Wittenberg graduate takes over Denison program in challenging time

Chris Sullivan is a head coach for the first time

Chris Sullivan would have traveled to the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention last week in Atlanta. It would have been a special time, not only because he would have been attending for the first time as a head coach but also because it would have given him an opportunity to see his brothers.

Sullivan, a 2011 Wittenberg University graduate, took over the head coaching job at Denison University in March after nine seasons on Bob Ghiloni’s staff. Coaching runs in the family. Sullivan, the oldest of three brothers, has one brother, Kevin, who’s the lead assistant at Emory University, and another brother, Brian, who’s on the staff at Davidson.

The coronavirus pandemic cancelled that reunion and forced Sullivan take his first steps as a head coach in an unprecedented time.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Sullivan said. “It was Tuesday the 10th when the announcement (of his hire) was made, and we told the team, and by Friday the 13th, we got news that our guys were very likely not returning for the rest of the semester after spring break. So it all happened really quickly, and it’s crazy to be taking over right now. We’re just fighting through it like everybody else. We’ve had a handful of team meetings on Zoom, and we’re starting to get into some individual meetings and small group stuff and coordinating just to stay in touch and continue to grow despite a lot of restrictions and circumstances we’re under now.”

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Sullivan, a graduate of Upper Arlington High School, played for Wittenberg from 2008-11 and remains the program’s all-time leader in 3-pointers (241). He has stayed in touch with his former coach, Bill Brown, who congratulated him after getting the Denison job.

Sullivan learned a lot from Brown during his Wittenberg career. He started taking more notice of how Brown coached during the last month of his junior year when he was able to play in games but not practice because of a stress fracture in his back. Brown and assistant coach Travis Schwab asked Sullivan to help with scouting reports, film sessions and other things.

“Really the only way I could be a productive member of the team at least on a day-to-day basis in practice,” Sullivan said, “was to get closer with coach Brown and coach Schwab, and they helped me.”

Sullivan also learned a valuable lesson during his time at Wittenberg about dealing with ups and downs and building a winner. Wittenberg finished 13-13 in his first season, its first non-winning season since 1967-68. The Tigers finished 21-7 a year later and returned to the NCAA tournament in Sullivan’s senior season with a 20-9 mark.

“Just going through that process of taking that .500 team back to the NCAA tournament is something I tap into often in building and rebuilding at Denison,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan started his coaching career at Denison not long after graduating from Wittenberg. Denison won the NCAC tournament in 2016, advancing to the NCAA Division III tournament for the second time in school history. In 2017, Denison set a school record with 22 victories.

Ghiloni, a two-time NCAC Coach of the Year, spent 18 years at Denison and half of those with Sullivan on the staff.

“I’ve been around some really good coaches — from Bill Brown to Tim Casey, who coached me in school, who are just great with Xs and Os and game prep and scouting,” Sullivan said. “But what Bob does head shoulders better than any coach I’ve been around is he coaches the person and the team as a collection of individuals. He’s so good at communicating the message that’s going to kind of glue us together and motivate us and that just makes it more about anything we can do on the floor and anything that will show up in the win column.”

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Young coaches move around often. Sullivan is the rare example of someone who stayed put at his first job.

“I just felt like I was being challenged every day by (Ghiloni) and the program and the school and the guys,” he said. “I was given more and more responsibility both within our program and outside our program. I always hoped that I could take over this job, and I think I just believed in the potential of the school and then our program within it.”

Sullivan moves into the NCAC head coaching ranks just as another Wittenberg graduate, Wooster’s Steve Moore leaves. Moore retired after this past season, recording the last win of his career in the NCAC tournament by beating his alma mater in Springfield.

Sullivan was asked if his goal was to take over Moore’s role as the Wittenberg grad who proves to be a thorn in the side of his alma mater.

“You know if I’m compared to Steve Moore at any point in my career, I’ll be happy,” he said with a laugh.

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