ALBANY — Brendan Leary remembers well the car rides during which he debated basketball with Tobin Anderson.
They were the backcourt for Division III Wesleyan University then, in the mid-1990s, the sons of coaches, close friends and roommates.
Leary loved the Fab Five, and always felt the best players made the best coaches.
Anderson argued that great coaches could do more with less. He idolized Bobby Knight for that very reason.
“He was like, ‘Bobby Knight could take five people from the cafeteria and win games, just the way he coaches and the way he could bring talent together, get them in sync,’ ” Leary recalled Anderson saying.
Leary laughs about it now, because of what Anderson has done with Fairleigh Dickinson, doing more with less.
In his first season in Division I after nine seasons at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas in Rockland County, Anderson has led the small Teaneck, N.J., school — the smallest team, height-wise, in Division I this season — to the NCAA Tournament and to a massive upset of Purdue, as the second No. 16 seed ever to beat a No. 1.
Anderson engineered a massive turnaround, leading the Knights to 21 wins a season after they managed just four.
Anderson, a 51-year-old Iowa native, always wanted to be a coach and follow in his father Steve’s footsteps, even back in college.
He openly talked about it.
His dream job was Notre Dame.
Leary and Anderson, frequently attended University of Massachusetts games, during the height of the John Calipari era there, and analyzed the sport.
They spent late nights working on their game when nobody was left in the Wesleyan gym in Middletown, Conn.
“A lot of people say they love basketball, but he eats, sleeps, drinks, breathes basketball,” Leary said. “He cares about winning, basketball, players, love of the game. He would coach a youth basketball team if he could make ends meet just because he loves teaching the game and coaching the game.”
Anderson got his first break in 2011, when Mitch Buonaguro hired him as one of his assistant coaches at Siena out of Division III Hamilton College in Clifton, N.Y.
Buonaguro knew Anderson through the famed Five-Star Basketball Camp that was run by the late Howard Garfinkel.
He was seen by some as a rising star, the rare coach in his 20s whom Garfinkel tapped to speak to campers.
Early in Anderson’s first season, Buonaguro remembered his school president, Rev. Kevin Mullen, walking into his office, in awe of the new assistant coach after watching him run an individual workout for one of the team’s guards.
“I just witnessed something really special. The assistant you hired, Coach Anderson, just gave an unbelievable 45-minute workout,” Mullen told Buonaguro. “It was 45 minutes of intensity, of teaching, of demonstration. I was mesmerized.”
Nicole Ryan, the athletic director at St. Thomas Aquinas, had similar memories of Anderson, whose practices were high-energy, with intense, constant action.
Player development was an emphasis.
His staff worked around the clock.
“He’s sweating just as much as the players,” Ryan said.
She isn’t surprised by what he has accomplished at FDU.
She saw a similar turnaround at St. Thomas Aquinas.
The year before Anderson arrived, the team won just five games.
In his third season, it embarrassed St. John’s in an exhibition game, beating Chris Mullin’s team by 31 points.
That season, the Spartans reached the first of seven Division II NCAA Tournaments under Anderson.
“That was shocking then, and now he’s taken it to the next level,” Ryan said.
Watching that upset of Purdue, what struck Buonaguro the most was the belief with which FDU played.
The stage wasn’t too big.
The Knights weren’t the least bit intimidated by the Big Ten regular-season and postseason champions. They were both physically and mentally prepared to pull off the stunner.
“I thought the greatest thing was how confident those kids played,” said Buonaguro, who is now a consultant for both the men’s and women’s hoops programs at the Division II College of Saint Rose in Albany. “Most teams in that position, they get awe-struck. That did not happen. I thought Purdue was the less confident team for some reason. They looked like they were almost like deer in headlights.”
For years, Anderson waited for an opportunity as he stacked up wins at St. Thomas Aquinas.
He was turned down for jobs, told to work his way up as a Division I assistant.
He tried that for two years at Siena.
He didn’t want to go back to that.
Finally, last May, FDU gave him his shot.
“It proves the point that there are great coaches on every level,” Buonaguro said. “Some of them coach in anonymity.”
That is no longer the case for Tobin Anderson — not after the Knights’ Friday-night shocker over Purdue.