Coach is keeping 'em in Chicago
Robert Morris' Volious builds successful team with local hoops talent
It's one of those stories that, if no one told you about it, you'd never know. There is no marketing to this. No public-relations plan or team out to tell you about the impact that this one man has had on the game in this city. It's not a story that many would assume is worth a column.
His name is Aubrey Volious. You've more than likely never heard of him. Just as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is defined by a single letter, Volious goes by the name of "Coach V." But to say he's just a coach is to say De Niro is just an actor. He is the associate head basketball coach for Robert Morris University. And since the turn of the decade, he's been partially responsible for the program that has secretly been the most successful college basketball in the state over the last 10 years. Since 2000, the Robert Morris men's basketball team has been to five Final Fours (2002, '05, '06, '07 and '09), one Elite Eight (2008) and one Sweet Sixteen (2004); has made one appearance (a loss) in the NAIA championship game (2002); and has been ranked No. 1 in the country 13 times.
At the center of it all is Coach V.
But that's not the story. In an era when a lot of basketball talent has been leaving the city to play elsewhere (Derrick Rose, Sherron Collins, Jon Scheyer, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Pargo, Jerel McNeal, Julian Wright, Bobby Frasor, Will Bynum, etc.), Volious, through what some, including Chicagohoops.com, have called "genius recruiting," has been able to do what many considered impossible since Joey Meyer stopped recruiting and took over as head coach at DePaul and since current UIC coach Jimmy Collins left the University of Illinois: keep homegrown talent home.
It's the gift that Coach V has used to help keep Chicago in the mythical conversation about the best basketball city in the country. And despite the team's uncharacteristically slow start (the Eagles began this season as the No. 1 NAIA team in the nation but have struggled with a 5-6 record and dropped out of the NAIA Top 25), Volious' legacy is still growing.
In a rare interview, Coach V sat down and talked about how he's able to do what it seems no one else in the city (or state, for that matter) has been able to do: preach the Chicago gospel to kids who need basketball to remain a large part of their lives. And how important the game is to the city -- and the city is to the game.
Scoop Jackson: You are quietly becoming a part of Chicago basketball royalty, one of the city's best-kept secrets. My question to you is, how have you been able to get kids from the city to stay here when it seems no other school in the area has been able to do it?
Aubrey Volious: I tell them the truth. See, kids know if you are for real. They know if you are for real. I try to pride myself on being real and being truthful with them. I always tell them, "No matter what, you come and play here at Robert Morris or wherever I'm at, the bottom line is this: I will not lie to you." Five years from now, 10 years from now, one of the things I know all of my players can say is that I never lied to them. You won't hear any of the players I recruited come back and say, "Oh, if Coach would have told me this," or, "If Coach would have done that." You won't hear that from any of my players. Because when you come to me, I'm telling you the truth.
Jackson: A lot of coaches say that, but not many practice it. What makes your truth, your honesty, different than everybody else's?
Volious: Graduations. Success. My guys' success off the floor, in the classroom. Basketball-wise, their success speaks for itself. I'm trying to mold men -- young black men -- to succeed in society. I owe it to our community, and I'm trying to do that through basketball. So when you talk about my honesty with them and what I do, I nurture them to take step A, B, C and D. Being a NAIA school, you have to understand that most of the really, really gifted players I get, they have messed up before, so I have to help them get back on that runway. You know, that straight and narrow, do it the right way, develop their work ethic, make sure they are in the classroom doing their work, getting places on time, being responsible. My track record with my players' success -- that's what I think makes my honesty different.
Jackson: How do you deal with the NBA dream? You are dealing with basketball players, but you are dealing with them at an NAIA school, not D-I, and there still has to be dreams from basketball providing itself as a career for them once they leave Robert Morris.
Volious: I tell them all straight-up: "Look in this circle; there's 15 of us. Five of you all might have a chance to make it overseas, one of you by the grace of God get a chance to get an NBA look, the rest of you better get that degree because your NBA is going to be as a police officer or an IBM worker or whatever." And I tell them that straight from the start. That's how I deal with it.
