July 1, 2020

Former Princeton Men’s Basketball Coach Scott Excited for 2nd Stint Guiding Air Force Program

RETURN FLIGHT: Joe Scott makes a point to a player during the 2006-07 season in his last campaign as the head coach of the Princeton University men’s basketball team. Scott, a 1987 Princeton alum and former star guard for the Tigers, went on to serve as the head coach at the University of Denver from 2007-16 and then had stints as assistant coach at Holy Cross (2016-18) and the University of Georgia (2018-20), was recently named as the head coach of the Air Force men’s hoops program. It marks his second stint with the Falcons as he coached the Air Force from 2000-04. (Photo by NJ SportAction)

By Justin Feil

Making a return flight, Joe Scott is preparing for his second stint as the Air Force Academy men’s basketball head coach.

It is the Princeton University alum’s first head coaching job since 2016, not that he had ever left the game.

“The main thing how I went through it is I’m a coach,” said Scott, 54, who worked as an assistant coach at Holy Cross (2016-18) and at the University of Georgia (2018-20) during that period.

“I’ve always been a coach and I approached it that way. I kept coaching. I felt that continuing to coach and being around 18-22-year-olds and helping them improve and helping them grow, that was the way to become a head coach again. I’m fortunate. What I’m really glad about is I did it that way. People take time off, but I’m glad I did it that way. I was at two different places, and the last four years I’m going to really use in my time here at Air Force. I learned so much in the last four years.”

Scott has been a head coach for 16 of his 29 years in coaching. The 1987 Princeton graduate played for Pete Carril and then headed to Notre Dame Law School and practiced law for a New Jersey firm, Ribis, Graham, & Carter. Scott found his way back to the basketball court, starting out as an assistant at Monmouth before joining the staff of the legendary Carril and then serving as an assistant to Bill Carmody when Carril retired. In taking the Air Force post, Scott joins other Princeton alumni Chris Mooney (Richmond), Mike Brennan (American), and Mitch Henderson (Princeton) as Division I head coaches. Scott also added former Tigers player and coach Sydney Johnson to his Air Force staff.

“I’m lucky,” said Scott. “I’m lucky I have that friendship with Bill Carmody. You can trace it all back to Princeton. I hired Sydney Johnson. It’s all about who you surround yourself with. How lucky was I to go to Princeton? How lucky was I to run into Pete Carril? How lucky was I that I ran into Bill Carmody? You fast forward and all those things come back for you.”

In building his career, Scott served a year as an assistant at Monmouth in 1991 and then returned to his alma mater Princeton for eight seasons as an assistant coach before Air Force gave him his first head coaching job in 2000. Out in Colorado Springs, he turned around a program that had not produced a winning season in 22 years. Air Force won their only Mountain West regular-season crown under Scott in a 22-7 season in 2004. Scott returns to an Air Force program that posted a 12-20 record in the 2019-20 campaign.

“I think we have some good pieces here,” said Scott. “It’s not 2004. It’s not 2000 anymore and I’m not taking over Air Force in 2000. There are some pieces here. There’s more here now. I think those two things, putting those two things together, I’m hoping we can reenergize it quickly. It’s going to be a process and it’s going to take time. We have to lay the foundation, but I think we have some things that are going to be advantages for us.”

As he returns to take the helm of the Falcons, Scott sees his experiences since leaving Air Force in 2004 as a plus. He returned to be head coach at Princeton for three seasons from 2004-2007, posting a 38-45 record, before heading back out west to Denver, where he took a program that was 4-25 and enjoyed 22-win seasons in 2012 and 2013, going 146-132 in his tenure there. Scott assisted Bill Carmody at Holy Cross for two seasons after leaving Denver, then spent the last two years as Tom Crean’s top assistant at Georgia.

“I learned so much from looking at it from a different perspective, really seeing it from a player’s perspective,” said Scott.

“Taking a step back, and not being a head coach and being an assistant again, I was able to really look at the whole picture through a different lens and really get to know this generation of kid, really see what is college athletics, what does that mean to these kids today. It’s really going to be beneficial in what we do here and how we coach.”

Scott’s familiarity with Air Force is a bonus. The place looks a little different with construction on athletic facilities ongoing, but the feeling at the place is the same and the transition is made easier by their history together.

