Two ex-Hawkeyes endorse Joerger as NBA coach

Dean Oliver, Kenyon Murray played for or worked with new Memphis Grizzlies head coach

Dave Joerger after a Memphis Grizzlies game last December. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)
Dave Joerger after a Memphis Grizzlies game last December. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)

In June 2004, a pro basketball team called the Cedar Rapids River Raiders had a 3-game losing streak. Its coach did something radical.

"I don't allow headbands," Dave Joerger said. "You've never seen our guys wear them, right? So I went and bought them today."

Desperate times called for desperate measures.

"I've not lost four in a row ever in the States," he said.

"He never let us wear headbands all year, and everyone's been wanting to wear them," said River Raider point guard Dean Oliver, whom you probably remember better for his four years as an Iowa Hawkeye than his three months with Cedar Rapids' short-lived United States Basketball League franchise. "He said things aren't working and we're going to make a change. It looked like it worked pretty good."

The River Raiders defeated the Kansas Cagerz that night.

Joerger is more about coaching and preparation than the supernatural. It's why he took a USBL expansion team to a 17-13 record in its one and only season here, its why he won championships in three different minor-leagues of pro ball, it's why he worked his way into become a lead-assistant coach in the NBA, and it's why he will be the next head coach of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.

Oliver averaged 19.4 points for Joerger's River Raiders. Another former Hawkeye, Kenyon Murray, was Joerger's assistant coach in Cedar Rapids. They both speak highly of the Minnesotan who will take over a Memphis team that won 56 games and reached the Western Conference finals under Lionel Hollins, who was not retained by the Grizzlies. Joerger has been in charge of Memphis' touted defense.

"He gave me a folder about two inches thick with drills and plays that I still use today," said Murray, who is the program director of Legacy Basketball Academy in Cedar Rapids. "It's a huge notebook I've shared with other coaches.

"He was ultra-prepared, and had a lot of determination. He's always had a good rapport with players. He had a good feel for the guys, knowing where to play them and how much."

Oliver is an assistant men's basketball coach at the University of North Dakota for former Iowa assistant Brian Jones. Oliver played 35 games over two NBA seasons, and spent several seasons in other pro leagues in the U.S. and abroad. He played for Joerger in the Continental Basketball Association in Bismarck, N.D.

"Coach Yaggs is a great coach," Oliver said. "I'd describe him as a 'player's coach' who has an unbelievable ability of getting talented players to sacrifice and play together. Our CBA champion team (Dakota Wizards) had nine or 10 players that all either played in the NBA or were about to play in the NBA. So, as you can imagine, it would be easy to fall into the trap of playing selfishly to get an NBA call-up.  Yaggs knew how to keep everybody happy and could balance out the egos, masterfully.

"Last year, I got a chance to attend his private coaching retreat that he hosts in Memphis.  He invites all types of coaches and professionals including high school coaches, girls' coaches, former players that aspire to coach, and even non-coaching professionals like doctors and teachers.  The retreat is all about learning from each other and improving as professionals.  Joerger is always trying to find better ways to teach the game and learn new things from everybody, whether you're a grade-school coach or an NBA Hall of Fame coach."

When I was in Memphis last December to cover the Liberty Bowl, I caught a Grizzlies game and caught up with Joerger afterward. He happily talked about his short time in Cedar Rapids. He said he took the job here because it meant he would coach 30 games in the spring after a 48-game CBA season in the winter. Which combined made it about the equivalent of an NBA season.

He was 30 when he coached in Cedar Rapids, and was thinking NBA then. He's 39 now. He's not facing the Kansas Cagerz anymore.