By Bobby Curran
For those who aspire to a coaching career at a high level, be prepared to move early and often. And in the case of UH assistant basketball coach Chris Gerlufsen, that has meant bi-coastal and trans-Pacific.
Gerlufsen always knew he wanted to coach, since his dad was a well-known high school coach who parlayed summer coaching gigs at Five Star basketball camp into the head coaching job at UMass (before the Minutemen decided to pour money into the program), and he was prepared to pay the price to get it. After his senior year at Randolph Macon, his coach asked him if he still had the dream. “He said, ‘Go get your suit on and drive to Washington College in Maryland.’” I did, and they offered a grad assistantship that paid $2,500 a year. Even with working at a liquor store at night, I lost a lot of money that year, but I loved it.”
Then it was on to Southwestern College in Texas for two years. “Learning the ropes in recruiting Texas was a huge benefit,” Gerlufsen told me.” Next, on to Charleston, South Carolina for a six-year stop at The Citadel, during which he had his greatest recruiting success. On a trip to Las Vegas with a high-roller buddy, he met a charming VIP host named Ila who he hit it off with and discovered was from Hawaii Kai. They’ve been together ever since. “My best recruit, not even close,” Gerlufsen said.
Then it was on to Hartford, which became a nine-year stop, working up from assistant to associate head coach. “The head coach at Hartford was a guy by the name of John Gallagher, and he had an international flavor to his ideas. He was very into analytics before that was trendy. That’s where we used to say on offense that we want 3’s and layups,” recalled Gerlufsen. “I was evolving in my thinking too, wanting at least four of the five players on the floor to be able to shoot, pass and dribble.”
As is so often the case in college basketball, a connection led him to be offered an assistant job at San Diego. A coach he knew from being on the road, Lamont Smith, had been an assistant at New Mexico, ASU and St. Mary’s had gotten the top job at San Diego. He called with an opportunity too good to pass up. “He asked me to come and build the offense from the ground up, and with that chance, I got past that I had no West Coast experience, and so I took the job.”
After four years at USD, he began to get casual inquiries about whether he might have any interest in a job at Hawaii. He knew Eran Ganot from coaching against him in the WCC, and knew he was looking to replace Adam Jacobsen, who had returned to California for family reasons.
“It was like the basketball gods were looking down,” said Gerlufsen, “with Ila being from Hawaii Kai, and we’d talked about maybe someday being in Hawaii. Then Eran and I had a number of long phone conversations.” What followed revealed the two coaches to be on the same page in many ways. And Ila would be able to be back to her home which she’d left at 18.
Eran Ganot saw it similarly.“ I had known a lot of people who knew Chris, some of them well,” said the UH head coach. “When you hear good things over and over, and then you see his personality which is not self promoter, but relationship builder, I knew he was the right fit.”
What nobody could have known was that before the team was in workouts prior to the 2019 season, Ganot developed a medical issue which required him to step away. After only having been in Hawaii a matter of weeks, Chris Gerlufsen was named acting head coach. New to Hawaii, to his team and to the staff, I thought this could be rocky for the acting coach. I still remember being in the lobby with the staff in Champaign, Illinois where UH had its first road game against a veteran Illinois team the following night. Coach Gerlufsen had his usual even temperament and was listening to the staff and leading a discussion about an approach. An outsider could have never guessed that here was a coach who’d never been in that situation leading a group he’d only recently met. And the staff worked together in a harmony I wouldn’t have thought possible. The next night, Hawaii gave the Illini all they wanted. Despite the loss, the postgame interview with Coach Gerlufsen was calm, measured and thoughtful. Right then, I knew this group would be fine. When I tried to compliment him during the interview for this story, he jumped in. “That couldn’t have happened without the way Eran prepares and treats the staff,” Gerlufsen said. “He lets coaches coach, and everybody knew their roles.”
Coach Ganot wasn’t buying it entirely. “That was largely Chris, who was ready, and our other coaches who all stepped up,” said Ganot. “I was totally proud of them.”
In Ganot’s absence, Coach G led the team to an 8-5 record, which included three losses to nationally ranked teams, and people in basketball circles took notice.
When teams come into the Stan Sherriff center, it’s typical that the broadcasters visit to exchange notes. Suddenly, everybody, after expressing good wishes for Eran, wanted to know, “Who is this Gerlufsen guy?” People in the biz know how disruptive it can be to lose your head coach. And there was no dysfunction, no carping, just a complete buy-in from players and coaches. But maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, as Coach G had been pointing to this with steady progress for over 20 years! In January, everyone welcomed back Eran, and he’s been in terrific health, but he knows what he has on his staff. “I try to hire men that are great people and want to be head coaches,” said Ganot. “And Chris is definitely that guy.”
As for Coach G, he is as patient as he is talented. “I believe that you have to empower players, there has to be a free-flowing element, that you have to allow for some mistakes because perfection is always out of reach. And now, it’s almost positionless basketball, where the skill set is what’s important,” he said.
“I really enjoyed the experience, and I hope to be a head coach someday,” he added. “But right now I just want to be the best basketball coach I can be. And this year’s group could be really special.”
It’s just a matter of time before somebody comes knocking on Coach G’s door.
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