Maryland was in trouble. Losing to Denver in Thursday’s National Invitation Tournament second round, unable to solve the Pioneers’ undersize four-guard lineup that rendered his front court helpless, Coach Mark Turgeon needed help. Sitting on the Comcast Center bench, he turned to his right and asked for suggestions.
“What do you think?” Turgeon said.
“I think we should go small,” came the reply.
Scott Spinelli has been on Turgeon’s staff for nearly seven seasons now. They first connected at a coaching clinic at the University of Memphis, back when Spinelli was at Nebraska. Turgeon needed to complete his staff at Wichita State after another assistant departed for a head coaching gig. Their shared an instant connection, the same passion that’s fully evident on the Terps’ bench each game. Both ran in the same circles, among the 30 or so coaches connected enough to earn an invitation to Larry Brown’s clinic. So when Turgeon called, offering up the open spot, Spinelli jumped.
Over one season at Wichita State, four at Texas A&M and now almost two in College Park, Spinelli has developed into Turgeon’s top in-game assistant, capable of taking over huddles and offering game-changing suggestions, like he did against the Pioneers. At Spinelli’s behest, the Terps responded with a five-guard lineup of their own, despite never practicing it this season. Dez Wells moved into the post, and they went four-out along the perimeter. No plays, just basketball.
“Being with Coach Turgeon for as many years as I’ve been with him, you have that relationship where you interact with one another on the floor and off the floor in games,” Spinelli said Saturday by telephone. “We’ve been in so many big-game situations together that we both understand that, hey look, if there’s a suggestion to be made, I’m not just making it because it sounds good. We’re trying to better the team, trying to win and that’s what this is all about. Anytime you can put your guys in the best possible position to do that. I think we have that relationship which allows suggestions and we’ve coached a lot of games together.”
Around the corner from the actual court, between the loading dock and Maryland’s locker room, sits the work space for reporters, which is connected to the film room through two wooden doors. It’s through these doors that Spinelli’s Boston accent – he’s a Boston University graduate – booms regularly as he dissects tape and breaks down the tape.
Spinelli had scouting duties on Feb. 16, when the Terps beat Duke. When Maryland topped the Blue Devils again in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, that was Spinelli’s scouting work, too, as were all four of Texas A&M’s first-round NCAA tournament games under Turgeon (the Aggies went 3-1).
He begins in isolation, sipping cups of green tea and poring over film of the upcoming opponent. Spinelli coached for one season with the Cincinnati Stuff in the ephemeral International Basketball League, which lasted just two years. He’s been a head coach at two Mid-Atlantic and New England prep schools and a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers.
“All of us have great pride as assistant coaches and in our scouting, because that’s an opportunity for us to get a chance to voice our opinions about what we think we should be doing in an individual game,” Spinelli said. “But there’s a bigger meaning to it all. It comes down to what’s best for our team, to assist the head coach in putting us in a position to win. Listen, as we all know, college basketball, or any basketball at this level, it’s about winning games. I think there’s a greater meaning to it. You’re trying to put a game plan together, you take great pride in it, but you also understand that you’re trying to assist the head coach.”
And that, really, is the delicate balance necessary to subordinate yourself beneath a head coach while still making your voice heard. Like most assistants, he has aspirations of head coaching, and teams are likely to come calling soon enough. But his family – wife Lynn, and children Gianna, Gabriel and Joseph – love the area. And the relationships he’s developed with Turgeon and fellow assistants Bino Ranson and Dalonte Hill helps keep everything in perspective.
“For me, coach gives me a lot of freedom, which is really what I’ve enjoyed about working for him all these years,” Spinelli said. “You’re not just a recruiter. You’re coaching. I’ve been able to voice suggestions in timeouts. The formula has worked. It’s proven to work. We’ve had great success over the years, won a lot of games. I think that’s an important thing. The other thing is chemistry amongst all of us. I respect Coach Bino and Coach Hill and their opinions. That carries over on the floor.”