In the summer of 2014, Anthony Leonelli was a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday, unemployed, and living without health insurance.
More than ten years earlier, the self-described "shitty high school player" had set off down the uncertain path of a college basketball coach. But now it appeared his journey, comprised of countless hours on the recruiting trail and in the gym in exchange for small stipends amounting to a few thousand dollars a year was nearing its end.
He found himself without a campus job after a decade as a Division III assistant coach. Bob Walsh, his boss at Rhode Island College, had landed a Division I head coaching position at the University of Maine.
"Two things became obvious pretty quickly," Leonelli says. "He was not taking me with him and they (Rhode Island College) were not considering me for the head job."
For the first time, Leonelli and Rachel Keeler, his girlfriend and partner since high school, considered a more traditional career and life trajectory. Both had grown up in the same suburban area of Central Massachusetts: old mill and farming towns that became bedroom communities for Boston, Providence, and Worcester. The kinds of places where everybody is either a fourth and fifth generation resident, or moved there to raise a family away from the big city bustle. Leonelli and Rachel loved their respective upbringings and understood friends who elected to stay, but they wanted something different—adventure, some chaos, and a chance to pursue their dreams, even if it meant coming up short. Leonelli's dad chased his own passion as a New York City theater actor in the 1970s, and that risky, go-for-it spirit resonated with his son.
The younger Leonelli had given himself until age 32 to become a college head coach, and the deadline was approaching rapidly. He was desperate. He phoned a community college president on Cape Cod to convince him to restart the school's basketball program, but to no avail.
To support his nascent career, Leonelli had worked odd jobs—as an apartment leasing agent in Boston, an overnight dock worker outside of Springfield, Mass. among others. Like a musician hoping to be signed to a major label or an improv comedian dreaming of Saturday Night Live, Leonelli rolled the dice attempting to make a living doing what he loved, but on the other side of 30, assistant coach stipends would no longer cut it.
Finally, he applied to the head coaching vacancy at tiny Green Mountain College in Vermont, a school with just 560 students. Despite being an outpost even by Division III standards, there were more than 100 applicants for the position. Leonelli was still relatively young in the coaching industry, but "it felt like kind of a last chance."
Sixteen months later, on a brisk December afternoon, Leonelli stalked the sidelines of the Eagle Dome, Green Mountain's fieldhouse. Decked out in a black suit and black dress shirt, he was outfitted like Johnny Cash. His beard has a smattering of gray in it. ("I'm an old 32," he had told me.) At 6'2'' and with a wide frame, he looked the part of a former athlete, but his unruly hair pushed to the side suggested the frontman of a punk band, which he was in his younger days. There was an air of showmanship in the way he moved.
His team was up more than 20, but Leonelli charged up and down the bench, working the refs, shouting out "downhill" and "spacing" to his offense, and slicing the air with a celebratory fist pump and leg kick when a corner three found the bottom of the net.
At one point, Leonelli's point guard, a 26-year old junior named Thomas Brown, collected a loose ball at halfcourt and gained a head of steam towards the hoop. With two University of Maine-Farmington players giving chase from behind, Brown tossed the ball off the glass for Mychal Parker, a senior who began his career at Division I Maryland.
Parker rose up over the two Farmington players, collected the pass off the glass, and slammed home a two-handed dunk, extending the Eagles lead to 25 and sending the home crowd into a frenzy. He was hit with a technical for hanging on the rim, but the whistle couldn't be heard over the fans' delirium.
It was not the kind of play often seen in Division III basketball.
"He (Parker) can do that 100 times out of 100," Leonelli said on the sideline. "We'll take it every single time."
Leonelli recruited both Brown and Parker to Vermont. The scene—manic student section, ready-to-explode energy of the bench, relentless athleticism—was exactly what Leonelli envisioned when he started at Green Mountain College. Just over a year after Leonelli thought his coaching career might be finished, he was leading a raucous hoops party he'd dubbed #RunGMC.
That's not to suggest Leonelli's life has become easier, though. In his second season as the Eagles head coach, Leonelli makes $30,000 a year. At an age when many of his friends are getting married and buying homes, he sleeps in a twin bed in a college dormitory four hours north of his family, friends, and Rachel in Massachusetts.
Green Mountain College, an environmental liberal arts school 90 minutes east of Albany, sits at the very end of Main Street in Poultney, Vermont. At GMC, students can major in Sustainable Agriculture & Food Production and minor in Adventure Recreation. Pigs, goats, and chickens roam about the campus. And save for Stewart's, the gas station/convenience store a block from campus that's open until midnight (the pizza place and bar close at 9:00 and 10:00, respectively), the closest nightlife is in Rutland, a half hour east down Route 103.
So it's no surprise that GMC, an NAIA school until the early 2000s, is not a traditional hotbed for basketball recruits. The program was 21-95 over five seasons from 2009-2014—a perpetual bottom dweller in the Northern Atlantic Conference.
