(Note: In the autumn/winter of 2000-2001, freelance writer Thomas Carney traversed the United States, driving along U.S. Highway 20, which runs from Newport, Oregon, to Boston. During his trips he interviewed coaches of men’s college basketball teams at schools that lie within 15 miles or so of the route. The resulting book was entitled Road Game: Basketball Along America’s Highway.
The following portrait is based on Tom’s experiences at Boston University on February 3, 2001. While BU doesn’t figure into the 2016 NCAA tourney, this final excerpt is included because of all the coaches Tom met along the way, Dennis Wolff seemed the most affected by his team’s performance)
When I was eight years old, walking up to the schoolyard that I played ball in, the idea that I could become a player and fit in with the group and be successful eventually consumed me.—Dennis Wolff
T. Anthony’s Pizzeria sits on a corner just up the block and across U.S. 20/Commonwealth Avenue from Boston University’s athletic offices at the Case Center. Long before Boston University’s SID Ed Carpenter suggests T. Anthony’s as the one place in the city where the regulars might be discussing BU basketball, I find myself taking a late breakfast there prior to my interview with Coach Dennis Wolff. And long before I return home to Michigan, my journey comes full circle.
Part of the reason T. Anthony’s provides fertile ground for the topic of BU athletics is that it is a favorite spot for BU coaches to take teams and recruits. I look up from the menu and notice assistant basketball coach Larry Greer placing an order for an early lunch. Larry is old friends with my pal Barry Neuberger from Oakland University and is one of the guys Barry introduced me to at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
I re-introduce myself and we begin discussing what else, BU hoops. The Terriers are young this year with no seniors on the team and only one junior who has started every game. In fact, the three remaining juniors only have three starts among themselves. As a result, their play—both execution and intensity—has been inconsistent. Plus one of the team’s top scorers is currently in a shooting slump.
“It’s like having your number three batter hitting a buck-ninety,” says Greer.
No matter what happens in the game, he tells me, I’m bound to enjoy my visit.
“The Roof is a great place to watch a game.”
• • •
How correct he is. The official name of the home court for Terrier basketball is Case Gymnasium. Its nickname comes from the court’s location on the upper level of the Case Center. The Roof has the best feel of all the gyms and arenas on my trip. It’s neither the newest, the largest nor even the easiest to get to. But it’s just a great place to visit.
The same thing can be said for Boston University itself. The bulk of the school’s grounds rest between Commonwealth Avenue and Storrow Drive on the south bank of the Charles River near Boston’s historic Back Bay section. As a result, this city school’s 110-acre campus is long and narrow. I think my odometer measured it to be nearly a mile long but barely an eighth of a mile wide. Of course, I have a vested interest in visiting BU, for it is the eastern-most university on U.S. 20, thus functions perfectly as the final school on my tour.
But as Ed Carpenter estimates, approximately 250 colleges can be found within fifty miles of Boston, and certainly loads of them are near U.S. 20 and were likely possibilities. Heck, even BU’s opponent today, Northeastern University, sits only about a mile from the highway not far from the Museum of Fine Arts. But some good fortune led me to BU. Carpenter’s insights might explain better.
He calls Boston an “exciting, vibrant city,” and concludes, “There’s no better city to attend school in than Boston, and we are Boston’s university. What makes attending school here so exciting is that Boston is as diversified as the university.”
That diversity finds its way into the basketball team, too. “We have recruited locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. As you can see from our roster, we have no boundaries.”
Diversity and academic excellence at BU are two key points head coach Dennis Wolff also mentions.
“We have 15,300 undergrads with one of the largest percentages of international students in the U.S.”
In his seventh year at the helm of BU’s Division I program, Wolff also points out, “In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve coached an Australian, and last year we had a Cameroonian. The best player in school’s history was a Nigerian.”
Carpenter says, “The roster reflects our student body, ten percent of which comes from overseas.”
Of the thirteen Terriers on this year’s team, Wolff says, “I have a Spanish guy, a Polish guy, a Peruvian, a Belgian,” well above that ten-percent figure.
BU’s diversity is reflected not only in the number of international students matriculating but also in the areas in which folks associated with the university have staked their claims on our culture. Alexander Graham Bell and 20th century American poet Robert Lowell were professors here. Poet Anne Sexton took Lowell’s class and Sylvia Plath audited it. Actresses Faye Dunaway and Olympia Dukakis attended BU as well as actor Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame. Paul Michael Glaser, who was either Starsky or Hutch, earned his M.A. at Boston University, and his late wife, AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser was a BU grad. The late Barbara Jordan, the first African American elected to Congress since Reconstruction, graduated from BU. And a Ph.D. from BU’s theological school gave us Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.
