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Five stops: The stories behind the coaching odyssey that brought Quin Snyder to the Utah Jazz

Long before he’d coach the All-Star Game or lead the Jazz to the NBA’s best record, Snyder made an unconventional journey through the ranks, adding a new piece at every stop to become who he is now.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quin Snyder as the Utah Jazz hosts the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.

“I think my favorite story of Quin,” begins Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson, now an assistant coach with the G League’s Memphis Hustle, but once a point guard for Quin Snyder with the old Austin Toros of what was then the D-League, “is about him jumping in his van — the little Scooby-Doo van he drove to practice — and he drove across the country, just traveling, trying to find himself, gather his thoughts, and figure out his next move.”

Snyder — now in his seventh season coaching the Utah Jazz, fresh off directing the winning team in the 2021 All-Star Game, and having led the Jazz to the best regular-season record in the NBA — is in the middle of his team’s first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies at the moment when he’s presented with this resurrected ghost from his past.

He’s a little incredulous, but in a bemused, lopsided-grin sort of way, so he decides to proceed: “Well, Squeaky’s one of the few people that I would tell that to.

“Yeah, I was in North Carolina living by myself, I had a great black Lab, and I was trying to figure out, kind of, ‘What next?’ And, the [next] question is, ‘Where?’ And ‘What?’” Snyder recalled. “And I came to the conclusion that, really, it was like, ‘Anywhere,’ because it really didn’t matter at that point. And it was a little bit of ‘Anything.’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to coach again.”

Snyder, then relatively recently parted from the high-profile collegiate job he’d held for seven years at Missouri, was suddenly a coach without a team, seemingly a man without a direction. He spent about a year unsure of what to do.

Soon enough, after a few calls to and from his circle of friends, he would undertake the epic journey that would ultimately culminate with him being named the head coach of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

It wasn’t nearly that straightforward, of course. Snyder would first make five distinct stops along his labyrinthine and circuitous path to Salt Lake City, each one contributing some unique facet to the cumulative coaching rebuild taking place.

It is at this point that he makes sure to correct one important factual error.

“It wasn’t a ‘Scooby-Doo van,’ it was a 2002 [Volkswagen Westfalia] Eurovan,” Snyder clarifies, smiling. “But you could sleep in the back. And yeah, I just kind of went west.”

2007-10: Austin Toros

Snyder has known R.C. Buford since they were both assistant coaches under Larry Brown with the Los Angeles Clippers for the 1992-93 season. They’d stayed in contact since, and Buford — then the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs — proved a trusted sounding board in Snyder’s time of indecision.

“I’d been in touch with R.C., he was someone that, during that time, had been a close friend for a long time and I talked to pretty frequently, and he really just listened,” Snyder said. “And as I worked through it, I began to remember the things that I really loved about coaching.”

Buford didn’t merely listen, though, he also talked — specifically, about how the Spurs were in the process of purchasing the Austin Toros to serve as their D-League affiliate, and how they needed a new head coach after the recent death of former Sonics and Celtics great Dennis Johnson, due to a heart attack.

It didn’t take long for Snyder to see the appeal of the “transient” outfit.

“That made sense to me. It made sense for a lot of reasons. … Everything was raw, and nobody was really paying attention, nobody was evaluating,” he said. “It was just an opportunity to kind of find out if my instinct was correct, that I wanted to keep doing that.”

Raw would be an apt description. With no official team facility, they would practice at the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center. With no office space, Snyder and his lone assistant, Taylor Jenkins (now head coach of the Grizzlies), would find a quiet corner at any number of places, though most frequently the Bouldin Creek Coffee Cafe, to create player development models and practice plans, because, as Snyder put it, “If you’re in the D-League and you’re grinding, I thought the most important thing was for guys to feel like they’re having an opportunity to get better.”

“We spent a lot of time — whether it was at a coffee shop or at his house or in airport lounges — just talking about basketball,” said Jenkins. “And sometimes it was the big-picture stuff, sometimes it was the small-picture stuff, but it was always geared towards, ‘How are we being progressive thinkers and trying to help our players get better, help our team get better?’”

