Little-known Dayton assistant has made a name on recruiting trail

Thursday March 27th, 2014

Tommy Ostrom recruited many top players as an assistant at Florida, South Alabama and Arkansas before landing at Dayton.
Ken Inness/Southcreek/

MEMPHIS -- In the summer of 1995, an AAU coach known as the "Minnesota Doughboy" showed up in New Jersey at the ABCD All-Star camp. His primary income at the time came from working as an assistant general manager at Value Liquors, selling Busch Light to students near the University of Minnesota campus.

In his spare time, he sold ABCD founder Sonny Vaccaro on a young chubby point guard in his Minnesota Streets AAU program. He finally secured his player a roster spot at ABCD after months of daily calls. Eventually, Vaccaro relented under one condition -- Minnesota Doughboy stop calling.

Nearly two decades later, the Minnesota Doughboy has slimmed down and shed his unflattering nickname. But Tom Ostrom, an assistant coach at Dayton in the Sweet 16 here, still maintains his reputation as a relentless recruiter.

It blossomed after that chubby point guard, Khalid El-Amin, won the underclassmen MVP at ABCD in 1995 (Kobe Bryant won upperclassmen honors). And from that point on, Ostrom established himself as a player in the high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting. His journey offers a window in the high-wire existence of a college basketball coach. Ostrom has a national championship ring for a team he didn't coach, recruited a perennial NBA All-Star and has been hired, fired and demoted everywhere from the Sun Belt to the SEC. Every staff in America has a coach like Ostrom on their bench, a guy whose main job is recruiting top talent, genuflecting to the AAU dons and maintaining relationships one text message at a time.

"A lot of these schools survive because of guys like Tommy," Vaccaro said. "He's sat on Final Four benches and won games and recruited some of the best players in America. And you don't know who he is."

But from El-Amin to Joakim Noah to Mike Miller, the names that Ostrom has recruited and coached are recognizable to any basketball fan. Ostrom's start in college basketball came from serving as a manager for Minnesota coach Clem Haskins for five years.

"There are a few things that are going to be left in the world when it's completely wiped out -- cockroaches and managers," said Florida assistant John Pelphrey. "They're going to be around. I say that with a lot of affection."

A young Miami (Ohio) assistant named Sean Miller took a liking to Ostrom when he started his fledgling AAU team. When Miller saw El-Amin as a ninth grader, he predicted to Ostrom, "that kid is special." That prompted Ostrom to begin calling Vaccaro, and he soon learned the value of being affiliated with top players. He kept calling and building relationships with guys like Miller, Brett Nelson, Vincent Yarbrough, Matt Bonner and Joel Przybilla. And his ability to deliver them to play at ABCD camp made him a commodity.

The ties to top players also intrigued Donovan, who was trying to build Florida into a national power. Ostrom had worked Donovan's camps back when he was the head coach at Marshall in the mid 1990s. When Donovan got to Florida, he eventually offered Ostrom a job as a video coordinator for $12,000 a year. Ostrom declined because had a newborn son back in Minnesota, but he accepted Donovan's offer the next year for $12,500.

Back in the days before recruiting was heavily regulated, Ostrom's niche became calling and building relationships with top recruits. Ostrom spent so much time on the phone with future NBA player Jonathan Bender that when Donovan and assistant John Pelphrey visited Bender during a contact period, his AAU coach asked Bender who the head coach was at Florida. Bender responded, "Coach Ostrom." Donovan was sitting directly across from him and cracked up.

"Tommy for me was hard working and [thought] outside the box -- on the phone, faxes, calls until wee hours of the morning -- he was really, really great at it," Donovan said. "He had an incredible gift and passion for it."

Eventually, Ostrom replaced Pelphrey as a full-time Florida assistant when Pelphrey left to become the head coach at South Alabama. Ostrom spent two years as a full-time assistant, a stint highlighted by serving as the lead recruiter on an offensively challenged 6-foot-11 kid from New York City who was leaning toward attending Richmond. Thankfully for the fate of Florida basketball, Joakim Noah changed his mind.

But Ostrom wasn't around to coach his prized recruit. After Manhattan upset Florida in the 2004 NCAA tournament, Donovan demoted Ostrom in order to hire veteran coach Larry Shyatt as his lead assistant. "I agonized a lot over that," Donovan said. "But I almost felt like my job and responsibility was at that moment in time to put my staff in position to make us successful."

The move worked out for Donovan, who has won two national titles since and has gone 24-5 in NCAA tournament games. Ostrom wanted to continue coaching on the floor, so he went to South Alabama to work for Pelphrey. But Donovan didn't forget Ostrom's contributions, as a 2006 championship ring showed up in the mail one day.

"Tom had everything to do -- along with Donnie (Jones) and (Pelphrey) -- with us winning a national championship," said Donovan.

Ostrom son, Tommy, now a freshman at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, has the ring. And Ostrom hasn't stopped thanking Donovan for the opportunity at Florida. "I owe everything to him," he stressed. "Everything."

Since he left Florida, Ostrom worked for Pelphrey at both South Alabama and Arkansas. Good players followed. As Pelphrey noted, "That's not an event, it's a trend."

Pelphrey also stressed how Ostrom has improved as a coach, becoming proficient in scouting reports and on-floor teaching. After Pelphrey got fired at Arkansas in 2011, Ostrom landed at Dayton with Archie Miller, who he's known through Arizona coach Sean Miller for years.

Thanks to de-commitments, transfers and graduation, Dayton had eight open scholarships in the first nine months that Miller had the job. That's a daunting roster turnover, but the Flyers find themselves in the Sweet 16 thanks to transfers (Vee Sanford and Jordan Sibert) and hidden gems (Dyshawn Pierre and Khari Price).

Ostrom deflects all the credit to Miller and fellow assistants Kevin Kuwik and Allen Griffin. (He also attempted to decline comment for this article multiple times before reluctantly agreeing to speak.)

The most difficult part of recruiting to a place like Dayton, which rests on the cusp between mid-major and high major, is making sure there's a chance to land the recruit. Ostrom's specialty is identifying players the Flyers don't waste their time with.

"It's that constant massage, and you have to be creative and have a way about you," Miller said. "In (Ostrom's) case, it's that constant pressure he puts on everyone to communicate. He never goes away."

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