As for academics, Wolff says point blank, of all the teams in the America East Conference, “Boston University is clearly the best school academically. It’s a terrific, terrific school. We have very high academic standards. And that’s always the starting point for us in recruiting.”
Boston University fits comfortably, way more cozy than I expected of the school at the end of the road. For my immediate experience, though, much of the comfort is provided by the atmosphere of the Roof.
About seven years earlier, a renovation replaced the bleachers with comfortable theater seating throughout. In addition to the great seats, the floor has so much spring to it that it comes alive beneath you as guys pound up and down the court twenty feet away. The building oozes rich, deep, royal red tones—the Terriers’ colors are scarlet and white—from the padding in the end zone opposite the gym entrance, the seats, and the section numbers and stripes on the white cinder block walls to the arc areas on the court, the four-foot wide border around the court, and the drapery covering the scorers’ tables. Rhett the Terrier is the coolest of the mascots I’ve seen. The pep band’s live music combines with the great voice of local singer Barbara Green to earn BU the rating as the place with the best national anthem along the road.
• • •
The game itself easily becomes the most exciting of all on this trip.
Boston University draws first blood. But its 3-0 lead, which the Terriers hold for nearly two minutes, is the last they’ll see of the first half. Northeastern builds its lead up to 18 before heading into intermission up by 13.
“We can’t get in a hole at the beginning of the game,” Wolff had warned his troops during the chalk talk in the Eilberg Lounge forty minutes before the game. “We can’t afford to have lapses like before.”
But the Terriers do lapse, create more turnovers than the Huskies, are out-rebounded at both ends, and somehow the Huskies have broken away.
“Their M.O. has been some enthusiasm at the beginning but they cave if we keep it up,” Wolff had said of Northeastern earlier. And at halftime, he reiterates, “That’s a team that’s caved in all year. All year. They’re in their locker room hoping that we’ll roll over. Let’s go out and no matter what happens, play this half with pride.”
The Terriers scrap their way back, making the game a real dogfight. Their intensity does not waver; in fact it builds but does not produce the anticipated meltdown of Northeastern. So the Terriers keep nipping away at the heels of the Huskies.
Game notes: “3:28 left—Jerome Graham lay-up. Down 68–64. The place is rockin’. Terriers asleep at the wheel on an immensely reboundable ball—pausing again in anticipation of a whistle— Huskies put it back.”
The score is 70–64 when BU is forced to call a time-out with 1:41 remaining.
With 10.4 seconds left, Northeastern leads, 72–71, with BU headed to the line for a one and one.
No matter the outcome, I myself will feel miserable.
• • •
My seat is not close enough to the BU bench for me to hear, so I have to rely on visual cues. For the entire game, Dennis Wolff ’s body language has conveyed pain, torment.
More than once, he has clasped his hands atop his head and just squ-e-e-e-e-e-z-ed. This seems less of an attempt to prevent an explosion than it does to minimize the fallout from an implosion. His anguish doesn’t seem rooted in anger or frustration but rather helplessness. His young players just do not perform as if they’ve gotten the message, and he can’t do it for them.
“Keep your dribble alive” was one of the points of emphasis both before the game and again at halftime. Yet a failure to do just that forced BU to take that time-out with 1:41 left.
Wolff had previously said, “I’m just amazed that I end up—and that’s been honestly what’s plagued our team—I have to explain time and score to them way too much. I have to explain to them value of possessions more than you would think to guys that have played.
“I find myself every year more and more disappointed in the lack of fundamentals and the lack of understanding how to play. The lack of team play.
“I saw a good quote, I don’t want to steal it, from Jim Calhoun. Your and my generation, growing up we read Sports Illustrated. We read Sport magazine. We read The Sporting News. This generation—and I use this with my team—these guys read SLAM. There’s nothing team related in it. It’s all about sneakers, and one- on-one, and who scored the most points.”
No other coach has exhibited such obvious fatigue during the interview or agony during the game. At the BU bench, Wolff ’s face has gone ashen. At times he appears to be absolutely gasping for air. This is the only school where my feelings for the coach during the game have moved beyond journalistic detachment. I’m not quite sure why that is.
Perhaps it’s because among all I’ve interviewed, I think we’re closest in age. Perhaps it’s because I understand his pain, having also dispensed advice to junior varsity players who seemed to understand yet failed to put into action.
Perhaps it’s because he seems to be a nice guy for whom time and opportunity are running short. He’s been coaching for 23 years. Early on, he gave up the head coaching position at Division III Connecticut College to serve an additional, twelve-year apprenticeship as an assistant at a series of several well-known Division I basketball schools such as Wake Forest and Southern Methodist. At St. Bonaventure, he assisted current Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien whom Wolff calls “one of the best coaches in the country,” and “the major influence on my coaching career. Jimmy and his late wife Chris were the godparents to my youngest son Michael.”