From Johnson’s memory, that was primarily manifested in two ways: By Snyder constantly challenging players to do more (“He’d call a timeout just to use some expletives at me if he thought I didn’t do something hard enough”), and by working fanatically himself to be able to push the right buttons and put them in the right positions.

“He’s well-prepared. He knows what’s coming before it comes,” Johnson added.

Jenkins concurred.

“He’s probably the most creative basketball mind I’ve ever been around … the amount of research he did, studying other teams, studying other leagues,” Jenkins said. “… The amount of film we watched, the attention to detail, and the types of individual workouts we put together for these guys — there was a well-thought-out process, tons of meetings, tons of film sessions to just put a simple workout together for a guy, or to come up with a new set to put a guy into. His mind was just always about, I don’t want to say challenging the status quo, but kind of breaking the barriers of how you think about basketball.”

Snyder, meanwhile, was rekindling his own fire while digging through the weeds, toiling away in relative obscurity. He found a much-needed sense of safety in his new environment, where he was allowed to experiment without consequence. He was focusing on pure basketball, and letting all of the peripheral, tangential elements around it simply fade into the background.

And so, there was a certain joy in Malik Hairston giving him some DVDs of the show “Dexter,” for those nights when he couldn’t turn his brain off; in losing all track of time while drawing up plays in an airport coffee shop or bar during a layover, prompting the hyper-organized Jenkins to track him down to ensure they didn’t miss their connecting flight; in the very “dynamic of the league — the bus rides, the empty arenas, putting a big steel drum garbage can in front of the locker when you go out to play [because] that was our security measure.

“None of it really mattered except when you’re on the floor,” Snyder said. “And when you were on the floor, it was about the players, and everything just kind of dropped off.”

In his three seasons with the team, the Toros won almost 63% of their games and had more players called up for NBA stints than any other D-League squad.

Snyder would have been fine staying longer. His new wife, Amy, was working on her doctorate at the University of Texas. He was getting the “best of both worlds” from the Toros/Spurs relationship, enjoying finding ways to maximize players’ skills, and being thrilled when the Spurs’ staff — Gregg Popovich, Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer, Chip Engelland — would invite him to coaches’ retreats, and to participate both in tactical postseason meetings as well as training camp sessions.

“Without getting too dramatic, for me, it was a time that I really reconnected with something that’s a passion — the coaching and teaching,” Snyder said. “To be honest with you, I didn’t really want to get out of there. I was really happy where I was.”

And then?

“And then Doug got the Sixers job, and he called.”

And then it was time, once again, to get in the van and drive somewhere new.

2010-11: Philadelphia 76ers

(Sue Ogrocki | AP) Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins gestures during the first quarter of the 76ers' NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010. Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, then a 76ers assistant, is in the background.

“Doug” would be Doug Collins, the former Olympian, No. 1 overall draft pick, four-time All-Star, famed TV analyst, and noted basketball coach and front-office executive. When Snyder was working as an assistant for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in the 1990s, Collins’ son, Chris, was a shooting guard for the Blue Devils. Snyder and the younger Collins grew close, and as a result, so too did Snyder and the elder Collins.

After several years under Krzyzewski at Duke, Snyder was hired by Missouri in 1999 to replace the retiring Norm Stewart and bolster a struggling program. And his star took off when he took the Tigers to NCAA Tournament appearances in each of his first four seasons, including the Elite Eight in 2002. However, three consecutive subpar seasons and a few dozen NCAA violations culminated in his midseason ouster in 2006.

Following Snyder’s dismissal, Doug Collins invited him to visit his home near Phoenix, just to decompress.

“After I got fired from Missouri — that was a tough time. And you’re searching,” Snyder said. “And I went out and stayed with him for a couple weeks in Arizona. And we would just get up, he’d do the crossword puzzle, we’d go get a coffee and just hang out.”

