Make no mistake. Nate Tomlinson was a good basketball player.
Good enough to play a key role in a unique run put together by the Colorado Buffaloes yet to be repeated at the Pac-12 Conference tournament. And good enough to play professionally for six seasons in his native Australia.
Tomlinson, though, wasn't the sort of player who filled up the stat sheet. And as the son of a lifelong coach, the former Buffaloes point guard often heard similar versions of the same comment along every step of his playing career.
"It's funny, a lot of people never said I was a great player. But they said I'd be a great coach someday," Tomlinson said. "I figured I might as well get that started sooner than later."
Tomlinson has spent this season serving a sort of coaching apprenticeship at his alma mater, working alongside head coach Tad Boyle and his staff as a volunteer assistant. The player who directed traffic on the court during CU's memorable run to the 2012 Pac-12 tournament championship has been relegated to the behind-the-scenes grunt work for the Buffs this season, learning some of the responsibilities of the trade that go unnoticed under the bright lights of game night.
Tomlinson admits when he arrived in Boulder he still felt more like a player, and his natural instinct was to get on the floor to teach the young Buffs a few new tricks. Instead it was a somewhat awkward start for Tomlinson. The government shutdown put a fair amount of stress on Tomlinson's shoulders as it delayed the arrival of his green card. Additionally, NCAA rules prohibit volunteer assistants from coaching on the floor, so Tomlinson has been forced to adjust to a periphery role that includes academic oversight, recruiting, scheduling, and breaking down film.
"There's some guys that are born to coach. Nate is one of them," Boyle said. "You knew that when he was a player. He's cerebral. He's smart and heady. He's got a really good feel for the game from an Xs and Os standpoint. He's got a good feel for players. Nate's going to be a heck of a coach. There's no doubt about it.
"It's been a frustrating year, partially because of not being able to be cleared, so to speak. But the other part that's really frustrating is that he's not allowed to coach the players. He's not allowed to officiate at practice. He can be at practice, but he can only coach the coaches. But he's got great insight."
Tomlinson's insight might be particularly beneficial this week. He was the Buffs' point guard in 2012 when CU became the first and only team to win four games in four days en route to the Pac-12 Conference tournament championship. Tomlinson's team entered the tournament as a No. 6 seed riding a streak of three losses in its previous four games. This year CU is the No. 5 seed and has won three in a row in addition to eight out of the past 10.
"I've definitely learned a lot. And I've never felt the passion or love for a team like I had at the University of Colorado," Tomlinson said. "Wherever I played professionally, it just never felt the same. That's something I wanted to feel again. I love this school. I love this team so much. The other side of it is the respect I have for Tad and the coaches here. I thought this would be a really good place to start. We've had conversations over the years about potentially me coming back. He made that available and I grabbed it with two hands."