Boyhood friends trying to help make Tennessee basketball relevant again

Before Rob Lanier knew he would rejoin his former boss at Texas, Rick Barnes, to help stabilize the reeling basketball program Tennessee, he had a suggestion: Hire Desmond Oliver.

There are casual friends, good friends, close friends and best friends. And then there’s the relationship Lanier and Oliver have maintained for 34 years, all the way back to the days the two grew up a couple of doors apart on Donovan Street in the rugged Buffalo, N.Y. housing project, Ferry Grider Homes. Perhaps that street name was a harbinger of things to come for Lanier, who would eventually work for a future hall of fame basketball coach at Florida. The game was Lanier’s ticket out of the project, and by extension, or example, he took Oliver with him.

After so many years and basketball odysseys that have taken them around the country, Lanier and Oliver have reunited at Tennessee, uniquely qualified, by experiences in life and on the court, to help Barnes make the program relevant again.

“We’ve taken some of the same things we learned in our neighborhood and we’ve brought it to our jobs,” Oliver said. “A lot of the kids we coach in college come from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds. I think it’s good to be able to bring stories—survival stories, advancement stories, development stories. To show kids we made it out. We got our master’s degrees and [found a lifelong profession], all through basketball. Basketball paved the way, from day one.”

Lanier can’t actually remember day one, the first time he met Oliver, who was a couple of years younger, and, apparently, kind of a pest.

“In general, the circle of friends I had was an older group,” Lanier said. “My best friend at the time was a guy by the name of Gordon German. Des use to tag along with us, and sometimes, we tried to ditch him. But he was persistent.”

Oliver doesn’t know what his life might be like now if he hadn’t stuck close to Lanier.

“He was the first one that got me into ball,” Oliver said. “He played as a youth, and he got pretty good. Our neighborhood was a little bit of a challenged neighborhood, it was an urban neighborhood; it had some issues going on. It was good to get away from those issues playing ball.

“Rob, at a young age, had figured out that ball was a way out. It kept him and us busy. I jumped right in, started playing ball with him, and our friendship has been evolving ever since.”

That’s been a bit of a challenge, given the fact both men have been so well traveled. Lanier played at St. Bonaventure, and as soon as his playing days ended, he began coaching at the Division I level, first at Niagara as a graduate assistant, then his alma mater and Rutgers before his first tour of duty with Barnes at Texas. A three-year stay with Barnes earned Lanier the head-coaching job at Siena. After four years and a couple of postseason tournament berths, Lanier was on the move again, to Virginia as an assistant, joining Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida, and then, in 2011, back to Barnes and Texas.

Oliver played at Dominican College and also started his coaching career at Niagara. In order, he then worked for Texas A&M, Cornell, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Georgia, Canisius and Charlotte before the phone call he’d always dreamed of receiving.

“For years, I’ve always talked about a perfect world in coaching would be having a chance to go to an elite-level conference and program, which Tennessee is, work for an elite-level head coach, which coach Barnes is, and to have a chance to compete for a national championship with Rob,” Oliver said.

Lanier and Oliver served as best man at each other’s weddings. Lanier’s children call Oliver “Uncle Des,” and Oliver’s kids call Lanier’s “Uncle Rob.” Their wives are close. But Lanier wouldn’t have made the call to Oliver, who was looking for a job after Charlotte parted ways with John Major in March, if he didn’t think his old friend was the right fit.

“Des and I have just built a connection,” Lanier said. “But there’s no compromise. It’s not like I got him here so I could hang with my boy. Otherwise he’d have been at Texas or Florida by now. The reality is I know he’s good. I’ve actually gone to Charlotte and watched them practice and seen them on the floor.

“A lot of people have relationships with fellow coaches, but don’t know what kind of work they do. But I know how good the guy is. I was confident in the recommendation. I’m too loyal to coach Barnes to try to hook my boy up. I would never do that to coach. I knew if I’d stayed at Texas, that I was taking care of coach my connecting him with Des.”

Throw in Chris Ogden, who played for Barnes at Texas and later joined his staff, and Tennessee’s new assistants have 58 years combined coaching Division I basketball. That’s by far the most experienced staff that’s been at Tennessee, since at least the days of Don Devoe.

Lanier recommended Oliver because the latter has built a connection recruiting the South, where Tennessee has to be competitive.

“It’s just like with your team,” Lanier said. “You have to understand what you need and go out and fill those voids. I thought we needed things that Des brought to the table. He’s so familiar recruiting this region; he’s going to have an opportunity to have an impact. I knew he’d make an impact in the office, because of how hard he works. I knew he’d impact the rebuilding in a very positive way.”

Having coached at Georgia, Oliver is well aware of the talent level required to win consistently at the power conference level. Oliver was around during the days of Tennessee’s Chris Lofton, who made a career of beating Georgia, usually with second-half barrages of 3-pointers.

“Lofton was a great player,” Oliver said. “We’ve got to find some more guys like him.”

Lanier thinks the new staff can do that. Oliver was an important piece.

“We’re here because things didn’t work out at Texas,” Lanier said. “We’ve got to take a look at ourselves and see how we can get better. I felt like Des would make us better. That’s already been proven.”

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