Passion for Developing Young Basketball Players Leads Jeff Culver to USA Basketball
Jeff Culver played basketball in high school, but hoops were not on his mind when he attended the University of Michigan. He hoped to go pre-med.
“I wanted to go to the highest academic option and was really just thinking about that,” Culver said. “And not really thinking about pursuing playing basketball.”
After graduating with a degree in psychology in 1995, Culver moved briefly to Chicago and then Colorado, where he owned a couple businesses, including a donut shop and a bar and grill.
And then he got into coaching basketball.
“I’d been thinking about getting into it for a while," Culver said. "I was involved in some different business ventures, and I answered an ad in the newspaper for a middle school coaching job at Alexander Dawson in Lafayette (Colorado). And it was for an eighth grade job, and they didn’t think I was quite ready, so I got the seventh grade gig.
“I was very fortunate that the opportunity kept presenting itself.”
Culver worked his way up to coach an eighth grade team, then a junior varsity team, then a varsity team and then became an assistant coach at Colorado State University. A seven-year coaching stint followed at Johnson & Wales University, where he also was the athletic director. Culver won three coach of the year awards with the Association of Independent Institutions.
For the past eight years, he has found a home as the head coach at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, taking the Mountain Lions to their first Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship and also coaching current San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White.
Colorado Springs is the site of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee as well as USA Basketball, opening the door for Culver to serve as lead coach at the USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team minicamp this July, after also serving as a court coach for the USA U19 training camp earlier this year.
“I love it. It’s great,” Culver said of coaching with USA Basketball. “I mean, you’re working with an elite level of athletes but also collaborating with some really good coaches. And the team environment there with what they put together for all these training camps and minicamps is pretty cool. The sports staff, the managers — just everybody working for that one goal.
“It’s certainly special. Anytime you put on some of that USA Basketball gear and help to represent the country, even if it’s just in a small way of helping with the basketball program, it’s special. It’s different than any other experience I’ve had in coaching. It’s a welcome experience, and it’s just been great.”
The USA Men's Junior National Team camp includes approximately 75 high school participants from freshman to seniors. Minicamps such as these have a positive reputation among former players as being a big help for their careers. Culver agrees.
“It’s a unique experience for these young men, because they’re in a gym filled with like and similar talents,” Culver said. “And they may get a little bit of that on their club teams — maybe there is a guy or two that is near or at their level — but to be in the midst of dozens of other players that are at or above their level really helps them. It’s enlightening for them. I think it teaches them.
“It helps place an emphasis on a lot of the different aspects of the game rather than what, ‘I am doing with the ball in my hands.’ They’re moving without the ball and playing team defense. Some things they may get away with not having to do at the high school level or at the club level.”
The minicamps are short, less than a week, which can sometimes make coaching the players a little different than in college or high school.
“It’s compact. The schedule makes for a different and unique teaching setting. And you have to kind of pick and choose what you’re able to do and not able to do,” Culver said. “More importantly, you try to get the guys focused and not over-thinking. So there are some similarities and differences. But it’s just being on the basketball court and teaching it. And also working with some special young folks and collaborating with some other coaches.
“So in that sense, it’s similar to other experiences I have.”
While at the U19 camp earlier, Culver also got to meet Michigan coach Juwan Howard, who was one of the famous Fab Five Wolverines that Culver loved watching as a Michigan native.
“He’s been great. It was good to meet Coach Howard.”
Although he grew up in Michigan, Culver says he very much enjoys living in Colorado Springs as well as the state of Colorado. Despite all that he has been successful at, he says he isn’t entirely sure what else he might do in his career.
“We’re happy where we’re at, and I’m excited about working the minicamp next week,” he said of his family. “I’m excited about getting my young roster coming in next month and excited about working with them, and that’s really where my focus is.”
Which includes making his players good at the game, both at UCCS and with the USA Basketball Junior National Team players at the minicamp.
“I’m just hoping to do my part,” he said. “To make somebody better.”