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Interview with Dereck Whittenburg

June 20, 2003 Columns No Comments

Will Rose Hill Bloom Again Under Whittenburg?

by Adam Shandler

He’s done it a couple of times now. Perform the impossible, that is.

In 1983, as a member of Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack, he launched a desperation 40-footer just before the buzzer that was grabbed in mid-air by teammate Lorenzo Charles and slammed through the hoop. The bucket gave NC State an unlikely championship over the much haughtier Houston and its Phi Slamma Jamma.

Photo courtesy Fordham University
Dereck Whittenburg

In 1999, he took over an ailing Wagner program; one that was lodged in the throat of mediocrity and suffering from academic asphyxiation. In four seasons, he gave the Seahawks the Heimlich, turning the program around on several fronts and recording two postseason appearances, including the school’s first trip to the NCAA dance in 2003.

Now Dereck Whittenburg faces, quite arguably, his greatest challenge. He assumes control of a Fordham Rams program that went a combined 10-46 over the last two seasons under former Spurs coach Bob Hill. Despite the bump up in conference competition, recruiting challenges and administrative pressure, Whittenburg is undaunted.

I recently spoke with Coach Whittenburg to see if he had another miracle left in him.

Adam Shandler: Congratulations on your appointment as court coach for the U.S. Junior Nationals team. What exactly does one do as a court coach?

Dereck Whittenburg: Well, I was only doing it for that one week. Basically I was working with (Nationals and Oregon head coach) Ernie Kent, doing whatever he needed me to do. We ran drills with the guys and then coached them during the games. We were also part of the evaluation process and helped with the selection of the final team. It was fun. I had known most of those kids before the trials, so it was good working with them again. And it was the first time I’d been involved in USA basketball since I was a player some 27 years ago.

AS: You achieved a great deal of success at Wagner in four years. Did it happen as quickly as you thought it would?

DW: Well, we all want to make the NCAA tournament our first year, but when I got there, the plan was just to improve the program all-around. We had to find good kids who would play hard and go to school. And we did that. Every kid graduated, we had a team grade-point average of 2.6, there were no incidents, and we did a lot of good work in the community that a lot of people didn’t know about. To tell you the truth, going to the championships was a bonus for us.

AS: So do you feel you left Wagner is pretty good shape?

DW: Let’s put it this way, it’s in a lot better shape then when I first got there. I think the program is definitely in a position to continue to be successful. And with (new head coach/former Marquette assistant) Mike Deane there . . . well, hey, winning speaks for itself.

AS: You’re going to be taking over another struggling New York program in Fordham this year. Do you see this situation as being similar to the Wagner job?

DW: I see the two as being very similar. It’s going to be very tough at Fordham, very challenging, and there’s a lot to be done here. But before we even start thinking about wins, we have to get command of this program, find out what needs to be done, make sure the players are going to be working hard in practice and working hard in school. Once we have that down the wins will come in time.

AS: Fordham is the only New York-area school in the A-10. That has to be a positive in recruiting. But at the same time you’re still competing with local schools from rival conferences — like St. John’s, Seton Hall and Rutgers. What’s your take on recruiting players for Fordham?

DW: There are a lot of positives about selling Fordham. It’s a great New York City school, it has an excellent academic reputation, we have a very supportive alumni base, and I think being in the A-10 are all benefits of playing here. We’re a hidden gem, but the people here are enthusiastic about what they do and are starving for a successful program.

AS: You’re moving quickly with building your basketball staff. I see you hired Ross Burns and Travis Lyons as assistants and the athletic department hired Alex Groothuis as director of basketball operations just last week. I guess your relationship with the administration is working out well.

DW: People here have been open and receptive. I’m a guy who wanted to be at Fordham. When the school and I started talking about this job I didn’t come here saying I was above anyone. I liked [Fordham’s] reputation as a school and they liked me as a coach. I was already coaching a New York school and I wanted to stay here, so it’s been a nice, easy transition.

AS: Have you met with any of your players yet?

DW: Quite a few of them, yes.

AS: Are they excited that you’re on board as the new head coach?

DW: Most of the players are excited I’m here. Most of the guys know my background as a player and what I expect as a coach, so I think it’s a transition that’s going to work.

AS: So can we expect to see the Whittenburg-to-Lorenzo Charles pass in the Fordham playbook this season?

DW: (Laughs) Of course! How can it not be?


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