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 That Championship Season

To Heiar, it's all about the players

By Josh Weinfuss
News Herald Writer 747-5069 /

Realtors know the key to a successful sale is location, location, location. Chipola men’s basketball coach Greg Heiar has learned the key to success is recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Mix the two and Chipola has developed into one of the elite junior college men’s basketball programs in the country.

“You’re only as good as your horses, really,” Heiar said. “My motto is, you can’t win the Kentucky Derby without the horse. You’ve got to have really good players to win. We’ve been fortunate here at Chipola. We work extremely hard, too.”

Three state championships in four years is evidence, but success on the court isn’t new to the Indians. They won six state championships from 1964-1988, then didn’t win any in the 1990s. Heiar was brought on as an assistant in 2003. That season, Chipola placed sixth in its first NJCAA national tournament since the late 1980s.

A year later, Heiar took the helm and led Chipola back to nationals where it came in fourth. After losing to Tallahassee in a tripleovertime thriller in the state championship game in 2006, the Indians were back at nationals this season and lost to Midland (Texas) College 94-75 in the national championship game.

To Heiar, it doesn’t matter if the success regenerated when he arrived on campus. It’s all about the players.
“I think our player development has been extremely successful,” Heiar said.

Under Heiar’s tutelage, four former Indians have been named NJCAA All-Americans including JaMarcus Ellis from this year’s team who was national player of the year. That quartet — Je’Kel Foster (Ohio State), Mario Boggan (Oklahoma State), Stefhon Hannah (Missouri) and Ellis (Indiana) — are just four of the 17 players who have signed with or are playing at Division I programs.

On the road again:
Based in the Chipola-crazed city of Marianna, the support given to the school’s men’s basketball program and the location makes it ideal for players to focus on basketball and their studies — and little else.

“I tell guys this, ‘All I want is guys who go to class and want to be in the gym. If you don’t want that, don’t come here because there’s nothing else to do,’” Heiar said. “That’s why we’ve had some success with second-chance kids because there’s nothing to do here but go to class and work on your game.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I tell parents all the time, ‘That’s the best thing for your kid.’”

A prime example is Ellis.

Chipola Athletic Director Dale O’Daniel said when Ellis arrived at the school from Chicago he was a crossroads in his life. Chipola led the swingman in the right path and Ellis graduated as a mature man, O’Daniel said.

Heiar credits his success as a coach to recruiting Ellis, but mostly Hannah. The point guard, who now starts for Missouri, was a tough sell on Florida, also coming from Chicago, but Heiar was able to lure him here as his first major prize.

Gulf Coast Athletic Director Gregg Wolfe said when a player visits Marianna it’s not just the school that’s recruiting him, it’s the community.

“It’s a very small town and that community revolves around the athletic program at Chipola,” Wolfe said. “We’re too big of a community to accomplish that. We have a rich tradition in athletics, but it’s not something that this city revolves around. And only small communities can do that.”

During the recruiting season, Heiar scours the country east of the Mississippi River for the right pieces of the puzzle. The 31-year-old Iowa native said he looks for four “extremely talented” players as the foundation of his team and eight others who’ve mastered the intangibles.

A typical Heiar-coached team will always have two point guards and two big men, he said. Then he builds around them.
Soon after losing in the national championship game on March 24, Heiar started retooling for next season. After a short vacation, he began a 2,550-mile recruiting trek in a Chipola Collegeissued vehicle that took him to Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Iowa, Detroit and Atlanta before returning to Florida for a day of rest. Then he was back on the road logging about another 2,500 miles on an East Coast trip during which his stops included New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Raleigh, N.C., and Augusta, Ga.

During his four years as an assistant at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa., Heiar made the 180-mile trip to Chicago about five nights a week to recruit, meet and develop relationships with players, their coaches and their families.

He brought those contacts and relationships to Chipola, which eased the recruiting transition.

Heiar doesn’t limit his recruiting base to a region or a state. Last year’s roster featured players from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Georgia, Russia and all across North Florida.

When he’s not recruiting in person, Heiar’s cell or office phone usually is glued to his ear.

