Three wise men: an inside look at the men's basketball assistant coaches

Three wise men: an inside look at the men's basketball assistant coaches

AMID ALL THE excitement surrounding a 13th OCAA title and a second national final appearance in a three-year span for the Sheridan Bruins men's basketball team, there is an incredible story of loyalty, friendship, and a lifetime of educating young people through basketball. And on the surface, it's not necessarily the story one might expect. 
The Bruin engine is fed each and every day by three very wise men - none of them named Jim Flack - and the head coach is the first to point out that the success of the Double Blue has been a collective effort.

"Anyone who can't see the contributions of Nicky Davis and Dave Ferencina is being naive," Flack says. "And Leroy? He is the embodiment of Sheridan basketball - he is the backbone."

In the world of intercollegiate sports, it can often seem like the only constant is change, but such has not been the case for the Bruin bench ever since Ferencina joined the staff in 2005. With 14 consecutive seasons together, and a combined 112 years coaching in Canadian collegiate basketball overall, there are virtually no peers at any level of basketball that can boast the same combination of experience and continuity. It is a luxury that has afforded them great consistency over the years, but not one that has made them complacent. Year-in and year-out, they are making adjustments and tweaks to their system in order to produce optimal results.

"We're always on the lookout for concepts we can use," Cassanova says. "Flack does a lot of deep diving in the research, and then the three of us get to veto what he brings us if it's just too crazy. He's a risk taker and a bit of a mad scientist, but so are we, so it keeps things fresh."

"As coaches, we are not afraid to experiment and try something new to help the team get better, but to do this you have to be willing to fail," Davis adds. "I can't tell you the number of times we have tried a new strategy that didn't work out. But most times when we fail, we just try something else until we figure it out. Once we find a strategy that works we constantly tinker with it until it's finely tuned. The other thing is we trust our players. We encourage them to hold themselves accountable and to take ownership of the team. The teams that have done that have been successful. Those that lack that kind of leadership tend to struggle on the court."

A COACHING WORKAHOLIC, Nick Davis has directed his own teams to multiple championships outside the OCAA, at the OBA, AAU, Prep, and high school levels. Currently, there are 10 NCAA Division 1 players that he mentored, infusing their growth with passionate determination and a no-nonsense approach. From a Sheridan perspective, that is the perfect counter-balance to Flack, who can sometimes approach life as a stand-up comedian.

"I've got this reputation as being super intense, and that's fair. I've earned that, and I've paid dearly for that part of my personality," Flack says. "But I'm also quick to look for a laugh - sometimes too quick. Nick brings a different type of fire than mine, and I think it works perfectly. He looks after the guys, shares my passion for helping kids, and keeps me in line. I struggle to focus and always have, and Nick doesn't hesitate to tell me to shut up and stay on task."

Davis and Flack knew of each other throughout high school, playing for rival teams in Peel. But the first time they truly met was a precursor to what would become a lifetime of friendship. Flack was a temperamental and confrontational high school star. The young and future coach of the Bruins was embroiled in a heated argument with a group at the Erindale College (now UTM) gym. Davis stepped in and de-escalated the situation, preventing Flack from ending up on the wrong end of a potential reckoning.

A decade later, when they began to coach together, a pattern emerged. Flack's short fuse would lead to a confrontation, and Davis would step in to put water on the fire. His concern has always been two-fold: To keep the team on the right track, and to protect his friend from himself. Flack's long journey with sub-par health has kept Davis on his toes, always attempting to shield his friend from the perils of an emotional vocation.

"It's a tough task that Leroy abandoned years ago and Dave refuses to address - mostly because he shares the same tempermant as Flack," Davis says. "I do it because we need him on the bench during games, not sitting on the sidelines. We need him on the bench not for his coaching prowess - that doesn't hurt - but for his sense of humour and his uncanny way of motivating the players to be their best when needed most."

Davis' ability to dissect the game and connect with athletes has not gone unnoticed. Canada Basketball has consistently called on him to coach teams that have travelled the world with the Maple Leaf on their chest. "He can pick things up so quickly, and sees things I would never observe," Flack says. "The game's too quick for one set of eyes."

IT WAS AS an athlete at Clarkson Secondary School that Dave Ferencina and Flack first became aware of one another. "Dave was this specialty player who could really shoot the rock," Flack says. "After high school, we never really had any contact until he began coaching on the OBA circuit and using Sheridan's gym regularly."

Fast forward a decade, and they were partners in a company Flack founded: Double-Blue Basketball. Ferencina had great ideas, incredible contacts, and a passion for the game that is rarely matched. When Flack became the athletic director at Sheridan, he sold the company to his friend for the paltry sum of $33.

