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November 8, 2013

An infusion of basketball experience

Stanford's newest men's basketball assistant coach, Tim O'Toole, gets around campus in a classic getup. Rather than driving, walking, or biking to campus, O'Toole's preferred mode of transportation is a three-wheeled trike. Call it a throwback for a coach who has been around the basketball block more than a few times in his 20-plus year coaching career.

"Probably based on my age, or I don't know what it is, a couple of buddies back home decided they were going to send me and my family a gift," O'Toole said. "It just so happened to be a trike for adults. It's kind of classic because you get to put your backpack in the back and at my age you're not worried about tipping over because you have the balance of the three wheels so it's kind of classic… You're thrown back into this world that you only remember when you were in your adolescence and then here I am. Now I'm riding around on a bike to work so it's classic, especially one that's so attractive that makes me look like I'm 97."

Though the 49-year-old O'Toole still brings a youthful energy and enthusiasm for his profession, which was apparent in an extended sit-down interview with this site, he brings vast coaching experience to The Farm stemming from stints as an assistant coach at Duke, Syracuse, Depaul, Army and Iona, and a six-year run as the head coach at Fairfield.

"I'm very excited to have Tim join our staff and look forward to working with him," Johnny Dawkins said in a release announcing O'Toole's hiring. "Tim brings a wealth of experience to our program, having served as a head coach and an assistant coach for several successful programs. He possesses an incredible passion for the game, and has the ability to instantly connect with the student-athletes he coaches. Tim's presence will greatly benefit everyone associated with our program."

O'Toole was born into a basketball family. His father, Thomas O'Toole, who led the nation in assists as a senior during his college playing career, is a member of the Boston College Hall of Fame. After his career ended, tasked with the responsibility of raising a family, Thomas O'Toole decided the full-time coaching route wasn't practical. But he stayed involved in the sport.

"He was a professional salesman by trade but he was a coach of people," O'Toole said. "He coached all different types of kids. He used to coach the New York Athletic Club back then, which was a team that did exhibition games against the Georgetown's and Syracuse's and the St. Johns' in the Northeast. He coached high school, he coached Manhattanville, which is a D3 school. He coached fifth grade. It didn't matter who he was working with. I say that because he has such a passion for teaching people not only this game but the kind of life lessons that you learn from being involved in a team sport when it's done right. I was just blessed to not only have him but then I had this whole New York network that I was a big part of when it started that helped me get into coaching."

Additionally, a longtime connection with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski also helped jump start Tim O'Toole's coaching career. O'Toole first met Krzyzewski when O'Toole attended a basketball camp at Army in the late 1970's. Krzyzewski took a special interest in O'Toole the camper.

"That was the first time I went away from home by myself, I was a little guy," O'Toole said. "He saw me probably fidgeting and nervous, like I want to get out of here. He came and introduced himself and then he ended up picking up my bags and taking me to my room. My mother never forgot that, because here's her little son scared out of his mind, and here's this grown man who went way out of his way. Make a long story short, when I got into coaching, she was always like, 'Don't ever forget what that man did for you.' And that man just happens to be the Coach K that we know today."

O'Toole maintained his connection with Krzyzewski throughout his high school and college career, working at Krzyzewski's camps and interacting with him at various stops. Along the way, O'Toole met several other coaches and built relationships that would eventually lead to several job opportunities.

"I went and worked (Krzyzewski's) camps when I was in high school," O'Toole said. "I worked at a place like 5-Star where I saw him every summer and he would attend and he was recruiting. When I was in college I went down and worked Duke's camp. And so that's when I met Coach Dawkins and Tommy Amaker and a bunch of those guys."

O'Toole's first job as a college assistant was at Fordham in 1988, just one year after completing a heralded playing career at Fairfield. After making stops at Army, Iona and Syracuse, O'Toole was hired by Duke in 1995. During O'Toole's tenure as an assistant with the Blue Devils, he worked alongside current Cardinal Director of Basketball Operations Jeff LaMere. O'Toole also worked with Dawkins for a few weeks before leaving to take an assistant coaching position with Tommy Amaker at Depaul.

"We were all part of that family," O'Toole said. "We were fortunate that coach looked after that family. We always would come back at the Final Four and get together. Any time the Devils were on TV we were rooting for those guys, and you know each other in recruiting. And even when I went to Fairfield as the head coach we played Duke three times and we would go down there. So we were kind of part of the same family. And then quite frankly here we are because there was an opportunity open and it worked."

After spending the 1997-1998 season as an assistant at Seton Hall, O'Toole was named the head coach at his alma mater, Fairfield. O'Toole's head coaching tenure included a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Coach of the Year award and a berth in the NIT, but concluded when Fairfield declined to renew his contract.

"You look back and you said alright, I was offered a tremendous opportunity," O'Toole said. "You learn a lot of things. We went in there and had a plan. And quite frankly we executed the plan. We took over the worst team in the league over a 17-year period. We went out and tried to play everybody. Duke was our first game ever. They were ranked No. 1 in the country. That was the year they lost to UConn in the finals. The only way I thought we were ever going to have a chance to legally do what we were trying to do was we had to go play really good talent to attract really good players and eventually we would be able to be really good in our league. And that's what happened. And toward the latter part of our stay at Fairfield we were climbing. And then it took a bad turn and unfortunately it impacted all of us and then it ended. But that being said, we had accomplished what we were trying to do. You live and you learn and you realized that hey, sometimes things don't have to be true but you need to keep fighting and learning."