Athletic Director Keith Bosley, with 20 years of experience in New England Division III athletics, knew there was only one way to turnaround a moribund program and its culture: recruiting.
That's what made Leonelli stand out among the more than 100 applicants. As an assistant at a trio of New England schools—Wentworth Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Rhode Island College—he earned a reputation as a dogged recruiter, traversing not just New England, but New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and even the Midwest.
"We knew he would be relentless and do whatever was needed," Bosley says. referring to Leonelli's willingness to recruit anywhere and anytime.
Leonelli carries himself with the confidence of a person who's pitched hundreds, if not thousands, of teenagers and their families, on himself, his programs, and his unique schools (his first two stops were engineering schools). It takes an assured personality to tell relative strangers why you're the right person, with the right team and school, to guide their child into adulthood. It's a role that's part father figure, part salesman, and part showman. Leonelli needs to always be on, quick with a joke, and ready to move on from a "no."
Recruiting at this level is a bloodsport. Division III is the NCAA's biggest division, with nearly 450 programs in 43 conferences, accounting for 40 percent of all schools. And there are none of the restrictions placed on D1 programs—no dead periods or quiet periods. It's a year-round free-for-all for tens of thousands of players.
"It's like the Wild West," Leonelli says.
He hit the recruiting trail the day after being hired ("We needed bodies, he said"). From the outset, Leonelli knew the only way to make a name for yourself was to win consistently, and the only way to do that at a place as unique and off-the-radar as GMC would be to recruit non-stop and unconventionally.
"A major program will target ten players to end up with four or five," Leonelli says. "We start with a list of about 400."
To that end, in addition to looking for athletes and shooters who could run for 40 minutes, he has sought players with toughness and endurance—players willing to work hard and not complain about long bus rides.
"I'm a fan of kids who haven't had everything handed to them," Leonelli said after a film session, held in a classroom building across campus from the gym. "They've had to keep working, overcome obstacles, and they appreciate second chances."
So far, he's recruited players who have never heard of him or GMC.
"Guys aren't sending us tapes the way they are at Amherst and Bowdoin (other New England Division III schools)," Leonelli says. "They want to play at those schools. That's the level we want to get to."
On the way to that level, though, you make stops at places like Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, MA. Two nights before Thanksgiving, Leonelli sat in the weathered wooden bleachers as the Wyverns took on Northern Essex Community College. He was one of about 15-20 people in the stands at tip-off, there to "bump" a sharp-shooting small forward (introduce himself and give him his card), and the best he could tell, he was the only coach in the stands.
If a recruit is within an eight or nine hour drive, he'll go meet his family in person. If the player is from a warm weather locale like Florida or California, Leonelli willl get on Skype and tell him "it never snows in the gym."
Last July, he made trips to Louisville, Kentucky, Charlottesville, Virginia and Reading, Pennsylvania (twice), putting 4,600 miles on his 2004 Volvo station wagon in 11 days. There are no motels in the recruiting budget, so Leonelli relies on "the kindness of other coaches" to provide a couch or floor to crash on.
"He drove down and met my family," remembers Boo Agee, a sophomore guard from Charlottesville, VA. "It didn't even feel like recruiting. He wasn't flashy; he was just cracking jokes and getting to know me, like he really cared.
Agee is one of four current players from Charlottesville-area who Leonelli has sold on spending their collegiate career more than 600 miles north.
"He loves talking shit to us," says Agee, with a laugh. "He thinks he's hilarious. Guys like that."
As a result of the exhaustive recruiting, the Eagles have eight junior college transfers. The average player age is 22.8. Leonelli has brought in 15 of the team's 20 current players, including Parker, who was a consensus top-75 player coming out of high school. He was part of Hall of Famer Gary Williams's final recruiting class, but struggled to find minutes under new coach Mark Turgeon. After a brief stop at a NAIA program in Kentucky, Parker was looking for a school at which to continue playing, and Leonelli got him on campus the first week of classes. Brown played Division II in West Virginia. Sampson Dale, a senior guard, played briefly at Oak Hill Academy, the alma mater of Carmelo Anthony.
The roster is comprised of student-athletes from eight states, the District of Columbia, Spain, and Greece. By comparison, league foe Thomas College has eight players from their home state of Maine. Nearby Castleton State (where Stan Van Gundy held his first head coaching position) has nine players combined from Vermont and New York.
For an ascending coach and program, though, the search for players is an unrelenting odyssey, albeit one you can traverse in a decade-old station wagon.
Over winter break, when the team is away from campus for three weeks, the coaching staff will see a combined 30 high school teams plays 45 games, with Leonelli planning trips to New York and D.C. Leonelli's two assistant coaches will recruit while home for the holidays in Maine and Pennsylvania.
