Top News

New NBL Canada coach chasing his latest challenge

Jeff Dunlap knows all about passion. A basketball coach from California, Dunlap worked at the University of Alabama, where college football, on the scale of importance, ranks somewhere up there with breathing.

And for the past six years, he’s been at North Carolina State, one-third of the Holy Trinity of college hoops in that neck of the woods, joining Duke and North Carolina (though Wake Forest might have a problem with that assumption).

College basketball is to North Carolina what football means to ‘Bama.

So Dunlap has it figured out that sports isn’t about giving it the ol’ college try. It’s about wins and losses.

He also knows that when it comes to sports and Canada, hockey is king. Always will be.

But basketball has a growing niche in the marketplace north of the border, and he’s determined to sell an entertaining game in these parts, to what’s surely going to be a curious and skeptical bunch of St. John’s fans starting next month.

Jeff Dunlap

Dunlap, from North Hollywood, Calif., is the first coach of the brand new St. John’s franchise in the National Basketball League of Canada.

Dunlap’s appointment — shameless self promotion aside, but you read it here first — is the first big move for the franchise, with the second expected to be the team name coming soon (my bet is on Signals).

Anyway, in a city that’s been home to either pro or major junior hockey for over 25 years, basketball at the professional level is something new, and will almost assuredly be met with some apprehension.

The new team will only get a couple or five chances to make an impression, and Dunlap is determined to do his part to ensure the team gives the crowd their money’s worth.

“We’re going to run,” he promises. “Defending, rebounding and running is the No. 1 priority … you know, get a stop, get the ball and go again. But if they score, I want to run it right back down their throat. I don’t want them to have a chance to celebrate a basket.

“We’re going to turn it up, put the pedal to the metal and go … a high tempo game. Put it this way, I don’t want that 24-second shot clock coming into play.

“I want to run you … I want to turn it into a track meet, and I think the fans will like that. Players will get to show off their athleticism, speed and jumping ability. That’s electrifying, and hopefully will endear St. John’s to our team.”

Dunlap has a deep background in NCAA Division I basketball, his latest stint at NC State as the director of basketball operations. But these are tough times for the Wolfpack, and after going a combined 15-17 last season, coach Mark Gottfried, Dunlap’s long-time coaching ally, was shown the door.

And it goes without saying Dunlap was also given the heave-ho.

“We lost our jobs for no other reason that we weren’t winning enough games,” he said. “It’s a hard profession. It’s true, you’re hired to be fired. But that one stung a little bit because I thought we had done a really good job at NC State.”

Before landing in North Carolina, the 54-year-old former UCLA player had coached at Alabama, Georgia, Western Michigan and a couple of other smaller schools.

But he was mostly an assistant coach, save for jobs at a couple of junior colleges.

Which is another factor that made the St. John’s job – and let’s be honest, the fact that he needed work – so appealing.

Of course, in the NBL Canada, which operates on strict budgets, Dunlap will be more than a coach. He’s the de facto general manager, director of player personnel and head scout all rolled into one, the chief cook and bottle washer.

“I loved being a head coach when I was in junior college, and I wanted to become a Division I head coach, so I hopped on the train of trying to move up the ladder and put myself in position to have a chance at a job.

“But sometimes it’s as much luck and timing as it is being good at your job.

“There were a couple of hiccups here and there, and some years have flown by, and I’m anxious to be a head coach again. It is rewarding to have the relationship with the kids, and I like the teaching part of the game. I always felt coaching is teaching, no matter what level you’re at.

“And yes, I don’t mind wearing all the other hats, too. If I have to do the laundry, I’ll do the laundry.”

St. John’s and Raleigh, N.C., and the National Basketball League of Canada and NCAA hoops are about as far apart as you can get, quite literally and figuratively.

As with most sports jobs, Dunlap learned of the St. John’s gig through a friend who’s in NBA scouting, who knew a guy, who knew a guy …

Next thing you know, Dunlap’s being interviewed for a job in a place he’s never been, and heard only a little about.

“I’ve been a college coach for 30 years, done it at every level, and I’ve experienced some great things,” he said.

“Then this presented itself, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll step out of college for a minute.’

I’ve had so many players play overseas, to the NBA and Europe and the D league, to Canada. I know from their own recollection, of what they’ve done and the leagues they’ve played in, that it’s very rewarding and a lot of fun.”

With a degree from UCLA, and a Masters from Azusa Pacific University, near L.A., Dunlap is no dummy. So he’s been busy lately educating himself about St. John’s and Newfoundland, and chatting with Canadian friends, among them the actor Tom Cavanagh, who’s a big basketball guy, Dunlap says.

“He’s told me about various parts of Canada he’d seen, including Newfoundland,” Dunlap said. “So I’m not entirely unfamiliar with it. I can’t tell you I’ve been there because I haven’t. But I know when you pull up the pictures, it’s gorgeous.”

The league opens in November with 10 teams — five in the Atlantic Division (Moncton, Saint John, Halifax, Cape Breton and Charlottetown, P.E.I.) and five in the Central Division (St. John’s, London, Ont., Niagara Falls, Windsor and Kitchener-Waterloo).

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the NBL Canada. The Orangeville, Ont. A’s folded after last season, the Moncton Miracles were scrapped only to be reborn as the Moncton Magic, an expansion team was awarded for Sudbury, Ont., but will not begin play this season as had been suggested, and there was some discussion whether the Island Storm from P.E.I. would return this season given ownership issues towards the end of last year.

When you’re talking pro hoops, the NBL ranks behind the NBA Development League – the D League – and a lot of European circuits.

So Dunlap won’t be coaching talent such as former Wolfpack players TJ Warren, who recently signed a $50 million contract extension with the Phoenix Suns, or Dennis Smith, the ninth overall draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks last summer.

“From that standpoint, does that mean this is a step back? No, because we’re not a college team. We’re a pro team. And it’s not fair to say it’s a step back from the NBA, because the rest of the world is a step back from the NBA.

“We have to make a niche for ourselves. This is a league that’s been around seven years, and I think it’s better than it was last year, and two years before that and four years ago.

“I have a player who played for me at NC State, Alex Johnson (a Toronto native), who played in the league (Windsor Express). Alex and I talk regularly and he would always tell me, ‘League’s getting better, coach. We’re getting better players. The salary cap’s going up.’ You know, more money, better players.

“I think if Canada gets behind the league collectively — and I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow — that as it continues to grow, if it somehow gets a TV deal and secures more corporate sponsorship, it could be a league that gets some traction and takes on some of the other good leagues in the world as far as a place for people to play.”


Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort




Jeff Dunlap has been a college basketball coach and recruiter his entire adult life.

And, he says, colleges and the pros are looking to Canada more and more, which is no surprise given the play of Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Jamal Murray and Kelly Olynyk, among others, in the NBA.

“I can tell you as a college recruiter, we are coming up into Canada more and more. The 17- and 18-year-old kid is becoming a very attractive recruitable athlete to the American colleges.

“That didn’t use to be as much, so that tells me the eight-year-old Canadian kid is not picking up a (hockey) stick all the time. He’s also dribbling a ball. And by the time he turns 18, he’s got skills.

“That says a lot for where the game is going. It’s moving in the right direction in Canada.”

Recent Stories