By Jonah Bronstein
There were days during early season practices at Niagara University when the most intense competitor on the floor was a 5-foot-11, slow-footed, slightly balding guard whose eligibility ran out more than a decade ago.
Luke Dobrich, 32, is in his eighth season as a men’s basketball assistant coach at Niagara, and his first as the senior member of head coach Joe Mihalich’s staff. NCAA rules restrict how often Dobrich, a Purple Eagles player from 1996-2000, can be an active participant in practice drills. But he relishes those rare occasions when he gets to relive his days as a Division I player.
“There’s nothing like being out there on the court playing the game,” Dobrich said. “You get your competitive juices flowing. Not that you’re trying to relive your glory, but it’s just so much fun.”
When Dobrich jumps into a drill, he tries to demonstrate passion and competitiveness as much as proper techniques.
“I wish I was back in your shoes,” Dobrich will tell the players sometimes. “Sometimes it’s a grind but what I wouldn’t’ give to go back for one more season. You’re playing Division I basketball, it’s the best time of your life, and it goes by so fast.”
On the floor, Dobrich conveys that message blasting through screens, bellowing after making big shots and barking at managers for scorekeeping errors.
“He brings it every day,” senior point guard Anthony Nelson said. “He’s intense in video, walk-throughs, everything. Just like the players should be. He shows us the way.
“And he’s still got game, too.”
“There’s something neat,” Mihalich said, “about seeing a guy like him, whether his is demonstrating a drill or jumping into a drill every once in a while, showing how passionate you need to be. Our team is learning so many different things and one thing they’re learning is how important it is to be passionate.”
Dobrich learned that growing up Depue, Ill., where his father was the high school coach. As a senior, Dobrich was a second-team all-state selection who received votes for the Mr. Basketball Award.
“He was terrific when he first came in as a freshman,” former Niagara coach Jack Armstrong said. “ He was precisely what we were looking for in terms of a steady guard who could stick open shots, make good high percentage decisions, not turn the ball over. He was a self-starter, a gym rat, somebody who had great passion and hunger for the game.”
By the second week of practice in his freshman year, however, Dobrich was no longer himself. Thinking he had the flu, he tried to play through stomach pain and a lack of energy until, following the first exhibition game, he collapsed. It turned out he had ruptured his appendix, and he wound up spending eight days in the hospital here, and five more back in Illinois.
“It probably affected me for the rest of my career,” Dobrich said. “Having that in the back of my mind, being the first time away form home, a small town in Illinois. It took some of my fire away and it was a long time before I got it back.”
When his senior season came around, Dobrich and classmates Nate Bernosky, Peter Strobl, Mike Byrne, Danny Amponsah and Terry Edwards tried to cherish every practice, game and road trip and compete as hard as they could. The Purple Eagles, picked to finish eighth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference that season, went 17-12 and were a top four team in the MAAC.
After graduation, Dobrich decided to put his business degree to use and enter the corporate world. When he told of the decision, Mihalich told Dobrich, “you should go do that and get it out of your system. But you’re going to be a coach.”
“I’m pretty sure I said that to him,” Mihalich said. “I know I thought it.”
Dobrich spent two years as an account executive with Fujitsu and one year as a sales executive with Experian. But he wasn’t passionate about his work.
“When I got into the business world for a little while, I felt the pull back to basketball really hard,” Dobrich said. “I couldn’t stand not being around it.”
Shortly after he spent a day hanging out with Armstrong in Chicago, Dobrich contacted Mihalich and arranged to come back to Niagara and volunteer as an operations assistant while finding a part-time job to pay the bills.
That convinced Mihalich that Dobrich was serious, and when assistant coach Mike Elfers resigned, Mihalich called Dobrich.
“What if I told you to put your two weeks in tomorrow and get here to Niagara to be a coach?” Mihalich said.
“Are you asking me,” Dobrich asked, “or telling me?”
“Both,” Mihalich said.
Dobrich spent three seasons as the youngest assistant on the staff, and four seasons as the second assistant. When Akbar Waheed took a job at Boston College over the summer, Dobrich was promoted to associate head coach.
“To me, that title means he’s ready to be a head coach,” Mihalich said.
“It’s been a great journey,” Dobrich said. “I’ve learned so much and its amazing to be able to do it at a place where I went to school and played here. I’m very, very fortunate that coach Mihalich gave me this opportunity.”