Karl Lindholm: Russ Reilly, coach of the 'Bigs'


RUSS REILLY LAUGHS at comments by an after-dinner speaker at his retirement celebration in Pepin Gymnasium at Middlebury College in 2006. Photo courtesy of Middlebury College Sports Information

Russ Reilly

Editor’s note: Karl Lindholm met Russ Reilly in December 1962 when Russ played on the Bates College JV (Frosh) basketball and the Lewiston High team on which Karl played. They have been friends ever since and were colleagues for nearly 30 years at Middlebury College. Reilly died July 24, three days shy of his 75th birthday. We are rerunning a column this week that Karl wrote about Russ and his contribution to the record-setting Middlebury basketball team in 2011.

Down at one end of the gym at Middlebury College, assistant basketball coach Russ Reilly is drilling the Panther big men, Andrew Locke, 6’10”, and Ryan Sharry, 6’8”, and their teammates Jamal Davis 6’6”, Peter Lynch, 6’6”, and Bill Greven, 6’5”, working on moves around the hoop, jump shots, and baseline drives.

Head coach Jeff Brown calls this part of practice “post perimeter breakdown,” when the team “breaks down” into three groups of “post” players (the “Bigs”) and “perimeter” players (guards and small forwards). “This is the time in our practice where we teach and develop skills,” explains Brown.

“I’m pleased with the development of our big guys,” says Brown. “They really consider themselves a unit. The growth of Andrew Locke’s offensive game has been phenomenal, and Russ has a lot to do with that.”

Locke, Middlebury’s junior center, leads the conference and is third in the country in blocked shots. Sharry, a sophomore, has emerged this year as one of the best players in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), averaging 14 points a game and eight rebounds.

Andrew and Ryan and the other “Bigs” are an important reason the Panthers are 17-1 and ranked among the top Division III teams in the country. This Saturday at 4 p.m., they and their teammates will take on another powerhouse team here at Middlebury, Williams College, in one of the most anticipated games in the history of hoop at Middlebury.

The combined record of the teams this season is 35-2. Williams, is actually ranked a few notches ahead of the Panthers in the national poll (No. 4 vs. No. 8), and is the best offensive team in the league. Middlebury has the best defense. If you like hoops, don’t miss this one.

Russ is the “Coach of the Bigs,” for Head Coach Jeff Brown, last year’s Coach of the Year in NESCAC.

“I like to be involved,” Russ says. “I like especially to work with these big guys. I get to know them as individuals, their strengths and weaknesses, their needs.” The players in turn know that he likes them and is not after self-glorification, seeing them as a means to advance his career.

“Early in the season,” he says, “the work I do with the big guys is quite basic, lots of repetition. Then, as the season progresses, I’ll get more specific, depending who we’re playing that week. I have certain goals for the practice every day.”

“I try motivational stuff with them,” Russ says. “A lot of it is pretty corny. I speak to the big kids as a group before each game: I try to keep their minds on the task at hand, get them to believe in themselves.”

Neither Russ nor Jeff recalls exactly how Russ came to work so closely with the team that Jeff leads. “It just kind of happened,” says Jeff. “We go way back. I got to know him when I was an assistant at UVM, then I coached against him when I was at Bates and he was here. I worked at his summer camps. Having Russ here with me now is awesome.”

Russ was the basketball coach for 19 years at Middlebury before he was appointed athletic director, a post he held until 2006 when he retired. At the press conference announcing his appointment as AD, Russ declared that his first major decision in the role would be to “fire the basketball coach,” that is, himself.

The search for the new men’s basketball coach resulted in the hiring of Jeff Brown over a strong group of candidates. Jeff had no bigger advocate than Russ. Jeff is now in his 12th year at Middlebury, after serving as an assistant under Tom Brennan at UVM, his alma mater, for nine years and then spending three years as head coach at Bates College. Jeff’s teams in recent years have been terrific, the last two years qualifying for the NCAA tournament, and last year winning the NESCAC championship.

What Jeff and Russ do together is not that easy. Russ knows that Jeff is the head coach — he doesn’t work the officials during the game, or decide who plays or when. “I might suggest to Jeff who needs a break,” says Russ, “but he’s the boss, he makes the decision.”

We all know that some people are better at accepting a lesser role in retirement than others who became over time accustomed to being in charge. Russ doesn’t always go on road trips. He is retired. “I just want this team to be the best it can be,” he says. He is a “volunteer” assistant coach, a helper.

And he helps. Just ask his boss, the coach, Jeff Brown.

Or the Bigs.

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