Andrew Moore was at his fourth school in eight years when he got a call from Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich.
Then an assistant at Virginia Tech, the now-Air Force associate head coach listened as Pilipovich described an opening with the Falcons.
Pilipovich asked Moore if he wanted to come out, see the school and meet the players and staff.
“No,” Moore said. “Tell me what day to be there and I’ll be there.”
This job, after all, had something his previous few hadn’t: the opportunity to reunite with one of his closest friends in the college basketball world. The two had known each other since the late 1990s, when they were both assistants at Pennsylvania schools — Moore at Division II California University of Pennsylvania and Pilipovich at Robert Morris.
Both worked together as assistants at Eastern Michigan from 2000 to 2002 before Moore got a job as an administrative assistant at Michigan and worked his way up to assistant coach. When then-Eagles coach Jim Boone was fired, Pilipovich too lost his job, and in a stroke of luck, then-Michigan coach Tommy Amaker had an opening. Moore recommended Pilipovich for the position. Pilipovich got the job and the two grew closer still, holding barbecues for their families and going golfing together.
Two years after the Wolverines hired Pilipovich, they fired Amaker. It had been 10 years since Michigan had made March Madness, and with the Wolverines still under the stranglehold of NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Ed Martin scandal, they needed someone who could rebuild the program from the ground up. To do that, they hired John Beilein. Amaker and his staff became merely relics of a lost time in program history.
Together, Moore and Pilipovich had worked their way up from Western Pennsylvania to the Big Ten. Then, together, they were out of a job.
When Beilein was hired at Michigan in 2007, he told the staff that he wouldn’t be retaining any previous assistants. But unlike some coaches, Beilein didn’t immediately show them the door.
Moore was allowed to stay in the office for a few weeks, using the computer and updating his resume.
“What do you have going on right now?” Beilein asked Moore once he laid out the situation. “What are your options? Do you have any right now?”
Moore mentioned that he was interviewing for an assistant’s job at Bowling Green. Beilein knew Bowling Green’s coach, Louis Orr, from Orr’s tenure at Seton Hall — a Big East foe of Beilein’s West Virginia. Though Beilein had barely met Moore at the time, he called Orr and put in a good word. Soon after, Moore was hired.
“There’s a lot of coaches in that situation that would’ve come in and told me, ‘Get out, right now. … You got ‘til tomorrow to get your boxes packed up and get out of here,’ because this business is tough,” Moore said. “But that wasn’t how (Beilein) was at all. He said, ‘Hey, do what you need to do.’ He was just unbelievably gracious to me to allow me to stay there for that time.”
But Moore’s family was unable to sell their house in Ann Arbor, so he spent just one year at Bowling Green — commuting 70 miles there and back each day — before returning to Eastern Michigan as an assistant coach. Because Moore was still local, Beilein occasionally invited him to practice to let him watch and learn.
“With those guys, I just felt so bad, because they were so close to continuing with that coaching staff and a couple of losses just made the difference,” Beilein told The Daily. “I tried to assist them as much as I (could).”
Pilipovich, meanwhile, spent about three more weeks with the Wolverines in a temporary assistant’s position. Beilein wanted someone to stay around a few more weeks and help with the transition, and it gave Pilipovich a chance to simultaneously secure other work and see how Beilein ran his program.
There was a small chance that an assistant position would be there for Pilipovich, but only if Beilein’s planned hires didn’t work out. So when Air Force offered Pilipovich a job, he took it, wanting the stability that came with a permanent position.
Still, Beilein remembered Pilipovich’s willingness to help him adjust, and even as the two worked halfway across the country, they remained friends, texting each other congratulations and stopping to check in when they recruited in the same places.
“When I came in, (Pilipovich) offered to hang in there as a transition (though) most people would’ve taken their severance check and left,” Beilein said. “He hung in there and really helped us … and that was just really incredibly honorable by him.”
In 2007, Pilipovich’s first year with the Falcons, an opening popped up at video coordinator. Pilipovich knew just the guy.
Six years earlier, while Moore and Pilipovich were still on the other side of Washtenaw County, Nate Zandt walked into the Michigan basketball office during orientation and asked for a job as a student manager. He was told to come back at the start of the school year to help with the night shift.
Zandt’s first day, he came in at 5 p.m. He didn’t leave until six the next morning.