Said Collins: “Quin felt a little bit wounded. The one thing about Quin — man, when that guy loves something, there’s nobody any more passionate than him. And I knew how much he loved basketball. And so I was just sharing with him my heart, and is there anything I could do for him? Because Quin is such a good person. I think he’s got a big heart.”

They talked a lot about coaching, Snyder asking about the NBA, and Collins advising him that it could be a long, hard road, but also suggesting that it might befit his talents even more than the college game.

And so, when Collins was hired as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in May 2010 — returning to the bench for the first time in seven years — he had taken note of what Snyder had done with the Toros and reached out again, this time to offer him a role as an assistant in a developmental capacity.

“It was an emotional moment. I didn’t realize at the time that that was even … it wasn’t on my radar,” Snyder said. “It felt like an opportunity that just was the right place at the right time, with someone that I knew. He knew my strengths, he knew my flaws.”

While Collins threw developmental work at Snyder, he also inquired about some of the offensive concepts the latter had developed in Austin. The new assistant quickly went to the extreme.

“He’s so smart. I called him ‘Rain Man’ — his brain doesn’t shut off, it’s going 24 hours a day. Maybe we’d taken a set that we were playing out of, and he might have six or seven things that we can do off of that set on my desk the next day,” Collins recalled, laughing. “He was a huge factor in the way we grew offensively when I was there in Philadelphia.”

Snyder was also growing, making it a point to ask questions of everyone, and, just as importantly, to listen to the answers.

“I’d always go up to Elton Brand and be like, ‘Should I do this? Should I do that?’” Snyder said. “I walked in the locker room one time and Elton looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘OK, you’re right. It’s the players’ locker room.’ And I haven’t gone in the players’ locker room again because that’s their space. So, little things like that that you’re learning.”

The locker room may have been off-limits, but the training table was not. And so he’d often find himself lingering there, talking to the quiet-but-introspective Andre Iguodala as he got his ankles taped.

Those conversations, in which they shared personal details of their respective lives and journeys, came to mean a lot to both of them.

“Quin and I have a unique relationship; ours wasn’t necessarily centered around basketball,” said Iguodala, now of the Miami Heat. “He was able to get himself through whatever he had to overcome from a mental aspect, and putting certain things that he felt needed to be a priority and putting things in the right perspective. I was seeing where his world was.”

Said Snyder: “There was nothing that was planned or manufactured, it was just kind of an organic relationship. I learned a lot from him. It was fun. There was a perspective that was generated from those conversations that exactly weren’t about basketball. That’s part of what’s unique about this job, that the things that you share on the court open opportunities to get to know people. And, in his case, it was just, I like talking to him.”

Snyder pretty quickly developed a reputation among the Sixers as someone with a unique voice.

“Quin is just a great guy and he knows how to communicate. He has the innate ability as a coach to get his point across without scarring players and belittling guys,” said Lou Williams, now of the Atlanta Hawks. “He puts himself in a position where guys can’t help but follow his lead. He didn’t burn his voice out, he didn’t talk too much, he got straight to the point, he made it clear, he made it simple, he was efficient with his coaching, and guys listened.”

“A lot of it is he made the personal connections with them. He wasn’t afraid to tell his own story to these guys, how he got to where he is, the rough roads, the broken glass he had to walk on to become the man he is,” Collins added. “And I think that our players connected to that.”

Philly would finish 41-41, a 14-win improvement over the previous season. However, with labor strife hitting the league and a lockout coming, Snyder found himself in a tenuous position. He rented a storage unit and put all his young family’s belongings in it because he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to pay rent.

And yet, he also recounted a surprising calm, a strange lack of anxiety, because he felt like he was in a good place basketball-wise. As it turned out, once the lockout ended, another old familiar face would orchestrate Snyder’s move to one of the most esteemed of basketball places.

