Behind FDU coach Tobin Anderson’s flight to design a shock over Purdue

Albany – Brendan Leary well remembers the car ride during which he discussed basketball with Tobin Anderson.

They were the Division III backcourt of Wesleyan University and then, in the mid-1990s, sons of coaches, close friends, and roommates.

Leary loved the Fab Five, and always felt that the best players make the best coaches.

Anderson argued that great coaches can do more with less. He loved Bobby Knight for this very reason.

“He was like, ‘Bobby Knight can take five people out of the cafeteria and win games,’ Leary recalled, ‘the way he coaches and the way he can bring talent together, make it synchronized. ‘”

Leary laughs about it now, because of what Anderson did with Fairleigh Dickinson, doing more for less.

in The first season in the first division After nine seasons in Division II St. Louis. Thomas Aquinas’s Rockland County Anderson led the Teaneck, NJ small school—the smallest team, by height, in Division I this season—to the NCAA Tournament and to Massive disruption in Bordeaux, as the second number. 16 seeds to win ever. 1.

Anderson has had a massive turnaround, with the Knights tallying 21 wins in a season after managing just four.

Tobin Anderson led FDU to a massive upset about No. 1-Bordeaux seeded.
Tyler Schunk/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Anderson, 51, from Iowa, has always wanted to be a coach and follow in his father Steve’s footsteps, even into college.

Talk about it openly.

His dream job was Notre Dame.

Leary and Anderson frequently attended University of Massachusetts games during the height of John Calipari’s era there, and analyzed sports.

They spent late nights working on their game when no one was left at the Wesleyan gym in Middletown, Conn.

“A lot of people say they love basketball, but he eats, sleeps, drinks and breathes basketball,” Leary said. “He cares about winning and basketball and the players and loves the game. He would coach the youth basketball team if he could make ends meet just because he loves teaching and coaching the game.”

Anderson got his first break in 2011, when Mitch Bonagourou hired him as one of his assistant coaches at Siena out of Division III Hamilton College in Clifton, New York.

Bonaguru knew Anderson through the famous five-star basketball camp run by the late Howard Garfinkel.

He was seen by some as a rising star, the rare coach in his twenties whom Garfinkel used to talk to camp.

Early in Anderson’s first season, Bonagoro remembered his school’s president, Rev. Kevin Mullen, in awe of the new assistant coach, walked into his office after watching him run a one-on-one drill for one of the team’s guards.

“I just witnessed something really special. The assistant I hired, Coach Anderson, just gave an incredible 45-minute workout,” Mullen told Bonagorou. “It was 45 minutes of intensity and teaching and pretending. I was blown away.”

Head coach Tobin Anderson of the St. Louis Cardinals  Thomas Aquinas Spartans directs their players against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during halftime at McCarthy Sports Center on November 22, 2014 in Spokane, Washington.
Anderson trained at St. Thomas Aquinas before joining FDU.
William Mancebo / Getty Images

Nicole Ryan, athletic director at St. Thomas Aquinas had similar memories of Anderson, whose practices were high-energy, with intense and sustained work.

Emphasis placed on player development.

His staff works around the clock.

“He’s sweating like the guys,” Ryan said.

You weren’t surprised by what he accomplished at FDU.

It witnessed a similar transformation in St. Thomas Aquinas.

A year prior to Anderson’s arrival, the team had only won five games.

In its third season, it embarrassed the Saint. John’s in an exhibition game by defeating Chris Mullin’s team by 31 points.

That season, the Spartans reached their first seven NCAA Division II championships under Anderson.

“It was shocking at the time, and now it’s taken to the next level,” Ryan said.

Watching this upset from Purdue, what impressed Bonnagorou most was the belief that FDU played.

The stage wasn’t very big.

The Knights were no less afraid of their regular season and postseason champions. They were prepared both physically and mentally for the amazing feat.

Sean Moore #11 of the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights celebrates with the team after defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 63-58 in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 17, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio.
FDU’s win is the second time in NCAA history a No. Team 16 came out of No. 1. 1 seed.
Dylan Boyle/Getty Images

“I thought the greatest thing was how confident these kids were playing,” said Bonaguru, who now serves as a consultant for both the men’s and women’s hoop programs at Division II College of Saint Rose in Albany. “Most teams in this position, they get dumbfounded. That didn’t happen. I thought Purdue was the least confident team for some reason. They looked almost like deer in the headlights.”

For years Anderson waited for an opportunity as he racked up victories at St. Thomas Aquinas.

He was rejected for jobs, and asked to work his way up to Division I as an assistant.

He tried it for two years in Siena.

He didn’t want to go back to that.

Finally, this past May, FDU gave him his shot.

“It proves the point that we have great coaches at every level,” Bonagorou said. “Some of them are trained in anonymity.”

That’s no longer the case for Tobin Anderson — not after Friday night’s shocking performance of the Knights on Purdue.

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