Seventeen years ago, Frank Vogel was just a student at Juniata College in Pennsylvania playing Division III basketball. He knew that he wanted a future in the game as a coach, but he didn't know how he was going to get there.
Today, Vogel is the head coach of the NBA's Indiana Pacers. Fresh off of leading the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after taking over on an interim basis, Vogel earned the job on a permanent basis on July 6.
In between came a transfer to the University of Kentucky, where Vogel became a student manager and eventually a member of the junior varsity team, then a steady rise up the coaching ranks in the NBA. With memories of himself as a college student trying to figure out how to break into the coaching business still in his mind, Vogel can hardly believe where his career has taken him.
He knows, though, that it didn't happen by accident.
"It's completely surreal," Vogel said. "Since I've been in the NBA, I've had my sights set on this type of opportunity, but I was playing Division III basketball and hoping for a chance to be a student manager. I certainly never imagined reaching the NBA. If you work your tail off, focus on the task at hand and are good at what you do, pretty good things can happen."
Vogel's ascent up the coaching ladder was made possible by a series of opportunities. By approaching each of them with a willingness to work, a desire to learn and talent, Vogel has made the very best out of each of the opportunities he has been presented.
The first of them came in Lexington.
A native of Wildwood, N.J., and a lifelong basketball junkie, Vogel earned a spot on the basketball team at Juniata after high school. He never posted big numbers, but he was team captain during his junior year. Vogel enjoyed playing at Juniata but had his eyes on the future.
Vogel wanted to coach.
Since high school, Vogel had been watching the renaissance of Kentucky basketball from afar. He watched as Rick Pitino took over the program and guided the legendary "Unforgettables" to a Final Four berth in 1992. In terms of places to learn the coaching trade, Vogel saw none better than Lexington and no better coach to learn from than Pitino.
"He was the reason why I transferred to Kentucky to pursue this dream," Vogel said. "What he did with Richie Farmer, (John) Pelphrey and those guys (was amazing). I still remember watching one of the videos or something that they did after he had been there a couple years and it showed his initial press conference. (I remember seeing) the power of his message, his positive energy and his hard work."
Vogel took to writing Pitino and UK, but he didn't make much headway. It was then that Vogel met Pitino at a camp back home in New Jersey. Vogel didn't approach Pitino asking for an opportunity; he came explaining why he could be an asset to Kentucky basketball.
"I didn't beg for an opportunity for me," Vogel said. "I tried to show them that I am of value to them; that I can help them; that I have a good basketball mind; that I am a good person, a basketball junkie and a purist; I want to work; and I'm not looking for anything but the opportunity to learn."
Vogel firmly believed that a hungry aspiring coach like himself would be of value to a coaching staff with a reputation for outworking everyone else.
"Whatever they're doing in the film room and as hard as they work, I just knew they could use somebody behind the scenes that was going to burn the midnight oil and help them," Vogel said. "Any coach like those guys that works as hard as they do, they appreciate the value of somebody that can do that. I just tried to tell them, 'I'm an undergrad student, but every minute I spend outside the classroom I'll be with you guys helping and I won't ask for anything other than the chance to learn.' I just tried to present it that way."
Vogel's approach worked. UK took him on as a student manager and he enrolled for the 1994-95 school year. He immediately recognized that the decision he made would pay dividends.
During the 1990s, Lexington was a veritable breeding ground for coaches and Vogel got to be a part of that. On the staff when Vogel came to UK was Jim O'Brien, the coach that Vogel replaced with the Pacers, and the current head coach of Mid-Continent University, Winston Bennett. Vogel also got to work alongside Bill Keightley, the long-time equipment manager at UK affectionately known as "Mr. Wildcat".
"I'm so grateful that Mr. Bill Keightley gave me the opportunity and Coach O'Brien and Coach Pitino," Vogel said. "I was very fortunate to be a part of it."
That first year at UK was an amazing experience, but his second would present yet another opportunity. With an exceptionally deep roster and talented players that would likely not see the floor in 1995-96, Pitino decided to revive the junior varsity program at UK. Vogel was asked to be part of the team.
Not only did he get to suit up for games with players like Nazr Mohammed and Cameron Mills, but he also went through all the same drills, conditioning and preseason skill work as the varsity players did. Vogel believes that season is still paying dividends.
