Tyson's journey: from Rhody Guy to coaching at former rival UMass

Tyson Wheeler admits it will be an adjustment being a "Rhody Guy" coaching for his former college basketball program's Atlantic 10 rival.

But an adjustment that he's more than happy to make.

Wheeler is extremely grateful that UMass head coach Matt McCall asked him on Friday to join the staff as an assistant coach. Once he fully completes the hiring process, the New London High School graduate will officially start his new job.

"I'm a Rhody Guy," Wheeler said on Monday about coaching at UMass after starring at Rhode Island. "But Matt gave me an opportunity and I had to take it. He believed in me. We only talked a couple of times.

"I'm very excited. It's a new start for me. And I'm ready."

It is the 43-year-old Wheeler's second stop in his college coaching journey. He spent the previous eight seasons as an assistant at Fairfield University. When head coach Sydney Johnson was fired in March, Wheeler was left looking for a job.

Prior to McCall reaching out to Wheeler about the vacancy, the pair had only a few casual conversations during interactions on recruiting trips.

"No connections at all," Wheeler said.

McCall did his homework on Wheeler and then reached out to him.

"He gave me a call one day," Wheeler said. "We had a really good conversation for about 30 minutes and he talked to me about what he was looking for in an assistant coach and I think I fit that criteria and he invited me up for an interview."

While on the Amherst campus Friday for his interview, Wheeler met with McCall and things progressed from there.

Wheeler was offered the job before returning home to Norwich.

"I think I got lucky," Wheeler said. "I was just grateful that he gave me an opportunity to come up and sit down and talk with him and meet the other coaches. The athletic director, Ryan Bamford, is a great guy. It is the perfect fit for both sides.

".. He told me right after the interview, 'Tyson, you're the guy I want. You're exactly what I'm looking for and you check all the boxes as an assistant coach.' ... And I knew I was going to take it."

Wheeler can't wait to return to campus to work with his new team.

The Minutemen are rebuilding. They went 11-21 last season, inclding 4-14 in the Atlantic 10.

Wheeler, a former point guard, believes his playing and coaching experience will serve him well in his new job.

"I played in the Atlantic 10 and played at a high level, so I know what it takes to get to where these young players want to get to," Wheeler said. "I know the work that they're going to have to put in. I think I do a really good job of teaching the game and understanding the game, especially from the point guard position, so (Matt) was looking for that.

"Also, being able to work as a cohesive unit in the coaches office and the floor. I'm a very easy-going guy, easy to get along with. A people person. I've worked for different coaches with Ed Cooley and Sydney Johnson who taught me a tremendous amount about basketball, not the game, but as a coach."

Cooley taught Wheeler about importance of building relationships and connecting with players. Johnson helped him become a better teacher of the game on the court and also honed his recruiting skills.

Now Wheeler is looking forward to using his basketball coaching education to help the Minutemen.

"UMass is a great, great school to sell," Wheeler said. "A great history. An outstanding league that I played in, which will help me. Great facilities. That's important just as a selling point for me to want to be a part of that.

"I'm very excited. They have a lot of things that are going great for them right now. ... I've always been an underdog growing up. I love challenges. I love the competitive side of things."

Wheeler has yet to check the schedule to see when UMass plays his alma mater. He does know that the Minutemen visit Fairfield next season.

Wheeler pointed out he knows two other former players that ended up coaching for his college basketball team's rival. Former UMass standout Al Skinner served as Rhode Island coach and Tyrone Weeks, another UMass player, was an assistant for the Rams.

"It's part of the business," Wheeler said. "I love URI. But I'm not playing any more."

g.keefe@theday.com

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