When Isaac Chew accepted a position to join Buzz Williams’ staff at Marquette in May, it marked yet another difficult decision in his coaching career that began unexpectedly more than a decade ago in Kansas City.
Because six weeks before Chew, then an assistant at Missouri, said yes to Williams, he told John Groce and the University of Illinois the same. It was a homecoming of sorts for Chew, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side where he starred at Wells High School, to join the Illini. He was thought to be a perfect fit for the program with his recruiting ties in the state, and called the opportunity with Groce and the Illini “a dream.”
More important, current Illinois assistant Jamall Walker recommended Chew to Groce, who was filling his coaching staff after being hired as head coach in late March. Walker worked with Chew for one year at Murray State before joining Groce at Ohio University in 2009.
Chew originally told Williams, a close friend of his for over a decade, no. But a move to be closer to his family in Chicago, a significant pay increase and the chance to coach under his friend for a team coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances was too much for him to pass up.
But those factors didn’t make the final decision any easier, especially since his friend, Walker, had given Groce his recommendation.
“I put [Walker] in a very, very challenging position by accepting this job,” Chew said of joining Marquette. “It still bothers me, and because of that I strained our relationship. I still see him as a friend, but that was hard for me to tell Groce.
“But that decision was the most emotional thing I’ve ever done. So much so that Buzz, once I did make the move, would check on me every day because I was an emotional wreck.”
Walker did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
But as difficult as the decision was to leave Groce and Illinois for Williams and Marquette, it wasn’t the first time he made a career move without the knowledge of where he would wind up.
After his successes at Wells, Chew attended and played for Iowa Lakes Community College and NAIA Avila University in Kansas City. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 1999, and later a master’s in business administration from Baker University in 2002. That part of his résumé had corporate America calling Chew’s name, and he was listening.
But as he was going through graduate school at Avila, someone suggested he use his experience as a player to coach in his spare time at the AAU level. And while Chew continued to move up the AAU ranks with Kansas City Pump n’ Run and Kansas City Keys, he simultaneously moved up the ladder at Bank of America, moving into a finance director position while still coaching youth in his spare time.
So as Chew fought over the decision on whether to pursue coaching in a more permanent role or continue on as a finance director, the passing of his grandfather sparked something inside him to take an alternate career route.
“I thought, I’m gonna do something different,” Chew said. “And I went there with a plan of, if I wasn’t coaching in Division I in three years, I was gonna go back.”
He returned to Avila University as an assistant in 2004, a position he held from 1999 to 2001, and eight years later Chew is preparing for his first season under Williams and Marquette, leaving his desk and corporate America far behind.
Chew’s first promotion was to junior college powerhouse Indian Hills, where as an assistant Chew helped sign eventual Marquette guard Dwight Buycks. Chew finally got his Division I wish when Billy Kennedy, then-head coach at Murray State, hired Chew in 2007. He spent four seasons with the Racers, helping those teams to 91 wins, two Ohio Valley Conference titles and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2010.
And change didn’t come easy to Chew when, in 2011, he accepted a position with Frank Haith and Missouri. He left behind a Murray State team he essentially helped build from the ground up, and a boss in Kennedy who, to this day, he considers his biggest influence and mentor.
But the acclimation to the Tigers was made easier because Chew had coached four Missouri players – Marcus Denmon, Marcus Dixon, Steve Moore and Ricky Kleklow – in AAU in Kansas City. That Missouri team won 30 games and the Big 12 Tournament before earning a No. 2 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Chew also found familiarity when he accepted the position at Marquette because of his long-standing relationship with Williams. They first met while Williams was recruiting point guard Marcus Denmon, who was playing under Chew for Kansas City Pump ‘N Run. Denmon wound up at Missouri with Mike Anderson, where Chew would eventually coach him in 2011. More importantly, Williams and Chew began a friendship that went beyond Division I and AAU coach.
“He was genuine with me as I was with him,” Chew said. “I never had relationship with guys as a Division I coach; I had relationships to be cool with him. I would text him here and there, and when I was on the road he would encourage me throughout the years and we stayed in touch.”
And with another difficult decision now behind him and a new transition in front of him as individual workouts begin, Chew is not alone in his new role on staff.
Tony Benford (North Texas), Aki Collins (Memphis) and Scott Monarch (dismissed) are all gone from a team that has won 96 games the last four seasons, and have been replaced by Chew, Jerry Wainwright and Brad Autry, who was promoted from his position as coordinator of student-athlete development.
The turnover on the coaching staff can be looked at one of two ways–Marquette will have new faces and ideas but is also starting over with new relationships to the team and administration— but Chew said the foundation is already there from both Williams’ and each newcomer’s past experiences.
“We just have to add value to what Buzz has done here as the head coach,” Chew said. “And Autry has been with Buzz going on his fifth year, so he’s familiar and now he’s allowed to be on the floor. And Wainwright has been coaching for 40 years, so basketball ain’t changing for him. I think we can add some different things to the team and move forward. And he’s still the head coach, and I think that’s going to continue. That has not changed.”
And to move forward, Chew’s first task was to recruit. But he wasn’t recruiting prospective athletes. Instead, Chew began relationships with current players, following advice from Williams.
“Buzz says you can never recruit if you can’t recruit guys on your own team, and I agree with that,” Chew said. “The first few weeks were to recruit guys to get them to trust me. I had to show I was going to be there for them, to be another shoulder to lean on.”
Chew’s decisions on when and where to move up the collegiate coaching ladder have not been easy, and there was a time when he thought his future rested behind a desk in Kansas City. But with the help of Williams, Chew believes he is in the right spot on the Marquette bench.
“Buzz made me see things that I didn’t see before because I was making decisions on emotions,” he said. “But for my family and career, that was my best option.”
Chew’s best option and, from what it appears, Marquette’s best option as well.