Traveling door to door with pizza boxes in tow, Dan Leibovitz is attempting to strike a chord with the Hartford student body.He’s also attempting to win some games.
In his first year coaching the Hawks, Leibovitz offers students food, T-shirts and hope that a winning tradition is on its way for a mid-major program that has little NCAA Tournament prestige.
As for the Big Dance, Leibovitz has been there before. Four times in his 10 years at Temple, to be exact, serving as John Chaney’s top assistant. But somehow, Leibovitz said he feels obligated to play the role of basketball coach-slash-pizza delivery guy.
“Coach Chaney was a much more established
coach than I am,” Leibovitz said, “so I don’t think you’d see him in the dorms.”
Using all he’s learned from his Hall of Fame mentor, Leibovitz, 33, has guided the Hawks of the America East Conference to a 9-12 record thus far.
While personal visits to the dorms were nearly unheard of from Chaney, Leibovitz
has inherited most of the legendary coach’s habits.
Like Chaney’s teams, the Hawks play a version of the matchup zone defense, which Leibovitz refers to as “the Temple zone.”
They also play a rigorous non-conference
schedule, one highlighted by road meetings with Georgetown, Boston College and Towson.
“[Chaney’s] words resonate with me. They’re always in my ears. It’s kind of eerie,” Leibovitz said. “There are a lot of things I do that are just like how he did them, or how we would’ve done them.”
And though they might be separated by 200-plus miles, Leibovitz and Chaney speak to one another after every game.
“Some things don’t change,” said Leibovitz,
a Bryn Mawr native. “In our conference
opener against Maine, we had four turnovers. I knew he’d be real happy to hear about that.”
One of Leibovitz’s first recruits – Philadelphia-born Joe Zeglinski – remembered one post-game phone call in particular.
“[Chaney] got on the phone with one of our big men [Alex Zimnickas] and said, ‘You can’t get into foul trouble like that or you’ll get beat with a stick,” Zeglinski said laughing.”[Leibovitz] is an easy-going guy,” he continued. “He always stays positive, even after us losing.”
Zeglinski, the Hawks’ second-leading scorer, was an after-thought for most Division I schools. The 6-foot guard tore his ACL as a senior at Archbishop Ryan of the Philadelphia Catholic League.
A perfect health record made no difference
to Leibovitz. “He called me the day after he got the job and we set up a time to meet,” said Zeglinski, a three-time America East Rookie of the Week. “I liked that he knew me before I knew him and the school.”
Recruiting is Leibovitz’s game. In Chaney’s final years at Temple, Leibovitz took over the recruiting duties almost completely.
So with the exception of Temple coach Fran Dunphy’s first signee here – Ryan Brooks – Leibovitz had a hand in bringing each of the Owls to Temple.
“Those are still my guys,” Leibovitz said. ” … The guys on the team now, I talked to them a bit more in the preseason. Out of respect for the coaching staff there now, I try to keep my distance. I think we’re each deeply involved with our seasons right now.”
Deeply involved is only scratching the surface for Leibovitz, who is trying to make a winner out of a team that has had five winning seasons in the last two decades. The Hawks haven’t won more than 17 games since 1983.
Temple senior Dustin Salisbery said Leibovitz, from his time here, has the experience to build a winner at Hartford.
“You could tell he really cared because, most times, he was more hurt than the players when we weren’t playing well,” Salisbery said. “He cared about us. He cared about the team and his players.
“From upperclassmen to newcomers, Leibovitz made an impact on every letterwinner.
Luis Guzman was Leibovitz’s last recruit at Temple. With his future here in the air after Chaney’s retirement, Leibovitz went hard after Guzman.
“He was straight up with me. I never felt like he wasn’t telling me the truth, and that meant a lot,” Guzman said. “He went to a lot of my high school games when I was in the area and he always told me that, even though I was signing on to play for coach Chaney, that things would be OK [under Dunphy] and that Temple was still a good place to play.”
Just like on the recruiting trail, Leibovitz’s job is never complete. (There likely are more pizza deliveries to be made to the dorms.)
Similar to his team’s practices at Hartford, the coach again provided some parting words. This time, they were for the Temple faithful: “Tell everyone there that, in some way, I’m still an Owl.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.