April 15, 2023

Here Comes Coach Z

Here Comes Coach Z

Here Comes Coach Z

By Chris Day  |  March 2023  |  FMU Focus Magazine Spring 2023

man jumping at basketball game

High Energy and hard work have paved the way for Jake Zehnder, FMU’s brand new men’s basketball coach.

The Patriots’ future looks bright.

Jake Zehnder’s work space moved about 12 inches to the right this basketball season.

Doesn’t sound like much, but it was a big move all the same.

Zehnder’s foot-long slide occurred when he transitioned from assistant basketball coach at Francis Marion University to the program’s head coach. The opportunity came suddenly, after long-time FMU Coach Gary Edwards retired in October. Zehnder was named interim coach, and then in January, Francis Marion University officials removed the interim tag, making him the seventh head coach in the program’s 53-year history.

Zehnder says he was ready. He’s just 33 years old and only 11 years into his coaching career, but he’s already learned that change comes faster than the fastest of fast breaks in his chosen profession.

“There is always something coming at you, and you are never quite as prepared as you think you might be,” Zehnder says. “This is what I’ve always wanted. No matter what is thrown at me. I’ll figure it out. I may not have the answer, but I will find the answer. It may take me a little bit of time. It’s been a whirlwind to say the least.”

Zehnder says he is learning daily. What he hasn’t had to learn is how to bring energy to his team. The early trademark of the Zehnder era at FMU is fast-paced basketball — as the 2022-23 season neared an end, FMU was second in Conference Carolinas, and 22nd nationally in scoring — led by a fast-paced coach already known for his intensity and animation on the sideline.

During practice, Zehnder can often be found running up and down the court instructing players on the fly. He may be sweatier than the players after practice, and his routine doesn’t change much — although there is a coaching box to remember — during games.

“Those guys know that I am bringing the energy every day,” says Zehnder. “That’s not going anywhere. If I’m not bringing the energy then something probably isn’t going right. That’s how I would describe myself – just really enthusiastic, energetic and I’m going to fight for my guys.”

Zehnder says Francis Marion University’s men’s basketball team will play hard and compete in every game, and so far that’s been the case. The Patriots were the surprise of their league at the start of the season, winning six of their first seven Conference Carolinas games while knocking off league powers UNC-Pembroke and Belmont Abbey. Close losses down the stretch have knocked Zehnder’s first team back a bit, but they haven’t dampened many spirits.

“We’ve had some ups and downs, but you learn a lot. I am really excited about where we are headed,” Zehnder says. “You have to be able to adjust to the ebbs and flows of a season. Adversity is something everybody will face at some point in time. It’s inevitable. Not everybody can grow from it and harness it. That’s what we are trying to do.”

His goal, both now and down the road, is to build a program and a team that will make the FMU community proud.

man clapping

AN UNUSUAL PATH

Zehnder is a basketball nut who has been involved with the sport his entire life. The Florida native played high school basketball at Harmony High School in St. Cloud, Florida, and Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, Florida.

Zehnder was injured late in his high school career, and couldn’t finish it on the court, so he helped his high school coach on the bench.

“I’m sitting there at 17 years old making substitutions and fell in love with coaching,” Zehnder says. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I went off to school, and ended up dropping out because I didn’t really see the need to sit in an English class. So, I started coaching AAU (American Athletics Union) basketball. I was coaching high school basketball at 18 years old.”

Like a lot of very young men, Zehnder thought he had it all figured out. He landed an assistant coaching job at the Rock School, a private school in Gainesville, Fla., and was as happy as could be. He thought coaching would help him advance his career faster than a college degree. 

His thinking changed after a visit with Florida State University Associate Head Basketball Coach Stan Jones. Jones saw Zehnder working with a post player during a high school practice. He asked Zehnder where he went to college and who his mentors were. Zehnder told him he didn’t go to college and had no real mentors. After a brief pause, Jones basically told him, “good luck with that.”

“What he said was, ‘You didn’t go to college?’ And I  said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Great. I’ll see you back here (meaning in the same place with the same job)  in 15 years,’” says Zehnder.

man coaching basketball

BACK TO SCHOOL

Message received. The next day Zehnder emailed every college coach in the state of Florida, looking for a job that would help him pay for school.

He knew he had to get his degree.

Zehnder says he sent about 70 emails. 

He received two replies.

One was from the College of Central Florida coach Tim Ryan. He received the email on a Thursday and was talking to Ryan the next Monday. Ryan said he really didn’t need much help at the time, but Zehnder could sit in and watch.

Zehnder jumped at the chance and eventually became an assistant coach at the College of Central Florida where he earned a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in business and organizational management.

“It was a real roundabout path to coaching,” Zehnder said. “I wasn’t a high-level player. My father didn’t coach college or high school, and I wasn’t a manager for (Duke’s) Coach K or (former Florida coach) Billy Donovan.”

It wasn’t the easiest path, but Zehnder says he wouldn’t change it for the world. The struggles he faced, the long days and nights, the strange situations in which he found himself,  prepared him for anything.

For instance, Zehnder was still working for Ryan at the College of Central Florida in 2019, when the Patriots’ program — coincidentally, CCF was nicknamed the Patriots, too — was dropped by the school. That’s not the best career break, but it worked out.

Zehnder was hired shortly after by a small, picturesque school in South Carolina. A place called Francis Marion University. 

man screaming at basketball game

AN IMMEDIATE HIT

Zehnder was an immediate hit at FMU. The players loved his style and his AAU ties in Florida provided some quick dividends on the recruiting trail. He recruited most of the players he coached in his first year on the job.

Zehnder received the university’s 2021-22 Frankie Award for Assistant Coach of the Year.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been recognized, and in all likelihood, it won’t be the last. 

FMU runs a spread offense patterned on the offenses run by Oregon Coach Dana Altman and Illinois Coach Brad Underwood. Smart coaches “steal” from successful ones, he says.

Defensively, the Patriots use a hybrid system that switches between man-to-man and zone. It is, says Zehnder, “a strange brand of basketball on the defensive side.”

It is a tricky defense to learn and some of the Patriots’ younger players struggled with it, Zehnder says. But it’s helped the Patriots be successful. 

The team will get better at it over time, says Zehnder.

It’s likely their new coach will, too.

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