No matter where a coach coaches, they all have similar roles and expectations, with the biggest one being winning. At the collegiate level, not only is winning important, but so is recruiting and academics. College coaches have to scout players who will fit their system both on and off the court. Bert DeSalvo is a Division II head coach at Southern Connecticut State University. I met Coach DeSalvo while I was a student at Clarion University and he was an assistant to then women’s head coach, Gie Parsons. Coach DeSalvo is a stand-up guy who really is committed to his job not only as a coach, but a mentor to the student-athletes he recruits. He gave me the privilege of interviewing him and below you can read the full interview. I want to personally thank Coach DeSalvo for taking the time to conduct this interview.
Eddie McDonald: Let’s start with your tenure at Penn State-Beaver where you had a lot of success. What was that experience like?
Bert DeSalvo: It was a great experience. Not only because of the people I worked with and because I had the opportunity to build a program from scratch at the age of 27. It was a unique experience that not many young (or veteran coaches) have the opportunity to experience. Our senior group in four years had tremendous success (99-26 record, 4 PSUAC West Division Titles, 3 PSUAC Regular Season Crowns, 3 PSUAC Championships, 4 USCAA National Tournament Appearances–including a National Runner-Up Finish in 2011) in their four years. More importantly, they earned respect regionally and nationally, from a recruiting and program standpoint.
EM: At PSU Beaver you were coach of the year three consecutive years. What was it like to achieve such a high accolade of that stature?
BD: Coach of the Year to me is a staff and player award. It simply means that my coaching staff and I recruited some great talent, awesome people and we got them to buy into our system on a daily basis. I was fortunate enough to build the program from scratch so the foundation was strong and kept with my overall vision for the program.
EM: That vision helped lead the team to the national championship game in 2011. What was the tournament aspect like and what was going through your mind as your team played for the national title?
BD: We had lost a heartbreaker in our Conference Championship game about a week and a half before. However, I was confident that our seniors would finish strong and show their character and how much they cared for each other. We beat three scholarship schools (in three days) on the way to the National Championship game and ran out of gas on the fourth day.
Throughout the game I kept saying to myself “this is fun,” “this is why you coach and play,” and “I’m really going miss this group.”
EM: You went from being head coach at PSU Beaver to taking and assistant coaching job at Clarion. What was that transition like and what was your time at Clarion like?
BD: It was a great transition to get acclimated to the NCAA Division II rules and get to work with scholarships again. Coach Parsons allowed me full reign with recruiting so I was thankful to get the opportunity to sign seven student-athletes my first year who made an impact in the program.
The most difficult part was probably adjusting to the pace of Clarion County. Coming from New England and its “go-go-go” mentality, and then living in near the Pittsburgh area, it was kind of a culture shock for my wife and I moving to rural Clarion, PA.
EM: What was it like for you to work alongside a coach with such a stature as Coach Parsons as well as the men’s coach, Coach Righter?
BD: It’s not every day you get to work with two giants in the business. Coach Parsons allowed me freedom to operate as the recruiting coordinator, conduct preseason and postseason workouts, plan practices, scouting reports, etc. so I really got a great sense of what it took to be successful at the DII level. I cannot thank her enough for her trust in me.
Coach Righter still serves as a mentor to me and I appreciate all the time he took to share stories and coaching nuggets. Coach Righter is not just a great coach, but a true gentleman and a person I hold with the utmost respect because of his integrity and character.
EM: You coached one of the best DII players in the nation in Hannah Heeter. What was it like to coach such a class-act, athlete, who was performing at such a high level?
BD: Hannah (Heeter) is a tremendous student-athlete. Her athleticism and sheer will are in the top five of kids I have ever coached, men or women, DI, DII, DIII. It was a joy to be around her every day and see an all-time great go to work. As a coach being around kids like Hannah is a once in a lifetime opportunity. For me, Hannah is in there with the Troy Jackson’s, Tim Parhams, Allegra Lovoy’s, Jasmine Green’s and Heather Sandusky’s of the world.
I wish I had been able to coach her for the remainder of her career. Also, her season ending injury this season really was disappointing for her, the program, the PSAC and basketball fans everywhere.
EM: You left Clarion to head back to the New England area due to family reasons. When you departed Clarion, it caused quite the uproar from the players on the team. What was that transition like and what did it mean to you for a group of players to be so outraged by your departure?
BD: It was tough for all of us. I think in the short time I was at Clarion I had a positive impact on our players and that was the reaction to me departing with my wife who accepted a high profile position at Yale University.
