 18th head coach in program history.
For more on the story of how this story transpired for Oliver and how he turned out to be the perfect fit for Johnson City and ETSU, check out Jeff Goodman’s podcast below.
Though some in the community might not want to acknowledge it, the University of Tennessee has been like the good bigger brother to ETSU. While it’s true that the program should separate itself from the shadows cast by the high major member, it’s not a bad thing to acknowledge that the program 105 miles away has groomed some pretty good coaches for the top job at East Tennessee State.
Oliver is a journeyman with 27 years of experience, all as an assistant coach and most recently at Tennessee as veteran head coach Rick Barnes’ right-hand man.
Prior to his time as an assistant at Tennessee, Oliver also spent time as an assistant at Charlotte (2010-15), Canisius (2009-10), Georgia (2004-09), Rhode Island (2001-04), St. Bonaventure (2000-01), Cornell (1998-2000), Texas A&M (1997-98) and Niagara (1994-97).
Oliver was of course known for procuring such talents as Admiral Schoefield, Jordan Bone, John Fulkerson and Grant Williams to Knoxville.
He’s prepared for the moment, and that’s thanks in large part not only to his mentor at Tennessee, who helped groom him to become the head coach at ETSU.
“With anything in life if you have enough reps at it, and in our sport of basketball we preach to our players that the more reps they put into the game and into their skill set — which involves ball handling, shooting, or passing — the more improved they’re going to be,” Oliver said. “ ... And so 27 years is just that. ... I’ve had reps and I’ve been doing this at a lot of programs. I’ve had reps at doing this at the Ivy League with no scholarships, which helped my recruiting ability having to be that much more thorough and more connected nationally, and I’ve had reps doing it at low major, mid major, at the BCS level and so now, as a head coach, I’ve taken all those experiences and applied them.”
Next season, the Bucs will face off against against Oliver’s most-recent employe r—Tennessee — at Thomspon-Boling Arena in the second game in a contest that will see a Vols team that, according to coach Oliver, are next-level players.
Oliver is intent on building a culture of similar to the one he was part of helping build Tennessee into. While Oliver obviously wants to beat his former employer in that second game, it’s important to him that his team at least looks the part.
“We’ve got to try and establish some culture, which means establishing confidence in the program and get tougher, and to play those guys in the second game of the season is not advantageous to my program, and we may or may not win the opener, but I want us to at least look the part,” he said. “I want folks to say that doesn’t look like a team from the SoCon.”
Oliver also recognizes that the second game against Tennessee will be a much different team than the ones that ETSU faced back in 2015 and ‘16 when he was helping Barnes and the rest of that Vols coaching staff build the SEC monster of the past few seasons.
“They weren’t top five in the nation,” Oliver said of Tennessee when it played ETSU in 2015 and ‘16. “We didn’t have NBA guys on the roster. It’s different. They have NBA guys on that roster. It’s like fighting a young Cassius Clay was different from fighting a Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay was trying to figure it out while Muhammad Ali was fixing to knock you out.”
Oliver’s first staff in Johnson City will be comprised of assistants Mark Bialkoski, Patrice Days, Mantoris Robinson, Lucas Campbell and Sunny Park.
In summarizing what head coach Oliver had to say, Bialkoski is the type of coach that can see something, diagnose it in his head, and immediately make adjustments in game. That’s kind of like being a basketball savant, you could say, or being able to tune music by ear.
“Mark Bialkoski would probably not strike you as being really experienced and Mark was the ops guy at Maryland, but he’s the most experienced guy out of all of them because he was at the power five level and he was the right hand man at Maryland,” Oliver said.
Oliver is genuinely grateful to his good friend Barnes, who gave him multiple responsibilities, preparing him to be the head coach at ETSU.
“Honestly everyone had said to me your head is going to be spinning the first year or so and my head’s not spinning,” he said. “It hasn’t been a hard transition because at Tennessee, Rick Barnes developed us as head coaches even though he did most of the coaching per se, but running the program he delegated at a high level and allowed me to grow.”
There is plenty of hype surrounding ETSU basketball heading into the season, with most of the scoring that was inside the portal having returned, outside Damari Monsanto. Both LeDarrius and Ty Brewer return to the fold, and those two alone should keep the Bucs in the mix for another NCAA Tournament berth.
There is expected to be some growing pains to work through in the nonconference, as Oliver alluded to. Building a solid foundation to work with will take a little time, but it once it is built, it will be tough to knock the Bucs from their lofty perch atop the SoCon hoops scene once again. The ETSU hoops tradition it speaks for itself, but Oliver will make the needed modifications to keep ETSU to rebrand the Bucs program following what has been a tough year for so many reasons.