Collins was sad to see him leave, but understood it. To this day, they remain close. Collins will catch a game on TV, and if he sees something he doesn’t like, he’ll fire off a text. Not about tactics or strategy, but simply to make sure a man he now considers family is doing OK, to remind him he has someone he can come to for anything.

“I do worry about him, because if Quin is with you, you’re getting all of Quin. Because his mind doesn’t shut off. And I’ll say, ‘Q, Big Brother reaching out again — I saw you the other day; Are you getting your rest? You taking care of yourself? Are you eating properly?’” Collins said. “Those are things that I can help him with. He doesn’t ever need anything X’s and O’s — he’s as brilliant as anybody who’s ever picked up a piece of chalk or a whiteboard or an iPad or whatever.”

But Snyder’s unceasing basketball mind was on the move again. The white Eurovan with the pop-up camper was about to get some more milage.

2011-12: Los Angeles Lakers

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) during a break in the action, as the Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Lakers 123-75, in Salt Lake City, Monday, March 28, 2016.

“Danny Ferry and I are close — we worked together in Cleveland; he was the GM up there when I was the head coach,” said Mike Brown, now an assistant with the Golden State Warriors. “I knew of Quin a little bit, but I got to know Quin a little bit more through Danny. And when I took the Lakers job, Danny suggested that I should hire Quin. So for me, it was a no-brainer, especially after being around him a little bit. I just felt he was bright and he had a great presence and I thought he came off as a good person.”

Snyder acknowledged how lucky he was that Ferry, his former Duke teammate, went to bat for him, helping him land a spot with one of the league’s marquee franchises. And even though he was joining yet another organization, there was still some welcome familiarity, primarily in the form of fellow assistant Darvin Ham, whom he’d gotten to be friends with in Austin, but also because the set-up of the situation was now familiar — a spot on a first-year staff trying to establish a new regime.

In fact, Brown acknowledged that was one of the reasons he liked the hire — as a former head coach himself at Mizzou and in Austin, Snyder had an appreciation for “what the pressures were at my feet” that many other assistants simply couldn’t relate to.

“Having gone through it myself, you know that it’s hard,” Snyder said. “There’s a lot of times as a head coach, you’re alone. And I understood that.”

As Snyder attempted to make himself a resource for Brown in what was already a difficult, lockout-shortened season, he once again made a big impression on those he worked with every day.

“I fondly remember the amount of respect that he garnered from Kobe. Because Kobe’s a guy who is going to seek out people or things that are going to help him,” Brown recalled. “And Kobe is an extremely intelligent guy — obviously we all know how great a basketball player he is. And so he sought Quin out, and he wanted to pick his brain on certain things, because of Quin’s intelligence and Quin’s feel. And I truly believe that Kobe probably thought that Quin was unique.”

The most important relationship that he developed in Los Angeles, though, would of course be the one that would ultimately once again pull him in a new direction, prompt yet another move. Italian coaching legend Ettore Messina, widely regarded as the best European basketball coach ever, had joined the Lakers as a consultant in order to mull a permanent move to the NBA.

“Ettore and I used to carpool to all the games, because it was quicker in the carpool lane to get to Staples [Center],” Snyder said with a laugh.

“We clicked together when we were with the Lakers because I think we both see things in a similar way,” Messina said from Italy, where he is now coaching Olimpia Milano. “We became close, we started talking a lot, and shared things about our lives.”

One of the things Messina shared was that he’d already received an offer to return to Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow, whom he’d previously coached for four seasons.

And that he was seriously considering it. And that he wanted Snyder to join him as his lead assistant.

“I thought he was joking. I looked at him like, ‘What do you mean?’” Snyder recounted. “He said, ‘I think I’m leaving at the end of the year. I’m just throwing it out there.’ So it kind of sat for a while. And then he actually did take the job and it became real.”

Snyder was torn — on the one hand, he saw an opportunity that appealed to both his curiosity and wanderlust; on the other, he feared taking a job halfway around the world would mean leaving the NBA and not having a clear path back in. He called Popovich for advice, and was counseled to “Just embrace it.”

