For anyone in college basketball, landing your first major assistant coaching job is a big deal. But it was extra special for Maryland’s Greg Manning Jr., who’d grown up loving the Terps because of his father, a former Maryland star and later the program’s radio analyst.
“It’s exciting. I have been a Terp for a long time. I grew up in Cole Field House when my dad was doing the radio with Johnny for 13 to 15 years, I believe. I was a ball boy for the Terps. I grew up going to camp here. So this place is special to me. I’ve always dreamed about coaching here, whether it was as the video coordinator as the director of ops, as the assistant coach,” Manning, who Kevin Willard promoted in April from director of operations to the bench, said this week on the Hear the Turtle podcast.
“But for coach Willard to put trust in me after one season working for him, I had known him for a while. When I was at Loyola, he was at Iona. So we were playing against each other, recruiting against each other, stuff like that, but not to the point where you just hire somebody as an assistant. So I think I showed the ability in a year that I could do the job.”
It wasn’t just the opportunity to stay at his dream school that excited Manning. He’s also been big Willard fan since before Willard was hired.
“One, he’s a great person. I think that’s most important. He’s a really good human being, he cares about his family first. He cares about the kids like their his own, on the team. And then the staff, he doesn’t micromanage you, which is awesome for us, as long as you’re getting your work done. Kevin kind of allows you to work in that manner. Now, he really works. Coach is in here at 6 a.m. every single day,” Manning said.
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“So there are a lot of expectations to get things done and to work hard. But I’ve learned so much from him in just a short time. I guess, 12 months almost exactly now, working for him. But he’s great. Like I said, he’s a basketball mind. He comes from a great family. His dad was a head coach for a long time. But he’s fun to work for. He’s demanding. But I wouldn’t want any other way. You want to work for somebody that’s going to make you better. And I think coach Cox and coach Jones and guys in the past will attest to this.”
Manning’s opportunity opened up when then-assistant Grant Billmeier left to become the head coach at NJIT. He was one of three Willard staffers to get head coaching jobs in the span of a month, along with Tony Skinn (George Mason) and Tevon Saddler (Nicholls State). Head coaching trees rarely grow that fast.
“Obviously, we saw three guys get head jobs off of this staff last year. So he prepares guys to, when they do have an opportunity to get that head job, that they’ll be ready with just the amount of work that we put in. I’ve worked some for some really good coaches and Jimmy Patsos and coach Turgeon, obviously, here, who’s won a lot of games. So everybody’s a little bit different,” Manning said. “But the amount of respect I have for coach Willard is right up there with any of them, just because of the amount of work he puts in and the preparation he goes to every single day for this program.”
“I think it means a lot to the players when they see Gary here, Coach Williams coming in, and they see him at practice. And they see him at the games, just the amount of respect that he has for this program. It showed these guys when you see a legend sitting there, you have to turn it up a little bit, you got to play your best, you got to give it all. And one thing that coach Williams always preaches to our guys is how important practice is, right? So you know, a guy like Greivis Vasquez, he talks about a lot about how Greivis brought it every single day in practice, right? So he’s kind of instilled that in us from the start of last season when he came here and talked to the new guys and the new staff.”
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do out of college. I got a degree in communications. And then I was going to be a grad assistant. I was putting feelers out all over the country to go be a grad assistant. I was talking to Rick Barnes. I think it was at the time he was at Texas. So I think my father and him had a relationship. Coach Patsos knew him as well. I was gonna go out there and be a grad assistant. And then a week or two later, one of the assistants on Jimmy Patsos’ staff left. So he gave me an opportunity. Back then, I think I was making $25,000 or something as a graduate assistant and I thought I was rich. But that’s where I learned. I just, [Patsos] gave me keys to a car and said, ‘Just figure it out, man.’ Just go recruit. And I ran around Baltimore, in D.C. and Virginia, the whole DMV, just trying to try to get my feet wet and meet people. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was going to be, like I said, I was gonna be a grad assistant and then this opportunity just kind of presented itself. And within a short time of doing it, I kind of knew this was going to stick, and something I wanted to do for my entire life. The team aspect of it, just being around the guys being on a college campus every single day, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
“It was great. I think we had a great year and everybody agreed that we had an outstanding first year for a guy that came in and took over a program that went through a coaching change. And not only a coaching change, but in the mid-season, right? That’s really hard. It doesn’t happen a lot. So he was able to, from the second that he stepped foot on campus last year, he was able to build a relationship with some of the staff members, myself included, that stayed on, built a strong staff and then most importantly, kept a lot of the players that we needed to keep. The Donta Scotts, the Hakim Harts, Julian Reeses, those guys.”
“It was good. We, me and my wife now, my fiancee at the time, we got married in Lake George. That’s where she’s from. She’s from upstate New York. We met when I was at Siena. She went to Siena, so spent some time up there with her and then came down here and we’ve been together since. So, five years five, six years, I guess, really, and then tied the knot.
“I showed up for the rehearsal on Friday at 3:30. And it was the first time I had seen the venue or been there. She did an unbelievable job. And she did everything. You know, we were planning this whole thing throughout the season. So I didn’t get a chance to get up there. I didn’t go to the tasting. I didn’t get a chance to go see the venue. But she did an awesome job. But it was really cool to walk in there and see everything ready for the first time.”
