Zach Spiker still vividly remembers his first trip to Veterans Stadium.
The West Virginia native was a few months out of high school, doing a post-graduate year at the Hill School in Pottstown, when he sat in the 700 Level and watched the Eagles beat the Cowboys after Dallas head coach Barry Switzer went for it on 4th-and-1 two plays in a row and got stuffed both times.
All around him, fans were screaming. They ran out of hot chocolate in the stadium. Earlier in the day, he had a Jim’s cheesesteak on South Street.
So many memories.
“That was my first real exposure to Philadelphia,” he said. “And I loved it.”
That was in December of 1995. A little more than 20 years later, Spiker returned to Philly to take over as Drexel’s head men’s basketball coach, getting introduced at a press conference on the University City campus Tuesday.
And although much has changed in his life since then as he’s climbed the coaching ladder at different stops across the country, one thing has not: his love for Philadelphia.
And he plans to use the allure of the city to help build up a Drexel program that’s fallen on hard times over the past couple of seasons.
“I’ve got all that stuff to sell to recruits -- the Big 5 and Philadelphia basketball,” he said. “It’s a great draw, a great attraction. I think it attracted me to be here.”
Spiker got his first taste of Philly hoops growing up near the University of West Virginia, watching the Mountaineers take on then-Atlantic 10 rivals Temple and Saint Joseph’s.
Like his first trip to the Vet, he has equally vivid memories of former Temple star Mark Macon and ex-St. Joe’s standout Rodney Blake, who he called his favorite player.
“Who from West Virginia can say that?” he laughed. “It doesn’t make sense.”
He learned more about Philadelphia from Penn head coach Steve Donahue, who he served under at Cornell from 2004-2009. He learned a lot about basketball from him too, which helped him land his first head coaching position at Army, where he won 102 games over the past seven seasons, including 19 in the most recent one, to become Drexel's top target.
Spiker also credits Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall (who he worked under at Winthrop from 2000 to 2002) and Michigan head coach John Beilein (who he worked under at West Virginia from 2002 to 2004) as key mentors, as well as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski who also got his start at Army.
But the best piece of advice he’s ever gotten? That came from Donahue, who made the short walk over from Penn to be there for Spiker’s introductory press conference.
“He taught me how to understand knowing your players,” Spiker said. “And he said, 'When you get done with that, spend some time knowing them some more.' That, I think, was the best advice I’ve ever had as a coach. And I’m here today because of that.”
Spiker took that to heart in his new gig, immediately meeting with Drexel’s players and making sure the incoming seniors like Rodney Williams and Mohamed Bah know that he’s not here to blow everything up but that he’s ready to win right away.
He even said he plans to live on campus until he and his wife find a place to live. And on Monday night, he had dinner with Williams.
“We’re gonna have some standards in our program, but we can’t make rules without relationships,” Spiker said. "Rules without relationships can lead to rebellion. We’re going through this together.”
Williams, for one, was glad to start building that relationship with his new coach, which they did over burgers last night. More than anything, it’s helped ease the uncertainty surrounding the program after Bruiser Flint was fired after 15 years.
“Bru was here for a long time and we were always close,” Williams said. “But this is like a breath of fresh air. I like his energy. We all did a lot of research on him and are very impressed. Right now we’re eager to get started and see what he has in store for us.”
Spiker mentioned in his press conference that he’d be seeing the players in the weight room the next day. Meanwhile, he'll get right to work on the recruiting trail, trying to lure players from all over the country to a city he called the best in the world for college hoops.
The one he’s loved for a while and now finally gets to work in.
“It would be ignorant to ignore what Philadelphia offers,” Spiker said. “We’ve got to respect and understand that we can get players from everywhere. There’s great basketball here. What I want more than anything is for people to be excited about our institution.”