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John Loyer's first head coaching job is years in the making

As John Loyer takes the reins in the wake of Maurice Cheeks’ firing, let’s take a look at the long-time assistant coach’s facinating history.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

More flashy names popped up immediately after Cheeks was fired Sunday, including on the current Pistons coaching staff. Lionel Hollins, Rasheed Wallace, Bill Laimbeer. But it was John Loyer who was named interim head coach for the Pistons.

While Loyer is currently in as a placeholder until the team can do a full coaching search over the summer, possibly one of the first tasks for a new general manager, it's worth getting to know more about the lead man in the meantime. Plenty of coaches have gotten their start on an interim basis and turned out to win the long-term hire.

As Garrett asked in the comments, just who is this John Loyer guy anyway?


2011-13: Detroit Pistons, assistant coach
2009-11: New Jersey Nets, assistant coach
2005-09: Philadelphia 76ers, assistant coach
2003-05: Portland Trail Blazers, assistant coach
2001-03: Portland Trail Blazers, advance scout
2000-01: Portland Trail Blazers, video coordinator
1999-2000: Wabash Valley College, head coach
1989-99: University of Cincinnati, assistant coach
1987-89: University of Akron, graduate assistant

Education: University of Akron, degree in social studies*

* According to his NBA bio, at least. That's not actually a major at Akron these days, however social sciences is one - and it sounds more like a legitimate major rather than a junior high class.

NBA coaching career

Relationships are primary factor for how Loyer made his way to the Pistons, which is a prevailing theme throughout his career. He was originally hired as part of Lawrence Frank's staff for the Pistons, as the two had ties previously during Frank's tenure in New Jersey. But they only coached 16 games together. It turns out their relationship extended far prior, back to their days when Loyer was an assistant at Cincinnati under Bob Huggins and Frank was an assistant at Marquette. Loyer apparently made a lasting impression on Frank.

When Frank was fired last season, Cheeks brought in his own staff, filled with coaches he had experience and relationships with. That was part of what kept Loyer around. Loyer got his start as an assistant in Portland under Cheeks - and when Mo was fired in 2005 and moved to the 76ers, Loyer joined him in Philadelphia.

Loyer has been gaining in attention for his defensive reputation, but his focus was on the offensive end with Frank for the Pistons, particularly on the perimeter. When he was hired for Frank's staff, he said about his background:

"I've coached both sides of the ball. My background from the collegiate days was more on the defensive side, but since I've joined the NBA I've coached both sides for various coaches and feel very comfortable on the offensive side. It's kind of the way the league has gone the last handful of years - kind of the football mode: have one set of eyes on one end and one set on the other. That was appealing to me, but at the end of the day, just like a head coach, you're responsible for everything. It's just that one thing is your specialty, so it's a challenge I'm looking forward to."

Loyer received plenty of praise in his work as an assistant in Portland and Philadelphia, particularly in regards to player development. Frank in particular spoke glowingly about his coaching potential and seemed to be grooming him for a head coaching job. He said, "John is a star. He's really good. Total anti-politician. Doesn't play the game. He's just into getting guys better, helping the team."

Which is interesting considering what happened with his college career...

College coaching career

Loyer was a point guard at Akron under Huggins, then served as his graduate assistant. When Huggins was offered the head job at Cincinnati and Loyer was apparently the first guy he brought along. In his book Pressed for Success Huggins wrote about his immediate steps after receiving the Cincinnati job:

I called John Loyer, my graduate assistant coach who was one of my players at Akron, and told him to meet me in the office. At 7 a.m., he walked in, not knowing what to expect.
"Do you want to go to Cincinnati?" I said.
"Sure," said Loyer. It'll be fun."
John didn't get it. He thought I wanted to get away for the day. I told him what was going on, and he decided to join my staff.

That call changed his career, for better and for worse.

At Cincinnati, Huggins took over a program that hadn't had a NCAA tournament berth in over a decade to build a dominant squad that won nearly 400 games over 14 seasons and a Final Four appearance (where they were defeated by Michigan's Fab Five). All the while, Loyer was Huggins' right-hand man, a rising star, and considered a head coach in waiting.

As we now know, Huggins didn't exactly run a clean operation. The school's graduation rate was in the pits, players were getting in trouble for domestic violence, drugs, punching police horses, and so on. By the end of the 90s, the NCAA conducted an investigation and concluded that the program had a lack of institutional control.

John Loyer was the scapegoat.

John Loyer was the scapegoat. Loyer was suspended and eventually fired in response to the investigation, even though 19 of 22 charges against him were overturned. Huggins, meanwhile, escaped with his job and the university said that he had no role in any violations and was completely unaware. Well, until he was forced to resign in 2005 after the program's troubles continued and Huggins was charged with a DUI.

The charges essentially crushed Loyer's college career. Once poised to spring to a head coaching job at a major program, Loyer took a job as head coach for Wabash Valley College. Former Jerry Tarkanian assistant Mark Warkentien was assistant general manager for the Trail Blazers at the time, and recruited Loyer to join their coaching staff.

During his time at Cincinnati, he focused on scouting opponents, implementing reports with players, working with guards, and recruiting. The team was reincarnation of recently-disassembled UNLV Runnin' Rebels, led by speed, intense defense, and a roster full of players with a checkered past. Loyer was described as a commanding figure during practices, he was responsible for landing future top NBA draft pick Kenyon Martin, and helped shape Nick Van Exel and Ruben Patterson into future NBA players. Working with difficult personalities will not be a new challenge for Loyer.

While he's filled in as head coach previously, it has only been as a one game substitute when Bob Huggins was suspended or Kiki Vanderweghe missed a game for a personal matter. In what has been a long career, this will be his first stint leading as head coach for an extended period of time.

When he transitioned to the NBA, Loyer thought it spelt the end of his head coaching ambitions. But thanks to years of paying his dues, he's managed to overcome the ignominy of his Cincinnati firing to get the chance.

Though you might not have heard of John Loyer prior to Sunday's announcement, it was a moment of redemption for a once-promising young coach a university threw under the bus.