Iowa's Sherman Dillard: More than just a bow tie

December 25, 2017 | 3:13 pm
Iowa Hawkeyes assistant coach Sherman Dillard walks off the court after their HyVee Classic game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Chapter 1:

Fear the bow tie

IOWA CITY — The first thing you realize when you take a look at the Iowa men’s basketball bench is who pays the most attention to how they dressed that day.

No offense to head coach Fran McCaffery, assistants Kirk Speraw and Andrew Francis, Director of Operations Al Seibert, trainer Brad Floy or any of the managers, but it’s Sherman Dillard who is the unquestioned best dressed in the program. The best dressed on campus, really.

Or, if you ask forward Cordell Pemsl or any other current or former Hawkeye …

“It’s crazy,” Pemsl said. “It’s the best in college basketball. He’s always looking good, whatever it is.”

Dillard followed McCaffery to Iowa in 2010, a chance meeting at the Final Four in Indianapolis the season before they started the seeds of reconnecting a decades-long friendship into a partnership that would rebuild Iowa basketball from the dregs of the Big Ten to three NCAA Tournament berths. His stops at California (1985-88) and Georgia Tech (1988-94) as an assistant, as well as head coaching tenures at Indiana State (1994-97) and James Madison (1997-2004) preceded a six-year run working at Nike as a global camp director, running a series of exclusive basketball camps for the top recruits in the country — the LeBron James Skills Academy and Kobe Bryant Skills Academy among them.

 

But it was his first job, working as an assistant at Maryland for Lefty Drissell from 1980-85, that laid the roots of his impeccable sense of style. Dillard said “we would go to the office with a coat and tie on, we recruited with a coat and tie on — that was Lefty mandated. He thought that appearance would stand out.”

Since coming to Iowa, that’s been Dillard’s calling card — his bow ties in particular. Find someone who doesn’t like them on him, and you’ll probably have found the first. Some players have come to Dillard for fashion advice in the past, and he’s always been quick with an honest assessment.

McCaffery gave a hearty laugh when the suggestion was offered he should wear a bow tie during a game, saying “I don’t even try to keep up with him.”

Dillard takes it all in stride. He even has gotten on board with the bow-tie-as-superstition before — and even tweeted after wins against Drake and Colorado to “Fear the Bow Tie!!!” He’s worn the bow tie in three straight games, and Iowa has won all three, so good luck talking people out of that.

“I take pride in personal appearance because sometimes people never get a chance to know who you really are, they can only go by what they see on TV or on the sidelines,” Dillard said. “I’d much rather be noted for what I bring to the table in recruiting or coaching experience, and I would hope people would understand there’s more substance to Sherman Dillard than the bow tie. I never want anyone to think I feel like I’m better than anybody, I just have personal pride.

“I guess it was two years ago here I just said, ‘you know what, I’m going to wear a bow tie.’ I wore it, people started talking about it, and we won the game. Then it was one of those things where you had to wear the bow tie. People started tweeting about it, so I started, and we went on a little run, and that was that.”

Despite the fun Dillard has with his wardrobe, the man who has crisscrossed the country dedicating his life to basketball is much more than a bow tie, a lapel pin, a new suit or designer eyeglasses.

He’s one of the biggest reasons Iowa has seen the success it has under McCaffery.

Iowa Hawkeyes assistant coach Sherman Dillard shakes hands after their HyVee Classic game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

Attention to detail

Maybe the only thing that connects how Dillard dresses to how he coaches and recruits is his attention to detail.

Picking out a bow tie and picking out a recruit have very little in common other than knowing what you want. Dillard knows what he wants, and more importantly, knows what McCaffery wants and Iowa needs when he’s on the recruiting trail. Sure, there are hits and misses for every coach and every recruiter over the course of their career, but Dillard’s hits at Iowa have been big ones. In a few cases, grand slams.

One of the best examples of that is Aaron White.

When the Strongsville, Ohio native was spotted by Dillard, he was essentially not being recruited. A few schools had expressed interest, but not seriously. In stepped Dillard, who saw whatever it was in White he needed to see. McCaffery’s staff wasn’t long in Iowa City by that point, and White was one of the early game-changing recruits that lifted the Hawkeyes’ level of play tremendously.

Dillard said “I went to see him play and I thought he was definitely worth looking at. Fran jumped on that right away, and we recruited Aaron White as hard as anyone — with the understanding he didn’t have Division I offers.”

For White, Dillard was “huge,” to his career and the one who he would seek out when he needed something.

“He was always the guy on staff I was closest with,” White said. “I wouldn’t have gone to Iowa if it wasn’t for him.

“He’s got a confidence about him that’s infectious. And he tells you how it is. A lot of guys in the recruiting world will BS you, and he was straight with me. He knew he didn’t have to lie to me or tell me what I wanted to hear. That’s how it was all my four years. It never changed. That’s what I appreciate about him.”

