Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Tad Boyle probably has warned Jean Prioleau there would be moments like this.
On Tuesday, Prioleau, a member of Boyle’s staff at Colorado for seven seasons until he took the head coach job at San Jose State this past summer, enjoyed a unique experience by locking horns against another friend and former CU colleague, University of Denver coach Rodney Billups.
For much of the night Billups’ Pioneers held the upper hand, taking a 15-point lead at halftime that Prioleau’s Spartans cut to one possession in the waning minutes. With just under two minutes to go and his club trailing by two, Prioleau could only watch as his team threw the ball away, leading to a DU fast break and an intentional foul by the Spartans at the other end.
San Jose State would have additional chances, but Prioleau’s immediate reaction — head bent over his knees, palms pressed to the sides of his head — said it all. A commendable comeback was over due to a sudden sequence of avoidable mistakes.
Welcome to the exhilaration and heartache that comes with being a head coach.
“You’re coaching, and you’re coaching all the time,” said Prioleau, who had been with CU since Boyle assembled his first staff in 2010. “You’re coaching on the court, off the court. We’re trying to instill our values into our team. I’m trying to figure out the right combinations. Right now we’ve had different guys starting each game, and it changes every game. Right now, we’re pretty much an inconsistent team. We have to try and become consistent, and that’s the challenge.”
The challenge of leading his own program for the first time has perhaps been magnified for Prioleau by the relatively late date he took the SJSU job, a series of events that began with the abrupt resignation of David Wojcik in July due to what at the time were termed “personal reasons.” However, a university investigation revealed a number of harassment charges against Wojcik, and in September a former player filed a lawsuit against Wojcik and the university due to the former coach’s alleged harassment and discriminatory practices.
Add to this tumult the transfer of SJSU’s best player Brandon Clarke — a first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection last year after averaging 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds—to Gonzaga, and Prioleau certainly didn’t take on the easiest of new coaching gigs. However, if Tuesday’s effort at DU was any indication Prioleau’s message is getting through. Playing their third road game in a third time zone in seven days, the Spartans nearly rallied to victory after Billups’ Pioneers dominated the first half.
“It’s hard, because usually guys get jobs in April and you have the spring and summer and fall to kind of instill your will and instill your philosophies,” Prioleau said. “I got the job in August so I didn’t have a lot time to breakdown our defense, how we’re going to guard every single time. I had to do the whole, offense and defense, at the same time. I was trying to get the staff at the same time. So there was a lot I had to do, but each and every day is a process for us. We’re still trying to catch up.”
Tuesday’s contest offered an opportunity for Prioleau to catch up with Billups, who is in his second year at DU (his alma mater) after working alongside Prioleau for six seasons at CU. The duo went to dinner on Monday, picking each other’s brains as they always have while carefully navigating the conversation away from any revealing nuggets of information regarding their teams’ pending showdown.
Billups also had an opportunity to coach against Boyle on Nov. 14 in the second game of the season, an 89-62 CU victory in Boulder.
“The crazy thing is we run the same offense. We talk about the same things in our locker rooms,” Billups said. “Everything that we learned from Tad is now in our locker rooms. It’s fun to see how his kids respond to his energy. It’s fun to talk about basketball and talk about our similar experiences. I’m so happy for Pri it’s unbelievable.
“It was kind of surreal going back to Boulder. It was weird going in there before the game with a Denver t-shirt on, seeing the staff and interacting. I almost felt like I was going back to work. But then the reception I got from the fans and everyone in the department was unbelievable. And then getting to compete against Pri was awesome. I wouldn’t want anything else.”