By Alex Forkner
With 11 minutes left in the last game of his collegiate career, Tony Delk spotted up for a three-pointer in the corner right in front of UK’s bench. A Syracuse defender closed out hard, colliding with Delk and sending him sliding into the legs of his teammates as the ball soared through the air. The shot was good, a foul was called and the four-point play extended a Wildcat lead that Syracuse could not overcome.
Thirteen years after earning Most Outstanding Player honors in that 1996 National Championship victory, Delk would return to the UK sideline, this time in an assistant coach’s chair and not on his back.
In his time on the UK coaching staff under John Calipari, Delk saw the team reach an Elite Eight and a Final Four before making the move to New Mexico State. So how did he feel watching from a distance as players he coached hung another banner in the hallowed rafters of Rupp Arena?
“I was ecstatic,” Delk said. “Especially being there the last two years, going to the Elite Eight, making it to the Final Four last year and then to see them finish it off this year. It had been a long time, but when you’re part of a family, anytime we can achieve success, all the former players, all of us are happy just like we were there and we won a championship with those guys.”
One aspect of this year’s UK team Delk especially enjoyed witnessing, besides the freshman phenoms, was the development of the returning players. At his new gig, where high school superstars are hard to come by, development is the name of the game.
“You go from a high major to a mid major, so you see the absence of really good players,” Delk said, describing a major difference between coaching at UK and NMSU. “It’s a lot of work at this level, because you’re not getting five-star, four-star guys. So there’s a lot of work that goes into it, but I think it’s fun when you can actually see a guy improve as you keep coaching him.”
When New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies hired Delk last year, he said the former All-American and NBA vet would give his team instant credibility with current players and potential recruits. Delk said his playing days prepared him to prepare players.
“Being able to understand the game and relate it to them really helps me out,” he said. “I think they respect it more, especially being a former player. When the coach has played the game, you’re listening to him and he knows the game. Not to say if you haven’t played then you don’t know the game, but it’s a lot different with guys that played.”
Delk’s resume would be the envy of any young player hoping to achieve success: 1992 Tennessee Mr. Basketball, Parade and McDonald’s All-American, All-Southeastern Conference, SEC Player of the Year, first-round NBA draft pick, 12-year NBA career, as well as national title winner and Final Four MOP. He even had success overseas, winning the Greek Cup, the Greek Championship and the European Championship with Panathinaikos in Athens, Greece. With that kind of back catalog, it’s hard not to remember some of the greatest hits from time to time, but Delk sees no need to recreate his past magic by trying to upstage the young guys he coaches.
“I definitely try to stay away from that,” he said. “Playing nowadays will get you hurt. I don’t have anything to prove anymore, so if I step out there it’s just to make a couple shots. But I still stay in shape, running and working out. Conditioning is something that’s always been key and important to me.”
All of Delk’s basketball-related energy is now focused on coaching, a logical occupation for such a credentialed player. He realized it was the job for him during his stint with the Carolina Giants in Puerto Rico a year before becoming assistant director of basketball operations in Lexington.
“I was down there playing for a summer league, trying to get back in shape,” Delk said. “I went down there and the owner of the team ended up taking over and coaching the team. I had a lot of input on the offense and the defense, and that kind of gave me the indication that this might be a great career path for me.”
Delk then returned to his alma mater for a valuable learning experience under Calipari. He said it was not just an education in basketball strategy, but life as well.
“It was a phenomenal experience, working for a great guy who really understands the game,” Delk said. “He has a family life and basketball; he has a good balance. That’s one thing I really picked up from him, is how to balance both, especially there, with having so many responsibilities. He’s still able to do his job on the court as well as off the court.”
Delk believes Calipari is an example worthy of emulation.
“Cal was definitely a great mentor and somebody who helped me. Just seeing how he carried himself, you know, is the way I want to conduct myself if I’m in that position at some point in time.”
That position being head coach, a title Delk has his sights on in the future.
“I have aspirations to be a head coach, without a doubt,” he said. “I don’t want to be an assistant; I definitely want to be in charge. I think that’s the mindset of any guy that’s had aspirations of doing great things. Someday I want to be able to make it to a Final Four or even to win a championship.”
When he talks about potentially being a head coach one day, there is a steely quality in Delk’s voice. He knows he has the knowledge and tools to succeed at the highest level, apparent when he talks about potential openings at powerhouse schools in the next few years.
“I know the next maybe five to seven years a lot of these big schools will open up—maybe [Jim] Boeheim, [Mike] Krzyzewski, coach [Rick] Pitino—these guys will be stepping down here shortly, in the next maybe 5 to 7 years. Who knows?”
Delk swears he has no dream job and would be open to any opportunities that present themselves, even professional basketball, though he prefers college right now because he feels he can have an impact on young players.
And if Delk proves himself as a recruiter and developer of players, he’ll undoubtedly land higher-profile jobs over the next several years. And if a certain scenario ever developed where Delk was a viable option to take the reins at the University of Kentucky?
“It would be a great feeling, but I kind of know what comes with that territory. And it’s a lot,” he said. “A lot of responsibility. It just depends on where I’m at in the junction of my life. You have to be ready to take on a lot when you take on that Kentucky job.
“There’s the feeling that, if you have a family, you’d have to know that, ‘Kentucky is my first priority’—almost. You’d have to go in with that mindset. If it ever presented itself, it would definitely be something to consider. I would love to be back there. Someday…you never know. God works in mysterious ways.”
Whether or not he returns to the sideline where he once sat as an assistant and lay as a hero, Delk will always be a Wildcat legend.
Photo from New Mexico State University