"It was awesome," Vogel said. "I always felt like you could only learn so much by watching. You have to learn by doing and that applies to everything in life."
Now, having to balance the schedule of a college athlete with taking 18 credit hours as a biology major, Vogel had to cut down on his responsibilities as a student manager, right?
Vogel set his alarm early every morning for JV practice from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m., followed by his classes. Before lunch, he would head back to Memorial Coliseum to wash uniforms if he had time and do individual workouts with the players as a student manager. From 2 to 6 p.m., Vogel was back at the gym for practice before sneaking in dinner and studying. Late night, he was often with the coaches again working on film projects.
In hindsight, Vogel probably could have found a less demanding major than biology.
"I'm the dumbest person on the planet, doing biology," Vogel joked. "There had to be some easier course loads I could have taken."
You often hear about the hectic life of an NBA coach, but Vogel says that nothing can come close to that 1995-96 season.
"It was a great year for learning to balance my time," Vogel said. "It was by far the busiest year of my life."
Vogel's work was rewarded in the short term by being a part of one of the greatest teams in college basketball history, but what does he most remember about that team?
"I remember denim uniforms," Vogel said, clearly remembering his duty washing the notorious uniforms.
All kidding aside, Vogel watched a team with nine players who would go on to the NBA play as an inseparable unit. As the 2011-12 UK basketball team heads into a season with potentially comparable talent, Vogel believes there is a great lesson to be learned.
"Guys on that team understood that they were going nowhere as individuals (if they didn't go as a team)," Vogel said.
After playing a role in winning a national title, Vogel's longer term reward was becoming Pitino's head video coordinator when he accepted the head coaching position with the Boston Celtics. It was a position that Vogel held for five years before the Celtics hired O'Brien, who promoted Vogel to assistant coach.
Vogel would spend eight years in Boston before he and his family would follow O'Brien in an assistant coach capacity with the Philadelphia 76ers (2004-05) and eventually the Pacers (2007-11). As the years passed by and Vogel remained an assistant, the idea of returning to the college game to earn some head coaching experience crossed his mind, but Vogel remained patient and kept the faith that another great opportunity would come along.
"After I left the Celtics, I was with Jim O'Brien all the way," Vogel said. "I was asked frequently whether I thought I should go back to college to get some head coaching experience. ... I always said that as long I was growing as a basketball coach and still working my way up that I wouldn't be in any rush to go back to the college scene. Hopefully I would find a long shot opportunity and I was fortunate enough that it happened."
That long-shot opportunity came in the form of an interim gig with the Pacers when O'Brien was dismissed on Jan. 31. Vogel took over for a team that was 17-27 and on the outside of the playoff race. Vogel guided his team to a 20-18 record and the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers lost a hard-fought five-game series to the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
"It was quite an experience taking over midseason and I was fortunate to take over a team that was really close to turning the corner," Vogel said. "We did some good things toward the end there and I was happy to be a part of it."
Vogel used the very same approach that compelled him to transfer to UK in the first place to help turn his team around and take advantage of his opportunity as interim coach.
"That sort of belief that you're going to outwork everybody in sight and do it in a positive way," Vogel said. "I just fell in love with that approach and it inspired me to get into coaching and to transfer down to UK and try to make something happen for myself and my career. I think I sort of carried over that approach that Coach P took to turn that team around."
Just over two weeks ago, Vogel was rewarded for his work when the interim tag was taken away and he was officially named head coach
For some, coaching in a basketball-crazed state like Indiana would be a tall task, but it turns out that Vogel's first opportunity has prepared him for his latest.
"(Working and studying at UK) gave me a tremendous background," Vogel said. "It gave me a tremendous appreciation for what it means. When you think of basketball, you think of Kentucky and Indiana: the high school and the IU-UK rivalry. It's a special part of basketball in this country. Being at UK and experiencing the love and passion for UK basketball back then, that's what prepared me for basketball in this state."
The entire "Where are they now" series:
Baseball: Collin Cowgill keeps things in perspective as he waits for call-up
Men's tennis: Jesse Witten contemplating life after tennis
Football: Dicky Lyons takes on life's unexpected next step
Gymnastics: Jenny Hansen making unprecedented gymnastics coach
Women's basketball: Still a fighter, school's leading scorer perseveres after playing career