‘I believe in Coach Autry’s vision of what this can be’

Syracuse, N.Y. – Adrian Autry had ideas, maybe not a physical list, but thoughts about candidates to replace Gerry McNamara should he ever leave Syracuse for a head coaching position.

Dan Engelstad was among the options.

The two met early in their coaching careers, when Engelstad was an assistant at Mount St. Mary’s and Autry was an assistant at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly, Virginia. Over the years, they would communicate frequently, sometimes getting together at Final Fours to watch games and talk basketball. They developed an easy rapport, a trust built on mutual respect.

But when Autry started recruiting Dakota Leffew out of the transfer portal, he witnessed another facet of Engelstad’s coaching personality. Engelstad coached Leffew at The Mount last season. Autry saw how much Engelstad wanted what was best for his player, and how Leffew viewed him not only as a coach but as a mentor. That resonated with Autry.

So when he needed to hire an assistant after McNamara took the Siena College job, he thought of Engelstad. He was unsure whether Engelstad would be willing to surrender a precious Division I head coaching job to come to Syracuse as an assistant. But he introduced the idea – “just threw it out there” – and the two met in Arizona on Friday morning during Final Four weekend to discuss the job.

The conversation lasted about 45 minutes, Engelstad said. The two reached a tentative understanding, which set the dominoes tumbling. By midweek, Engelstad had the job.

Autry appreciated Engelstad’s ability to recruit nationally, to connect with his players, to unearth hidden gems on the recruiting trail and to develop them into Division I talent. He valued his experience, his communication skills and his general approach to coaching.

He was thrilled when Engelstad agreed to join his staff.

“I just love his energy, his passion,” Autry said. “He lives it.”

People who know Engelstad uniformly cite his energy as one of his most enduring and endearing traits. They speak of his engaging personality, and his ability to reach and relate to kids. They consider him a recruiting force to be reckoned with, a guy who speaks the truth and works to develop relationships. They talk of his commitment to tough, physical defense.

“He’s just genuine,” said Antoine White, who played for Engelstad at Southern Vermont and is now the head women’s coach at Mount St. Mary’s. “We live in a very crazy world and it’s a crazy profession we’re in. A lot of people have agendas. They have an angle they’re trying to work. That’s not Coach. When you talk to him, he cares about his players, he loves his players.”

“I think he’s real similar to Red. He’s like an open book. It’s full transparency,” said Kevin Jones, the head basketball coach at St. Andrew’s (Md.) who’s known Engelstad since their college days and is a longtime friend of Autry. “I feel like he’s going to be straightforward. A genuine dude. Honest. Good communicator. You’re not going to have to guess or wonder whether he’s telling you like it is.”

For Engelstad, 39, the decision to leave The Mount was relatively simple.

He spent 11 years as a head coach, all of them at either a Division III school or a low DI program. And although he owes The Mount a debt of gratitude for hiring him and embracing his family, he ultimately wanted more.

A chance to work with high-major Division I talent. A chance to retain players that are now routinely poached from programs like The Mount. A chance to recruit talent he could neither attract nor afford in his previous job. And a chance to work with a guy he respects at a program he believes can once again compete for national championships.

“I think the biggest thing was being able to work with Coach Red,” Engelstad said. “I’ve known him for a long time and I believe in Coach Autry’s vision of what this can be.”

Engelstad’s coaching career began when he answered an email.

He was in Africa visiting his dad, who worked in the State Department, when he got an email over a fragile internet connection about an assistant coaching job at Mount St. Mary’s. He was 22 and had recently started a basketball business centered around camps, clinics and individual workouts in his Bethesda, Maryland hometown.

Milan Brown, then The Mount head coach, learned about Engelstad because he’d played Division III basketball at St. Mary’s College of Maryland with Brown’s assistant coach, Kevin Robinson. Brown said he communicated with Engelstad for about three weeks, trying to gauge how a guy just out of college might fit as an assistant coach. Brown had no salary to offer but eventually scraped up $5,000 to pay Engelstad.

“I just wanted to see how he would work and grind to get the job. And he stayed in contact with me. He was talking about different players that he could recruit or were possible good fits for us,” said Brown, who is now a Pittsburgh assistant coach. “Asked if there was anything else he needed to do and was very proactive at that time. I was just impressed by how he was able to stay upbeat while he was working to get the job.”

“The opportunity presented itself,” Engelstad said, “and, you know, I got the bug.”

Engelstad followed Brown to Holy Cross when Brown got the head coaching job there. After three seasons, he took a head coaching position at Southern Vermont, a DIII school nestled in the quaint New England town of Bennington, about 40 miles from Albany.

Southern Vermont High School head coach Dan Engelstad talks to his team during a game against Becker College on January 30, 2014. Six players on the Mountaineer roster are from Maryland. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There, at a college with 513 undergraduates, he coaxed players from urban areas to verdant Vermont and upended the program.

SVC went 1-24 and 1-15 in the New England Collegiate Conference the season before he took the job. In his first year with the program, Engelstad’s Mountaineers finished 16-10 overall 10-6 in the NECC. In his five seasons at the school, they were unbeaten in the conference for two straight years. In his final season, SVC went 22-6 and 12-2.

Engelstad calls that period his “most enjoyable, crazy, raw, rewarding five years of coaching.”

“He was just a total players’ coach. We got Dan when he was learning a lot about himself,” White said. “But one thing Dan was so good at was the relationships he made with all his players. He truly cared about us. There were a lot of my teammates, including myself, who really needed a second or a third chance at the game of basketball and life in general. And he did a great job of painting a picture of how to be good young men.”