Jackson: What do you look at yourself as, a coach, recruiter, or is there a slash that allows you to see yourself as both?
Volious: There's a slash. And it might be four or five slashes. (Laughs.) I consider myself a father to my guys. I consider myself a teacher, a motivator. I consider myself someone that's going to be there for them through the good as well as the bad. I treat the players like they are all my sons. That's why consider myself different things. I'm not just the recruiter, I'm not just the coach, you know. I'm more of a father figure to guys, a motivator, a teacher, an educator. And if I have to be on their heads 24/7, I'm going to be on their heads 24/7.
Jackson: Jimmy Collins in this area is considered one of the greatest recruiters of Chicago kids we've ever had. Not saying that you are following in his footsteps, but damned if it doesn't seem like you are doing the same thing at Robert Morris that he did when he was at U of I. From DeAndre Thomas [Westinghouse] to Angel Santiago [Von Steuben], you've got them coming in.
Volious: Jimmy is one of the best that's ever done it, but I don't pattern myself or what I do after one particular person. My players are my best recruiters. Because I treat them good when I'm going after someone else, my players will tell [future players]: "You need to come to Robert Morris. Coach V is there he's going to look out for you." And that's where I guess I get my motivation to make sure that these young men look at our program.
Jackson: What makes a basketball player from Chicago so special that you've been able to find success without really too often going outside of the city to build a program that competes almost every year for a national championship?
Volious: The talent here is great, just like that talent across the country is great, but the difference that I found in Chicago ballplayers is that they are hungry and they are tough as nails. I tell people that all the time. Now keep in mind I am not from Chicago, I'm from Buffalo, N.Y., so there's no bias with the city in that way. But I tell everyone: You give me the sixth- or seventh-best player off of any team in, say, the Red West, and I guarantee you he can probably start for some D-I school in this country.
Jackson: We always say that Kevin Garnett would have never become the player he became if he never spent that one year here.
Volious: I agree with that wholeheartedly. You better put your hard hat on if you want to play basketball in this city. The kids from Chicago are just tough, tough-minded and hungry. Basketball is a way for them to get out of their situation. And that goes back to what you asked me first: How do I motivate these kids to play and understand that all if any of them are going to the NBA? I tell them whatever you become in life -- a doctor, a fireman, a policeman, a teacher -- when you leave here with your degree, understand that basketball got you that. At Robert Morris they believe in letting men's basketball succeed, and by them letting basketball succeed, that allows me to help young men succeed in life.
Jackson: Explain to me how out of almost all of the recent superstar high school players that came from here got away? Why haven't any of the D-I schools here or in the area been able to land any of Chicago's best players?
Volious: The reasons those kids don't stay here is, one, because some programs only want goody-two-shoes kids and two, because they don't have a Chicago person on their staff -- until recently -- that can go into these schools that knows the coaches and I'll just say this: They're afraid. Some of these schools are afraid to go into some of these high schools to recruit these kids. They are afraid to go up into Marshall or Crane or Collins or Corliss or Julian, wherever. But I think that's going to change. I think it's going to change at schools like DePaul and at UIC. But still there are a few more schools in the area that need to get some Chicago connections, and that would change the direction of a lot of those programs.
Jackson: But if that happens, then it's eventually going to put pressure on you to step your game up because then the kids that you usually get will be going to other schools.
Volious: Me? I consider myself one of the top recruiters in the country. What I also understand if I was at a Division I school and competing for kids directly against, say, Tracy Dildy [associate head coach at UIC], Billy Garrett and Tracy Webster [assistant coaches at DePaul], and also David Booth [of DePaul], it would be fun. Because I know they are gunslingers, and I know I'm a gunslinger, and it would be like a good ol' shootout. We'd keep the kids here. We'd bring back Chicago basketball.