May 2, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long before they began working together at the University of Virginia, Ron Sanchez knew Orlando Vandross from coaching circles.
“I always had tremendous respect for O as a colleague, even though we were at different institutions,” Sanchez said Wednesday.
“My respect for him was taken to another level completely when he came to work [at UVA]: number 1, because of his basketball knowledge; number 2, because of what a kind-hearted and hard-working person he is; and number 3, because of the number of people he knows and who know him. He’s unbelievably connected in the recruiting world.”
For three seasons, starting in 2015-16, Vandross served as the director of recruiting/player development on Virginia head coach Tony Bennett’s staff. Bennett promoted Vandross last month to assistant coach, filling the vacancy created in March when UNC Charlotte hired Sanchez to run its men’s basketball program.
Longtime assistant Jason Williford has taken over for Sanchez as the Cavaliers’ associate head coach. Williford, a former UVA standout, has known Vandross since they met 18 years ago at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Vandross was then an assistant coach at Boston University. His boss was Dennis Wolff, a former UVA assistant who in 2000 hired Williford as the Terriers’ “restricted earnings coach,” which was, as the title would suggest, a low-paying position.
“O broke me into the business,” Williford said Wednesday. “He showed me the ropes.”
Of his longtime friendship with Williford, Vandross said: “You can’t make someone have chemistry with someone else. It just has to happen organically, and we just clicked from Day One.”
In 2005, Williford left Boston for American University, where he joined the staff of Jeff Jones, who’d coached him at UVA. Vandross remained at BU, where he was associate head coach for his final three seasons, until 2011, when he became an assistant at Charlotte.
Vandross grew up in Brockton, Mass., the hometown of boxing legends Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. At Brockton High School — whose athletic teams, naturally, are called the Boxers — Vandross distinguished himself for more than his ballhandling, passing and scoring.
“He was always like a coach on the floor,” former Brockton head coach Victor Ortiz told the Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) newspaper in 2013, “and in my three years with him at the varsity level he never had a bad practice.
“It was just the way he paid attention to everything I taught. You’d be teaching a drill and you’d look to see who was paying attention. While other kids would be grabbing each other’s shorts, Orlando would be focused. He was always so attentive.”
When Vandross, who was a standout guard at American International College in Springfield, Mass., came to UVA to 2015, he did so with no promise of an eventual promotion to assistant coach.
“Which I appreciated,” Vandross said, “because I want the best for the program. If there’s someone that’s more qualified that [Bennett] thinks can help move this program forward, then so be it. But I’m so glad that he thought enough of me to consider me.
“My makeup is, no job is beneath me. If it’s cleaning up the locker room, or going out on the road, I’m excited to do whatever I can to help.”
In his previous position, Vandross helped formulate and then implement the Wahoos’ recruiting strategy.
“Who are we going to go see? When are we going to go see him?” Vandross said. “And then I’d try to organize that as much as possible, so we were efficient on the road.”
For the first time since 2015, April found Vandross on the road recruiting. “It was exciting to get back out there, hearing the sneakers squeaking and hearing some AAU coaches yelling a little bit,” he said.
Williford, like Sanchez, believes Vandross will be a tremendous asset to the `Hoos in their bid to attract gifted players to Charlottesville.
“The dude is a relentless recruiter,” Williford said. “He loves evaluating talent, he likes talking to the kids and getting to know them, and he’s got ties, not only to New England, with the prep schools there, but he’s got ties to Philly and the New York area, and Charlotte and [throughout] North Carolina [and other places in the South].”
Under NCAA rules, as director of recruiting/player development, Vandross was not allowed to join Bennett and assistant coaches Sanchez, Williford and Brad Soderberg on the court during practice. After nearly two decades as a Division I assistant, Vandross had to adjust to a new role at practice, and it wasn’t always easy.
“But now that I’m able to get on the floor again, I’m going to appreciate it more than during the last three years,” Vandross said. “Not that it was bad, but you realize how fortunate you were as a coach to be involved and on the floor with the [players]. Now I’ll be able to get on the court to strengthen those bonds with our guys and bring energy every day.”
With the experience he gained in his first three seasons at UVA, Vandross believes, he’s a better, more well-rounded coach than when he left Charlotte.
“To be honest, I’m more energized,” he said. “I’ve kind of recharged my batteries. When you’re on the road and you’re an assistant coach, your job constantly has you on the move. In the role of coordinating the recruiting, I wasn’t doing that as much, but I was able to be here at every practice, every skill session and every meeting, and learn how we do it here at Virginia. Also, being a part of Coach Bennett’s staff here, I got to learn what he does every day. So, yes, it was definitely a benefit to be in this role.”