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Age just a number to nation’s young coaches

Jamion Christian was working as an assistant coach at William Mary a couple of years ago when he noticed that one of his recruiting targets happened to be a big Kobe Bryant fan.

Instead of simply filing that fact away for future use, Christian wasted no time finding YouTube videos of Bryant in action and sending them to Forestville (Md.) Bishop McNamara guard Marcus Thornton through a Facebook message or a Twitter direct message.

“I thought it was good of him,” Thornton said. “It definitely moved me closer to him as far as recruiting.”

Two years later, Thornton just finished his freshman season as William Mary’s second-leading scorer, and Christian has become one of the nation’s youngest Division I head basketball coaches.

Christian, hired by Mount St. Mary’s two weeks ago at the age of 29, believes the Thornton case represents just one example of how his youth can benefit him on the recruiting trail.

“Being able to go back and forth on Facebook, I’m not afraid to do that,” Christian said. “I’m not afraid to get up to date on a funny YouTube video or what guys in our generation are looking at. It may not always be about work. Sometimes it’s about laughter.”

Christian, who turns 30 on April 18, has plenty of company within his own league.

Mount St. Mary’s hiring of Christian and Wagner’s promotion of Bashir Mason gives the Northeast Conference three of the nation’s four youngest Division I coaches: Mason (28), Christian and Robert Morris’ Andrew Toole (31). The second-youngest Division I coach is 29-year-old Wes Miller from Southern Conference program UNC Greensboro.

“When I got into college coaching, my only goal was to become a head coach,” Mason said, “but not in my wildest dreams did I see it happening this soon.”

The NEC, a traditional one-bid league, has developed into a pretty good training ground for up-and-coming coaches in recent years. Rutgers hired Mike Rice away from Robert Morris in the summer of 2010 after he led the Colonials to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Dan Hurley guided Wagner to a 25-6 record this season and was promptly hired away by Rhode Island.

All three of these youthful NEC coaches believe their age helps them because they’re only about a decade older than many of their current players.

Christian and Mason now are eager to back that up. Toole already has done his part by posting a 44-25 record in his first two years on the job.

“I think recruits feel a little more comfortable with younger guys in terms of communicating,” Mason said. “I’m still young enough where I can relate to them. I understand the language they speak. I’m not that far removed from the game where I don’t see it the way they see it, but I’ve also been coaching now for five years so I get both sides of it. It’s easier for me to draw a bridge between the two.”

On a much larger scale, Memphis‘ Josh Pastner has shown that a young coach can have plenty of recruiting success.

Pastner, 33, already had earned a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters even before the former Memphis and Arizona assistant took over Memphis’ program in April 2009. Memphis has signed five top-30 recruits during Pastner’s head coaching tenure.

“I think age is overrated,” Pastner said. “I really do. You can get the job done or you can’t. Whether you’re 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60, you’re going to get the job done or you’re not.”

But the new head coaches in the Northeast Conference believe their youth can help them establish a rapport with recruits.

For one thing, their age makes them more comfortable communicating through social media.

“There are some kids who only communicate on Twitter,” Christian said. “Being able to watch Twitter and having an understanding of what’s important to them and what isn’t important to them … it really allows you to create a profile for each prospect that gives you the best chance to secure him in the end.”

A recruit also is much more likely to share the pop culture tastes of a coach in his 20s or 30s than someone who already has been in the business for a few decades. That became apparent to Toole one day when he was making recruiting calls on speaker phone with music playing in the background.

“Drake or somebody had just put out a new CD, and I was playing it on my computer,” Toole said. “[The recruit] said, ‘Coach, is that Drake? I’m listening to the same thing.’ It was something we laughed about. It was nothing I’d planned. It was just something that worked out in my favor.”

Their youth also allows them to engage with recruits in a much more direct manner.

Latif Rivers was only 12 years old when he first met Mason during a basketball camp at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. Rivers was garnering some attention for the way he performed at the camp. Mason, who was in his early 20s at the time, finally challenged the kid to a game of one-on-one.

“He says he let me win,” Rivers said, “but I won.”

That game started a friendship that continued as Rivers developed into a college prospect and Mason began his coaching career. Mason was working as an assistant on Hurley’s staff at Wagner when Rivers signed with the Seahawks. Rivers led Wagner with 14.6 points per game and earned second-team all-conference honors as a sophomore this season.

“With him being younger, I think he’s able to relate to me and the other guys better,” Rivers said.

A coach’s youth certainly can help him create a bond with a recruit.

But it also may hinder his ability to win the trust of that prospect’s parents.

“You have to sell yourself more to the adults who are in the recruit’s life,” Toole said. “Whether it’s right or wrong, sometimes when people think of age, they automatically think that means experience and they think that means a person who’s a little older may be more equipped to handle situations that may arise.”

Toole has learned that lesson the hard way.

He has made plenty of in-home visits and has seen the curious looks on the faces of some parents when he walks through the door. Sometimes he can win them over. Other times, that task is much tougher.

“Especially in my situation, I look even younger than I really am,” Toole said. “There is a little skepticism. Once I start to explain how my program operates, how we do what we do and how I do what I do, I think some of that skepticism goes away. I try to use the current players in our program. I have those guys vouch for me.”

Toole is hoping he doesn’t have to face as many doubts from parents or AAU and high school coaches anymore. Not only is he a couple of years older now than when he took the job, Toole already has demonstrated his coaching ability by leading Robert Morris to the conference championship game each of the last two seasons.

And he also can cite the rave reviews he has received from his current players.

“He’s a player’s coach,” Robert Morris guard Velton Jones said. “He’s a really cool guy, and I like the fact that he’s a really loyal guy too.”

Christian and Mason are just beginning their head coaching careers, so they’ll have to answer questions about their inexperience a little differently. And those questions inevitably will arise, whether they’re from skeptical parents or rival coaches.

“Certainly I expect that stuff to come,” Mason said. “I think the biggest thing that can be looked at is the players here in our program – a program that went 25-6 – and those guys wanted me to stay here. Those guys, most of them I recruited and a lot of them have actually seen me coach on a day-to-day basis. Those guys trusted me enough to stay here and felt I could do the job. That would be my message to recruits. … Our players had a big voice in the hiring process, and I was the guy they wanted. They believed I could coach, and I know I can do it.”

Mason also noted that he could use Toole’s success at Robert Morris as proof that a younger coach can succeed in this conference. Of course, having three of the nation’s youngest coaches in the same league also provides its own set of complications.

After all, each of these guys would like to use his youth to his advantage on the recruiting trail. That would be easy for a guy in his 20s or 30s who was working in a conference dominated by coaches twice his age. Christian, Mason and Toole won’t have that luxury.

As conference rivals, all three of them could end up pursuing the same recruits at one time or another. Since they’re all roughly the same age, how will each distinguish himself from the others?

“They’re going to have the same hunger that I do,” Christian said. “That’s going to be a great battle. I think what’s going to end up happening is we’ll all get good players, so it’s going to come down to which team does the best job with their guys on a daily basis.”

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