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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
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New men’s basketball coaching staff brings a championship mentality

First-year head coach Duane Simpkins’ new coaching staff members are passing on their NCAA tournament experience to AU players

When new head coaches are hired in college sports, it is not uncommon for them to bring in new assistant coaches and staff to help them achieve their vision for the program. This is the case for American University’s new men’s basketball head coach, Duane Simpkins, who has brought in a host of new faces to the basketball program since taking the position in April 2023. 

After 10-year head coach Mike Brennan parted ways with American University in March 2023, Simpkins left his assistant coaching position at George Mason University to begin a new era at American. In the 2022-23 season, the Eagles had a 17-15 record and lost to Lafayette College in the semifinals of the Patriot League Tournament. Simpkins believes that his new coaching staff has all the qualities needed to help the currently 10-8 team achieve success this season. 

“We have four core values here. Our first being character, second one being work ethic, third one being toughness and a fourth would be humility,” Simpkins said. “I wanted individuals that were going to be a part of our staff that had that in their DNA. I’ve known these guys for quite some time and I know all those guys have those traits already within them.”

New coaching staff members include assistant coaches Jackie Manuel, Nate Bollinger and Isaiah “Ike” Tate. Simpkins added the new role of video and scouting coordinator and gave the position to Matt Parker. Parker was previously a graduate student manager for Kansas State University’s men’s basketball team. Keith Byrd is the chief of administrative staff, another new position that Simpkins added to the program. Byrd has experience as Montgomery College’s college-wide athletic coordinator and head coach of the men’s basketball team. Byrd’s many duties include setting up meetings and outreach for community service. 

The only remaining coaching staff member from the Mike Brennan era is Director of Operations Jordan Gaitley, who is in his second year at AU. Simpkins values Gaitley’s strong relationship with the players and familiarity with AU’s basketball program.

Simpkins played college basketball at the University of Maryland from 1992 to 1996, where he played a key role on three NCAA tournament teams. Simpkins is glad to have assistant coaches who have also had experience in the NCAA tournament as coaches and players.

“That gives you some credibility with the guys and you're able to share stories with them of what it looks like,” Simpkins said. “A team really being connected, playing hard, playing smart and tough. We can share those experiences.”

The Eagles’ last NCAA tournament appearance was in 2014 when they suffered a second-round exit to the University of Wisconsin. Manuel has had extensive tournament success and experience. 

Manuel played college basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a team captain for their 2005 NCAA national championship team. Prior to taking the assistant coaching position at AU, Manuel was the Director of Player and Team Development for UNC’s men’s basketball team from 2021 to 2023. In addition to his NCAA tournament experience, Simpkins said that he brought Manuel to the program for his penchant for defense as both a player and a coach. 

Manuel and Simpkins are also longtime friends and were both coaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro from 2012, until Simpkins decided to become an assistant coach at George Mason University in 2015. Manuel and Simpkins worked together to raise the profile of UNC-Greensboro's basketball program.

“It was an amazing experience. It was a lot of being tested in many different ways because we were building a program that hadn't been good for a long time, and so we had to build it from the ground up,” Manuel said. “And so, Coach Simp[kins] and I got a chance to see how that goes and the process in doing that, and how to turn a program that’s in a lot of people’s mind, a low major program, into a major plus program.”

Bollinger previously coached at the College of William & Mary from 2019 to 2023, where he joined as the Director of Basketball Operations and eventually became an assistant coach in 2021. Bollinger played college basketball at Delaware Valley College and later at Millersville University. As a college basketball player, Bollinger was on the 2011 Delaware Valley College team that won a Freedom Conference championship and made the Division III NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. In his coaching and athletic staff career, Bollinger has won regular season titles at both High Point University and Saint Vincent College.  

In North Carolina, Bollinger and Simpkins were in the same coaching circles and eventually became friends. Simpkins said that one of the reasons that he brought Bollinger to the program was his passion for recruiting. Finding enthusiastic recruits who will fit into AU’s program is integral to Bollinger’s job as an assistant coach.

“Our job is to find kids that, A, want to be here, and then two, sell coaches’ vision, sell D.C., sell what we're trying to build,” Bollinger said. “And once you do all that, if you realize a kid doesn't have any interest, you move on. We're not going to recruit kids and beg them to be here. So, identifying kids that are good enough students, and they share the vision that we do and they buy into that, that's what we're looking for.”

Tate played college basketball at George Mason University from 2007 to 2011, where he was a part of two NCAA tournament teams. After being a key contributor for George Mason in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Tate played professional basketball for nine years, making stops in countries like Canada, Spain and Finland. Tate then became a graduate manager for George Mason in 2020 and worked alongside Simpkins. Tate stayed in contact with Simpkins after his move to the College of Holy Cross in 2022, and Simpkins later invited him to join AU’s coaching staff. Tate was the director of men’s basketball operations at the College of the Holy Cross for the 2022-23 season.

Tate said Simpkins was instrumental in getting him into the coaching world and helping him learn the ropes of the coaching side of basketball.

“Working with coach Simp[kins] at George Mason was a really good growth and kind of introductory opportunity and experience for me,” Tate said. “Coach Simpkins pretty much was one of the few key people who got me off of the playing court and into coaching. So, I’ve kind of always been under his tutelage, under his wing if you want to say it like that.”

Tate feels that knowing Simpkins’ coaching style has made his transition to AU easy. As an assistant coach, Simpkins has given Tate many responsibilities on the team, including player development and skill development. Tate believes that his ability to relate to the players has helped him as a coach.

“I’ve been in every role as a player that you can be in, from last guy to main guy, and I think that helps me kind of connect with players and relate to any player in any situation,” Tate said. “I’ve had injuries. I’ve had shortcomings in terms of just maybe wanting to play more at certain times or maybe play better or maybe just be a bigger part of what's going on, but I’ve also, just like our other coaches, I’ve done it at the winning level.”

AU players have been receptive to what Tate and the new staff have brought to the team. Senior guard Lorenzo Donadio likes the new coaching staff’s emphasis on consistent improvement.

“They emphasize to bring energy every single day and to get better step by step, one percent at a time for every practice,” Donadio said.

Sophomore forward Noah Jones appreciates the new coaching staff’s team practice structure.

“I feel like one of the things that's different about this system is how practices are structured,” Jones said. “They’re kind of, ‘get in your groove,’ in terms of there are certain things that we’re going to work on every single day to make us better, but at the same time, obviously, just throughout the season, we have to prepare for our next game, but it's still just good to have that set idea of what practice is going to look like.”

With Patriot League play approaching, Manuel is happy with the impact that he and his fellow coaches have had on the players so far.

“They’re learning not just about the game, but about themselves and what they have inside and their internal drive,” Manuel said. “It makes us feel good inside because, to me, that’s our purpose. Our purpose is to help and develop these guys beyond just the game of basketball.”

This article was edited by Penelope Jennings, Delaney Hoke and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Olivia Citarella.

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