To this day, White and Engelstad said, those relationships endure. A group of former SVC players showed up last year at a Mount doubleheader to support White, the women’s coach, and Engelstad, the men’s coach. White said their continued closeness encapsulates the kind of culture Engelstad started building in Vermont more than 10 years ago.

“It was authentic and those guys, they needed us,” Engelstad said. “We created a family there in a place that hadn’t been successful in a long time.”

Engelstad hired A.J. Mahar, a former Albany Academy coach, as an assistant after meeting Mahar’s mom on the golf course, interviewing him and “putting the full-court press” on Mahar, then in his mid-20s.

Mahar lived in Albany during his three years as an Engelstad assistant. He was willing, he said, to make the daily commute to work for him.

“I loved his energy, I loved the positivity he brought,” said Mahar. “I loved his message and his purpose as to why he wanted to do this, how he was able to connect with kids.”

EMMITSBURG, MD – FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Dan Engelstad of the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers signals to his players during a college basketball game against the Iona Gaels at the Knott Arena in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Engelstad took the Mount job after the 2017-18 season. He spent six years with those Mountaineers, ushering the program from the NEC (ranked 32nd in kenpom.com) to the more competitive MAAC (ranked 25th).

Engelstad’s teams went 72-109 during his tenure. After the 2023-24 season, his top two scorers entered the transfer portal. Both committed to Georgia. One of those players was Leffew, who was hotly pursued in the portal.

It was not the first time The Mount or schools with similar profiles were ransacked by the transfer portal.

Engelstad said during his two-year tenure in the MAAC, entire programs were gutted by portal departures. Mount St. Mary’s was limited in which players it could attract partly because of its negligible NIL money and partly because players wanted to climb the Division I hierarchy as they progressed in their careers.

Those limitations forced Engelstad to “be creative” in the transfer portal.

“I do think it does take some of the joy away from coaching just because it’s fun to see a young man through to completion,” he said. “And that’s why I got into it, to be there on graduation day and be part of the process. But, you know, that’s not where we’re at. And you gotta be flexible and you gotta figure it out.”

At Syracuse, he’ll figure it out at a program with more NIL money to disperse and a deeper pool of players to draw from.

Engelstad has ties to the same DMV area as Autry and SU assistant coach Brenden Straughn. But his close basketball friends say his recruiting influence stretches to areas outside that region and includes international possibilities. Engelstad’s Mount St. Mary’s 2023-24 roster includes players from Georgia, Florida, Texas, Michigan, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

Kevin Jones said The Mount was a “tough sell” for DMV kids who either aspired to bigger programs or were skeptical about the school’s rural Emmitsburg, Maryland location near the Pennsylvania border.

“So, he was really getting kids from Florida, kids from the Midwest, Texas. He was crushing that area,” Jones said. “A lot of people would think, he’s a DMV guy and they have another DMV guy, they have Brenden, right? And they’ve got Red. I don’t want to speak for Red, but if you look at Dan’s roster, it’s his versatility. Look where those guys are coming from. He’s got some plugs out there.”

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve been fortunate to have some really good relationships,” Engelstad said. “And now, it’s exciting to recruit some of those guys that I used to admire at The Mount. Now, you’re making those calls and it’s exciting to land some really talented players here.”

Milan Brown describes Engelstad as a “people person.” His upbringing exposed him to folks of every ethnic and socioeconomic stripe, his friends said. He can recruit a young man from the inner city of Chicago, Brown said, just as comfortably as he can recruit someone “who lives in a mansion in Calabasas, California.”

Out on the recruiting trail, Engelstad gravitated toward tough, resilient kids. When he and Autry talk about the qualities they desire in Syracuse recruits, Engelstad said, they admire the physical and mental toughness that characterized players on the Final Four contenders this season.

“I love guys that always have the motor on, the guys that just love to compete,” Engelstad said. “Because you know at some point there’s going to be adversity, there’s going to be something that comes up. Are you gonna have enough grit to handle it, get back on the right path and finish the job? You always look at the skill, you look at the talent. But I do think you can’t overlook that character piece.”

And while Syracuse represents an uptick in basketball talent from The Mount, Engelstad has experience working with elite players.

For several years, while he was at Southern Vermont, he coached The Basketball Tournament (TBT) team Armored Athlete with Mahar serving as general manager.

Those Armored Athlete teams brimmed with overseas professionals. Mahar said Engelstad maintains communication with several of those guys; some have spoken to Engelstad’s teams at The Mount.

Engelstad is already out on the recruiting road for the Orange. His office feels like a space in transition, the walls and shelves stripped of McNamara’s Syracuse flair. Engelstad’s wife, Camille, a former Holy Cross softball player, and their three young daughters will move to Syracuse once the school year ends and the Engelstads find a home.

Engelstad said Autry has yet to designate group assignments within his staff. McNamara worked with SU guards, Straughn with forwards and Allen Griffin with big men.

Autry said it was important to hire someone he trusted, someone who understood how to navigate the inevitable highs and lows of a season. He wanted someone, he said, “that’s gonna hunker down with you and get the job done.”

After their morning conversation in Scottsdale on the eve of the Final Four, Engelstad felt convinced he should take the job. His friends said his relationship with Autry made all the difference.

“He appreciates the Syracuse brand and I think that he very much appreciates how authentic Coach Autry is,” Mahar said. “I don’t think he would have taken this opportunity just anywhere and given up one of the 300-plus Division I head coaching positions in the country. I really think the existing relationship that him and Coach Autry had was the difference-maker and gave him the confidence to walk away from a good situation.”

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