[Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity]
In late May, Vassar Athletic Director Michelle Walsh announced the hiring of a new Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Ryan Mee, to fill the spot vacated in April by B.J. Dunne, who left Vassar for Gettysburg College. Mee had been working as an assistant under well-known coach Bob McKillop at Division I Davidson College since 2012. Prior to his role at Davidson, Mee was an associate head coach at the University of Rochester (where he also played from 2001-2005). Before returning to Rochester, Mee made assistant coaching stops at Hilbert College, Elmira College and Skidmore College. The Miscellany News recently had the chance to sit down with Mee and learn more about his professional past, his coaching philosophy and his goals for the program.
The Miscellany News: When did you start coaching and what made you want to get into it?
Coach Mee: I grew up in a coaching family—so my dad was my high school baseball and basketball coach at the varsity level. I thought I was going get away from that; I went to the University of Rochester, I was an economics major, tried life in real-world business and corporate things, and it wasn’t for me. I just wasn’t happy, so I got back and was volunteering at Hilbert College, and my next goal was to find somebody to pay for my masters and to get a graduate assistant position. I did that at Elmira College. I had two really good years there where I had every responsibility that you could imagine, and really developed the work ethic necessary for coaching. From there I went to Skidmore, and at Skidmore had a really great experience with a really young team … But I would say the first glimpse of coaching I got was my senior year in college, because I tore my ACL in the fall. I was functional enough to play, so I played my senior year on a torn ACL, but I wasn’t able to play to the level that I was capable of, and I was mentoring the younger kids on the team. So that’s where I was like, “Hey, I get enjoyment out of this, it’s better for the team,” and we ended up losing in the national championship game. That experience was like, “I think I’m gonna do this,” even though I wanted to be different from my family and not depend on the craziness of college athletics.
The Misc: What led you to Vassar?
Mee: The past six years being at Davidson College, I was exposed to the possibility of having both elite academics and competing at the national stage. When you’re looking at different schools—Division III is the largest division in all the NCAA—you have to have a niche…I love dealing with student-athletes who can have conversations outside of basketball. I think that really helps us build up the trust and shows that I care about them and am committed to being our best. But the opportunity here—the proximity to [New York City], the elite academic status, the beautiful campus, the league—there’s an opportunity where we’re recruiting against kids that aren’t looking at other schools in the league, so we can fish in different ponds. The name of the game is to of course graduate and have a great experience, but my goal is to get to the NCAA tournament with this team, and when you’re not recruiting against other teams in your league all the time there’s opportunity for that. So those were the biggest draws.
The Misc: How familiar are you with the Liberty League, and how do you view the competition in it?
Mee: It’s continuing to get stronger. Everyone in the league I either was recruited by, played against or coached against. So my familiarity with all the head coaches in the league, the schools, is very good. It’s been a few years since I’ve done that, but I coached at Skidmore, my assistant Dan Bozzelli has coached at RIT and Ithaca, I was teammates with the Hobart coach, and played against the Union coach. And they’re good friends of mine, but we all have those competitive juices.
The Misc: How long have you been on campus, and how has this initial period been? What have been your initial impressions of the team and your general reaction so far?
Mee: I moved up to campus on Aug. 3. So it was a tough commute from Charlotte to Vassar during the summer months, but … we were able to get settled in the beginning of August, and the transition since we got here has been great. The faculty, the students, the community, it’s been really fun to just wander around Poughkeepsie. I didn’t know how nice the Hudson Valley area was prior; I’ve lived in different spots in New York…but the city of Poughkeepsie is a special place. Going over the walkway and seeing the Hudson river and the ships—it’s serene. So that’s been a great adjustment. I’m excited moving forward; when it’s as beautiful as you anticipated that’s usually a good sign.
The Misc: This is a Vassar program that, after some success, has had four straight losing seasons. How do you see that turnaround happening? Do you view it as an opportunity to rebuild? What’s the timeline?
Mee: Coach [B.J.] Dunne did a great job at getting guys here that are fighters. And if you look at last season, it tells me a lot about the character and makeup of this team…they played a brutal non-conference schedule, they only went into conference with one win. And then they finished the conference schedule 8-10 and were able to make the Liberty League tournament. So that says a lot about this team, dealing with adversity and fighting through. I think we have a good group of seniors that have been through the wringer, and they’re setting a good example for the younger guys as far as what needs to happen to make sure we can compete at a high level. So, the goal now is just to get everybody dancing to my music. So it’s gonna be a little bit different, but we have to do it together and we have some “Mee’s expectations” laid out there within our locker room, which give them a guiding light as to what we need to be doing every day.
The Misc: What do you see as the identity of the program going forward that you want to shape?
Mee: The identity that we’ll have—I’ve shared it from Coach McKillop, with Lou Holtz—but [it’s about] this trust, commitment and care. You’ll see a lot of this “TCC” around our locker room, our jersey, our program, and our guys will be living this code. You have to just trust yourself, trust your teammates, your coaches, your professors, your family, you have to be committed to doing your best, in anything—it’s on the court [and] off the court. If you commit to that, and then you care about those that are around you, and you show you are, that’s when you can make amazing things happen. So that’s our foundation.
Then we have to just worry about things that we can control, and something that I’ve told our guys: see if we can get a little bit better; make sure we can make every play count; if you have a paper, do the best at that paper, don’t take it off, don’t take that possession off because that might come back to haunt us later in the game. And we want to play to win. Our guys are investing a ton of time. You know, they’re lifting weights, they’re conditioning, they’re stretching, now we’re getting to practice. If we’re gonna invest that much time, you might as well be playing to win, and having our focus be that. And making sure we’re having fun doing it, and there’s no scholarships here. So if you don’t love it, there’s a lot of different opportunities Vassar can provide, but we want to find those guys where it means something, and they’re going to trust, commit to and care for this program as much as our staff will and this athletic department will.
The Misc: In terms of X’s and O’s, what style of play do you hope to install?
Mee: I would like to get up and down. As a person, as a player, when you’re at a high academic institution you have a lot of bright kids, and we want to use that IQ to use principles over plays. So we don’t want to run a ton of sets.I want to teach our guys how to play in the flow, because when you’re teaching the principles—the other coach—it’s very hard to scout, and they don’t know exactly what we’re gonna do. So teaching our guys the game, with four out and one in, and continuing to just have that motion offense is going to be great. If we can do it with a little bit of pace and get up and down the court, I think that’ll make us hard to defend. Defensively, we’re trying to get stops and play a little bit more of a packline defense, because we don’t have the greatest foot speed, but we need to be in good position.
The Misc: What do you see as your team goals for the season?
Mee: Those daily objectives that I referred to earlier, that’s what we need to focus on, because if you add a little to a little we’ll end up getting a lot, and the rest of it will take care of itself. So to have those smaller goals, we keep building on that, but the greater goal [is that] we need to make the NCAA tournament as a program and be able to compete on a national stage, because that’s how good of an institution this is; the facilities, the campus—those are our goals, and I’m finding guys on the recruiting trail that see that vision, and we’re going to strive for that.
The Misc: The last coach used to play intramural basketball with us. Things used to get heated—I hit a three in his face after he was talking smack. Will you be playing intramurals with the coaches’ team?
Mee: When possible I will, but I do have a couple of little kids. I have a six-month old girl and three-year old boy and a wife at home, so when I can—when they’re in bed I’m coming out to play, and I will talk a little smack, but I will pat you on the butt if you hit that shot in my face, and I’ll try to do it back to you.