A new era is approaching for the Varsity Blues men’s basketball team, and John Campbell is ready for the challenge.
The University of Toronto hired the veteran coach – who spent the past 11 years on the sidelines for the Dalhousie Tigers in Halifax – during the summer to give the program a sense of stability after struggling last season with a 3-17 record.
“Coaches get excited every year at the start of the year because even if you’re in the same situation, same school, you’re going to have new players, you’re going to have a new sense of optimism going into the year so that’s always an exciting time,” said Campbell after a scrimmage at U of T on Tuesday.
“Certainly coming to a new city and a new conference, to a new institution, it’s really exciting.”
Alex Hill, a senior on the Blues, says he had a good idea of what to expect from the new coach as a few of his pals played for Campbell at Dalhousie.
“He was here in the summer early putting us through workouts and it was really great,” said the guard in his final year of eligibility. “He’s been quite committed this entire time, coming to all of our individual workouts, coming to our practices, giving us goals to hit every day.”
It was hard for the team to get into any sort of rhythm last year. Hill says interim head coach Rick Dilena was “thrust” into the role and the team struggled to get things going.
“It was tough for him [Dilena] because he was juggling a few things,” said Hill. “I would say that he’s here all the time [Campbell], this is his full time job.”
It wasn’t the easiest decision for Campbell to leave home – his children were born and went to school in Nova Scotia’s capital – but is excited for the future.
“For me, I had a great time with our athletes last year. They worked really hard, I thought they were a group of kids that had great potential for long-term success, so anytime as a coach you leave those types of relationships it’s a real challenge,” said Campbell.
“The hope is that we can build something here that is special and a great long-term opportunity for us.”
A big incentive for Campbell making the move from the East Coast to Toronto was the school’s state-of-the-art sports facility – slated to open in 2014 – called the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.
The multi-million dollar complex will include sports science laborites, a sports medical clinic, a strength and conditioning centre as well as a 2,000-seat field house for international basketball and volleyball. It will be used as a venue for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.
“They’re putting in place a model with the coaching staff and surrounding the athletes where I think we’ll be able to create opportunities for the athletes to really develop and to maximize their potential,” he said.
“I think anytime you’re coaching, that’s the environment you want to be involved in.”
Having a facility like Goldring Centre can only help when it comes to recruiting says Campbell.
“I think as an athlete you want to be in a place where you feel as though you have the best chance for success,” said the coach who’s won a pair of Atlantic University Championships with Dalhousie in 2009 and 2011.
“The new facility will give our athletes that opportunity.”
This year’s squad features seven players who are going into their senior or junior year of eligibility.
Hill led the Blues in scoring last year with 18.1 point per game. He knows he’ll be expected to do much of the same this season if the team is going to improve.
“I’ve had to be that role for the past few years and I don’t think anything will change,” said the American Studies student. “Being the oldest on the team now I definitely have to be more of a vocal leader instead of just being a leader on the court.”
Senior guards Dakota Laurin and Matt Savel, as well as forward Adam Plummer, will be counted on to produce on a nightly basis. Nicholas Burke, Jake Hegen and Chase Ruttenberg are the rookies on the club, looking to soak in as much in as possible.
Campbell says it’s been a bit “challenging” so far in the young season trying to teach a new system, but likes the hard work he’s been seeing from the group.
“I think right now the biggest thing we’re trying to focus on is our effort level on a consistent basis and sort of plan possession by possession,” he said. “Really just play hard, play smart, play together.”
Campbell has been coaching university ball for nearly 20 years and just loves the environment he gets to work in on a daily basis.
“As a person it helps keep you young, it helps keep you competitive, it’s a great way of life,” said Campbell.
The Varsity Blues kick off their season with the University of Saskatchewan Graham Shootout tournament from Oct. 24-26 in Saskatoon. The OUA season begins on Nov. 1 for U of T in Hamilton against McMaster University.