His work ethic didn’t go unnoticed, and by the time Pilipovich came to the Wolverines, Zandt was an upperclassman and the head manager. Upon graduation in 2006, Zandt spent a year coaching in Division II — incidentally, at California of Pennsylvania — and when the Falcons came calling, Zandt jumped at the chance for a Division I job, which he got based on Pilipovich’s recommendation. Soon afterward, Zandt and Beilein talked for the first time at a youth tournament in Las Vegas, where they were recruiting two different players on the same team. During the last game of the night, Zandt introduced himself.
“Just introduced myself the first time,” Zandt said. “Said, ‘Hey, Coach, I worked at Michigan, you’re doing a good job there.’ … He’s always been great with me, just knowing that I’m from there, alumni there.”
He still talks to Beilein from time to time. Beilein tells him to keep working and reminds him that he’s with good people in a good situation.
In the midst of a 13-16 season, Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds was fired in February 2012. Pilipovich took over as the interim. The situation was far from ideal, but Pilipovich led the team to two of its three Mountain West wins and did enough to earn the permanent coaching job. It was after that season that Pilipovich hired Moore.
The Falcons aren’t the kind of program you’d expect as a next destination for Michigan assistants. Tucked away in the northern outskirts of Colorado Springs, Colo., Air Force is a far cry from the Big Ten — in more ways than one.
A mandated five years of military service after graduation keeps NBA prospects away. The admission standards are stringent. Student life is grueling. On top of taking 21 credits during 18-week semesters, cadets must get up at 6 a.m. every morning, undergo regular cleanliness checks and perform military duties. The smallest of medical problems — from asthma to color-blindness to a peanut allergy — can prevent admittance.
And unlike most other Division I programs, with the Falcons, cadet-athletes, as they’re called, can’t miss class and can only fit in four hours of practice per day. Even individual training won’t fit into a schedule. Transfers aren’t allowed, so if Air Force wants to compete, it must develop the athletes it has.
Because of that, the Falcons rarely sniff the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament. They haven’t had a winning season since 2012-13 and their best win under Pilipovich was a buzzer-beating upset of No. 12 New Mexico that same year.
It’s in no way an easy place to coach — let alone recruit. But for Pilipovich, Moore and Zandt, the familiarity helps, and their experience in Ann Arbor helps in different ways.
Like the Wolverines, the Falcons recruit all over the country. Moore is a strong recruiter with a presence in the Midwest and experience selling schools with a commitment to academics.
“Michigan, as much as any other place, prepared me to have to, with the recruiting, with the academic standards … we couldn’t just bring anybody in,” Moore said. “At Michigan, we had to bring in young men who were very serious about academics and their future as well, just like these young men here at the Air Force Academy.”
Zandt, meanwhile, is still every bit the hard worker that stayed up all night his first night as a student manager. He’s patient and willing to do whatever the program needs. And Pilipovich took some cues from Beilein — one of the best player development coaches in the country — on teaching fundamentals and building players rather than merely recruiting them.
And working there comes with rewards that go beyond the team’s record.
“I guess if I had to boil it down to one thing, you’re coaching young men that have made a commitment that when they graduate, they’re gonna serve their country, and I can’t think of anything more special than that,” Moore said. “And they basically say that if needed, they will do what they need to do to fight to defend your freedom.”
When Pilipovich brings his team to Ann Arbor on Saturday, it will be his first time back since coming to Air Force, and the team he returns to play against will be very different from the one he left.
As Beilein revived a program that had been left for dead — first getting the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament, then turning them into a perennial contender — Crisler Center, too, got a facelift. Gone are the leaky ceilings and insufficient heat Pilipovich remembers. He hasn’t been back since, though Beilein sent him drawings and eventually pictures of the new place.
Few vestiges remain of what Michigan basketball used to be, but it was that era of the program that shaped so much of who Zandt, Moore and Pilipovich are today. On Saturday, the three will meet with old friends, visit their old haunts and thank the people — including Beilein — who got them to this point.
And in the game, the Wolverines, 12-0 and ranked fourth in the country, will face the Falcons — unranked, 4-6, but led in part by three Michigan products thriving in their own way.
Beilein’s team is now a national contender proving every day how far it’s come since the Amaker days. On the other side of the bench, the three Air Force coaches will return with the chance to show how far they’ve come.
Additional reporting by Mike Persak