'He will be a terrific head coach.' Wagner basketball hires Seton Hall's Donald Copeland

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It’s not something for a billboard or a recruiting pitch, but the Seton Hall basketball program has achieved a quietly impressive distinction within the sport: It has become a cradle of coaches.

Donald Copeland was named head coach at Wagner College Thursday, making him the fourth former Pirate player to become a current skipper in Division I. That’s the most among any Big East program. Nationwide, only a small handful of programs can claim more (North Carolina has five; Duke and Princeton have six).

The other Pirates at the helm: Shaheen Holloway at his alma mater, Dan Hurley at Connecticut and Levell Sanders at Binghamton. If you want to extend the circle a bit, Mark Bryant and Adrian Griffin are prominent NBA assistants with the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors, respectively. Grant Billmeier is an assistant at Maryland after serving as associate head coach at the Hall. And several program alums are coaching in the high school ranks, including former Copeland backcourt mate John Allen.

Seton Hall assistant coach Donald Copeland
Seton Hall assistant coach Donald Copeland

“I am extremely happy for Donald and Wagner,” texted Maryland coach Kevin Willard, who hired Copeland at the Hall last year and whose coaching tree has produced three head coaches (Holloway, Copeland and Dan McHale, formerly of Eastern Kentucky). “Donald is a tireless worker and recruiter who will help take Wagner to new heights. He is a great teacher of the game, but most importantly he is a great mentor to his student-athletes.”

Seton Hall guard Jamir Harris echoed that sentiment.

"Myself and the guys are really excited for Coach Cope and his new opportunity," Harris said. "Coach Cope is a true, authentic and real person, and as players we respected his perspective due to the simple fact that we knew he had our best interest in mind not only as players, but as young men."

After leading St. Anthony High School to a state title, Copeland played point guard for the Hall from 2002-2006, earning second-team All-Big East honors as a senior. He returned to coaching as an assistant at Wagner for six years before heading back to Seton Hall this past season as an assistant.

“He will be a terrific head coach,” Billmeier said. “As a player and an assistant, there is a certain standard that he holds himself to. He’s the ultimate professional who will put in the work 365 days a year. The bar will be set high for his players on and off the court.”

Donald Copeland (left) at Seton Hall
Donald Copeland (left) at Seton Hall

John Dunne knows that, too. Dunne, now the head coach at Marist, was a Seton Hall assistant under Louis Orr during Copeland’s collegiate playing days.

“Donald is in my opinion a natural-born leader,” Dunne said. “He has a tough mindset, is not afraid of the big moment, but also has a great ability to block out the noise — any negativity around him.”

How dedicated to the cause was a young Copeland? He tore two ligaments in his ankle at the start of his senior year at the Hall, then played with one sneaker bigger than the other so it could accommodate a soft cast — for the entire season.

“He played for multiple weeks before we found out, and he would not complain,” Dunne said. “In my 30 years in coaching, he’s in the top three players in mental and physical toughness.”

Dunne is a defense-first coach. So are Willard and Copeland's high school mentor, the legendary Bob Hurley. Given his background and defensive acumen as a player, you can expect more of the same from Copeland’s Wagner squads.

“He would step in front of a freight train and take a charge if it meant winning,” Dunne said. “When I think of Copeland, that’s what I think of.”

Copeland will be introduced at Wagner during a press conference April 28.

What's next at SHU

With Copeland moving from South Orange to Staten Island, Holloway's coaching staff should be announced soon — including the expected hiring of two of his former assistants at Saint Peter’s, recruiting ace Rasheen Davis and tactics guru Ryan Whalen.

Former La Salle head coach and Villanova assistant Ashley Howard has been the focus for the other full assistant spot. However, it's possible Villanova’s shakeup late Wednesday — Jay Wright’s retirement and the appointment of former Wright assistant and Fordham head coach Kyle Neptune to take the Wildcats' reins — could result in Howard being drawn back to the Main Line. Neptune worked with Howard on Wright's staff for several years, and although the Wildcats' three assistant spots currently are filled, multiple people familiar with the situation have indicated that Neptune is interested in bringing Howard on board.

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Wagner basketball hires Seton Hall's Donald Copeland