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Into the fray: Student travels country to realize dream

Cassandra Tomlin/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Political science sophomore Adam Cohen is an assistant video coordinator with the men's basketball team. Cohen transferred from the University of Buffalo to work under head coach Lute Olson, with hopes of realizing his dream of being a Division I head coach.
By Tom Knauer
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
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As he tells it, Adam Cohen's first taste of college basketball was as acrid as the underside of a used sneaker.

After going through eight weeks of preseason workouts as a point guard with the men's hoops team at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., he was rewarded with a call into the office of head coach Rich Roche.

"He goes, 'Your spot's not guaranteed anymore,' because they brought in two transfers on the last week of the summer," said Cohen, a first-year assistant video coordinator with the UA men's basketball team. "That wasn't the greatest first day of college."

Cohen sits on a spotless granite bench outside McKale Center, home of the Wildcats. He traveled more than 2,000 miles from his home in Buffalo, N.Y., to get this spot as one of Arizona's 10 team managers.

A sophomore who transferred to Tucson this year, Cohen said his ultimate goal is to become a Division I head coach. He figures getting his feet wet under the coaching staff of Lute Olson, among the most respected and successful floor leaders in the nation, is the Hassan Adams-like leap he needs.

"I went home every single weekend the last six weeks of the (first) semester, just to kind of get my life straight," Cohen said. "I was just miserable, and I loved (Buffalo). Time of my life.

"And then this came around, and I was like, 'This is too good of an opportunity to pass down.'"

Humble beginnings

Cohen said he first became interested in coaching while taking a history course during his senior year of high school in fall 2003, when his teacher noticed he was reading John Feinstein's "March to Madness," a book about coaching in the renowned Atlantic Coast Conference.

"He said, 'I can so see you in the Final Four, on the bench, in 20 years or whatever,'" Cohen said. "After that, I just started drawing up plays all day during class and he would get mad at me."

That December, Cohen e-mailed Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner, who, like himself, was a young Jewish man with his sights set on a future head-coaching job, about how best to break into the profession.

Pastner called him the same night, and they talked for 30 to 40 minutes, Cohen said. Pastner advised him to set up an interview with Wildcats associate head coach Jim Rosborough and visit the Arizona campus.

"From his conversation, you could just tell he was upbeat, excited, energized," Pastner said. "You could tell he really had a lot of tremendous characteristic traits about him."

In November of Cohen's freshman year at Hobart, Rosborough called and invited him to watch the Wildcats play. Cohen and his father, Kenneth, booked a flight to Tucson for the following month, and Rosborough gave them free tickets to see Arizona compete at its annual Fiesta Bowl Classic in McKale Center.

Cohen then did his interview and afterward immersed himself in the team's pregame routines, including practices and shoot-arounds.

"You could just tell his knowledge base, what he knew, his IQ - everything about him," Pastner said. "He's an unbelievable worker, he really is."

Before latching on to Arizona, Cohen said he wrote about 300 letters to coaches at Division I schools around the nation. He said he received letters back from such legendary coaches like Texas Tech's Bobby Knight and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

"Every day, it was like a new letter came. It was really cool," Cohen said. "All I explained to them was, 'What can I do? This is my dream. All I want to do is coach on the Division I level. What can I do more to make it work?' "

Every letter Cohen got carried the same message: Get involved in coaching on some level, continue to forge relationships with coaching insiders and participate in basketball summer camps.

Cohen had already made steps toward the latter end - for the past two summers he has worked at the reputed Five-Star Basketball Camp at Robert Morris University in Coraopolis, Pa.

The camp is renowned for its emphasis on teaching the game, and a number of collegiate head coaches, including Louisville's Rick Pitino and Memphis' John Calipari, have used it as a steppingstone toward highly successful careers.

After a mostly fruitless first semester at Hobart, Cohen said he transferred to the University of Buffalo to be a team manager with the Bills' men's team.

The experience helped put his life into perspective, Cohen said, as he was able to be closer to his family and friends. Most importantly, he got his first taste of Division I hoops.

After Cohen's visit in December, Rosborough told him he had a spot with Arizona if he wanted it.

"I knew in my heart that I wasn't going to turn it down," he said. "But still, I loved the University of Buffalo. It was hard to leave."

Learning the craft

On a given work day, Cohen shuffles back and forth between the Lute and Bobbi Olson Court and the team's video room between Pastner's and Rosborough's offices.

When not helping players with drills on the court, Cohen said he organizes videotapes of Arizona games and practices. As an assistant video coordinator, one of his main jobs is to package scouting tapes to send to opposing teams for the upcoming season. In turn, he checks the mailbox frequently for something to relay to Olson and company.

In his spare time, Cohen said he plants himself in front of a videocassette recorder and analyzes tapes of random teams in random games, scribbling down players' nuances.

He said he prides himself with being one of the last people to leave McKale Center at night, sometimes staying longer than Pastner, the program's noted workaholic.

"If I take just one game a night and just watch it through, I have to learn stuff," Cohen said. "So if I write all kinds of stuff down, which I do - I just watch tape and write down everything - then I'm learning."

But he's also teaching.

Fendi Onobun, an Arizona freshman forward, said Cohen is the first person he'll call if he decides to work out on a whim late at night.

They usually work on making Onobun a more complete player on offense, as Cohen runs him through a series of jump shots and drills honing perimeter and post moves.

"He sees what I do in practice and he lets me know, 'Yo, get more arc on your shot,' or 'Hey, use more of your legs,'" Onobun said. "It's kind of funny - he's the same age as me. But I look at him like, 'Hey, you know, he's going to help me out.'"

Junior Mustafa Shakur, the team's starting point guard, said the first-year manager also knows his boundaries.

Despite the prodigious game tape Cohen ingests, Shakur said he hasn't been too aggressive in practice in pointing out errors.

"I think he has a great future," he said. "If (coaching is) what you want to do, this is a great place to be."

Getting a head start

Both Pastner and Rosborough said students like Cohen rarely get the chance to join a program as lauded as Arizona's, even in a minor role.

But Cohen didn't present himself like any other 18-year-old.

"I almost want to use the word 'pester,'" Rosborough said. "He pestered us and stayed right on it."

Cohen said he and Pastner talked on the phone for about 20 hours before they met on his campus visit.

Pastner said he was immediately impressed with Cohen's bravado and professionalism, namely his firm handshake and effortless eye contact.

"If we're going to get someone, they've got to be disciplined, a hard worker and have character," Pastner said. "Adam's got all three. He was a no-brainer."

What's not as certain is where Cohen will end up after college, or in what capacity.

Cohen's most likely opening job is back in the Division III ranks where, with relatively few expectations, he can learn the basics of running a team and develop his own styles of play, Rosborough said.

Pastner has received offers to be a Division I head coach, thanks partly to his success in recruiting top-notch prep players from California and Texas, and said he would willingly take on Cohen as an assistant coach if the right stars aligned.

"As good as I thought he was going to be, he's 20 times better," Pastner said. "He's unbelievable. He's very good. You tell him to do something, he gets it done right away."

For now, Cohen said he's content at the bottom of the team ladder and he knows experience will breed opportunity.

He's already getting a taste.

"Whatever happens, whether I don't even end up coaching - which will not happen - or if I end up being big time, this is going to be an incredible experience," he said.

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