It’s been 15 years since Ron Jirsa last stood on the sidelines at UD Arena, but the memories are flooding back this week.
A former Dayton Flyers assistant on Oliver Purnell’s staff in the early 2000s, Jirsa is back for the First Four after helping coach Radford to its third NCAA tournament appearance and first since 2009. Jirsa joined Mike Jones’ staff in 2015 and works mainly with the post players.
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The Big South champion Highlanders (22-12) meet LIU Brooklyn (18-16) in the First Four opener Tuesday at UD Arena.
“We had great years here,” Jirsa said shortly after arriving at the arena Monday ahead of a 40-minute practice session. “Great memories, a lot of close friends that still live here, and this is where my (now 17-year-old) daughter was born, here at Miami (Valley) Hospital. We lived right over on Plumwood Road. It’s just a lot of memories.
“Mostly what stands out is the friendships that I made, the guys I worked with I’ve always stayed in touch with from Oliver Purnell to (former assistant and current UD Director of Athletic Development) Josh Postorino, who is still here, and Frank Smith, who works with the NCAA now, and (former Director of Basketball Operations and current Texas coach) Shaka Smart had a tremendous career, (Liberty assistant coach) Kyle Getter had a tremendous career. And, I’ve kept in touch with some of the players that were so important to our success and our friends that still live here, anytime I’m back for high school basketball, I always try to get in touch with them. There are a lot of people to say, ‘Hi,’ to, so hopefully I bump into some of them.”
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It didn’t take long for some of the long-time Flyers fans watching practice to recognize Jirsa. After the Highlanders’ session ended, Jirsa was called over to a small crowd behind the baseline.
He took a few minutes as his team exited the court to greet at least one familiar face and a few others who gathered around him.
“You were on Purnell’s staff, right?” one fan in UD attire asked. “Remember his bulldog?”
Jirsa came to UD in 1999 after he was let go as head coach at Georgia, where he went 35-30 in two seasons.
During his four years with the Flyers, UD posted an 88-39 overall record, made two NCAA tournament appearances and two NIT trips. His final season in 2002-03, the Flyers went 24-6 and won the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship and advanced to the Big Dance as a fourth seed.
“I started talking to Purnell, and once I got to visit here, I really wanted to be here and I really started recruiting him,” Jirsa said. “He took me on his staff here, mainly because I was a little older at the time than some of the other guys on his staff, and I really enjoyed working with them and I felt I helped contribute. We did well during that time period, and the year we left, we won the Atlantic 10 conference championship here and that was by far was the most special.”
Jirsa left to stay with Purnell when he took the Clemson job, but two months in, Jirsa got a head coaching job of his own at Marshall. He spent four years there and has since been an assistant Bethel (Minn.), Tennessee Tech and now Radford.
He brings 30 years of coaching experience and seems well-respected by his players.
“He has his moments where he jokes, but he takes everything serious and he works well with the big men,” senior forward Ed Polite said. “He makes sure we know the fundamentals so we’ve always got to be top-notch with coach Jirsa.”
Now, Jirsa is hoping his Dayton connection helps the local crowd rally around the Highlanders, who were a surprise to make it this far after being picked seventh in the league during the preseason. He looks forward to coaching in front of some Flyer faithfuls again.
“I know what a special place UD Arena is, and I’ve seen the First Four on television, so I’m sure it will be at its finest,” Jirsa said. “It’s not like it’s a home game for the Dayton Flyers, but it will still be great. … Hopefully some of the fans will be for us, and maybe some of those fans that aren’t Radford fans but are rooting for someone else will come over with us for a while.”