Wolff later spent four years as an assistant at the University of Virginia. During that time, the Cavaliers made three trips to the NCAAs including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1993, and they won the NIT in 1992.
While Wolff himself does not bring up the possibility of leaving BU, one cannot ignore the specter of two of his three immediate predecessors, Rick Pitino and Mike Jarvis. It’s not inaccurate to say that BU is often a stop on the route for coaches on the move—only one coach in the BU basketball program’s 92-year history has remained for as many as ten years. By the end of this season, his seventh, Wolff will have climbed into a four-way tie for second place on the longevity list. The Terriers’ most recent win over Hartford was number 102 for Wolff and set the career victory mark at BU previously held by Jarvis. So, history would suggest Wolff might be thinking about moving on.
Also, his name is often tied to vacancies, such as those at Providence College in 1998 and Fordham in 1999. The word on the street is that given his experience and pedigree, Wolff would likely be the next guy to get the nod for an ACC job.
Boston U’s assistant coach Larry Greer puts those thoughts into perspective, however: “To get one of those jobs, you have to be hot. At our level, it goes in cycles. When Dennis was mentioned for the Providence and Fordham jobs, Boston University had been in three straight America East Championship games, but the last two seasons we have been rebuilding. We have a chance next year to bring it back.”
Finally, perhaps I feel for him because through his frank and matter-of-fact responses Dennis Wolff has revealed more of himself and his human side than any other coach I interviewed. That’s not to say he is friendlier or more complex than the others. It’s just that he laid open more compartments of his personality than anyone else did.
His office is decorated but not cluttered.
“I’m not a junkaholic,” he says. “I save the things that are important to me.”
On the floor beside his desk, a Plexiglas case displays a Hopi Indian kachina doll presented to the team when it participated in a tournament in Arizona. Against it rests a plaque with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Things may come to those who wait but only the things left by those who hustle.”
Wolff also points out bookends from Nigeria, a token of appreciation when he ran clinics for youth groups there. Along the wall to the right of his desk hang a poster of the Boston skyline and a cool, extremely wide poster of some guys playing street ball. On the wall across from his desk hang several framed newspaper and magazine articles so all Wolff has to do is look up for reminders of BU’s winning the America East Tournament and heading into the NCAAs in 1997.
Another memento of the 1997 run, however, merely sits on the floor at a right angle to the kachina doll and rests against the wall below the skyline poster. This is a framed artist’s rendering of the team’s championship ring. Similar illustrations were common items on the walls of several of the coaches along my route. But not on Wolff ’s.
“I have never been able to decide if it’s too ostentatious,” he tells me.
OK, right off the bat, no other coach has expressed any concern at all about the image he’d project if he were to display a symbol of his success. Heck, at Valparaiso, Homer Drew displays probably a half dozen mementos of “The Shot.” But Wolff ’s framed print of the championship ring sits on the floor.
On top of that, no other coach came close to using words like ostentatious. Wolff also uses proper grammar most of the time. More noticeably than the others he demonstrates a grasp of and respect for the English language.
He also carries his command of the language into the locker room, at least part of the time.
“It would be very helpful if you were to keep your dribble alive,” he tells the team before the game. “It would be very helpful if we were to take charges … This is what I would prefer to happen … I don’t want any fabricated enthusiasm out there.”
At one point during the interview, though, he mentions his frustration with trying to convince the players they need to master the fundamentals and correct their flaws if they want to develop into good college players.
“They sit in there and give you the impression they understand what you are saying. I think then they go back in the locker room and tell their friends I’m screwing with their games.”
Except he doesn’t say screwing.
He stops abruptly and says, “Please don’t use that language. My wife will kill me.”
Nevertheless, when he’s talking to the team, his favorite word appears at every opportunity, kind of like “They frigging got ten frigging points on offensive frigging rebounds. Every frigging possession is frigging critical.”
Except he doesn’t say frigging.
My favorite barrage occurs during the final talk before the game and goes something like this: “Make sure you frigging get back on frigging defense, get your frigging feet in position, move your frigging ass, and frigging block out. Don’t give these frigging guys any frigging second chances.
“OK, chaplain … ” and Robert Thornburg, Dean of BU’s school of theology, leads the team in the pre-game prayer.
• • •
Despite—or perhaps because of—his ability with the language, Wolff rewords the beginnings of his sentences more than any other coach. Sometimes he uses three different introductory phrases before he gets going, usually in order to answer the questions in a manner that deflects attention from himself.
