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A weekend at the shore and an unlikely roommate: how JJ Butler wound up head coach at Chestnut Hill

11/03/2020, 8:00am EST
By Josh Verlin

J.J. Butler turned his final year of college eligibility into the start of his college coaching career, and soon enough his first head-coaching gig. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

J.J. Butler’s journey towards becoming Chestnut Hill College’s head coach started with a chance meeting at a nightclub four years ago. It included a rather unlikely roommate, taking a chance on living in an unfamiliar city, being away from his love, and convincing several administrators that he was ready for the job.

And it’s how Butler, at 26 years old, became the youngest coach in NCAA Division II, one of its youngest at any level.

“I talk all the time about how everything happens for a reason, I’m a huge believer in that,” Chestnut Hill athletic director Jesse Balcer said. “And when you think about the way we met, and the way it all came full-circle, it’s so, so crazy.”

Crazy as in how Balcer’s new hire is not only his former player and former assistant, but also his former roommate. Crazy as in how a Baltimore-area native quickly became acclimated to Philadelphia basketball. 

Crazy as in how none of it would have happened if not for a fun weekend in Ocean City, Md.

“[It’s] awesome, I don’t know any other word to use to describe it,” Butler said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Butler’s basketball story started in suburban Baltimore at Patterson Mill High School, where he graduated in 2012 after averaging 14 points, seven assists and 6.5 rebounds per game for a 23-4 squad. That output, along with a strong showing in AAU the spring of his senior year, earned him a Division I scholarship to Lipscomb University, a private school of just about 3,000 undergraduates in Nashville, Tenn. 

A 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard, Butler played in 85 games over three seasons for the Bison, missing the 2014-15 season to a torn labrum. Though he started 14 games during his freshman and sophomore years, he was largely a bench contributor, averaging 1.5 ppg in 11.6 mpg during his three years at Lipscomb. 

He graduated in 2016 with a business degree (after double-majoring in corporate management and finance with a minor in accounting) and one season of eligibility remaining. Hoping to play one final season of college basketball, Butler turned his attention to some Division II programs closer to home: a lack of such schools in Maryland meant his most sensible options would have been a pair of Delaware schools, Goldey-Beacom and Wilmington.

That’s when fate kicked in.

During a weekend trip to Ocean City that summer, Butler, his girlfriend Marina, and several of their friends ran into a group of guys out at Seacrets, a popular nightspot in the coastal vacation town. Later, at a hotel bar, they encountered the same group. One of them noticed Butler’s basketball tattoo and his Lipscomb pants, and asked if he played ball.

And when Chestnut Hill College assistant Brandon Williams heard that Butler had thought about two other Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC) programs, he had a simple question: Why not look at Chestnut Hill?

Four days later, Butler and his father Jeffrey were up in Philadelphia, touring the campus — located in the Chestnut Hill section of northwest Philly — and meeting with Balcer, the program’s head coach since its inception in 2003. 

Balcer’s pitch to Butler: “I don’t typically take one-year transfers, but if he was interested in getting into coaching, he could play for me for a year and then the second year it would take for him to get his master’s, he could stay on as a graduate assistant, which is what he did.”

In his year on the court for Chestnut Hill, Butler played in 21 games (12 starts), averaging 5.5 ppg and 3.0 rpg in 25.6 minutes. He spent the following year as one of Balcer’s assistants, simultaneously finishing up his master’s degree in administration of human services. 

While Butler was getting his feet wet on the coaching side of hoops, he still needed a way to make some money and afford a place to live. Balcer connected Butler with the parent of one of his daughter’s friends, who managed several apartment complexes. Butler got a job as a leasing consultant, getting a two-bedroom apartment at a discounted rate as a perk of the job.

With Marina studying for her master’s degree and living back in Baltimore, where they’d met as seventh graders and been dating since 10th grade, Butler needed a roommate. Balcer, in the process of getting a divorce, needed a place to live.  

