When the person responsible for bringing back and shepherding a high-profile college sports program for nearly a generation leaves, the challenge to find a proper replacement is formidable.
For Newman University Director of Athletics and Vice President for Student Affairs Vic Trilli, the biggest test might just have been having the courage and the confidence to understand he didn’t have to look very far to find his man — R.J. Allen, an assistant coach in the Jets’ program.
“There was a ton of interest in this job. I interviewed all these people and talked to different people, and every time I came back to him (Allen). We finally did an interview and he knocked it out of the park,” Trilli explained.
A Wichita native and graduate of Wichita East High School, Allen is looking forward to taking over the only private NCAA Division II program in the state of Kansas.
“Really excited for myself, my family, and the university and our program. I’m really looking forward to having an opportunity to continue the standard that has been set in men’s basketball and take it new heights,” Allen said.
The man that Allen is replacing as Newman’s coach is equally excited about the decision.
“In a day and age where you don’t know who to trust and who not to, you can 100 percent trust coach Allen to absolutely represent this university in the way you want," said former Men's Head Basketball Coach Mark Potter. "And so as the former basketball coach and more importantly as an alum I am really proud of the fact that he’s the basketball coach.”
Potter hired Allen as an assistant in 2011. Prior to joining the Newman staff, Allen was in St. Paul, Minn., coaching at Division II Concordia University. Allen credits Potter for taking him “under his wing” and helping him become the coach he is today.
“I’m thankful for Head Coach Mark Potter for giving me a chance five and a half years ago. I’ve learned a ton from him and look forward to building on what this program has been built on,” Allen said.
In his six seasons as an assistant at Newman, including the past two as associate head coach, Allen helped the Jets to 88 victories, four trips to the Heartland Conference postseason tournament, and the team's first NCAA tournament berth after a 20-8 season in 2012-2013.
His goal is to build on the program’s successes under Potter.
“The lifeline for a collegiate basketball program is recruiting ... we’re going to recruit elite level athletes that are great basketball players, that share the same vision that we do ... and that understand the importance of getting a great education here at Newman University. We’re going to go after blue collar, tough-nosed, tough-minded guys that are able to compete at the highest level so that we become a fixture in the NCAA tournament year in and year out. That’s a goal,” Allen said.
“We’re going to recruit kids in the city of Wichita that are good enough to make a difference. My staff is going to show them the type of experience you can have right here at home at Newman University. We're recruiting nationally as well, but Wichita will be a priority.”
Potter wants to see the Jets program soar even higher under Allen. “I want and I hope that he wins the national championship, and if that happened it would be incredible,” Potter said.
Pressure if replacing a coaching legend?
Replacing a legendary figure on campus like Potter could bring extra pressure for Allen. However, Potter wants to do all he can to make sure the new man knows he has his full support.
“He needs to take it one day at a time and be the best that he can be. I don’t want him to worry about, I’m never going to be looking over his shoulder. If he wants my help, I will give him my help at all times,” Potter said. “He knows that, but if not, he has his own way of doing things and that’s the way it has to be.
"I’m going to always be available because we’re family, but at the same time, I want him to know ‘You're not going to feel any pressure’ from my standpoint. All I care about is that you have the right heart ... be genuine and be the best you can be. And, I promise you things are going to go well because I know who he is and I know what his heart’s like.”
Allen family coaching tree
Potter is not the only coach in his corner. Allen’s father is a longtime high school coach and his first mentor. Ron Allen is understandably proud and excited for his son’s opportunity.
“I was just extremely happy for him. It just kind of validated everything we had taught him along the way about being a good person, being committed, being loyal, keeping the faith and those kinds of things,” Ron Allen said.
“There’s no question about it (he’s ready for the challenge)," said Ron Allen. "This kid grew up late nights watching tape with dad and breaking stuff down knowing exactly what to look for. He’s had a great sense of understanding the game. When he went away and played and came back he even taught me some things. I was amazed at how he had grown cognitively about the sport and his burning desire just took off and I knew he was ready.”
Before Newman: R.J. Allen’s basketball journey
Allen played his prep career and the beginning of his collegiate career in South Central Kansas, becoming a two-time all-city and all-state performer at East High School and helping the Blue Aces to the 2002 6A state championship. He then went on to Hutchinson Community College where he was named a team captain and led the Blue Dragons to a KJCCC championship with a 30-3 record in 2003-2004.
After acquiring his associate's degree from Hutchinson, Allen began a seven-year stay as a player and coach at Division II Concordia University (CU) in St. Paul, Minn., from 2004 to 2011. There, he closed out the final two years of his playing career and followed with two years as a graduate assistant before joining the staff as a full-time assistant for three seasons.
Allen helped the Golden Bears to their first 20-win season in 2006-2007, earning a 21-8 record and a third-place finish in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, still the Bears' best conference finish in 18 years as a member of Division II. Allen was also responsible for recruiting and developing five NSIC all-conference players at CU.
While in Minnesota, Allen also coached at Woodbury High School for one year and worked with the 43 Hoops AAU basketball club for one season.
Allen and his wife, Tia, reside in Wichita. They have two sons, Cameron and Kendall.