Dave Pilipovich started as an interim head coach for Air Force when Jeff Reynolds was fired in 2012. (Orlando Ramirez/ Icon SMI)
Imagine spending 26 years of your career before you got a shot at the job you really wanted. Having one child born in Florida, another born in Georgia, never spending more than six years in any one house. Nearly each spring, having your family ask “Are we moving again?”
Then you can imagine the happiness Dave Pilipovich experienced after earning a new five-year contract that cements him in as the long-term choice to lead Air Force basketball. He parlayed a gig as interim head coach after the midseason firing of Jeff Reynolds in 2012 into a short-term deal and now to this, after unveiling a new higher-tempo brand of Falcons basketball that led them to a surprise .500 mark in a brutal Mountain West this past season.
After almost three decades, a coaching lifer finally has found his destination.
“You’re excited, relieved, you also feel that what you did or what you’re doing is appreciated by good people here,” Pilipovich said Wednesday when discussing his new deal. “Now you start looking to the future, building [the next phase of the program,] not thinking year to year.”
Recounting a path that began in Pennsylvania and took him winding through the Southeast and then up through multiple stops in Michigan, Pilipovich actually had to correct himself when asked the longest he and his family had ever been in one place. When he moved from Eastern Michigan to a spot on Tommy Amaker’s Michigan staff, his family actually stayed in the same house.
In the transient sense, he and his family have lived a military-style existence, so he appreciates some of the challenges facing recruits who themselves come from military families. In a coaching sense, Pilipovich understands that many “career assistants” never get an opportunity to be a head man, and he has embraced the program that finally gave him his.
“He kind of embarrasses me a little bit because he’s constantly thanking me for this opportunity,” Air Force athletic director Dr. Hans Mueh said Wednesday afternoon, “and I thank him for bringing the kind of leadership needed here at the Air Force Academy.”
Thanks to the vagaries of the military hiring process, Mueh needs to go through a contracting office to get coaching contracts approved. Five years is actually the maximum term Mueh is allowed to offer, but he said that “unless something weird happens, we’ll just keep rolling it over and making sure he has a five-year deal every year.” Even in a military academy setting, coaching contract security is an issue with recruits, and now Pilipovich can go on the road with the ability to tell potential cadets and their parents that he will be there for the entire tenure of their career.
Recruits may also enjoy the stamp Pilipovich is putting on Falcons basketball, which had a brief turn in the national spotlight in the middle of last decade, but had grown stagnant again playing a stodgy offshoot of a Princeton offense in a league loaded with athletes. He and his staff, emboldened by a strong senior class led by first-team all-league guard Michael Lyons, loosened the reins on the offense, leading to a quicker tempo and freer shot selection.
The approach, at least this past season, was a success. The Falcons beat New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego State and Boise State -- all NCAA tournament teams -- at home last season, while losing to both Colorado State (Round of 32) and Wichita State (Final Four) by three. In the process, they chalked up the program’s best offense efficiency rating since 2007 while playing at a tempo considerably faster than in any previous year in KenPom.com’s database (back to 2003).
In the process of having their unexpected success, the Falcons also become hoops junkies’ guilty viewing pleasure. They very well could have been an NIT team had Lyons not suffered a knee injury early in Air Force’s Mountain West quarterfinal game, and even with losing a large senior class that was highly responsible for the quality of the season, Pilipovich plans to stick with the (relatively) quick going forward.
“We’re going to continue to play the same way,” he said. “We feel the [Princeton] system works here, to a degree. We need to add our personalities and tweak it a bit. [Being more] uptempo will help us in recruiting and fans enjoy that style of play, but that’s also my personality.”
You could say that it’s a style that feels like home.