At one point, clearly distressed, he actually states, “I’ve gotta’ be honest with you, Tom, I’m not real comfortable talking about myself.”
Even if he hadn’t admitted that, his body language tells the same story, his legs drawn tight together and his neck pulled close to his shoulders. He would have been sitting on both his hands if he hadn’t pulled one out to emphasize his remark.
The forces within Dennis Wolff that most obviously conflict are his passion for the game of basketball and a weariness—from a mediocre season, the pressures of coaching, the demands of recruiting, the changes the game has undergone and forced upon him, who knows?
While these sentiments slip into many of his responses, nowhere do they battle more directly than in his response to one question.
What aspects of coaching at this level still make basketball fun for him?
“People … You know … I don’t know. …
“Sometimes I think I’ve been doing this too long. In general like … when you ask me … like … I love the game of basketball. I would love to still be a player. And so I think that when I go to games, and I listen to parents of teammates or classmates of my own children in the stands, and I listen to how far out in left field these people are in regard to what’s taking place during the games and what their own kids are doing and how the coach is to blame and all that, I’m dumbfounded is about the only way I can react.”
Some other parents will tell his wife that his daughter, who has D-I talent, needs to score more when the college scouts come to see her.
“I mean, any college that would come to watch a game wants to see if the kids can play good basketball. They don’t go back and say, ‘Oh, she only got fifteen points and not nineteen.’ How retarded is that?”
Let’s change the topic, I tell him. What elements still make it fun? “I think the competition. The kids. I mean, I really like working with these age kids. I think that if I stopped liking the kids then I wouldn’t do it anymore.
“I’d say in the seven years I’ve been the coach here, I probably only had one year that I didn’t like the team we put out on the floor, personally.”
That would be the 1998–99 twice-defending America East regular season champions who went 9–18, “a disastrous season. We had talent; I didn’t like them; they didn’t like me. I was left with a very bitter taste in my mouth.”
“Last year, we had a miserable season, injury wracked, two guys we lost to academics during the year, two guys we redshirted before the season started. We actually had a game last year where I ended up putting the manager into the game.
“When it was all over, and when I was sitting around evaluating it, I thought that we did about everything that we could, and the kids did everything that they could. I liked my team very much last year.
I like them even more this year. They’re a good group of kids that want to do the right thing.”
They might want to do the right thing, but they also lack the maturity to get it done. A player only needs to muster the energy for one person. A coach, at times, has to conjure it for many. And in today’s game Dennis Wolff has emptied his bag of tricks. To no avail.
Before the game, he exhorted the players, “Play with enthusiasm! Play hard! Play together!
Bewildered, Wolff complained during his halftime meeting with the assistants: “We’ve got no life. … Look at the looks on their faces. You’ve got to wonder, where’s their energy?”
To the team he said, “We’ve got to grow up, and we’ve got to grow up right now!”
• • •
And now, with 10.4 seconds to go, the Terriers have a chance to take the lead. But they miss the front end of the one and one. Northeastern rebounds and scores. Final score: 74-71.
For the BU coaches and team, the walk downstairs is too long, too silent. That changes when they get into their meeting room.
“What was my worst fear all week came to fruition,” Wolff says, and basically tells them, “you play the way you practice, and you haven’t practiced hard.”
On a positive note, he reminds them, “You kept playing. You did not give up. But you waited too long” to get it into gear.
“This is a bitter pill. … All right. Get your hands in.”
Everyone steps into a huddle, joins hands. The players mumble the chant, “1–2–3 Together” with so little enthusiasm it does not merit an exclamation point.
• • •
BU finished the season 14-14 (9-9 in the America East Conference, fifth place). The Terriers lost to Maine in the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament, 87-83.
Dennis Wolff remained at BU through 2009
From The Washington Post, February 14, 2012:
BLACKSBURG, Va. — Dennis Wolff can still laugh about how his life has changed from 2009, when he was fired as men’s basketball coach at Boston University, to today, with his career on a different trajectory as the first-year women’s basketball coach at Virginia Tech.
“My family has joked that I’m like a G-rated Dennis Wolff now, which in the scheme of things is probably a good thing,” said Wolff, 56, who won a program-record 247 games in 15 seasons at BU and led the Terriers to two NCAA tournament appearances.
Virginia Tech point guard Aerial Wilson laughed when the coach’s statement was recounted to her recently. He may not curse much anymore, “but if you’re not giving 100 percent, he’s gonna’ say something. He’s not gonna hold his tongue.”
After leading his Virginia Tech team to its first post-season berth since 2007, Wolff was fired on March 22, 2016.