Why Dave Pilipovich's job at Air Force is the toughest in Division I basketball
It's one thing to coach Army or Navy in the Patriot League. It's quite another to coach Air Force in the Mountain West Conference, where UNLV is signing lottery picks and the Falcons are mostly limited to trying to enroll low-major prospects with no medical red flags.
by Gary Parrish
Dave Pilipovich became an Air Force assistant in 2007, then got promoted to head coach in 2012. So he's been in Colorado Springs for a while, recruited to the academy nine years. And, in all that time, he'd never lucked into anything like what he lucked into last summer.
Could really play.
Had always wanted to become a pilot.
"It was a 6-foot-7 young man out of the Ohio area," Pilipovich said. "He calls us. Wants to be a pilot. Wants to fly. So we go and see him at an AAU Tournament, and, gosh, he's shooting the ball from 3. He's running the floor. He's a player who looks like a Mountain West player. And I said, 'This is unbelievable. Dream come true. Can't believe he wants to come.'"
And then ...
"We're getting through the process, and he's got asthma," Pilipovich said. "That's a medical disqualification. We were not permitted to admit him. So he went to another DI school."
This, in one little story, is life for Dave Pilipovich.
He has a Mountain West job that's nothing like a Mountain West job.
And that's why his job is, quite clearly, the hardest job in college basketball.
Dave Pilipovich was sitting at a restaurant with a friend in the business back in the day, not long after he became Air Force's coach. They were having a drink, eating a burger. They were discussing, among other things, the hardest jobs in Division I men's basketball.
"He said, 'Not trying to make you choke, but you're in the top three because of what you're up against and the league you're in,'" Pilipovich recalled. "I said, 'Well, I appreciate that."
And then he cried.
No, not really. Of course he didn't cry. But if he did, who could blame him? Because the job is difficult bordering on impossible thanks to the two things his friend mentioned.
- Air Force's enrollment guidelines and post-graduation commitment
- Air Force's membership in the Mountain West Conference
Let's take these one-by-one.
Pilipovich cannot recruit a prospect unless the prospect has at least a 3.5 high school GPA, a 25 on the ACT in all subjects, and a minimum 1200 two-part SAT score. And the 25 on the ACT is more like a 26 or 27, a source familiar with the guidelines told CBS Sports.
"It's strict," Pilipovich said. "And then you throw in the medical part."
Ah, yes, the medical part. Anybody with asthma will not be enrolled. A peanut allergy is a deal-breaker. Previously broken bones are red flags. Scoliosis is a killer.
"We go through an extensive medical process to make sure they’re pilot-qualified or, if not pilot-qualified, they’re commissionable," Pilipovich said. "The government doesn’t want to pay four years of training for you to be an officer, and now you’re not commissionable to serve your country. So the medical process eliminates some of our guys as well."
Beyond all that, there's the post-graduation commitment that can also, in some cases, be a deterrent because decent prospects usually think, whether it's rooted in reality or not, that they'll spend their immediate five years after college playing professional basketball. So the mandatory commitment to serve for the United States Air Force after graduation is a non-starter for just about every good, or even average, prospect.
But all that means is Air Force has to find unheralded prospects and develop them, right?
Oh, if it were only that simple.
Because Air Force does indeed do that sometimes.
But that can turn on Pilipovich, too.
Take Tre' Coggins, for instance.
Coggins is a 6-2 guard from California who was so unheralded out of high school he only had one Division I offer -- from Air Force. So he accepted that offer and averaged 2.4 points as a freshman, then 16.0 points as a sophomore, at which point he had a decision to make.
That five-year commitment post graduation at Air Force isn't something a prospect is actually tied to the day he enrolls, you see? It's only something a prospect is tied to the day he starts classes for his junior year at the academy. So Coggins went from a prospect with one Division I offer to an All-Mountain West performer who realized he could obviously play at the Division I level and maybe make money in basketball upon graduation, the latter of which would be impossible if he stayed for his junior season at Air Force because he'd then be obligated to serve for five years after graduation.
So he transferred to Cal State Fullerton.
He's now averaging a team-high 15.2 points for the Titans.
"So it’s almost like you don’t want them to have too much success early because they can leave in their first two years," Pilipovich said. "Once you take classes your first day of your junior year, you're committed to graduating and serving. So you get transfers your first two years if they realize, 'Hey, I can play now at another Division I program and not do the military thing, so I’m going to leave. It’s nothing against you, Coach. Or the program. I’m just not a military guy. And I now think I can play somewhere after college.'"
Are you starting to get the sense of what the Air Force coach is up against?
In fairness, everything mentioned above doesn't make Pilipovich's job much different at Air Force than Zach Spiker's job at Army or Ed Dechellis' job at Navy. What makes it completely different, though, is the fact that the Air Force job is a Mountain West job.
At Army and Navy, you're in the Patriot League. And nobody is signing top-100 players in the Patriot League. But UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico each can, and does, sign elite talent in the Mountain West all while Pilipovich said he's literally never had a single player on his roster get even one introductory letter from another Mountain West institution.
"Our players just aren't recruited at that level," he said. "We usually recruit against Patriot League programs or Ivy League programs or, more honest, Division II and Division III programs. We don't recruit against the Mountain West."
But they have to play against the Mountain West.
And surely you can understand the challenge in that.
"Sometimes we line up for the anthem in our conference games, and we’re standing at the free throw line looking at the flag, and you’ve got San Diego State or New Mexico or UNLV on the other side, and sometimes my heart drops," Pilipovich said with a laugh. "They’re 6-11, 6-11, 6-9. They've got transfers. JUCOs. Or they've got Stephen Zimmerman, who turned down Arizona and UCLA to go to UNLV. Now we’re playing against him."
Meantime, Air Force missed on the best recruit it could possibly get ... because of asthma.
Simply put, no other program in the country is as far removed from the top of its league in terms of the type of student-athlete it can recruit and enroll than Air Force is from the top of the Mountain West. There's really not even a comparable situation elsewhere in basketball.
Some schools in the MWC can recruit McDonald's All-Americans.
Future lottery picks.
UNLV had the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft a few years back.
And Air Force might lose a kid to a peanut allergy.
That's rough, undeniably.
And it's the reason why, yes, Dave Pilipovich has the hardest job in college basketball.