“He gave me the big room so my kids could be there too,” Balcer said. “From a job that I got him, [which] got him a place to live, which then got me a place for me to live...he and I lived together for a year while we were coaching.”

Butler said that Balcer called him “the best roommate he’s ever had,” which Balcer confirmed. They both praised each other’s cooking and cleaning abilities, and learned a good bit about each other as well.

Butler, whose parents had gotten divorced when he was younger, used his childhood experiences to relate to Balcer’s three children. 

“He was a great, great person for my kids,” Balcer said. “It was like they had a big brother all of a sudden who understood what they were going through, who they felt comfortable with, and they became great friends.”

Balcer (left) and Butler on the bench during Butler's graduate assistant year. (Photo courtesy Chestnut Hill Athletics)

On the other hand, Butler got a chance to see the behind-the-scenes life of being a collegiate head coach.

“As a player I took for granted the amount of time and effort our coaches put into us being successful,” he said. “Even as an assistant, it’s hard sometimes to see the weight that the head coaches bear. It was an eye-opening experience for me.”

Butler and Balcer both knew their time as roommates would only last so long; by June 2018, just after Butler finished up his degree, Balcer moved back into his home, his ex-wife having moved out. 

But he wasn’t done helping his assistant: knowing Susquehanna’s Frank Marcinek needed a full-time assistant, he put Butler in touch with the Division III program’s head coach, and Butler got the job.

It didn’t hurt that the River Hawks had on their roster freshman guard Bryce Butler, J.J.’s younger brother. And though Marina and JJ, who got engaged in Paris the day after Butler accepted the job — they had been visiting Marina’s family in Germany at the time — had planned on moving in together, they figured Baltimore-to-Selinsgrove wasn’t much further than Baltimore-to-Philly. 

“(There were) so many emotions,” Butler said. “I was thinking about the opportunity to coach my brother, and thinking about what was going to happen with Marina and I, because she was supposed to move to Philly that year. But when I took the job at Susquehanna, she decided to let her company pay for her grad school and not move to Philly.”

In two years at Susquehanna, Butler focused on the River Hawks’ defense, helping them improve their defensive field-goal percentage from 48.7% the year before he arrived to 43.1% this past season, their points per game allowed dropping from 78.0 to 66.4 in that time. Butler provided analytics data which showed Susquehanna improved from 386th in the country in man-to-man defense the year before he got there (.944 points per possession) all the way up to 14th in his second year (.766 ppp).

That was a major reason that Marcinek’s program, which had made four NCAA tournament appearances in his 31 seasons, won the Landmark Conference title for the first time in program history this past year.

Marcinek agreed that Butler deserved plenty of credit for that improvement. 

“His first year, he joined us right before the start of the season, so his first year I wasn’t ready to turn things over to him, but as the season unfolded, he did more and more and more with our defense, and as we got together at the end of the season, I felt very comfortable saying ‘if you take the defense and I take the offense, we’ll improve both areas,’” Marcinek said. 

“I would trust him with the scouts, with game plan prep, with different ideas of how we were going to play, and our half-court defense was really good...his enthusiasm and intensity fit so well with our pressing style. You’re always happy when your guys move on and I’m delighted for him, but we’ll miss him.”

Butler’s contract at Susquehanna was three years long, and though coaches are always looking for their next opportunity, he had planned on spending one more year in central Pennsylvania before figuring out his next move. Then, in February, Balcer stepped down from his 17-year run as the Griffins’ head coach, his duties as the school’s athletic director requiring more time than he had available to donate to the team he’d started.

Butler was far from the only one whose interest was piqued by the CHC opening. 

Quite a few of Balcer’s former players had gone into coaching: Noel Hightower was an assistant at D-I Lehigh, Brandon Williams had been quite successful in the AAU ranks with Philly Pride, Mark DiRugeris Jr. was 2018 South Jersey Coach of the Year with Woodbury, Julian McFadden is head coach at Springside-Chestnut Hill Academy, Dexter Harris is an assistant at D-III Widener University, and that’s not an exhaustive list. 