After leaving Fairfield, O'Toole decided it was time for a break from coaching.

"I went down and visited Coach K and he's like, 'You know what? You have your MBA in finance,'" O'Toole said. "He goes, 'Why don't you go use it?' And I tried. And I did. And looking back, I think two things might be the greatest things that have happened to be because of that. One is that in leaving coaching, I worked in the business world. And so what I wanted to replicate were three things that are consistent with coaching: Sales, teaching and hoop. That's what we thought. The sales, I worked for an investment management company. I also worked for an online education company. Two, because of the teaching aspect, I ended up working for Fordham University in their Graduate School of Business (where I went for my Masters), teaching a course on how to create, build, lead and sustain. The Dean was great. And so I started teaching in the GSB at Fordham."

"And lastly, because I needed my hoop fix, I did ESPN and the St. John's radio. But one of the cool things also happened was I spent a great deal of time volunteering with young kids. Because I love little guys. One of the things that I always was intrigued with, because I was probably more defensive-minded in my coaching thoughts, was how to teach offense properly. And one of the things I saw first-hand when working with a five-year-old, no different than a 25-year-old, is that if they don't know where they're going, then they get all confused. And if they're little it scares them, they can start crying, they do different things. But those same things are applicable regardless of age. And so you started teaching and understanding how important it was to be able to properly direct and guide and know exactly what you were talking about.

"The thing with the basketball side was that when you were at ESPN and even St. Johns, every night in preparation for that game you were studying the best programs in the country, the best leagues. You had to be aware of everything with ESPN. So your mind was taking a critical snapshot of, 'Hey, what's going on in the Pac-12, what's going on in the Big-12, how did Murray State become Murray State?'

After a few years away, the coaching itch returned. O'Toole realized that although he left the day-to-day grind of college basketball behind, his passion for the sport remained intensely strong.

"I realized every day that even when I got to work at my respective jobs, first thing I did was check ESPN to see what was going on in men's college basketball," O'Toole said. "It was just a natural inclination to see what's going on.

So O'Toole decided to accept an offer from another member of the connections he made earlier in his coaching career, Jim Boeheim, and become the Director of Basketball Operations at Syracuse.

"What you learn when you're in these professions is you become family," O'Toole said. "I've been blessed that I've been part of many families. Two of those families are the No. 1 and the No. 2 all-time winning coaches in the history of this sport... I was thrilled to be back working for someone I knew. I had the great fortunate, when I was an assistant at Syracuse from 1991 to 1995, I was the guard coach. Adrian Autry and Mike Hopkins, who are assistants there now, played, they were my guys. Last thing is my mother was diagnosed last summer with pancreatic cancer… I have talked with her over the years too but moreso when she was diagnosed, this whole idea life is short. I'll never forget we were going to a CAT Scan in December when I told her that Coach Boeheim and I had spoken and she didn't miss a beat. She just looked at me and was like, 'You have to go. It's who you are.' So between all of those kind of things coming together and my wife knew this it's in your DNA. It's not getting out. You're trying."

After helping Syracuse to a Final Four appearance, another one of O'Toole's basketball families reached out to him. The departure of Mark Madsen left a vacancy on Stanford's coaching staff, and Dawkins gave O'Toole a call.

"You're at the Cuse. You just went to the Final Four," O'Toole said. "It's as good as it gets, theoretically, but here was Stanford and Johnny Dawkins and Mike Schrage and Super Duper (O'Toole's nickname for Jeff LaMere) and another group that I am very familiar with because we were part of the same family. And it's just like again, I didn't even think twice. Like it was we have to go. This is an incredible place, it's an incredible opportunity. I believe wholeheartedly in Johnny and Coach Schrage and now Charles Payne and then you come out here. Wow!"

Though O'Toole received a promotion in accepting the coaching position with the Cardinal, the move had potential drawbacks. A lifelong East Coast resident, O'Toole had to move 3,000 miles with a wife and three children under the age of 11 to accept the position.

"There are a couple of (reasons why I took the job)," O'Toole said. "I've known Johnny not only as a player, but as a person and as a coach since 1982, when I played against him at Five-Star one night. So I've been well aware of who he is as a human being. I see tremendous similarities between when Johnny played, because I knew Coach K because Johnny did. And so you look back and in 1985 when they were 11-17 down at Duke and people were calling for Coach K's head. There were cat calls and this guy with a lot of hard syllables in his name, he's got to go.

"(Former Duke Athletic Director Tom) Butters went to (former Duke President) Dr. Brody… and they ripped (his old contract) up and gave him an extension. But the pieces were there. And you knew they were doing it the right way, it's just a question of when it's all going to come together. You think, 'Wait a second now. It's the same thing.' You look at who we have coming back. And sure, you hit speed bumps, but as long as you keep trying to teach the right things and really it's character. When it's all said and done, who's going to win at the end of the game when you're fighting and it's coming down to the last possession, which it seems like they all do. Talent, sure that's always in there. But then it's like alright, where's that will? Quite frankly, Johnny Dawkins' will is unbelievably strong. To come and be a part of it and hopefully help it and hopefully bring some of the things that I might be able to bring. And eventually I think that will help. One day, maybe I'll be a head coach again. And so it's right here in front of us."

O'Toole and Stanford will open their season at 7:00 p.m. tonight when they host Bucknell.

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