“For Leah and myself and both our sons, we’re lucky, we’re grateful to be able to come back,” said Scott, whose wife, Leah, played women’s basketball at Princeton, whose oldest son, Ben, will be a freshman at Georgia, and whose youngest son, Jack, just finished his sophomore year at The Hun School. “I think it’s kind of rare in this day and age to be able to go somewhere where you actually know the people.”

Scott returns to a place that holds fond memories for him from 16 years ago. He was able to win there and prove himself, and is ready for a second round of challenges at the service academy.

“The nice part is all institutions, all colleges that stand for education and really believe in education and here it’s even more in terms of developing leaders – similar to Princeton in the nation’s service – these places as things change, their core values stay the same,” said Scott, who posted a 51-63 record in his first stint with the Falcons.

“That’s a nice thing for me to know. You’re coming back here and you know it’s 2020, not 2004, but I know the core values are the same and the missions are the same and I know they match up with who we are and what we believe in. For me and my family, I know it’s the right place and I know it’s the right time, and I feel strongly that we’re the right people.”

Bringing in Johnson as the program’s associate head coach, Scott believes he has added a very good person to his staff. Johnson, who played at Princeton when Scott was an assistant coach, took over Princeton for Scott when he went to Air Force. Johnson then left Princeton to go to Fairfield where he was head coach through 2019. He’s back on the bench after a year in broadcasting.

“Our relationship goes back to when he was an 18-year-old kid and I was a young assistant and coaching him for four years and the success we had and knowing who he is as a person, knowing how he played, knowing what he’s done professionally as a coach,” said Scott.

“He’s going to bring so much to what we do here. It’s just that comfort level in knowing we believe in the same things. We believe in how we’re going to go about it. For me to have him is just going to be extremely beneficial to me personally and he’ll be unbelievably positive for our players as we build the program.”

The pair will work together to share their knowledge that was spawned at Princeton and developed into their respective coaching philosophies. They bring optimism that their style of play will win again at Air Force.

“People say the game has changed and it has,” said Scott. “The shot clock is at 30. When I was at Denver I made changes. We were really, really good at Denver when we won the WAC. We made changes. As you make changes, the foundation of it all comes from Coach Carril, and it comes from having played there. When you know the genesis of something, then you can make changes to it. You know every little detail of where it comes from and how to implement it and how to coach it. That really enables you to make changes. We’ll play the same way but we’ll play differently, if that makes sense. We will play fast. It’ll be what playing fast means for us – player movement, ball movement, sharing that, and you have to do it transition wise. I learned how to teach what we do from transition.”

In Scott’s view, excelling at the defensive end as much as being good offensively will be crucial to success. Having less time to shoot has affected how teams have to play to win.

“The real change is you can’t really control the game anymore with your offense,” explained Scott.

“What you can control offensively is your efficiency. You can control how good you are at what you do, you can control how good you are at your execution at whatever you do offensively. But you can’t control the game because of the shot clock. What you have to control offensively is your precision, how good you are at it, and how good your team is at it. I know you can still control the game defensively. Oftentimes people say ‘Princeton offense,’ but forget that we were great on defense and we’ve always been.”

Scott’s Princeton teams were second in the nation in fewest points allowed twice and led the nation once. He also had strong defensive teams at Air Force and Denver, with the Pioneers sixth in scoring defense in 2013 when they advanced to the NIT.

Chomping at the bit to get started with his new team, the coronavirus pandemic has made the beginning of Scott’s return a little unusual.

“Here, as we take over under these circumstances, this is the first time I’ll have ever had access to our guys because they don’t have their summer programs,” said Scott.

“Because we weren’t able to do anything in the spring with them, whatever it is we’re going to get some access to them in July. I think it’ll help because I’ll get to coach them. It’ll give us about a month to get to know each other on the court, instead of in Zooms. It’s more getting our guys to understand it’s going to be about them, how important is it to them, how much do they care.”

Looking forward to laying the groundwork for rebuilding the program, Scott will draw on his final campaign at Air Force when he led the Falcons to the NCAA
tournament. That memorable run has the school and him excited for his return.

“We’re lucky to be coming back to a place where we know the people and they know us,” said Scott.

“Knowing each other comes from our shared experiences and shared success. It just makes this situation better. I can really enjoy it. You would enjoy it no matter what, you would be excited no matter what. But it just feels good to be back here in a place where there’s such a comfort level and to be taking over a program and know the place, and know the people, and know how the place operates. It goes a long way in being able to build a program.”