“If you saw my phone bill you would understand,” Heiar said.

“I live on the phone. My assistants live on the phone. I got a lot of people in this business that we have good relationships with. We know who the best transfers are. We know who the best players who need to go to junior college are.”
Recruiting for junior college coaches tends to be a waiting game.

Because most young men want the limelight of a bigtime Division I program, Heiar and his staff have to wait until they either don’t qualify academically for a four-year school or don’t get the scholarship offers they want.

His staff usually recruits between 50 and 100 players only to see a handful sign letters of intent to play at Chipola.
“When a kid comes on campus, I can be honest with them,” Heiar said. “I tell them to ask the players the questions. I don’t even have to be here. I really think if you can get them in the door, you can get them on campus.”

Jay Powell, Gulf Coast’s new men’s coach who was hired in April, lauded Heiar for his tough and disciplined teams.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that because you reap what you sow,” Powell said.

“And they evidently sowed a lot of seed on the hard working. Put a lot into athletics and it paid off for them this year.”
It’s all about the Benjamins: When programs start to win consistently, a critical eye is cast toward them. Heiar said there’s a perception that Chipola has “millions and millions of dollars.”

“It’s not what everybody thinks it is,” he said. “That’s kind of a farce. We have a reasonable budget to work with.”
O’Daniel, who retired as president in 2003 only to take the job as athletic director a year later, said the perception of Chipola is how could a small school be dominant without cheating?

“A large component of my job is to make sure we don’t do something,” he said. “My personal aim was to remove the perception that we had.”

Chipola is able to contact more players and cover more ground than its Panhandle counterparts because of a bigger staff than any other men’s team in the conference. Heiar has four assistants: two of which share a salary which the school said ranges from $21,290-$35,483, one volunteer assistant and one student assistant.

Last season Gulf Coast had three assistants who shared a $10,000 allotment. Wolfe said that’s an improvement from when he started at GCCC in 1996, when assistants shared $2,000.

Winning and recruiting, however, comes with a price, and Wolfe knows it.

“Unfortunately there is a correlation with wins and losses and the amount of money you spend. That’s a given,” Wolfe said.

“I’d like it to be where we had a situation we where we had full-time assistant coaches to help level out the work load. That would be the priority.

“I think it’s important for people to understand how important the assistant coach is at this level.

“You know, our head coaches pretty much do everything. To have a good assistant is really key to recruiting, taking care of all the dirty work and making sure everything is done in regard to game time and laundry and travel plans and all those kinds of things. It’s a key, key position.”

That cost however, is one that thus far only Chipola has been able to afford.

For the 2005-06 school year, Chipola spent $1.05 million on athletics including $248,585 on men’s basketball, according to a Florida Community College Athletics Association statewide financial report.

That total is more than $52,000 over what Gulf Coast spent on its men’s basketball program.

The Chipola Appreciation Club provides Heiar with an annual $8,000 recruiting budget. According to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act report, a Department of Education mandated summary on the finances of equality of athletics at colleges and universities, Chipola spends $20,101 on recruiting for its men’s teams which on average totals about $2,000 more than budgeted.

Chipola leads the Panhandle Conference in recruiting expenditures for men’s basketball according to the EADA reports, ahead of Tallahassee ($17,000), Gulf Coast ($16,000) and Pensacola ($7,105).

O’Daniel said if more money is needed, the appreciation club usually provides it.

Heiar said his two thousand-mile trips cost in the range of $300 each because instead of hotels he stays with friends and colleagues to save money.

Tallahassee coach Eddie Barnes said there is a perception that the Chipola administration puts an added commitment to athletics more so than other schools.

“Because of their booster club they’re able to put more into recruiting than we have or what some of the other schools have,” Barnes said. “Where they are able to go see a kid five times, we’re able to go once or twice.”

When Heiar started at Chipola, he and O’Daniel said coaches practically begged players to play for the Indians.
Now Heiar said he turns away players who could lead any team in scoring.

“I tell guys, ‘You’re going to average more points at your next school then you do at Chipola,’” Heiar said. “Players want to play with other really good players and players want to win championships.”



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