“So we had a really good core here and a lot of credit goes to coach and his staff that he brought in for keeping those guys, because when you take over a program, a lot of times it’s bare and you have to start from scratch. But fortunate for him, he didn’t have to do that. We had some really good players that ended up playing a lot of minutes and having really good years. And then they added a lot of really good players. Jahmir Young obviously, second-team all-Big Ten point guard, has probably got a chance to be first-team all-league this coming year. So they went out and hit the ground running and you know, recruiting is probably the most important part of the job, and got some really good pieces to go with those veterans that we already had here. So with just an unbelievable season. It was a lot of fun for me to learn from somebody new … I had known Grant Billmeier for a long time. So we had a previous relationship. With coach Cox and Skinn, I hadn’t really known that well, we just kind of know guys in the business. But a fun year. Like I said, I think we accomplished a lot. And he really set the bar high for what and wants to accomplish here as the head coach.”
“To be honest with you, that actually might be the hardest part of the job. It’s stressful. I’m going through it right now … That’s all I was doing all morning, is trying to finish this schedule. Got about three games left to get. Scheduling is important, though. I mean, scheduling is very, very important. Come March, come Selection Sunday, who you’ve played, where you played them, and how that team does throughout the season. So you have to really be careful in how you schedule. You can schedule yourself into the NCAA Tournament, you can schedule yourself right out of it just as easily. So we’ve tried, you know, I think everybody agrees in coach’s first year we got a monster schedule. He gave me the ability to do that and put that together. And I do the schedule, and he okays everything. So nothing gets done, without him saying yes or no. But it’s not easy. It’s a puzzle, you got to put pieces together. There’s exams in the middle of December. So there’s a big window you can’t play in. And then this conference, obviously, we’re playing two Big Ten games in early December. So it’s really hard to piece it all together.
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“He was excited. I think he was more excited last year when I got to stay. So like, when I called him last year and said, ‘You know, I met with coach, he’s gonna keep me,’ I think he was more excited then, to just to still be a part of the family here and be able to come to games. I think in five years, he’s been to about 20 games and only seen one loss and they were real games. He’s come to a lot of Big Ten games. So he’s got a pretty good record, he always jokes with me. But yeah, he’s excited. He’s excited that I’ll have an opportunity to grow as a coach to grow under coach Willard, who obviously has a great coaching tree and worked for coach Pitino and such, so yeah, he’s really excited”
“I think he’d be the first one to tell you that he not that he wasn’t prepared for it. He didn’t realize the grind of the Big Ten. And just how every single game is an NCAA Tournament game. You know, I think we had eight teams in [the NCAAs] this year. Sometimes we have nine, ten teams in, out of 14. So I think coach, the biggest difference that he noticed coming to the Big Ten Is every single time you go on the road, you’re playing in front of a sellout. We went and played at Nebraska this year, who had a good year, not a great year. But at the time, they were in 10th or 11th place and it was a Tuesday night and it was 17,000 people. So I think that’s the biggest difference coming from the Big East. And don’t get me wrong, there’s some really hard places to play in the Big East. Villanovas and, and whatnot. And UConn just won the national title. But every single game that you play in the Big Ten is an NCAA tournament-level game. And especially on the road.”
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“It means a lot, it’s an important position. And a lot of responsibility comes with this position. And that’s one of the things me and coach talked about when we were going through the process of if he was going to hire me and what direction he wanted to go in. And I understand the responsibility that comes with it. So I’m just excited. I’m excited to try to help this program any way that I can. And now it’s changed a little bit. Everybody’s role on this on the staff is important, whether you’re the manager, a [graduate assistant], video coordinator or whatever it is, everybody plays a role and in winning. And now this is just a little bit of a different role for me, having to go get players and having to do more scouting, more and more basketball stuff, more on-court stuff. But nothing changes. My goal is just to help this team as much as possible and as win as many, many games as possible. But it is special. I was just,t like, at the wedding the other night, just everybody congratulating you just ’cause it is a milestone to reach that level as a Big Ten assistant. I did it for 10 years at the mid-major level, but it’s hard to get here. It’s really hard to be an assistant as well. [Only] three of them on every staff. So I’m excited about it. My father is excited about it, a lifelong Terp. So, everybody’s pretty fired up. Now I gotta put my shoes on the ground and start really working.”
“I think last year, we had played some really good teams and had some really good games, but we didn’t love the timing of it all. We came into that UCLA game and get got pounded by 40. And a lot of that wasn’t because they were not prepared. Our guys didn’t play well, but we had just played two Big Ten games, you’re talking about playing at Wisconsin, you’re talking about playing Illinois, then you’re playing Tennessee in the Barclays Center, and all of the sudden you’re at home against UCLA. And that wears on you, and I know all the fans want to see us play those teams. And we should play those team. We’re gonna continue to play those teams. But this year, I think we’ll see, once it comes out, we’re trying to space it out a little better, just to give ourselves a little bit more time to prepare our guys a little bit. More time to rest, maybe play a buy game in between some of those games. So you’re not playing two Big Ten games and then two more high-major teams. But you have to really, really be careful in who you do and don’t schedule when it comes time for Selection Sunday, because you look at a team like — I don’t know, I’m not an expert on this — but Rutgers and some of these teams, they were right on the bubble, got left out. It might be because they didn’t schedule a power game or didn’t have a real road test or stuff like that. So your scheduling is a big part of it, we put a lot of time into it.”