At the peak of his high school coaching career, Sean Bair was so involved that he could project what his starting lineup would look like for the next five to seven years. He never factored that he wouldn’t be there to guide the New Oxford boys basketball team.
For years, Bair has been one of the most dedicated coaches in the Times Area, working with his athletes to develop their skills from middle school on up. The trust he built with his players resulted in dozens of boys passionately honing their craft for long hours during the offseason, whether through drills or video work that taught them to pick apart the strategies and tells of the competition.
Last week that diligence paid off in a way Bair could scarcely believe when he was offered a graduate assistant coaching job with the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team. He began the job Monday.
“The chances of me landing any of this stuff was so tiny,” Bair said. “I’ve taken some long shots, but mainly that’s because I was so content at New Oxford that it had to be something special for me to make the move. This is the best-case scenario I could have ever hoped for.
“I’ll be working in a power five conference with a team that has a lot of upside. I think we’ll be competitive right away. The coaching staff is incredible.”
Over the last three years, Bair has taken the Colonials to previously unseen heights, guiding them to PIAA Class 5A berths in 2017 and 2018. This past winter, the Colonials came up two wins short of a third state trip, but made the YAIAA Tournament championship game for the first time in the program’s history, piling up back-to-back 20-win seasons in the process.
Through six years, Bair never had one ineligible player. His team also twice earned the Gretchen Wolf Swartz Sportsmanship Scholarship.
“I’ll be leaving a position where I’ve been so proud of what we’ve accomplished, not just on the floor but in the classroom,” Bair said. “We’ve had a really successful AP Economics program the last few years here and our chess team has been wonderful. I’m loving life here in New Oxford and thankful for the opportunities I had.”
Bair tearfully reported his new position to his team during an offseason practice session last week. Memories of his rising seniors floated through his mind. Abdul Janneh and Brayden Long applying the pick and roll as eighth graders. Noah Strausbaugh learning to face the pressure and shoot from long range in big moments. Tayshawn and Dawuan Golden growing up to become valuable contributors in practice and in games.
“It was sad for all of us,” Bair said. “That said, they were so supportive. I coached myself up to be the strong one in the room, but watching them get broken down about it and then come right back and be so happy for me, that’s when I was really struggling.”
Bair always believed he had potential to coach at higher levels, but needed the right opportunity to lure him away from New Oxford. Over the last few years he’s taken lottery-ticket chances applying for high-profile NCAA Division I college coaching jobs. One of his connections close to Arkansas’ new head coach Eric Musselman convinced the coaching staff that Bair was worth the gamble.
Bair was enthralled by the idea of working for a coach with a reputation for taking ideas from all over the room. Bair’s research revealed that several former graduate assistants under Musselman climbed the coaching ranks over time.
Musselman has coached for 30 years, including 14 as a head coach in the NBA, NCAA and CBA. He was most recently the four-year head coach at Nevada University, prior to accepting the Arkansas gig in April.
Last season, Nevada finished 29-5 overall and 18-3 within the Mountain West Conference before dropping a 70-61 decision in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Arkansas finished 18-16 and 8-10 in the Southeastern Conference.
Bair described his new position as “a glorified manager.” His responsibilities range from filling water bottles to grabbing rebounds and working to fine tune mechanics for developing players. He’ll likely spend twilight hours watching video, constructing analytic tables and advising students who need academic help.
“I checked a lot of their boxes being a jack of all trades and I can fill in where they need,” Bair said. “You’re basically at the lowest starting point possible, to help the program run as smooth as it can and do the things the other coaches might not be as keen on. I’ve talked to guys who have had similar jobs and they said you’re probably looking at the two hardest years of your professional career, but they learned more from those opportunities.”
Since Bair was a child, he’s dreamed of this chance. As a standout guard for the Gettysburg Warriors through high school and a part-time player at Dickinson College, he cultivated a knowledge for the game that eventually exceeded his abilities on the floor. He got the opportunity to prove it when he was hired by Kevin Thomas, a former New Oxford principal, as the Colonials boys’ coach in the summer of 2013.
