Georgia State hoops: There’s a tough act to follow, but Lanier’s game

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Fully re-creating the Ron Hunter Experience at Georgia State may require more of the Panthers new basketball coach Rob Lanier than he or his family are prepared to give.

Hunter gained national notice for himself and the Georgia State program in 2015 when, while celebrating a Sun Belt Conference tournament championship, he tore his Achilles. Then, when his son, R.J., made a winning 3-point shot against Baylor in the NCAA first round, the image that will live for as long as there are brackets was of a gobsmacked coach in a cast being knocked off his rolling stool by the shot’s shock wave.

Lanier does have a basketball-playing son, Emory, now a senior at Woodward Academy. But he’s committed to Davidson. Dad’s an advocate of letting his kids make some of the big calls.

And he’d rather not have to sacrifice a major tendon for the sake of public relations. But he is 51 and, as he said, smiling, “The Achilles thing is a real possibility. I could do that walking down the stairs.”

No, Lanier will attack his new position in his own way. He has conferred a handful of times with Hunter – who moved to Tulane after a fruitful eight seasons inside the Panthers’ walk-up gym – just to learn some of the eccentricities of this most urban campus. But in style and substance, there is a change coming to Georgia State basketball as it embarks on its 2019-20 itinerary. (And check out this eight-day junket in early November: Games at the College of Charleston, Duke and Georgetown).

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

His players see the new coach, a New York guy who played at St. Bonaventure, where much larger cousin, Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, also played, as, “An up-north guy, very aggressive, very get-after-it.” (Senior guard Damon Wilson).

They think he’s less likely than his predecessor to fall off any stools in the near future: “They both have that competitive fire, Rob is just a little cooler. Ron was on edge, he had all the antics and stuff.” (Junior guard Kane Williams).

The Lanier team will rely more heavily on man-to-man pressing defense than did the zone-heavy Hunter squads. It will be seeking its own identity, having lost close to 70 percent of its scoring, minutes played and rebounding from last season.

Oh, and there’s this: “We still want to get guys who can shoot,” Lanier said. “Ron and his staff did a great job of making that a focus of the program. I like guys who when they shoot it, it goes in.” Yes, always a plus.

Because of the groundwork done by Hunter, this job comes with certain expectations now. If you polled the man or woman on the street as to which college program in the state has been to the NCAA tournament the most recently, who would guess Georgia State? “They better know their facts because it has been us,” Wilson said. Three times in five years, to be exact, as opposed to once for Georgia and zip for everyone else.

These were the kind of factoids that Lanier needed to learn about GSU when first approached about the job. Everything was new to the Tennessee assistant when he first took a low-expectation interview in Atlanta last spring.

“When I interviewed for the job, I didn’t really have that open of a mind,” Lanier said. “I thought I’d stay at Tennessee. My son was going to be a senior, my daughter (Kai) was going to be a junior. I’ve always told them it was going to take something really special to move me. I didn’t anticipate that this would be that.

“But when I sat down with (GSU President) Mark Becker and (Athletic Director) Charlie Cobb, things changed quickly. I really believed in them, and they reciprocated that for me. I went from having a curious interest to realizing there was the potential for something really special to happen here, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

The decision to take the job “came with some turbulence” for the father of two children very rooted in Knoxville.

“They would have preferred to finish high school where they started because we’ve moved often,” he said. “Part of the reason I didn’t think I’d move is because of that. This situation was so good that I had to have some real tough, emotional experiences with my children. I felt that this was worth it.”

Since his last head coaching job – from 2001-05 at Siena – Lanier has been an assistant at some of the real blue-blood programs. Virginia. Florida. Texas. Tennessee. There was a vision outlined by the GSU president and athletic director that lured him to the modest Sun Belt Conference.

“They really want to build a special program that’s consistent with the direction the university is going. And they were looking at me as a leader in that. That’s a huge responsibility that I was really delighted to have,” he said.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Panthers are getting a far-more mature head coach than the one who took over at Siena at the age of 32.

As Lanier puts it, “My reputation as an up-and-coming coach was moving faster than my development as a coach.”

If there was one lesson he carried to his new head coaching job, one learned the hard way at Siena, it would be this, he said:

“I really understand it’s less about me. As a young coach I wanted to be a star. I wanted to be a successful young coach on the rise. I wanted to get to the Big East. Now I want to lead and coach and be around good people, work for good people at a good place and teach and lead and have an effect on young people. It really truly is less about me and my career. It’s more about the opportunity to be a leader.”

As a result, Lanier promises that at Georgia State, “I got both feet in.”

That’s not quite the sizable commitment it would be if cousin Bob made the same statement. He famously wore size-22 shoes. But it is a significant one nonetheless.