HARRISONBURG, Va. – Rob Summers wasn’t going to leave Urbana University for just any job.
The 32-year-old basically built the Blue Knights’ basketball program from the ground up as its head coach for the past three seasons.
The year before Summers took over, the Blue Knights didn’t win a single game. They won 12 this past season under Summers, a dramatic turnaround for a program that made the transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II only seven years ago.
But there was something about Summers’ conversations with James Madison University basketball coach Louis Rowe that sold him on the idea of returning to Harrisonburg as an assistant coach.
“For me to leave my own program and put my faith and career into another coach’s hands shows just how much I believe in what [Rowe] is going to build there,” said Summers, who was JMU’s director of basketball operations in 2013-14 under former coach Matt Brady. “He really imprinted on me what he wants to have come about from the program. From those talks, he made me a believer, and if he could make me a believer, he can obviously make these recruits and student-athletes believers as well.”
Summers was officially introduced as JMU’s newest assistant coach Thursday, completing a 22-day process to replace Mike Deane, who retired late last month. Summers joins David Kontaxis and Byron Taylor as Rowe’s assistants for the upcoming 2017-18 season.
Rowe said one reason he hired Summers was the 7-footer’s experience playing in the post at the high-major level. Summers played two seasons at West Virginia after transferring from Penn State following his sophomore year.
The Dukes must replace their entire frontcourt from last season, and Rowe said Summers can help the younger forwards grow and develop with his experience as a player.
“He can bring some energy, especially to our big men,” Rowe said. “We’re going to be bringing in some younger big men and have a lot of new big men because we lose all of our big men. I wanted to have a coach that could come in and light a little bit of fire under them in conjunction with the rest of the members of the staff.”
Rowe added he felt Summers would fit in well with the culture Rowe is trying to set within the program. JMU’s second-year coach said Summers shares many of the same values as he does and that he felt the message would be consistent across the entire program, an important necessity with so many new faces expected to join the team before the fall.
Summers also cited the similarities he had with Rowe as a reason for him to join the Dukes after three years away from the program. He said he was excited to work on a staff that proved to be very energetic workaholics during their first full season last year.
“I wanted to be a part of a staff that’s going to be high energy,” Summers said. “Those are guys that are hungry and one thing that’s going to define our program is that we’re hungry and we’re going to work hard. When [Rowe] told me that, that’s my vision and it’s been my coaching philosophy since day one.”
Even before Deane retired, Rowe said he had conversations with people about Summers and their interactions with him during his season in Harrisonburg. Once the assistant’s position opened, however, Rowe had more serious conversations with trusted members of the JMU staff who worked with Summers to elicit their opinions about him.
One critique of Rowe’s choice is Summers’ lack of experience as a coach at the Division I level. He served two years as an assistant at Division II Glenville State (W.Va.) before coming to Harrisonburg for his first stint in 2013, and then just spent three years coaching at Urbana. However, Rowe said he approached this decision like he looks at team building, trying to find the best person for the job rather than trying to find people who fit specific archetypes.
“Some people can say you need an older guy; some people can say you need a recruiter or a really young guy that’s going to run around. I wanted the right person,” Rowe said. “I wanted somebody who I was comfortable with, who I knew was going to work hard, who I knew would be able to build a relationship with the players.
“I wanted to try to find someone that would fit what we’re trying to do at JMU, and I know that that’s Rob.”
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