“I was 22 — 5A varsity basketball and I’m 22 — that’s a risk,” Bair said. “If I’m on the (school) board and I hear that, my eyebrows are probably raised. So for Kevin to go out on a limb to give me the opportunity to take on a rebuild with the program, I couldn’t be more happy and thankful.”
The New Oxford program that Bair leaves behind will be one of the crown jewels of the YAIAA, an epic climb from Bair’s first two seasons when the Colonials combined for a 9-35 record. Even with his team’s recent success, Bair leaves with a career record of 72-77.
Bair fights back tears while looking back at his time in New Oxford.
He remembers when only two players showed up at his first open gym to see what he was about. Future 1,000-point scorer John Wessel had to fill the travel team lineup as an eighth-grader.
In contrast, the week before he departed, Bair had more than two dozen players working themselves through drills on a late-May afternoon. He thinks of a New Oxford gymnasium once nearly barren that has been packed with raucous students and fans the last few seasons.
“During the York-Adams championship game, there’s this hilarious line from the commentator, ‘it looks like New Oxford brought all of Adams County with them,’” Bair said, adding that he believed the comment to be a slight. “I am proud of that. It was standing room. You had to be on the track for that game. The excitement that kids had who weren’t even on the team was awesome.”
Bair enjoys the memories of teams who struggled to defend anyone as well as the ones who held the top-ranked defense in the conference. He admires the efforts of his early groups that had little skill, but just as much heart as the teams that put the program on the map by taking a fourth-quarter lead over eventual PIAA semifinalist Bonner Pendergrast.
He reminisces over his first big road win, coming against Red Lion in his third year, and is no less animated than when speaking about the games that earned them a top 10 ranking in the state for Class 5A this season.
He regrets losing the last home game of his career in districts against Cocalico, but not as much as he regrets not seeing the end of the careers for seniors Janneh, Long, Strausbaugh, the Golden twins, and even some underclassmen like Tommy Haugh and Connor Jenkins that have only recently fallen under his day-to-day purview.
“The thing that primarily kept my interest was that you don’t get to control your players — you have to be different every year,” he said. “Finding ways to make pieces fit to get the most out of your guys is the most exciting part. Coaches who try to do the same thing every year will never max their teams out.”
More than anything, Bair cherishes the journey with his wife Alexandra (Fry) Bair, who by all accounts has become a slam-dunk speech-language pathologist in the Lincoln Intermediate Unit at New Oxford and Hanover. She will join Sean once she finds a job in Arkansas, he said.
“I told our guys, some of you will want to start a family someday. Find someone who celebrates your dreams and you try to celebrate theirs, too,” Bair said. “I couldn’t be doing this without her right now. For her to take on the adventure with me and do it so quickly, with no real time to figure things out, I’m super lucky.”
Bair wants his players to remember his legacy as a basketball coach, an educator and a mentor. He hopes they remember to keep things in perspective, and that being a good teammate is far more important in life than being a skilled competitor.
“We all screw some things up, but I believe as long as you’re open, honest and vulnerable with your players and understand when they screw up a little, it’ll get you the longest way,” he said. “You can be a great human being and still win games. You can be an awesome teammate, a good family member and a great student. We overachieved and did that while maintaining the things that matter way more than basketball.
“I leave at peace knowing how hard I worked and knowing that my guys know how committed I was to their individual development as players and people. I think they’ll remember that collectively we built something pretty cool.”
Bair’s new job comes with a pay cut, more hours than he’s ever worked and no guarantees of paying off. He admits the security, consistent schedule and hopeful future regarding his situation at New Oxford is appealing.
“But if I didn’t risk it, I’ll be thinking ‘what if’ for the rest of my life,” he said. “If I do flame out, or I don’t have the same success I’ll be at peace with that.”
Last week, Bair couldn’t wait for the chance to join his new team, working with players of extraordinary abilities and playing in the arenas he marveled at growing up.
“To be in a gym full of those kids, even if I’m just filling water bottles and getting rebounds, it’ll be exciting,” he said. “To be able to go to Rupp Arena at Kentucky, or they’ll have a non-conference game with Indiana, from a basketball standpoint it doesn’t get better than that.”
Adam Michael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at @GoodOldTwoNames