Brown, meanwhile, chuckled at Snyder’s concern that the NBA might not take him back, noting that not only would such diversity on his résumé make him all the more marketable, but that he was already quietly becoming a hot commodity in league circles anyway.

“If you’ve ever had an opportunity to spend some time around him … what you pick up on is just his unique feel for the game, and how he teaches it and explains it and feels it and sees it,” Brown said. “And so it was no secret to anybody on our staff that Quin’s really good.”

And so it was that Snyder finally found a move the now-decade-old van couldn’t make. He sold it in 2012. And then he bought a plane ticket.

2012-13: CSKA Moscow

(Photo courtesy of Olimpia Milano) Coach Ettore Messina, shown in Feb. 2021 with Olimpia Milano, befriended Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder when they both worked for the Los Angeles Lakers, and convinced him to spend a season in Russia, coaching for CSKA Moscow.

If leaving the Lakers to take a leap into the total unknown sounds daunting … well, it did to Snyder, too. Just not enough to convince him that it was the wrong choice.

“That was a really hard decision. Maybe it it was easier because I was nomadic at that point. And I was really lucky that my wife, Amy, had an adventurous spirit,” Snyder said. “… [But I also trusted] the experience that I was going to have would be an invaluable one, and probably one that, in my mind, I would later on regret had I not done it. I felt like this is kind of one of those serendipitous things where there’s a door open there.”

Messina, who remains friends with the Snyder family, had no doubt that they would acclimate and adjust, viewing them as “open-minded” types who would “enjoy it as a cultural experience.”

The Italian coach, meanwhile, was himself enjoying the basketball experience of having Snyder on his staff. CSKA (pronounced sess-kuh) that year had players from seven countries, and Messina’s other two assistants were Russian and Lithuanian, respectively. And so he found a certain irony in his young American protege having a very international approach to the game.

“He was my most important person on the staff. He brought to the staff, of course, his mind — which is amazingly brilliant. He has a unique ability to analyze and to think fast and to react fast in a game,” Messina said. “But also his teaching. … I always saw that he has a unique ability to communicate with people. And because of his being so keen on the player development part of the game, he just hit it, and the players loved it. I mean, he knew what he was talking about.”

Snyder, meanwhile, found the experience to be everything he had hoped for, as he connected with players, colleagues, and management. Much as he was known for teaching, he also felt it important to keep learning — to this day, he has plays named after various EuroLeague players who are associated with specific actions he likes.

But he also appreciated the unconditional support CSKA afforded him in personal matters, like, say, when the team was playing in Vladivostok — a port city so Far East that it borders China and North Korea, and is nearly 5,700 miles and a seven-day train ride from Moscow — while Amy Snyder was about to give birth in Jacksonville, Florida.

He flew back with the team to Moscow, then boarded a plane to New York, then flew to Atlanta, then finally to Jacksonville to be there when his son was born. And then he flew back.

“I knew Ettore was going to allow me the flexibility to do some of those things,” Snyder said. “And it ended up being more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.”

CSKA had a remarkable season, advancing to the EuroLeague Final Four where it lost to eventual champion Olympiacos but beat Barcelona in the third-place game; winning the Russian League; winning the VTB League, which covers Eastern Europe.

Still, he did not view staying there as a long-term option. And Messina knew as much. They’d come to an arrangement early on that, at the end CSKA’s season, if Snyder had an NBA offer he wanted to take, he’d take it, no strings attached.

“[That year] was fun. It was fun,” Messina recounted. “… I missed him the year after. I really missed him. And even if I had a great staff, and we were great, I missed the friendship, I missed the knowledge, I missed the leadership. I missed him — big-time.”

And Snyder missed him back. But another old friend was making him another offer he couldn’t turn down.

2013-14: Atlanta Hawks

(David Goldman | AP) Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, center, poses for a photographer with members of his coaching staff, including Quin Snyder, second from right, as Al Horford, left, greets a reporter during the team's 2013 media day.

