“I still say I owe my career to a lost golf bet.”
Jay Young was named the 13th head coach of the Fairfield Stags on April 3. The son of an athletic director and high school coach, Young’s journey didn’t begin in the traditional sense. He wasn’t a former all-everything basketball player.
“I played (lacrosse) at Marist,” Young told me. “I played high school basketball and football out of Central Mass. When I got to college, I just wasn’t good enough to play either sport. I became friends with a couple of guys, started screwing around with the stick, and actually had a pretty good career.”
There are plenty of coaches who didn’t play Division I hoops. Most, however, played some form of organized basketball in college. Young isn’t one of those guys. He had to lean into Marist’s program through his father, who knew a key figure on the staff.
“I was always involved with basketball, though. Jimmy Todd, who was once an assistant for the Knicks, was an assistant with Marist at the time. I became friends with him, playing pickup with those guys or if he needed me to help them do something, I would.”
That wasn’t Young’s first official role in college basketball. It wasn’t until after graduating and returning home that he kicked off his 30-year journey. His began at an afterthought of a school that wasn’t dripping with basketball history or prestige.
Even this beginning, at an obscure program barely anyone knew of, didn’t have a normal starting point.
“I was offered the job of sports information director at Fitchburg State, which I was really bad at,” Young joked. “An opening on staff came up, and I got to do that for one year. Then, Jimmy Todd left Division I and took a job with Salem State. He asked if I wanted to be an assistant, and that’s how the whole thing started.”
Like plenty of other lower-level non-head coaches, Young had to be a jack of all trades — not only to help the roster in front of him, but to supplement his income.
“I was substitute teaching in Massachusetts,” said Young. “I don’t think I made $1,000, maybe $1,200. I’d come home in the afternoon, then you’re doing everything. You’re at practice, you’re recruiting, sweeping floors, watching film… you do absolutely everything at those levels.”
“Looking back on it, I told people this a thousand times this past week, I wouldn’t change that time for anything in the world. It really gives you great perspective and molds who you are today.”
Here’s where a familiar name, and a lost golf bet, created Young’s rise through the collegiate ranks in earnest.
Karl Fogel, the head coach at Northeastern in 1990, and Young’s connection from Marist, Jimmy Todd, used to play golf together. Fogel had a graduate-assistant opening, which Todd wanted Young to pursue.
“Jimmy knew Karl, and I still say it was over a missing putt. Coach Fogel probably lost a bet and had no choice but to take me.”
This chapter in his life proved to be an invaluable experience.
“Back in those days, you could go on the floor and you could do basically everything but recruit,” Young recalled. “You could live scout back then. Those rules have all changed, but back then I could get in the car and drive to Siena or a drive up to Maine and actually do live scouts. It was an unbelievable way for me to learn.”
Still, it was a graduate assistant’s life: a scattered profession with little income, a mandatory maximum lifespan of two years, and still no clear path to become a future head coach.
This was when Young did something relatively drastic. He left the confines of Division I athletics, taking a head coaching position for the Newbury Nighthakws of the NJCAA — a program no one else wanted any part of.
“Honestly, no one wanted that job at the time. They couldn’t give it away. I needed a job and I took it. I got a chance to be a head coach. I don’t know, I think it was 25 at the time.”
Stunning success followed. Bringing the Nighthawks to the Final Four in 1995, Young was named District VI Coach of the Year that same season.
The risk paid off. After four years at one of the lowest levels of college basketball, Young was going to be offered his first true full-time Division I coaching job. He would be returning to Northeastern, but this time for a different head coach, Rudy Keeling.
Knowing Keeling from running camps with Northeastern the first time around, proximity played a role for Young. Keeling was looking for someone who knew Boston well, and Young certainly fit the bill, having spent a large portion of his life and career in the area.
It was obviously a step in a better direction for Young; yet, it didn’t quite scratch the itch that needed attention.
“I was back with Northeastern for four years, but really missed the head coaching experience. I knew that if I wanted to pursue being a head coach, getting head coaching experience would be important to have on my resume.”
It was off to the University of New Haven for Young, who spent five seasons overseeing the Division II school, leading the Chargers to two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Then another career-defining moment arrived for Jay Young. A young head coach at an upstart program was asking around for a very specific sort of assistant. A mutual friend believed he knew the answer, suggesting to Steve Pikiell that the former journeyman would be a great fit alongside him at Stony Brook.
