Puck Swami: Billups Hire Bigger Than Winning Basketball

DU Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation Peg Bradley-Doppes (left) has hired Rodney Billups (right) as DU’s new head men’s basketball coach. Photo credit: University of Denver Athletics

As the University of Denver introduced former Pioneer point guard Rodney Billups as its new head basketball coach this week, there were a lot of happy faces in the Ritchie Center for the press conference.

And why not? Billups, the 33-year old, well-qualified, six-year assistant coach for the University of Colorado Buffaloes, had “come home” to Magness Arena.

Billups had played point guard for the Pioneers, graduating from DU in 2005, the year he helped lead DU to a Sun Belt West Division Title and an NIT berth, the program’s first postseason appearance in 46 years. On the podium, as the cameras from eight TV stations/networks rolled, Billups beamed with DU pride, and the people in the room — his family, friends, colleagues, his new team and employers, beamed back at him.

This coaching change is far more than just a new name on the office door, or the excitement of hiring the first Pioneer alumnus to coach the team in nearly 40 years since alumnus Bill Weimar coached one season at DU in 1977-1978.

Billups is going to change the entire style of Denver basketball from the deliberate, old-school Princeton system of former coach Joe Scott, to fast-paced basketball that should be more exciting for some fans, certainly more attractive to recruits and will force opponents to run hard at altitude. It is hoped he will also bring conference titles and a future NCAA basketball tournament berth — the biggest fish that has eluded this university and the principal reason why coach Joe Scott lost his nine-year career at DU last Friday.

But if you go beneath the surface and probe a little deeper, this hire was more strategic than all of those things.

Wait, what? Bigger than winning basketball?


Let me explain.

In short, Billups puts a key face on the ‘new DU’.

This hire helps to personify the university that DU wants to be, as it changes under a new university strategy ‘pioneered’ by DU Chancellor Rebecca Chopp. If you’ve read Impact 2025 – DU’s new strategic plan (and if you haven’t read it, you should), you know that DU wants deeply to become more integrated into the City of Denver and to play a bigger role in the fabric of the larger Denver community.

Hiring Billups, a George Washington High School grad and part of the “royal” family of Denver basketball (his brother Chauncey was a Park Hill neighborhood, University of Colorado and NBA legend) gives DU instant local credibility and certainly puts more “Denver” back into the University of Denver hoops brand locally. The Billups name will be seen as a catalyst to drawing more Denver residents to come to DU games. The hire also shows the city that DU cares about our own and rewards them for doing well, not just importing talent from some other place.

Peg Bradley-Doppes, DU’s Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation, understands strategy as well as anyone at DU. Peg knows how to use her coaching hires for greater purposes than just athletic success — her hires not only express DU’s larger university strategy, but help to define it.

For example, when she hired legendary Hall of Fame coach Bill Tierney to come to Denver to upgrade the Denver lacrosse program in 2009, most people thought it was to win NCAA championships and grow the game of lacrosse in the West. And while those were certainly important objectives, they were merely pawns in Peg’s larger chess game. The bigger strategic reason to hire Tierney was to grow DU’s East Coast visibility. Lacrosse is played and watched primarily by the influential East Coast elite, and that’s a crucial DU audience to attract future funding, new applicants/students, key media coverage and reputation gains.

As a private university that is seen with (and beating) DU’s aspirational peer private schools like Georgetown, Dartmouth and Notre Dame, DU’s brand name has been substantially enhanced in the corridors of US power. DU’s lacrosse success has paid big dividends in drawing interest and brand awareness for DU back east and it’s now worth far more to the university than the program costs.

Peg also sees DU hoops through a strategic, university-centric lens. At one level, she knows that a strong men’s hoops RPI metric is a key part of DU’s needed toolkit to potentially upgrade and elevate DU’s conference affiliation in the future for most sports. Helping get DU to a better conference affiliation could generate more athletic excitement and academic reputation alignment than the Summit League, which is comprised largely of public universities that have little in common with DU. But that’s only part of the end game.

Indeed, Division I college basketball is DU’s only truly mainstream, big time national sport and presents different strategic opportunities. Sure hockey, lacrosse and skiing are big in their geographic and socio-economic niches, but basketball has true national visibility and revenue potential. Deeper than that, basketball enables bridge-building to the greater community in ways that our niche sports just can’t quite reach.

For us in Denver, hoops represents a critical access and engagement gateway to welcome the local community onto our campus and let them feel that University of Denver is not just a closed ivory tower for the rich, but an active, open and integral part of the vibrant Denver city and community. Hoops can help DU become a place the greater community takes pride in, rather than a place they might fear, disdain or think is not for them.

When the University says it is dedicated to the public good as a primary mission, it sure helps to open some doors, build some bridges and bring our community closer together to make that mission come to life. This hire helps DU to do just that, and it’s something we can all get behind as Rodney Billups shows us the way…

Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically with LetsGoDU.