 

McCaffery listened to Dillard, which of course is important to the dynamic of a coaching staff. The trust involved is essential, and it stretches into every part of what it takes to do the job.

Dillard said he knows when he takes something to McCaffery, he’s going to be heard. It’s fairly unique in college basketball for a staff to stay together as long as Iowa’s has, given there’s so many opportunities for movement or advancement. But in Dillard and Speraw, specifically, McCaffery has former head coaches. Dillard can affect Iowa’s growth with specificity and still scratch that coaching itch he was a little burned out on when his time at James Madison was finished and he went to Nike.

Given the bombshell that landed on college basketball in 2017 in the form of an FBI investigation, the trust McCaffery has in Dillard and the rest of his staff gives apparent peace of mind in a time when a lot of coaches and a lot of programs are looking over their shoulders.

“I want you to do your job, I expect you to know what you’re doing and come to work, and he does that,” McCaffery said. “As long as you have guys with experience like I do, they know what they’re doing and they also know how to do it by the rules. I don’t have to call an emergency meeting when the FBI is arresting people and ask where they’ve been.”

Iowa’s coaching staff has gotten comfortable in its roles, and Dillard said he enjoys the familiarity they’ve found with each other. Now in their eighth season together, they’ve found what works and what doesn’t.

Each are better able to do their job, Dillard said, because they have the room to do it.

Despite the fiery personality people see on the sideline or the intense expectations McCaffery has for his players and program, he’s not one to surround himself with Yes Men, Dillard said.

“There’s an element of trust and mutual respect and the unique thing about Fran I like — obviously he’s running the show here, but he gives us autonomy and lets us do our job,” Dillard said. “Knowing someone and working with them is a totally different dynamic. Going into eight years, I have a great feel for what he wants and what he expects from me. A good assistant has to be so in tune with how a head coach thinks. We have to be different enough, but you have to be able to ascertain how Fran would look at a situation.

“I think that’s what makes this whole staff work.”

Iowa assistant coach Sherman Dillard comes off the court after talking with players in the first half at an NCAA Iowa men's basketball game with Southern Utah at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Chapter 3:

Maiking the main thing the main thing

Next time you see an Iowa basketball player — current or former — ask them about their favorite Dillard saying.

After they smile and laugh, it’ll probably take them a minute.

See, Dillard has quotes and sayings for just about every situation you can imagine. One of the many reasons players love Dillard is he finds ways to connect them to what they’re working on with simple words. In fact, within the last week he tweeted one out, positing that everyone should, “make work your play, and play your work.” In a response to another Twitter user after Iowa’s win against Colorado, a tweet about undisciplined passing, Dillard replied, in part, “a hole the size of a pin can sink an ocean liner.”

The public doesn’t get to see behind the scenes often, and while one-liner sayings aren’t the only way he communicates, the fact that he has a saying for every situation speaks deeply to his players.

Dillard has been at Iowa since the beginning of McCaffery’s tenure, which means he was a part of the transition from Todd Lickliter’s moribund program to one of relevancy. His sayings reveal an attitude. His attitude and approach was one that guys around at the time latched onto.

“I think he was a very personable guy coming to the table,” former Hawkeye Matt Gatens said. “He was a guy with a wealth of knowledge and experience at the outset. ... Especially starting out, we had a lot of low periods there, and at the beginning it wasn’t easy. Sherm was one of those guys who came to practice in a good mood and was easy to talk to.

“He’d always have a witty thing he would say.”

That hasn’t gone away, even in the eighth year in Iowa City.

The players he was in charge of recruiting feel like they have, in some ways, even more of a bond with him because, as guard Maishe Dailey said, “he’s been in my ear since the day he saw me first. He’s encouraged me, helped me stay humble and focused.”

Even if he wasn’t their main recruiter, the way he connects to his players isn’t complicated.

“He’s one of those coaches that knows what to say at the right time,” guard Jordan Bohannon said. “He always has those motivational quotes on the scouting report that you take to heart. It’s always comparable to the situation at the time. It helps to have that in your life, when you’re in a valley and trying to climb out of it. He’s one you can talk to.”

There’s a lot about Sherman Dillard that’s fun. The bow ties, the suits, the glasses and the one-liners bring smiles to people’s faces. It’s all part of a personality that is relatable.

 

His messages are real, if you ask those receiving them. There’s way more to what he does for the Hawkeyes than whatever mythical power the tie he wears has on the outcome of a game. A coach’s hallmark is what they leave imprinted on an athlete long after they’ve left his or her tutelage. Those who have been through it don’t hesitate for a second to share that they still use his guidance every day.

He’s not perfect. He’s not without fail. But that’s kind of the point.

“The thing he always said, no matter if we were up or down, with any distraction around the team, he always said to make the main thing the main thing when you’re out there,” former Iowa guard Peter Jok said. “That stuck to everybody.

“Even to this day I keep that in my head. It’s a life lesson. It can take you a long ways.”

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