"He blew it up big-time," Flack says. "Double-Blue basketball became the hottest hoop commodity in Halton. It was incredible to watch. The success of the basketball community in Oakville should never, ever be discussed without Dave's name. He poured himself into it."

A coaching career saw him transform a fledgling Iroquois Ridge High School program to prominence in Halton and Ontario. But it sapped every ounce of energy from the usually reserved Ferencina, and he and Flack agreed that he would be the perfect fit for the Bruins. Starting in 2005, Ferencina did everything from run camps, to driving vans, to editing video, and recruiting. Davis, who is his compatriot and roommate on the road, has his own observations.

"Dave is quiet, but he's also far more mercurial than people realize," he says. "There's an intensity below the surface that people don't understand. He can solve problems at a ridiculously fast pace, but his type of quiet focus belies a passion for excellence."

Ferencina has become a full-court press specialist of sorts, and Flack relies on his expertise heavily. 

"About a decade ago, I asked Dave to really dive into pressure defence, far more than I could or would," Flack says. "He did, and our reputation for high-pressure systems grew even more."

While the focus initially may have been on the tactics, as it has evolved, it has become just as much about the identity of the program. 

"We want the press to be ever-changing," Ferencina says. "It's defence, and it's the engine that drives our offence, our culture, and in essence the way we do things at Sheridan. It has continued to serve us well and given the team a system where you just get a chance to play more players and give the entire group an identity that has a life of its own. I think it encapsulates all we are and do as a group of coaches, players, and program."

AS AN ALUMNUS, three time All-Canadian, and OCAA champion coach, Shane Bascoe has a resume that is almost unmatched in the country. One of his first memories was travelling to Montreal with the Bruins, and the quiet confidence of Leroy Cassanova. The first All-Canadian in Bruins history (1983), Cassanova has an unrushed, stoic approach to life. "He had the confidence and demenour of an NBA star," Bascoe recalls. "He just had it together. And I knew that his career at Sheridan had helped him shape his personality. So I thought if he could do it, so could I."

Of all the members of the Bruins' staff, Cassanova's career is the longest and most historic. Thirteen OCAA titles, two national championships, and a myriad of honours that anyone in any profession would be proud of, fill his resume. Entering his 37th year this fall, he has played and coached the team through all the highs and lows, including stepping into Flack's role when the head coach has required medical leave.

"I truly love this place," he says. "I came here to study and play when Sheridan was celebrating its 10th anniversary. We didn't have a gym so we played at a high school. And since I arrived, there have only been two head coaches, Flack and Wayne Allison. Think about that. A lot of sports entities preach family, but I've lived it. Child birth, funerals, weddings, wins, losses, road trips - we've done it all together. I can't say I loved it all because we all know families have their ups and downs. But these guys are my friends, and we all consider each other family."

Allison, the Hall of Fame Coach that recruited, coached, and then hired Cassanova as an assistant, thinks the world of his friend. 

"Honestly, when I look back at my career at Sheridan, my lifelong relationship with Leroy has been the biggest gift. He is just a stand up guy, period," he says. "Take all the championships and honours, they're nice. But they don't stack up to our bond. That's how I feel about him, and how proud I am of his dedication to the program."

Flack has been Cassanova's travelling partner for almost three decades and has a different perspective than Allison's, but it's no less effusive. 

"I can't tell you how many times he's quietly made suggestions that pulled a game out of the fire. I can't stand the NBA. Until the playoffs start, I find it unwatchable," he says. "But Leroy still watches, and brings that perspective to the table. Nick and he are more connoisseurs of the game than Dave and I. I like to coach more than I ever played, and I love the chess-like challenge of the sport. I've always preferred college hoops to pro. But Nick and Leroy are more engaged with both levels, so they bring knowledge I just don't posses. So I learned very early, when Leroy makes an observation about basketball, he's rarely incorrect."

WHEN OBSERVERS SEE Jim Flack on the edge of a time-out, and not in the middle, they may be puzzled as to why the head coach isn't directing traffic. "That's easy," he says. "Who the hell would want to listen to me all the time, every time? Even I don't want to listen to me sometimes. Different voices and different perspectives are important if you truly want quality in any endeavour. Any of these three could run their own intercollegiate program quite easily. They've chose to stay here. So, if the team benefits from having someone else run a timeout, that's what any coach should do. Step aside, and let one of your partners teach."

The formula has worked, and worked well. In the 14 seasons together, they have amassed 371 wins, five OCAA Championships, three national final appearances, and four national medals. So if anyone understands just how special and unmatched the situation is, it's head coach.

"I've got three brothers in my own family, I've got three brothers on the bench. And I'm spoiled, because all six have my back," Flack says. "The three that run Sheridan basketball are so special. I often look at them and ask myself how I got three wise men to put up with me for so long."