The Seawolves, as a program, were not nearly as developed as they are now. They entered the Division I ranks in 1999. When Pikiell took over in 2005, the program had won a total of only 64 games in the six seasons of its existence.
Initially, Pikiell also struggled, finishing each of his first three seasons without winning at least 10 games.
“We were building it almost from scratch,” said Young, mentioning the school being on probation its first two years, due to the prior administration’s problems with paperwork.
Young credits Pikiell for changing the culture at a school with zero basketball tradition at the time. He even joked about Pikiell’s famed defense, which he said was more about necessity than desire at the start: “We didn’t have a lot of good offensive players our first few years.”
Nevertheless, going to Stony Brook to coach under Pikiell ended up being a life-altering experience for Young. The current Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach empowered Young, allowing him to oversee the defense and entrusting him with game planning.
It was trust earned, not given.
“Now it (the empowerment) has to be reciprocated with some results and gaining his trust,” said Young. “I think I did that. But in terms of a guy, I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work for.”
After three lackluster years that might get a coaching staff fired today, Stony Brook turned a corner a decade ago.
Starting in the 2008-09 season, the Seawolves no longer operated as an aimless program in the America East Conference. A good recruiting class helped Stony Brook reach 20 wins for the first time in 2009, paving the way for a single person to change the directions of several different entities over the course of a four-year stretch.
In 2012, bully ball hit Stony Brook with a force so hard it shook the America East to its core — Jameel Warney began donning a Seawolves uniform.
Warney, who is now playing for the New York Knicks’ G-League affiliate, was a dominant force. History will likely remember him as one of the very best players in AEC history, finishing his career as a three-time AEC Player of the Year.
For Stony Brook, the success and culture Pikiell and Young brought to the program resulted in Warney joining the journey to elevate it to another level. The trio capped this run in 2016 with the Seawolves’ first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Hard work and talent breed success. That success creates opportunities for those who set it in motion.
Pikiell would soon be offered the Rutgers opening. Warney would begin chasing his professional aspirations. At the time, it seemed logical that the school would want some continuity, making the promotion of Jay Young to head coach feel like an easy decision.
Instead, Young was passed over for Jeff Boals, who left Stony Brook after the 2018 season to return to his alma mater in Ohio.
“It was a tough moment in my career,” Young said candidly. “You work in a place for 11 years and had incredible relationships… you get passed over for a job that you desperately wanted. I’d be lying if I wasn’t hurt.”
“But, you know, I said this before, if you’re going to tell your team about fighting through adversity, overcoming some stuff, you have to do it yourself.”
The consolation prize? An assistant job at Rutgers.
Oddly enough, while different in scope, it was a similar situation for the Young-Pikiell pairing. Rutgers, a bigger program with more resources, was coming off a run of devastating failures and scandals to the point that the program was a legitimate laughingstock.
You can already see the impact that pairing had on the program, giving the school its best conference winning percentage since 2006 (when in the Big East) in 2018 and setting the table for future growth.
The win-loss record likely doesn’t do the coaches justice. It can’t adequately reflect the job they did to stabilize the entire program, especially in the short period of time they managed to do it. The Scarlet Knights are not yet flirting with NCAA Tournament appearances, but long-lost respect is starting to be restored.
With success after success being parlayed into bigger and better jobs every few seasons, it was only a matter of time before an athletic director decided to give Jay Young a phone call. Having to go through the vetting and interview process like most first-time head coaches, Young didn’t really believe the 2018-19 offseason would be the time when things broke 100-percent right for him.
When this season ended, Fairfield — once overseen by Ed Cooley — needed a new head coach. Young finally got the call he began working toward 30 years ago.
“I was at Rutgers, kind of working, and preparing to be back there and just kind of doing my job,” Young said about the head coaching offer. “It was about six at night and I got the call. My voice was cracking a little bit. I think I accepted it. I must have.”
“There were some great opportunities, and some that failed, but it’s a pretty amazing thing. I’m here.”
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on a now defunct website owned by the author.
Joseph Nardone has been covering college basketball for nearly a decade for various outlets in a variety of ways. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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