Chris Zupko (above) has been Drexel's director of basketball operations for the last two seasons. (Photo courtesy Drexel Athletics)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: While head coaches get the headlines and assistant coaches do the bulk of the recruiting work, there’s more to a Division I basketball coaching staff. The Director of Basketball Operations, also known as the “DOBO,” is the main man behind the scenes, with tasks ranging from scheduling practices to coordinating travel and class schedules… and more. We spoke with all six of the city’s DOBOs to find out more about these key pieces to the local hoops programs, and get some inside dirt on the City 6. What you see below is a transcript of our conversations, edited for readability.)
At many programs, the Director of Basketball Operations is a younger coach-in-waiting, someone who’s looking to move up the chain to eventually run his or her own program, or move into administration and aim to become an Athletic Director. Chris Zupko is on a decidedly different path. The 45-year-old is in his third year with Drexel, his first gig of any kind at a Division I school, after having worked for The Hoop Group for a decade prior as well as gaining some experience at the Division III level. Along the way he’s worked with future NBA talent, beaten cancer, delivered pizzas to celebrities and more. His story...
CoBL: You’ve got your first international trip with Drexel this month, going to Australia. Is this the DOBO’s time to shine?
CZ: Yeah, [assistant coach] Rob O’Driscoll did a great bit of the leg work up front with the contract stuff and basketball travelers and then handed it over to me with communicating with our tour guides, organizing our passports and visas, making sure travel’s set. Some of the things that forget about is, we have five new guys coming with us and they have zero Drexel gear. So making sure the team has pretty much our gear for the entire year, so we look uniform as a team going over there and represent Drexel the best we can.
Organizing meal money, team meals, sightseeing on their own, what sightseeing events we’re doing and dealing with pretty much a 14-hour time difference. So a lot of this is taking place between 7 and 10, 11pm at night with me emailing and calling, speaking to our tour guide and dealing with restaurants and hotels and arranging pre-game meals. Just a lot of little details to take care of and button up before we leave next Friday.
CoBL: You’d spent the previous 10 years with the Hoop Group, primarily as the Skills Camp director. What’s the same, and what did you have to learn how to do?
CZ: A lot of it’s organization. As the director of the skills camp up at Hoop Group....my typical day during the summer was to oversee the facility, made sure the dining hall was run correctly, our cook was cooking, our facility was being run, the basketball’s being taken care of, our coaches are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. [Oversee] the health and safety of the kids, order our gear and guess how many campers we were going to have and what size shirts and try to be within a ballpark where we’re not overspending, manage a budget. And so some of that stuff doesn’t seem like it translates but since managing our budget for Drexel men’s basketball and making sure we’re staying within our guidelines for recruiting, travel, meals, ordering our gear, taking care of the locker room, all of that stuff to me carries over a lot. When I first took the job, the smartest thing I ever did was I sat down with Brad [Fadem] at Penn and said ‘what’s your best practice, and how do you do this, and how do you do that?’ And a lot of it translates over into being organized and getting ahead of stuff.
CoBL: How did you first meet Zach Spiker? Had he tried to bring you on his staff before?
CZ: We met working a camp called Prep All-Stars, when he was a GA at Winthrop and it was probably 2000, 2001, and we had an interesting experience of having to clean up a mess at like two in the morning in the Coliseum. I was running the camp and he was the GA for Gregg Marshall, and we laughed about it, we had fun with it and we kept in touch. It wasn’t like we were texting each other every day or messaging each other; we’d reach out during the year and catch up maybe two or three times a year.
When he got to Drexel, it was a time for me where I was really aggressively looking to have a change in my career and operations in Division I athletics is kind of my niche in where I want to be. And I reached out to him and we went through the process and the interview process and I was fortunate enough that he hired me. I know he had great candidates and stuff, but it was something that I expressed interest in and he hit the ground running and was hiring his assistants to be on the road recruiting in April to make sure that we found the best players possible at that time, and I came aboard in June, I was hired maybe middle of June and my first day was July 5.
CoBL: A lot of DOBOs are younger guys looking to get into coaching, you’re the elder statesmen among operations guys in the city. Was that a difficult transition for you, was it something you had to think about?
CZ: I guess now that, I’m 45...when I first started my basketball journey, I was an assistant at Roanoke College in Virginia, Division III school, and then got my masters and went up to Hobart College in upstate New York and then was out at Hargrave Military Academy for six years and always thought that ‘hey, I want to on the road recruiting and I want to do all that stuff’ and as I went to the Hoop Group and spent 10 years at the Hoop Group, I realized that I have a lot of great connections and a lot of things can help in recruiting, but I don’t want to be on the road recruiting, I’d much rather be taking care of the organizational stuff and the stuff behind the scenes. And trying to help an organization run smoothly, I look at a basketball program as an organization and so I see myself being a director of operations at the Division I level for a long time, it’s what I love to do. That’s just how I was born but I feel like I serve our kids really well, who are here, and helping them, whether it’s taking care of them or taking care of the locker room or helping them with different things and developing that relationship than I would any other way.
CoBL: Take me back a little bit. You went to Roanoke College, but where were you born and raised and how did you get into basketball?
CZ: I was born in Yonkers, New York, grew up in Brewster, New York, just a small town. Played high school basketball, wasn’t that great. Had delusions of grandeur about playing Division III basketball; went down to Roanoke and realized that I wasn’t good enough, which was okay. I tried out for the team, didn’t make the team; coach Page Moir, who was a great influence in my life, was the head coach and I said ‘coach, i want to be part of the program, what can I do?’ and he said ‘you can be a manager,’ and I said ‘great.’ I was a manager for both varsity and JV and spending five or six hours a day in the gym during the season. My junior and senior year, Page made me a student assistant for the JV team, and my senior year made me an assistant for the varsity team at Roanoke. I was a volunteer assistant for two years afterwards, and to make money I delivered pizzas for Domino’s, which was a fun experience.
