Thursday, May 30, 2013

Introducing Yanni Hufnagel to Vanderbilt

Despite being a manager for four years at Vandy, I really haven't gotten to know any coaches from other schools very well, except for two. One is Kentucky assistant John Robic who I got to know because his wife went to Vandy and we exchanged UK and Vandy t-shirts each year while catching up before each game. The other was our new assistant coach, Yanni Hufnagel.

I didn't know Yanni intially because I worked for Vandy, but our friendship began while I was working with the team. My first interaction with Yanni actually came at a basketball camp I went to in high school. There is a gym in New Jersey called Hoops Heaven that runs basketball camps each summer for kids of all ages, and while the Nets were still in New Jersey, they ran their camps out of Hoop Heaven, and I attended one of them while I was in high school and Yanni was one of the coaches for the week.

At the time, Yanni was an intern for the Nets and part of his responsibility was working their camps, and I had never seen anyone quite like him on a basketball court, and that was just my thought process during warmups. His energy was off the charts those first 20 minutes as he was trying to rile up the campers in what he anticipated would be a great day that by the time we got to the drills portion of the day, which was right after warmups, he had already fully drenched his shirt. Then after drills, the new shirt was soaking wet. He went through like 4 or 5 shirts a day because he was so active and engaged.

This wasn't a camp for elite high school prospects or future NBA players, this was a camp for local high school kids, but Yanni treated it as if he was preparing us for the NBA Finals. Each of the instructors was assigned a team to work with and Yanni's team was the only one to run plays and have offensive sets. He would go crazy on the sidelines when his team played well and was disappointed when they didn't, but he was more engaged in the action than many of the campers. It was impressive to see just how much he cared, and ever since that camp I had always remembered his name and wondered where he would end up, until I found out in the summer of 2010.

That summer I was interning for Dime Magazine and doing an interview with Harvard coach Tommy Amaker when I was on the Harvard website and I saw Yanni's picture on there and in his profile it mentioned his internship with the Nets. It was ironic that Yanni was at Harvard of all places, because that is my dad's alma mater, and I follow them closely. I reached out to him via email and we connected over the phone before meeting during the NCAA Tournament last season before we played his Harvard team, and I always thought if an opening was available he would be a good fit for our school.

Not only was he a coach at Harvard, but he went to Cornell as an undergrad and worked as a manager there for Steve Donahue, so he was familiar with high level academic institutions and what he was doing at Harvard was pretty remarkable. As the recruiting coordinator, he was responsible for essentially putting together their roster last season getting guys like Wes Saunders (who turned down USC for Harvard) or Kenyatta Smith (who turned down Cal) to enroll in Cambridge at a place with no athletic scholarships or athletic tradition. He was getting guys to turn down high major opportunities to play in the IVY League.

Now he has a chance to sell another elite academic institution in Vanderbilt (though don't mention that to former chancellor Gordon Gee), but with the chance to play in the SEC as well. With his energy, passion for the game, and recruiting prowess, I think Yanni is the perfect fit for our program and that our players, coaches, and fans will all benefit from his presence in Nashville.

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