It’s all about the student-athletes. I told them prior to my departure if I could help them out in any way to let me know. I think when you forge connections with recruits and existing players, what you do for them beyond the court makes all the difference. It was humbling to see that I meant so much to my players.
EM: You mentioned recruiting at Clarion where you handled that. Coach Al from the men’s team was the guy in charge of recruiting for that team. With as long as he’s been around the game, recruiting all over the place, what was it like working alongside a coach like that?
BD: Coach Al and I were on different sides of the spectrum as far as recruiting goes, and I think that has something to do with men’s and women’s basketball in general. My focus on coming into Clarion was to get three things accomplished: 1) Recruit winners 2) Recruit student-athletes who loved basketball (gym rats) 3) Recruit high character people. This was all in an effort to establish a winning attitude in Coach Parsons’ program.
I think all the student-athletes we brought in (Kelly Johnson [PIAA State Champ multiple times], Mariah Gador, Alex Gerchman, Jen Straw, Tania Holmes, Leshia Crawford, Jasmine Boyd) we did just that. Most of them transferred out after my departure and now start at their respective schools. If that class had stayed together and grew with each other, it would have been a special bunch.
EM: Now you are at the helm at Southern Connecticut State University. What’s the environment there like compared to PSU Beaver and Clarion? And how, if much at all, is the recruiting different?
BD: Southern Connecticut is much different from Penn State Beaver and Clarion because they have an established tradition. Women’s Basketball won a National Championship in 2007, so we can win here and win big. We have almost 70 majors and 45 graduate programs, so academically we have lots of options to attract student-athletes with. We also boast almost 11,000 students (graduate, adult, online) so we have that D1 campus feel. Not to mention we are in a great location, close to several New England cities, and promote diversity and student success.
This is different from Penn State Beaver because I came into a unique situation as the department was in a growth period. We were adding sports and infrastructure to the department. I had the privilege at Penn State Beaver to build a program from scratch and build it into a well-respected program at the local and national level.
At Clarion, we had had success but it had been a while back when the PSAC was a much different league.
The PSAC and NE-10 are very similar leagues in that both have had National Champions come from their respective leagues recently, the size of the leagues are similar and the night in-night out competition level is so high. These are both really D1 conferences in my opinion.
EM: I’ve heard Coach Righter say countless amount of times that the PSAC is a DI league with a DII moniker.
Now you have your first year at SCSU under your belt. Your team finished with a 14-15 record and were 11-9 in the NE- 10. How would you assess your first season?
BD: I think our first season went well. We implemented our system and got our kids to buy into what we wanted for the most part.
We did some things this season I think only the coaches and players thought were possible. We finished with more overall wins, more conference victories and made it to the quarterfinal round of the NE-10 Tournament, were ranked in the regional rankings for two weeks and also played a tough non-conference schedule. I think if not for a late season injury to our co-captain and second leading scorer we would have finished over .500 easily. We were streaky at times and I want to instill some more consistency on a day-by-day approach to how we handle our business. We did an excellent job off the court with our academics, community service and overall program perception.
EM: Most of your players return next year. How big is that for the continued growth of the program?
BD: The fact that next year our student-athletes will know what to expect from a practice and game standpoint, will really help us. The returners will really be able to help the freshmen adjust to college basketball since they know what I want. Essentially, this year they were all learning a new system and coaching staff.
I think that we have a great opportunity to do some special things next year. As you noted, we have our core back and I think the league graduates many high level players as well. I think the league is wide open.
EM: Also, you have a motivational tool in #SEIZE. What exactly is that, how did you come up with it, and how well did your players and coaching staff buy into it?
BD: #SEIZE is what our program is based upon. #SEIZE is comprised of standards that each student-athlete is responsible to live up to on a daily basis. We want our student-athletes to “seize the day” and take advantage of their opportunities at Southern Connecticut.
I have told our student-athletes that the coaches “want more” and the student-athletes have responded. They have done a great job in the classroom, in the community and on the court.
EM: I’m sure you do as much homework as you can on players you are trying to recruit. You watch a select group of high school players a year and hope to steer them towards your program. What advice can you give high school student-athletes from a recruiting perspective?
BD: My advice is to be organized and on time. In other words, make sure you have a short concise highlight clip and full game video that you know how to send to coaches. Also, make sure you have access to unofficial transcripts, test scores and AAU schedules.
Many prospects contact us throughout the year about wanting to play in our program. Prospects can distinguish themselves by responding promptly to coaches and by being great communicators.
Those are things I need in student-athletes I recruit. It shows that they are “hungry” and eager to be a part of our program.
You can follow Coach DeSalvo on Twitter @CoachDeSalvo.