Over the course of a 27-year career as a high school basketball coach, recently retired Pete Smith was approached often by young coaches looking to break into the business. He met with one at The Bulldog (now Moe & Johnny’s) in April of 2000.
The young coach had served as a volunteer assistant at Carmel for Smith during the 1999-2000 season. Because of his day job at Eli Lilly as a marketing associate, Brad Stevens’ role was limited to compiling scouting reports and pitching in at late-night practices and games.
After less than a year in the corporate world, the DePauw graduate confided in Smith that he wanted to give coaching a shot. Smith knew from reading Stevens’ meticulous scouting reports that he had the mind for coaching. His college sweetheart and soon-to-be wife, Tracy Wilhelmy, supported his decision to jump head-first into basketball as a career.
Smith helped Stevens connect with Thad Matta, who had been promoted to head coach at Butler right about the same time as that meeting at The Bulldog. Matta offered Stevens an opportunity as a volunteer assistant. Before the season, he was promoted to director of basketball operations when the position opened unexpectedly.
“He was full-steam ahead,” Smith said. “Coaching was what he wanted to do.”
The rest is history. Stevens got his foot in the door and worked his way up the ladder, taking Butler to back-to-back national championship games in 2010 and ’11. The 41-year-old is now recognized as one of the top minds in the NBA, going into his sixth season with the Boston Celtics.
Smith laughs. Fast-forward 17 years from that meeting at The Bulldog to another meeting with a prospective coach in his early 20s. Another Zionsville graduate with a corporate job at Eli Lilly. Another bright young basketball mind with a supportive fiancé looking to follow his dream. The only difference was this meeting was for breakfast at Another Broken Egg Café on North Meridian.
“It was almost like déjà vu,” Smith said. “I definitely snickered about the similarities.”
‘So many coincidences’
First things first: Jay Townsend understands the comparisons to Stevens’ story. He can appreciate the similarities. Both graduated from Zionsville. Both held jobs at Eli Lilly. In Townsend’s view, that is as far as it goes.
“Just about every meeting I have, it comes up,” said Townsend, a graduate assistant at Northwestern. “I tell them I didn’t do it because of Brad Stevens. But there are so many coincidences. We are from the same town and worked for the same company. He’s a great person to get mentioned with, though. I look up to him. Not only a from a basketball coach standpoint, but everything he is about from a family perspective and balancing his life.”
Townsend, 26, grew up in a basketball-loving family. More to the point, a Purdue-loving basketball family. “Die-hard Gene Keady and Matt Painter fans,” Townsend said of his family and extended family. He played basketball in high school and was an all-conference defender on Zionsville’s state championship soccer team as a senior in the fall of 2009.
“Sports have always been kind of the thing to get me going in the morning,” he said.
But as a profession? That did not occur to Townsend until later. After graduating from Zionsville in 2010, he pursued his degree at Indiana University in the Kelley School of Business. In the summer of 2013, Townsend interned at J.P. Morgan in New York.
After graduating from IU in 2014, Townsend took a job at Eli Lilly as a senior financial analyst for research and development. He was making great money in his early 20s. He liked his job. He enjoyed his co-workers. But something … something was missing.
“I was too young not to love my job,” Townsend said. “I started thinking about things in a little bit longer terms. I talked to my fiancé I have been with since high school and looked into some other business opportunities outside of Indy. It was kind of the same thing. I was not that excited.”
In the back of his mind, Townsend knew his real passion was basketball. In his job at Lilly, he had worked on financial analytics. Maybe there was a job out there for him in basketball where his background would be appealing. He sat down with his fiancé, Elise Madrick, and the two discussed the positives and negatives of pursuing a coaching job.
Townsend decided he would go for it.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have Elise’s support,” he said. “I think she probably saw that my job had zapped some of the energy out of me. She knew how much I loved the game of basketball and working with kids. We talked about how it would be difficult financially and moving around geographically. But we decided to view it as an adventure.”
In May 2017, Townsend quit his job at Lilly and started networking.
“The first week when I left, I tried to make at least five to ten calls a day,” he said. “I went through my contact list from middle school coaches to high school coaches, friends playing overseas or guys I had met at IU. The thing about basketball is that everybody knows everybody. I worked on a little elevator pitch and went from there.”
One of his early contacts was with Andrew Laird, his former junior varsity basketball coach at Zionsville. Laird had played at Penn for Smith, which led to the breakfast meeting.
“I had a good feel for Jay right away,” Smith said. “He has reserved passion. He’s not overwhelming or going to wear you down, but he takes everything in. He had great ideas about using statistics in basketball and his philosophy in coaching.”
The meeting with Smith led to another meeting. In the spring of 2017, Scott Heady had left his position at Carmel for his first college coaching job at Marian University. Townsend had exchanged extended emails with Drew Cannon, who was hired by Stevens at Butler in 2012 as a statistical analyst (and went with Stevens to the Celtics). Heady was intrigued with Townsend’s ideas and energy.
In June, Townsend was hired as Marian’s director of basketball operations.
“Very little money,” Townsend said with a laugh. “Not something you could survive on. But I knew that going into it. You are going to have to pay your dues.”
But it was a foot in the door.
An opportunity and a connection
Townsend’s networking did not end after he was hired at Marian. The opposite, in fact.
“There were days I told him not to come in at all and go visit other places,” Heady said.
Townsend took advantage. In the summer of 2017, Purdue was allowed extra practices in preparation for its appearance in the World University Games in August. Painter and the Purdue staff gaveTownsend access to the practices.
“I was up there three or four days a week for a while,” Townsend said. “They looked out for me like one of their own.”
He made trips to Indiana, Northwestern and Vanderbilt. “Basically any time I had a day off and could find an Indiana connection,” he said.
The connection at Purdue nearly yielded him a full-time job when the program hired its first statistical analyst in September. He was in the final two for the job, which went to Andrew McClatchey. But the experience at Marian served him well. His job responsibilities varied, depending on what Heady needed.
“He said he needed my help from the operations side,” Townsend said. “Like making sure team travel is running smoothly, to other odds and ends that pop up. It was kind of learning experience for both of us.”
Heady said Townsend was an invaluable part of the staff. In turn, Townsend received a first-hand look behind the curtain of a college program.
“In the media, a lot of times you see college coaches as tough and just wanting to win games,” he said. “I saw the human side of running a program from coach Heady. He’s tough on the court and practices can be grueling but he is like a second father to kids on the Marian team. You see former players come in and stay in touch. You see how selfless he is with his time. I feel lucky now to be one of his people. That means the world to me.”
Heady knew he would not have Townsend for long. Through another connection with Smith, Townsend contacted Northwestern assistant Brian James. In June, he was hired as a graduate assistant at Northwestern.
Is Townsend “The Next Brad Stevens”? There a lot of those out there. But there might not be another that has as many similarities in background and trajectory. Townsend has not met Stevens. Smith is hoping to help connect the two in August.
“One of my summer goals is to connect with him,” Townsend said. “We have some mutual friends. But I wanted to make sure I had my feet planted and some meat and substance to talk about if I ever did get that chance.”
Townsend is keeping an open mind about his future. He loves the coaching aspect but could also pursue the analytic side or a front-office role.
“To be honest, I’m still kind of figuring it out,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities to be around the game. It would be kind of crazy to predict a job I would want in such a fluid industry.”
The adventure has begun, in more ways than one. Townsend and Madrick will marry on Sept. 8. He has never doubted he made the right decision to pursue his basketball dream.
“I have had no regrets,” he said. “My advice is to bet on yourself. If you have faith and believe in yourself, things will work out.”