The Wise Guy
Deane Brings Savvy, Wit To JMU
HARRISONBURG — When Mike Deane joined Matt Brady’s basketball staff at James Madison before this season, the 62-year-old brought more than 1,000 games of coaching experience, a strong defensive track record, and one very helpful characteristic you won’t find in the media guide.
In a high-strung environment where the weekly grind of games can grate on players and coaches, Deane, according to Brady, “brings levity to the situation.”
“He’s done a marvelous job in terms of player-relations off the court,” said Brady, who, in another life, was Deane’s point guard at Siena in 1986-87 — Deane’s first season of head coaching at the Division I level. “He’s got a very dry sense of humor, quick-witted.”
Or, in the endearing words of point guard Devon Moore: “Coach Deane a crazy guy.”
Moore admits the Dukes were skeptical at first when they saw that a man old enough to be their grandfather would fill one of two coaching vacancies left by former assistants Louis Rowe (who left for Rider) and Corey Stitzel (who was released shortly after JMU finished a 12-20 season). But that uncertainty faded quickly.
Senior forward Rayshawn Goins remembers waking up for a 6 a.m. workout last June on the day when Deane officially started his new job. Goins was still a bit groggy when he arrived at the Convocation Center, but Deane was alert, effervescent and ready to roll.
“Intensity, man, energy,” Goins said this week when asked what Deane brings to the Dukes. “Every day, all day he’ll just talk and let you know what you’re doing right, let you know what you’re doing wrong. He brings a lot of killer instinct.”
This is Deane’s 37th year coaching, and 30 of those seasons came as a head coach (24 in Division I). He has a 437-332 record in D-I, taking Siena, Marquette and Lamar to the NCAA Tournament in three separate decades. Most recently, he coached at Wagner, before being fired after the 2009-10 season.
If you were to watch the Dukes’ bench during a game, you might think that Deane —demonstrative and sometimes on his feet — was the head coach. While he hadn’t served as an assistant since 1986, on Jud Heathcote’s Michigan State team, Deane said he had no problem transitioning to a background role under Brady this year.
“Everyone thought that, ‘No way that this guy who’s been a head coach for this long — he’s gonna be stubborn, he’s set in his ways, he’s not going to be flexible, he’s not going to understand the roles of an assistant,’” Deane said. “I knew that wouldn’t be the case. I’m very comfortable as an assistant. That doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna be assertive. But I’m smart enough to know, because I’ve been on the other side of the bench, that if I make a suggestion, and it’s not utilized, that’s the head coach’s job. That’s the head coach’s prerogative. HCP — Head Coaches Prerogative.”
While Brady has the final say in all decisions, Deane’s input has certainly helped — especially on the defensive end. In Brady’s first four seasons at Madison, the Dukes ranked ninth, ninth, ninth and 11th in the Colonial Athletic Association in points per game allowed. This year, as Brady tries to save his job, JMU (14-11) ranks third. It is No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense during league games.
Deane coached Marquette from 1994-1999, and his first four teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense. Those squads were filled with stout big men, including eventual NBA draft pick Amal McCaskill, who was 6-foot-11.
The current Dukes’ defense, quite differently, relies on long perimeter players inflicting havoc with end-to-end pressure. Deane developed JMU’s half-court trap, which the Dukes use sparingly but effectively to force turnovers and turn them into easy baskets. Madison’s full-court press has also been reliable this season.
“The press is a strong suit of mine,” Deane said. “And while the press doesn’t always get us turnovers, every team has taken seven, eight seconds, and I think it has worn teams down.”
While Deane likes to apply pressure on opponents, he tries to serve as a pressure release to the Dukes. The self-described “self-deprecating” coach sometimes plays good cop if Brady criticizes a player. One day at the end of a practice last week, Brady yelled at forward Enoch Hood, and while Deane said that Hood deserved it, he mentioned that he’d later tell the sophomore a joke to placate him.
“Deane will say it in a nicer way, but the same thing Coach Brady wanted to say,” Moore said.
If there’s ribbing going on between a player and coach, you can bet Deane is at the center of it. He and Goins go back and forth with harmless jabs, just to keep the mood light.
“He said a lot of stuff about Ray,” Moore said. “Like ‘Eat a salad,’ or something. He jokes about everybody. He loosens up our coaching staff and he loosens up our players and everything.”
Goins admitted that his own counterpunches are “Rated R,” but it’s nothing Deane can’t handle.
A 1974 graduate of Potsdam State, where he played basketball and baseball and later coached each as an assistant, Deane said he’s happy living in Harrisonburg with his wife of 32 years, Paula.
In his free time, Deane reads James Patterson and Clive Cussler mystery novels, watches “The Big Bang Theory” with his wife, and occasionally tunes into college basketball (never the NBA), as long as his team is winning.
Deane said he has no ambitions to be a head coach again: “I’d like to stay here as long as possible, and I’ll gladly fade away when it’s time.”
Turns out, he kind of likes his new role.
“You can be a little more effective sometimes because you’re not as emotionally involved when you’re an assistant,” Deane said. “When you’re a head coach, you’re worried about what people are seeing, who’s doing what. There’s so much other things going on in your head, and it’s easy to get emotionally involved to the point where it blows your vision. Those things don’t mean as much to you and you just try to analyze what’s going on in a game.”