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Whitworth’s Damion Jablonski takes less conventional path to first head coaching job

New Whitworth men's basketball head coach Damion Jablonski is photographed in the Whitworth Fieldhouse on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
New Whitworth men's basketball head coach Damion Jablonski is photographed in the Whitworth Fieldhouse on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

In an alcove of Graves Gym, Damion Jablonski now sits in the head basketball coach’s office at Whitworth, a place vacated last week by Matt Logie.

Behind that desk, in large, all-caps lettering is the phrase “Tradition Never Graduates.”

It’s an apt phrase for Jablonski, who eight years ago moved across the country to assist Logie in coaching a program that was already rich in tradition.

“When we took over for (Jim) Hayford, it was on the tails of arguably the best season in Whitworth history,” said Jablonski, referring to a 28-2 season that ended in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III Tournament.

“We were really unknown entities, and what really made that slogan of value is that it was their program, it was the players’ program,” Jablonski said.

Now, the program is arguably in just about the same spot, but instead of hiring outside the program, Whitworth athletics director Tim Demant opted to promote Jablonski, who after a dozen years as a college assistant coach is finally getting his chance to be the head of a program.

Logie, after accepting the head coaching job at Division II Point Loma Nazarene last week, said he has no doubt the program will continue to be successful.

“These guys have a great leader in coach (Jablonski),” Logie said.

Jablonski’s road to coaching is perhaps a less conventional one. He didn’t play in college and didn’t pursue coaching straight out of college. But his proximity to basketball was never far.

The son of a middle school and high school basketball coach in Detroit and then in Montana, Jablonski grew up around the sport.

“I always had a passion for basketball,” he said.

That passion and ability helped make him a team captain and earned him a number of coaches’ awards in high school, but it didn’t get him scholarship offers. So he attended Gonzaga to pursue an engineering degree.

He was there from 1996 to 2000, just as the Bulldogs were making a name for themselves on the national stage.

Again, he was in the right spot to stoke his passion for basketball.

Jablonski lived in the same dorm as Richie Frahm, joined the Kennel Club and made the trip to Phoenix as a fan for the team’s Elite Eight appearance in 1999.

After college, he and Jami, his wife, newly married, moved to Detroit so he could work for Ford Motor Company as an engineer. He designed brake systems, primarily for the F-150, for about seven years.

Still, he would find himself drawing up plays while watching basketball games on TV.

“What am I doing?” he said he thought to himself. “I’m not a coach, and I don’t have a team. That’s how I decided I needed to do something about it.”

So, he attended a coaches’ clinic in Pittsburgh. On the final day there, someone walked by wearing a shirt with the logo of the high school that was just two minutes from where he lived in Detroit. They struck up a conversation, and the following season he joined the coaching staff.

After a few years there, the Jablonskis decided that the time was right for him to pursue coaching full time, despite the big pay cut, in 2007. Through a series of conversations and connections made at various coaching clinics and simply by visiting “every basketball office in metro Detroit,” Jablonski said, he ended up at Division I Oakland University in suburban Detroit.

There he worked as an assistant and then a video coordinator. All the while he continued to meet with coaches at clinics and other colleges, including Brad Stevens at Butler University in Indianapolis. A few times a year, he would drive down to meet with Stevens.

“I loved the values that they run their programs with,” Jablonski said of Stevens, now head coach of the Boston Celtics. “I absolutely was drawn. I’ve always been drawn to values-driven programs.”

All the while, Jablonski wasn’t looking to build connections as much as he was simply trying to become a better coach, he said.

“I just want to get better at my craft, and I want to learn from people, and I like to learn from genuine people,” Jablonski said. “More than anything, just doing it with an honest heart of trying to be better at your craft, and then those opportunities present themselves if they’re supposed to.”

It was that connection to Stevens that ultimately helped him get an assistant job at Lehigh, where he coached with Logie, also an assistant, for the 2010-11 season.

When Logie accepted the head coaching position at Whitworth, he asked Jablonski if he wanted to come along. A move to Division III wasn’t exactly the path Jablonski had charted for himself.

But with Jami’s family in Yakima and his own parents in Missoula, he said it was the right move at the right time.

“He knew that it was a bit of a leap of faith for me to come with him, and he always treated it like a partnership,” Jablonski said of Logie. “I always felt like I was intrinsically valued. That’s one of the reasons why I was content to be in this position for eight years, even though I wanted to be in a head coaching position.”

Now he is, in a program that reached seven of the past eight NCAA Tournaments, but one that is looking to replace four seniors, including Kyle Roach, the Northwest Conference Player of the Year two years ago.

Yet that was the situation regardless of who was coaching, and that transitional nature is one lens through which senior-to-be Ben College views the upcoming season.

“The way I’ve settled on looking at it is, it’s an even fresher start,” College said. “We were gonna have a fresh start this season anyway, with such important guys leaving the program, so now with a new coach it’s just a little more change on top of the change we were having anyway.”

College said he also sees similarities between himself and his new head coach.

“Coach (Jablonski) and I are in super similar positions, in that I’ve been playing with great Whitworth players like Kyle Roach, Kenny Love, and seeing how they carried themselves and led a team,” College said, “and Coach J’s been doing it under Logie the last eight years. We’re both sliding into a leadership role at the same time. It’s gonna be fun to navigate that together.”

When Jablonski met with current Whitworth players last week to talk about the transition, he again brought up the phrase “Tradition Never Graduates.”

Eight years ago, the program already had expectations to be great, Jablonski said, so he and Logie weren’t selling a new vision as much as they were reinforcing that it could be done with new leadership.

Now, the leadership isn’t really that new. Players know Jablonski. They’ve won with him on the bench.

But still, Jablonski is counting on the players to see that the program’s success isn’t something that hinges solely on the first man on the bench. He needs them to recognize the truth of that three-word phrase.

“Their ownership and their buy-in to the process is what ultimately will make it successful,” he said.

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