The assistants are in earlier stages of the coaching life cycle. One, Chris Pagentine, celebrated his 26th birthday on a recent Friday night, as well as he and his girlfriend's three-year anniversary. Pagentine commemorated the night with takeout in his dorm room. His girlfriend was five hours east at Bowdoin College, where she is an an assistant coach for the women's basketball team. Pagentine is paid $1,800, and works part time in the Poultney public schools.
Leonelli received 86 resumes for his job. The posting read simply, "Small stipend, dorm room possible."
Like Leonelli a decade earlier, his coaches know success in this field is often low profile and low-paying. For them, the risk and uncertainty are worth the reward of bucking the odds and emerging from obscurity. After all, along with Van Gundy, coaches like Gregg Popovich, Bo Ryan, and Tom Thibodeau began their careers in the Division III ranks.
Unlike the coaches mentioned above, though, who all played college hoops, Leonelli did not have a natural entry into the profession. At 19, he wrote letters to 100 Division 1 college programs, offering to volunteer in any capacity. One responded—the University of Akron—and he was off to northeast Ohio, where he spent two years doing laundry, throwing bounce passes, and filming practice, all in between classes.
Also on the Zips staff was Shaka Smart, another young assistant in his 20s looking to climb the coaching ranks. Leonelli recalls being impressed with Smart's boundless energy.
"You could tell even then he was going to do big things," Leonelli says. "It didn't matter if we were winning or losing, the guy just brought it every single day."
After Akron, Leonelli landed at Wentworth in Boston, and while he was building his coaching resume, Rachel, his partner of 15 years, was ascending in her dream job as a librarian. When she got a job in Springfield, about two hours of west of Boston, she and Anthony moved, and he began commuting back and forth to Boston. She was the primary breadwinner in the relationship, so they needed to be based where she had a job.
They took turns sacrificing for the other, with no guarantee Leonelli would take that next step. It hasn't been easy, but they both know he wouldn't be happy with a "normal" career.
"I've been in love with Anthony for 15 years," Rachel says, smiling. "So I've had the disease for a long time."
Rachel makes the four hour drive from Boston a few times each season, enthusiastically supporting Leonelli in this new phase of his career.
She realizes, however, their current situation is not tenable forever. As they approach their mid-30s, living four hours apart with one of them residing in a dorm room will lose its charm. If and when the next job comes, she'll be ready to move.
"I've had my dream job for a long time, and I want him to have his."
She took in the empty Eagle Dome, a half hour after GMC completed a weekend sweep of two conference rivals.
"Besides," she said, "this is fun."
To Leonelli, playing and coaching sports are supposed to be fun. He doesn't hide his excitement, and he doesn't expect his players to either. In one early season game, his team picked up five technical fouls. He got some emails from the administration, but he is willing to live with those as long as long the team is playing hard, selflessly, and, of course, winning.
Not surprisingly, his coaching heroes are people like Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Majerus, "guys who did things the way they thought would work and didn't seem terribly worried about conventional wisdom or perception."
More than once over the weekend, a referee signaled to Leonelli to calm the players on his bench. He wouldn't have it any other way.
Leonelli brings vision and energy to his job, but he faces the challenge of drawing players to a place where the basketball team could be booted off the court at 11:06 PM, because the ultimate frisbee team has practice scheduled for 11:00. Vermont's frigid climate, even in early autumn, means outdoors sports (frisbee, soccer, field hockey) sometimes must move inside the field house. It's not unusual for the court to be in use from 5 a.m. until after midnight.
It's difficult to imagine Coach K being requested to leave the court by an ultimate frisbee team, or starting a GoFundMe campaign to purchase equipment. In the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the average salary of the 68 coaches was $1.7 million. Most Division I schools spend between $500,000 and $1,000,0000 annually on recruiting.
Leonelli's coaching budget is just under $32,000. The recruiting budget comes in the form of gas reimbursement.
But Leonelli tells himself the same thing he tells his players. The phrase has become something of a mantra: "Win anyways."
The refs don't like our swagger? Let me deal with them. Win anyways.
Five hour bus rides for conference games? Push the ball. Win anyways.
Shots aren't falling early? Keep shooting. Win anyways.
Waiting for a decade for your opportunity? You're doing what you love. Win anyways.
After three wins in four days, Leonelli gave his players a "much deserved day off" on Sunday. But it came with a warning: "Don't do anything fucking stupid tonight."
Leonelli would be in his office and dorm room, prepping for the following weekend's game and the accompanying seven hours of bus rides. He would see Rachel, his family and friends briefly over the holidays before getting back on the recruiting trail.
While the world eases its way into 2016, Leonelli will be in the stands at high school gyms outside of Albany, "bumping" players, rocking basketball shorts and t-shirts, and putting together his next recruiting class. There will be nights, even a couple weeks, without Rachel and another few hundred miles on the Volvo. None of it seems fucking stupid.