Dana Ford and his Tennessee State Tigers are learning on the job together.
Ford is the youngest coach in Division I men’s basketball after being hired in April at the age of 29, and he has one of the least experienced teams with only one senior from last season and 12 newcomers.
“It’s a huge mystery,” Ford said. “Being the youngest coach, I’m learning on the job and having the (least) experienced team, they’re learning on the job so we’re all kind of just learning together.
“Our attitudes have been great, the guys have really gotten better … I’ve probably gotten a little bit better as a coach too coming up with different motivation methods and having a better understanding of who I have on my team.”
Ford, now 30, already had a challenge taking over a program that went 5-25 last season.
Tennessee State was the first historically black college to win a national title, winning three NAIA championships between 1957 and 1959. The school has sent the likes of Robert Covington, Truck Robinson, Anthony Mason and Carlos Rogers to the NBA.
But the Tigers have had more coaches than winning seasons the past two decades.
Athletic director Teresa Phillips took a chance in bringing back Ford as head coach after he was an assistant with the Tigers under John Cooper between 2009 and 2011.
Ford, who played at Illinois State, got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant for Gregg Marshall at Winthrop and then Wichita State. He was an assistant coach at Chipola Junior College in Florida before joining Cooper, a former WSU player, at Tennessee State. Ford rejoined Marshall at Wichita State for 2011-12 before going to Illinois State for the past two seasons.
“Obviously having some built-in relationships helped me,” Ford said. “When I was here the first time, we had a tremendous amount of success.”
Knowing his way around certainly helped as Ford went from being introduced April 21 to putting together essentially a brand new team in his first eight weeks.
“You can’t just be on there saying, ‘I’m a new coach at a new school.’ You’ve got to be a little more impressive than that,” Ford said. “I was able to sell what we had done recently. It was still a couple years removed, but it was close enough people could relate. I used that to my advantage and having been here was an added bonus.”
Ford made a quick enough impression to be voted one of Nashville’s most beautiful people by a local magazine this summer.
Only senior Jay Harris has any real Division I experience. Ford also signed six freshmen, four junior college players and two Division I transfers. Of the newcomers, only Christian Crockett had any Division I experience after playing about a minute in two games at Mount Saint Mary’s.
That has left all of the Tigers figuring out how to play with each other and for their new coach. The Tigers are 2-10 and have lost nine straight heading into Saturday’s game at Tennessee, though five of the losses are by single digits. Injuries and fouls forced Ford to finish the last 1:37 of an 84-67 loss at Southern Illinois in November with only four players.
“I tried to warn the official, ‘Hey, I have no more eligible players if a guy fouls out,’ and he thought I was being a smart aleck,” Ford said. “I was just basically telling him I have no more players. So he gave me a warning, and the next possession they called a foul. I said, ‘That’s it. I don’t have any.’ The look on his face said it all.”
Ford has been so busy since being hired he even forgot to take a house key with him on a November trip to Jersey City, New Jersey, for a couple games. Luckily, his wife left a spare waiting for him with a neighbor.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Ford said.