He just didn’t know it.
When Shay joined the Iowa basketball team in 1991, he really didn’t know what to expect, but he got much more than he bargained for. As a walk-on for a program that made two NCAA Tournament appearances during his career, the seeds were being planted in the mind of the man who would go on to become the coach at East Tennessee State.
“Being a walk-on has been extremely valuable on my journey here because as a walk-on you simulate the other teams, what they’re trying to run,” said Shay, who replaced the departed Steve Forbes last week. “So every three or four days, I would have to learn a new offensive system or defense, and I was a learner. I would just pick those things up.”
Shay scored 20 points in 19 appearances in his career with the Hawkeyes. With playing time limited, he spent much of his time watching and learning. He was honing his craft before it was even his craft.
“My wife made fun of me the other day,” Shay said. “She said, ‘How can you remember scores and plays and players when you can’t remember the simple things?’ I just have a good memory for those things.”
Bruce Pearl was an assistant at Iowa during Shay’s freshman year. The two became practically inseparable a few years later.
Shay was on Pearl’s staffs at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tennessee. They coached in eight NCAA Tournaments together.
Counting his time as a player and coach, Shay’s teams have qualified for the NCAA Tournament 12 times.
“As a kid growing up, you’d never have dreamed an opportunity like this is out there,” said Shay, who spent the last five years as an assistant to Forbes at ETSU. “I dug my heels in and put my head down and worked as hard as I could to get to this position, so I’m extremely excited about this opportunity. I’m prepared for it.”
When asked which coaches have influenced him the most, Shay was quick to answer.
“Coach Pearl and Coach Forbes. I was with both of them the longest,” he said. “I was with Coach Pearl for 10 years. We did a lot of the same things that we did at the University of Iowa. He allowed me to be me. He knew my strengths and he empowered me.
“Steve took it a step further. We’ve tried many different things in the seven years that he’s been a head coach that I’ve been with him.”
ETSU President Brian Noland said Shay had the qualities he wanted in a head coach.
“As we moved through that search, we focused on ‘fit, family and opportunity,’ ” Noland said. “We recognized the significance of the men’s basketball program not only for the university, but the region as a whole. As we moved through what was a historic year for our program — best season in the history of the institution — we wanted to find a candidate who could continue that tradition of excellence and to keep us on that path toward Southern Conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances.
“But as we moved through that process there was one name that just kept coming up and coming up. And that is coach Jason Shay. Coach Shay understands the university. The culture of excellence that exists is the program he helped to establish. And he is hands down the best X’s and O’s coach in all of college basketball.”
ETSU athletic director Scott Carter was at Tennessee when Pearl was the Vols’ coach, so he was already familiar with Shay before he even got to ETSU. Carter said several words kept coming up when he talked to people about Shay during the search.
“Connection. Character. Trust. Genius. Integrity. Relationship builder with a true passion of the game of basketball. A brilliant mind who’s always been a student of the game. A developer of young men,” he said.
“I’ve know Jason Shay for 15 years and feel these words describe him well, but do not fully do him justice as a coach, father, husband, man and incredible human being,” Carter added. “Coach has earned everything he’s ever achieved in his career.”
Shay didn’t waste any time in getting started. He’s been contacting and visiting his players.
With nobody on campus, there won’t be any basketball played for a while. Once it is, only then can Shay begin to put his stamp on the team. He already has some plans.
“We’re going to give great effort,” Shay said. “We’re going to play together as a unit. We’re going to compete for championships. We’ve always said we’re going to play meaningful games in March, but I want to make memorable moments in March.”