Commentary

A little blue blood, a little blue-collar

New High Point coach has UNC roots, but his path to DI coaching wasn't traditional

Originally Published: May 6, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

He is cut of the blue blood cloth, Carolina blue blood to be specific.

In his jewelry collection is a 1993 national championship ring, a 1991 Final Four watch and two more tokens from a couple Sweet 16 appearances.

But for all his basketball royalty, Scott Cherry wears a hard-earned blue collar. Fed by the college hoops silver spoon in Chapel Hill, he spit it out once he graduated. His varying résumé includes stints as a forklift salesman, high school JV coach, women's assistant and men's assistant.

And it is that unique blend of experience, not his North Carolina pedigree, that landed Cherry his first head coaching job.

Scott Cherry
High Point UniversityScott Cherry hasn't exactly taken the predictable route to his first DI head coaching job.

"The more experiences you have prior to that first coaching job, the better off you'll be," said High Point athletic director Craig Keilitz, who tabbed Cherry as the school's head coach on March 27. "He is blue-collar. He's worked his way up in this profession and knows what it takes to build a program."

Indeed, Cherry already has done the heavy lifting, or at least sold the machinery that does.

After one year of professional basketball in Cyprus, Cherry came home, unsure what exactly he wanted to do. The father of a college friend owned a forklift company and, for three years, Cherry worked there as a salesman.

When work was over, he'd find himself in front of the television. But instead of just watching basketball, he'd analyze it.

"I'd sit there and critique everything," Cherry said. "I realized I missed the game."

He left his sales position and took a job as a junior varsity coach at Bishop McGuinness High School in Winston-Salem, N.C. A year later, he served a season as an assistant women's coach at Middle Tennessee.

In 1999, he joined the George Mason staff and spent seven seasons (interrupted by a one-year stint at Tennessee Tech in 2002) alongside Jim Larranaga, which included a front-row seat for the Patriots' storybook run to the 2006 Final Four.

But Cherry didn't jump headfirst into the glamorous side of college hoops. Initially Larranaga's third assistant, he wasn't allowed to recruit and so he handled all of the team's menial tasks.

Everything from travel arrangements to film exchange fell into Cherry's bailiwick. .

"If I had gone from North Carolina as a player to the North Carolina bench, it would be different," Cherry said. "I got to really learn the business. My first few weeks on the job here, we were working on the little things -- Nike contracts, getting a game schedule -- and I could tell my assistants what I wanted or how I wanted it done because I've done it. I know what works and what doesn't."

Equally important for a man who graduated from a school where the basketball machine runs like a Fortune 500 company, Cherry watched and learned what it takes to build a program where the fortunes are substantially less.

It is one thing to enjoy a one-hit wonder season and fall back into the shadows. It is another to sustain success. George Mason and Western Kentucky, where Cherry worked alongside Darrin Horn for a year, are well-established winners. Since that Final Four run, the Patriots have made the postseason two out of three years. The Hilltoppers followed up a 2008 Sweet 16 run with a second-round date in the NCAA tournament this past season, despite losing Horn to South Carolina.

In Columbia, Horn -- with Cherry by his side on the bench -- led a struggling Gamecocks program to 21 wins, including a 10-6 record in the SEC.

Establishment doesn't come easy, however.

"I'll never forget my first year at Western Kentucky [when] someone came in and asked me what we wanted to do about the stationary," Horn said. "I thought, 'Can't someone else handle that?' That first year when you switch into the head-coaching chair is tough. Building is hard. You want to beat your head on the wall sometimes because there's so much on your plate, but Scott is very intelligent. He's able to process things before he becomes emotional about them and I think that will really serve him well."

[+] EnlargeScott Cherry
High Point UniversityWith Cherry at the helm, High Point hopes to taste its first bit of success at the DI level.

Cherry has landed at High Point at an unusual time. The school remains a low-major in the basketball pecking order but has designs on upping its place in the hierarchy.

Following the lead of university president Dr. Nido Qubein, who has ushered in a $250 million construction and renovation plan on campus in his short four-year tenure, the athletics department is beginning to up its sports profile. The school is in the midst of a $2 million renovation to the Mills Athletic and Convocation Center, recently built a $5 million sports center and renovated its baseball, soccer and track facilities.

"A lot of times you find that the most energy comes from athletics on a campus and the university sort of follows -- here, it's the other way around," said Keilitz, who came to High Point from Wake Forest. "The university is so energized and athletics is following along with it. To build a program, we need to support Scott through marketing and budget and facilities and we're making strides to do all of that."

But there is monumental work to be done on the court.

Cherry, who has never had a losing record as a college player or coach, might be hard-pressed to keep that run alive this season. High Point returns the bulk of its roster, but finished 9-21 last season.

Since joining the Division I ranks in 1998-99, the Panthers have never won a Big South title or, consequently, advanced to the postseason.

"A lot of people say we have nowhere to go but up, but I feel like we have the necessary pieces here," Cherry said. "There's a lot of expectations here, with the direction of the university and what the president and athletic director have done, but I say why not?

"We should have high expectations and believe we can compete for a championship. I embrace that challenge."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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