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Ross Condon '03 - A Coach Inspired

Without a suit and tie and a clipboard, it’s hard to distinguish Ross Condon ’03 from the players he coaches. It’s early December and Ross is breaking a sweat preparing the players on the Penn State men’s basketball team to take on George Washington University. He’s decked out in navy Penn State warmups and Nikes; the lightly stained hardwood squeaks with his every move. He’ll eventually look the part of a coach come game time, but, right now, he’s passing, dribbling, and calling out plays as if he’s the one playing a game in 30 minutes.

Although a casual observer might mistake Ross as one of the Nittany Lions’ point guards, he’s actually Penn State’s assistant coach. Unlike most 30-year-olds, he’s more comfortable standing courtside in front of 20,000 people than sitting at a desk in a cubicle. There is no grey area in the business of coaching. Every decision is highly scrutinized, especially at the Division I level. Ross knows and embraces this. That’s why he coaches with the same intensity as when he played—with a gritty determination to be the best every single day.

Ross learned that hard work pays off during his four years at Potomac. At one time, Ross strongly considered attending Flint Hill, but Matt Carlin, Potomac’s boys basketball head coach from 1995 through 2005, convinced Ross to enroll at Potomac in ninth grade. He saw Ross as the centerpiece of basketball program that had extraordinary potential. Carlin remembers telling the team, “If you give extraordinary effort every day, great things will happen.”

Each practice, Carlin pushed Ross and his teammates to the brink, demanding endless sprints and drills; he wanted perfect execution on offense and defense. The bar was set high, but Ross exceeded every challenge. Playing point guard during his four years at Potomac, he was selected to the All-State team twice, set a school-record for career assists, and scored over 1,000 points. He wanted to be the best player every day—in practice, in a game, in the off-season—and the team embodied his persona.

In Ross’s junior year, the team finished 25-2, but lost in the state title game. When the coaches asked the team at the beginning of the 2002-03 season what they’d be willing to sacrifice to get back to the championship, Ross answered, “Everything.”

Before the state championship game in 2003, Carlin was the most nervous he’s ever been; he was worried about the possibility of losing—that all the blood, sweat and tears exerted to get back to this game might be wasted. Still in his thoughts, Ross came up behind Carlin and smacked him on the butt. “There’s no way we’re losing this game,” Ross said to his coach. Ross gave his all and played phenomenal as Potomac defeated The Miller School to win the Virginia state championship. “I’ll never forget that,” Ross says. “I was repaying Matt for everything he did for me.” That mutual respect and comradery between player and coach is something Ross tries to create in his young coaching career.

But the prospect of coaching wasn’t on Ross’s radar after he graduated Potomac; he still wanted to play. He earned a walk-on spot on Villanova’s basketball team, and from 2003 through 2007, Ross was a member of a Wildcat team that made three-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2005 and the Elite Eight in 2006. Though his time on the court was scarce, Ross made the most out of practicing against future NBA guards Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry. Most importantly, he got a front-row seat to watch and learn from one of the country’s premiere coaches, Jay Wright, who was the national and Big East Conference Coach of the Year for the 2005-06 season.

Ross got the best of both worlds being a walk-on at Villanova: He was able to continue his playing career playing against top-notch competition, while also seeing first-hand the amount of preparation and dedication it took to be a top-notch coach at the Division I level. “During games, I would sit back and listen to what the coaches were saying to players on the court,” Ross remembers. Each game was like attending a graduate level class on coaching (but in the comfort of gym shorts). Ross’s attention to detail and constant effort to improve his skills in practices resonated with the Villanova coaching staff, particularly Jay Wright. When graduation rolled around, it was Wright who suggested to Ross, a business administration major and a three-time selection to the conference’s All-Academic Team, that he should give coaching a try.

At the urging of Wright, Ross took a job at Radford University as the director of basketball operations. Here Ross was able to learn from another top coach in Brad Greenberg, who was also a conference coach of the year. At 21, Ross was one of the youngest coaches in the country. Then, in 2009, Ross’s former assistant coach at Villanova, Pat Chambers, reached out. Villanova had just come off a run to the Final Four, and Chambers was hired as head coach at Boston University (BU). He wanted an assistant he could trust and would put everything into the job. “I need a Villanova player who understands what I’m trying to accomplish,” Chambers explained to Ross, before offering him an assistant coaching position.

At only 23 years old, Ross was an assistant coach; again, his hard work paying off. The effort and dedication he put in at Villanova was being noticed and rewarded. As an assistant at BU, Ross worked specifically with the guards; and in 2011, he helped shooting guard John Holland earn America East Conference Player of the Year. In two seasons at BU, Ross and Chambers notched 42 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth. When Chambers accepted the head-coaching job at Penn State in June 2011, Ross was a no-brainer to bring along to help rebuild the program.

With each season at Penn State, Ross’s responsibilities have been ratcheted up. Early on, he was in charge of daily scheduling and booking the team’s travel and hotel accommodations. Now, in his fifth season, he’s an assistant coach, helping with recruiting, game and practice preparation, and scouting and development. “Coaching is like any business,” Ross says, “If you put in your time, and give all your effort, you keep moving up.” (Ross’s younger brother, Kyle ’08, is in the process of climbing the couching ranks at the University of Tennessee.)

Like a sponge, Ross has absorbed everything he can from the coaches he’s been around over the years, picking and choosing which qualities to emulate. His coaching philosophy is very similar to what he learned early on at Potomac, stressing attitude and effort. It’s no coincidence that this philosophy also mirrors Chambers’. “Attitude is the mantra of our program here at Penn State,” Ross says. “The person who fights for it is the person who comes out on top.”

It’s still the spring of Ross’s coaching career, but it’s hard not to predict continued success in the years to come. “Ross will always out-work and out-hustle everyone else,” Carlin says. “It’s the exact same quality that made him a state champion and a walk-on at Villanova; and it’s what makes him a great coach.” There was a time when Ross was determined to be the best player he could be; now, he’s determined to become the best coach he can be. For him, it’s not just about winning games, it’s about winning every single day.