Snyder and Mike Budenholzer, the Spurs assistant coach, were hanging out a music festival in Kerrville, Texas, about an hour’s drive from San Antonio, talking about their respective futures, and devising a strategy on how to get that year’s hot assistant coaching prospect a head job.

“He was helping me through some of the interview processes. I was really hopeful to get a job that offseason,” Budenholzer said, as Snyder had previously been granted at least cursory interviews for the top jobs with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Bobcats. “From those years of being together during the Toros and Spurs time, I knew if I ever had a chance to be a head coach, that I would really, really want Quin to be on my staff. I just felt like he and I were plotting together.”

Of course the thought was on Snyder’s mind.

“That was something that was on my radar,” he said. “If he happened to get a job, that would be a [good] situation: someone I know and trust and respect, that was a friend. You can’t check any more boxes.”

Budenholzer indeed wound up being named head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and made Snyder his lead assistant. Two more familiar faces signed on, in Jenkins and Ham. Snyder, now well-versed in the process of being on a first-year staff, set about trying to make things easier for his old friend and new boss, taking on responsibility where he could.

Jenkins, meanwhile, observed a markedly different Snyder than the one he’d last worked with in Austin.

“You could just see that he was always absorbing new knowledge about how to do everything. In all the different spots he went to, he always went with an open, creative mind. That was always at the core of who he was,” Jenkins said. “… It was fun to have those conversations about all the stops he had prior to Atlanta. He had a strength in who he was a lot more — he learned from so many different head coaches, he had been a head coach himself, he had seen the NBA game, he’d seen the European game. There was more confidence in who he was. There was just a resolve about him.”

All the component parts of the rebuilt coaching mentality had now became actualized into one cohesive whole: the unique offensive mind, the tactician, the teacher, the communicator.

And as the Hawks’ season progressed, Snyder himself was soon the hot new assistant coaching prospect.

“His exposure in a lot of different teams just really helped him continue to identify what he ultimately believed in, what kind of system he wanted to build, what kind of culture he wanted to build. And we had those conversations in Atlanta, because I think all of us around him knew he was going to be a head coach in the NBA one day,” Jenkins said. “When you identify people that are very, very qualified … word gets around.”

“From my perspective — I’m sure Quin is too humble or would maybe not say it — but he was ready to be a head coach,” added Budenholzer, now the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. “Hopefully maybe that one year for us to be together in Atlanta … was just like a little icing on the cake. He’s been around great coaches, great programs, and to me, he was categorically ready, prepared, had all it took to be a head coach.”

Snyder’s path had begun because he had initially questioned if he ever wanted to coach again, as “there was a lot of things surrounding it that I didn’t want that to be part of my professional life or my personal life.” In something of a full-circle moment, his journey ended once he realized that yes, he wanted to be a head coach again, but that he absolutely didn’t need to be.

“Part of it for me is, because I did have an opportunity to be a head coach when I was 32, you look back and you see that you had blind spots, and you think about things you may have done differently,” Snyder said. “… I was lucky in that I had been in so many situations with so many good people. I’d been a head coach, and that experience had made me wonder whether I wanted to ever be a head coach again. So I didn’t have this overarching, omnipresent goal of getting there and somehow that being like a crowning achievement that would validate me professionally.

“I just knew I like doing it, and I wanted to keep coaching and figure out if there was a good spot.”

And right on cue, one more old basketball acquaintance put in a call. Snyder would once again head west.

No Scooby-Doo van required this time.

QUIN SNYDER’S COACHING RESUME

1992-93 • Los Angeles Clippers assistant

1993-99 • Duke assistant

1999-2006 • Missouri head coach

2007-2010 • Austin Toros head coach

2010-2011 • Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach

2011-2012 • Los Angeles Lakers assistant

2012-2013 • CSKA Moscow assistant

2013-2014 • Atlanta Hawks assistant

2014-present • Utah Jazz head coach

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