Page was really influential and said ‘you should probably get your Masters,’ and I went down to South Carolina, Eddie Fogler was the head coach and he allowed me to watch practice, and Eddie is as North Carolina/Dean Smith as they could be, I had to go get a practice pass, sometimes I felt like I had to sneak into practice just to watch practice, but I watched practice two times a week. After my first year of grad school I was about to do housing for their basketball camps and the relationship changed, he trusted me and had me at practice, got to know his players, got to know his managers real well.
From there, I went to Hobart College for a year, the sports information director was a guy I met when I was at Roanoke, and he knew that they needed an assistant and I went up there and had a great year, actually coached Joe Corbett, who was from the Haverford School and is now coaching in the area [at Lansdale Catholic]. I had a great opportunity a year later to go down to Hargrave Military Academy and be the assistant post graduate coach, and work for Kevin Keatts and Mike Preston, and it was awesome, six years there was fantastic, I could be around some great basketball players, coach a couple former Sixers -- Sam Young, Marreese Speights, coached Joe Alexander who was a lottery pick. Post-graduate school sometimes gets a bad rap, but I had a great time with those kids.
CoBL: What’s your best Domino’s story?
CZ: There’s two. I actually delivered to ZZ Top, I delivered to the managers and they had the same beards. And the other one is I delivered to Robbie Knievel, and he was supposed to do a show in Roanoke and two days earlier he got drunk or something stupid and got arrested and he had his thing pulled, so I delivered pizzas to him at the Holiday Inn at Roanoke. It was funny, the other drivers wanted me to ask ‘can we get your motorcycle out, can you jump some cars for us?’ I didn’t do it, but I was tempted to.
CoBL: So now you’re at Drexel...what are the specific challenges of being the Dragons’ DOBO?
CZ: I don’t know. I think every job has a challenge; I enjoy it. I’m trying to say this the right way...working at the Hoop Group is hard. It’s a cult and it’s a passion and Rob [Kennedy] will tell you that. You’re grinding, you’re putting in 70-80-90 hours a week and you don’t think anything about it. The one thing that I would advise anyone in my profession is take time to develop relationships with the people outside of basketball, and do that on a daily basis and a personal basis. Don’t just send a text, don’t just send an email, but walk across campus and meet the person that you’re going to want to have a recruit meet with, like I make sure I walk down to the business office every day -- and it’s in the DAC, so it’s not like I’m going far -- but I touch the people who affect our players in direct and indirect ways in school and recruiting, and I learned that at Hobart. [...] I don’t think we have challenges on the basketball side. For me, my biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to get our day camp numbers up, because I don’t think parents like to come into the area to drop off and pick up, outside of our Drexel parents, but the staff here is great. I work besides Zach, Paul [Fortier], Justin [Jennings], Rob [O’Driscoll], they’re great guys to be around.
And my personality, I don’t dwell on my challenges, I look at them as opportunities, wherever it comes up in a roadblock for me. That’s why it’s a hard question for me to answer, because I’m not wired like ‘oh, I’ve got to deal with this or that,’ it’s like ‘okay, we’ll figure it out.’ And that comes from two things, that comes from the Hoop Group, Rob’s motto was ‘figure it the bleep out,’ if you had an issue you had to figure it out, you can’t rely on someone else to figure it out. And the second thing that attitude comes from is I’m a cancer survivor, and (seven) years ago I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and Billy Hahn, who’s a dear friend of mine, got on the phone with me and he just yelled at me. He was like ‘just be positive’ and I was like ‘I will’ and he said ‘no, no, just be positive.’ So when I went through chemotherapy, every time I went to chemo, I was positive, and I knew I was fortunate. I looked around and there’s a woman who lost her hair, a woman with a big hole in her throat. I looked the same day one as I did six months into chemotherapy, so I knew I was fortunate. I don’t know if I really look at challenges as a negative, it’s an opportunity to grow and learn.
CoBL: Wow, so how long have you been in remission? How are you doing?
CZ: It’s six years May 4th. I was diagnosed in October 2011. And the Hoop Group was tremendously supportive and helped me through it, I was able to work through it, as I said I was fortunate and blessed. It was a difficult time but a great learning experience for me in life and how I want to look at things and how I want to perceive things and how I want to do things.
CoBL: So you might be the old guy in the DOBO realm, but you might have the youngest, freshest mentality about it.
CZ: This is where I want to be. I want to be doing what I do 25 years from now, I enjoy being around kids and having a positive influence on players’ lives, being able to share in their great moments. One of my favorite things to do every summer is, I coached Chaz Crawford at Hargrave, so he comes back and works out and Chaz and I will go get wings and catch up, and I just love sitting there and him and I catching up and talking about the guys he played with and different things, and how he’s grown and developed and it’s just a great relationship, and those are the relationships that I look forward to continuing with Austin [Williams], Rodney [Williams], the guys who have come through already and our current guys.
CoBL: When you’re not in basketball mode, what do you like to do for fun?
CZ: I recently bought a bike, so I like riding. I don’t play golf enough, but I enjoy playing golf. I love walking around and exploring the city, I like walking Kelly Drive, Martin Luther King and just taking in Philly. And I’m a Jets fan at heart but looking forward to going to Eagles games, going to a preseason game, Phillies concerts, I enjoy what Philly has to offer, it’s an awesome town to be in and live in. Those are kind of the highlights of things I like to do. Not a big runner so I’m not running anywhere, but I’ll definitely bike or walk somewhere.