To avoid too much conflict of interest, Balcer withdrew himself from the first round of interviews, relying on baseball coach Robert Spratt and assistant AD Jessica Day to pick out four finalists. Butler was one of two of his disciples who made it through to the final round, and ultimately Balcer knew he’d be putting the program in good hands.

“When I lived with him I saw how much he loves (basketball), how much time he put into it, just the way he saw the game,” Balcer said. “I think he has a very good way of communicating with kids where he’s tough, but he’s respectful, they respect him, because he’s not that far removed from them. 

“There was a little bit of concern about his age because some of these guys, a couple guys on the team he coached as an assistant the one year, but they all had a lot of respect for him. He was basically married when he was both a teammate and a coach, so he wasn’t the guy that was hanging out at the parties with everybody, he wasn’t the guy that they’ve seen do other things where they’re going to respect his opinion. 

“He’s pretty much been a grown man beyond his years since the day he stepped on campus.”

Butler has his work cut out for him to turn the Griffins into a title contender. 

As a small college (approx. 1,350 undergraduates) that only became co-ed in the fall of 2003, Chestnut Hill has struggled to find footing in the CACC South for long with D-II powerhouse Jefferson (3,600 undergraduates), along with Holy Family (2,200) and several other bigger schools with longer hoops histories in the division. The program’s high-water mark was an 18-12 (11-6) season in 2011-12, but it hasn’t seen a season over .500 since.

A good part of the on-court struggle has been fundraising and scholarships; when Balcer was first hired (part-time), the CHC athletics department had three full-time staffers. It’s now up to 13, including the head basketball coach, though Butler’s role is also tied to athletics fundraising. 

“Money isn’t great, but I think there’s enough scholarship money to make moves,” Butler said. “My goal is definitely to fundraise, trying to figure out how to put together a golf outing, we’re going to sell some merchandise as well; there’s a bunch of little stuff we’re going to try to do throughout the year. I would say the two biggest angles I’m going to go with fundraising are a golf outing and summer camps.”

Now living in East Falls with his wife — J.J. and Marina tied the knot last fall — the second coach in Chestnut Hill’s hoops history got busy putting his own team together. 

He’ll have his top two scorers returning from last year in junior wing and Cheltenham product Trevonn Pitts (15.2 ppg/5.1 rpg) and sophomore wing/Sankofa Freedom alum Scott Spann (13.4 ppg/7.8 rpg), but will have to replace several key pieces from a year ago, including forwards Keyon Butler (11.1 ppg/6.6 rpg) and Julius Phillips (6.2 ppg/3.6 rpg), as well as point guard Ahmad Bickley (8.3 ppg/5.7 apg). 

To help fill in the gaps, Butler brought in six newcomers, including a Division I graduate transfer: former Brown big man, David Erebor, a 6-9 post player and, just like Butler, a Maryland native (Mount Carmel). Another Md. local, Nigel Haughton, comes to CHC after spending one year as a walk-on at Towson, though he had Division I offers at points late in his high school years at John Carrol. Then there are four freshmen: Glenelg Co. (Md.) point guard Noah Charles, West Deptford (N.J.) wing Joseph ‘MJ’ Iraldi, Baltimore Poly (Md.) guard Dylan Majors, and the 2019-20 Philadelphia Public League Player of the Year, Simon Gratz’s Yassir Stover

“I think we need to flip the script,” Butler said. “They scored the ball really well, had a lot of guys, a lot of weapons on the offensive end, but were arguably one of the worst defensive teams in the conference. 

“My goal is to ramp things up on the defensive end and let them be the offensive threats that they are, they showed everybody they can score the ball last year, and I think I’m bringing in guys that will continue to do just that. But we need to have a different defensive mindset, so that’s my No. 1 focus, to figure out a way to get stops and rebound the ball.”

It’s an ambitious plan for the kid from Maryland. But crazier things have happened.

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