Elevating Expectations

Rob Ehsan seeks new strength from Blazer men's basketball
By Grant Martin • Photos by UAB Athletics
Photo of Coach Rob Ehsan during basketball game; title: Elevating Expectations
Rob Ehsan seeks new strength from Blazer men's basketball
By Grant Martin • Photos by UAB Athletics
“Congratulations, Coach.” Rob Ehsan has heard that phrase often in 2016, initially as an assistant coach helping the UAB men’s basketball team to forge a school-record home winning streak and capture the Conference USA regular-season championship. Most significantly, he heard it in the postseason when he was named UAB’s sixth head basketball coach, and a week later when he welcomed the birth of his second child.
Now that season of celebration has evolved into something different but no less palpable—expectation. When UAB Magazine sat down with the 34-year-old head coach, he did not attempt to downplay that expectation. If anything, he seemed to elevate it.

For the past four years, you’ve been behind the scenes as an assistant coach, yet when Jerod Haase announced he was leaving UAB to become Stanford’s new coach, fans immediately rallied for you as his replacement. What did that show of support mean to you?
Ehsan: I took it as a sign of the appreciation UAB fans have for what our staff accomplished over the past four years. It took us some time to build this roster and build this team to where it is, and the fans are excited to see if we can continue that success.

Photo of Rob Ehsan watching court during basketball game

Will you bring a different approach to the game in terms of offensive or defensive strategies?
Ehsan: The thing people will notice most will be the defense. We’ll do more pressing than we have in the past. Offensively, we’re going to continue to evolve as we introduce more advanced basketball strategies. Some of that will be my coaching style and philosophy, but I also expect a difference because of the team’s maturity. We’ve had success the past two years with primarily freshmen and sophomores. We laid a foundation and built slowly to allow those guys to develop. Now they are juniors and seniors, and we can ask more of them.

In 10 years as an assistant coach, you spent five years with Gary Williams at Maryland at the end of his head coaching career and four years with Jerod Haase at the beginning of his. What did you learn from those experiences?
Ehsan: When I got to Maryland, the team was only a few years removed from back-to-back Final Fours and a national championship, so the program was running like a well-oiled machine. I learned as much as I could, and the foundation for my coaching philosophy was formed under Coach Williams.
Though UAB has a rich tradition of winning, our arrival here felt like a fresh start for us and the program. We were trying to build on the legacy established by Coach Gene Bartow, but we also had to build a roster under a first-year head coach and come up with creative ways to build support. I needed both experiences to prepare me for this role.

Last season the team went undefeated at Bartow Arena. Why is it so tough for other teams to win here?
Ehsan: Our game-day atmosphere was phenomenal last year, and that’s something we hope to continue to improve. By improving our home schedule and continuing our marketing efforts, we hope to reach more local families and businesses to add to the boost we get from our students.
I’m proud of the success we had at home last year, but don’t forget we were pretty good on the road, too, with a school-record 10 road victories. I hope that continues as this team matures. There is a comfort level to playing at home, but a team of juniors and seniors should be able to bring that same focus and intensity on the road.

Photo of Rob Ehsan clapping during basketball game

You played at the University of California, Davis when it was in the process of moving from Division II to Division I. That must have been a challenge.
Ehsan: I was recruited by smaller schools where I might have gotten more playing time, but UC Davis had a lot to offer. It was a great academic school close to home, and the team was only two years removed from a Division II national championship. I knew it would be a challenge academically and athletically. I graduated with a degree in economics, and I got to fulfill a lifelong dream by being a starter the last two years on a Division I basketball team.

Do you draw on that experience as head coach?
Ehsan: Absolutely. UAB offers similar opportunities. Players can be part of a successful Division I program and earn degrees from an excellent academic institution. When I assembled my coaching staff, I looked for guys who know UAB and who understand what the university means to this city and this region.

You worked quickly to put a staff in place. What were your priorities when you were looking for assistant coaches?
Ehsan: This is a unique team in a unique situation, so I wanted to pick a staff that fits my goals. Coach Turner Battle staying here was a huge advantage. After that, I hoped to find someone who had been a head coach, and we got that in Coach Dannton Jackson. The fact that he coached in New Orleans and has recruited in this region was bonus. The last piece was Kevin Devitt, a guy who knows me and who helped build the program behind the scenes.
All three coaches value player relationships and trust, which is something I took pride in as an assistant. Behind that, the top priority is their ability to recruit and do all the things on a daily basis that a head coach doesn’t have time to do. And the last thing I looked for was work ethic. All of these guys are self-disciplined and hard-working, and that gives me a lot of confidence to focus on growing in my new role as a head coach.

Photo of Rob Ehsan watching court during basketball game

You’ve put together a challenging schedule with some big-name opponents and historic regional rivals such as Auburn and Memphis.
Ehsan: I want to challenge our guys more in the non-conference, maybe more than they ever have been. This group has had so much success early in their careers, and I want them to have chances to play against the best. We also need to put ourselves in position to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. If we perform well against the right non-conference schedule, then a 16-2 run in Conference USA like we had last year should put us into the conversation.

As good as last season was, it ended in frustration with a loss in the conference tournament to Western Kentucky and a first-round loss in the NIT at Brigham Young. What did you learn from those losses?
Ehsan: We’ve got to become physically tougher. We got beaten up a bit in those last two games, so I want us to become a more physical, better rebounding team, which will help make us better overall.
There were times during the season when we weren’t as physical or didn’t bring the intensity that we wanted, but we were still able to find ways to win those games. We need to take a big step forward and bring that intensity on a consistent basis. I want us to judge ourselves against ourselves in that regard and not accept less, no matter what the scoreboard says.

How have your wife and two children reacted to your new role?
Ehsan: Looking at the last 10 years, my life has been family and basketball. I wasn’t a big name coming out of college. I worked camps during the summer and used that experience to get on as a graduate assistant at Maryland. So to go from college to coaching in the Atlantic Coast Conference, then coming here and now being the head coach at UAB is a dream come true for me and my family. Coaching is a consuming profession. I couldn’t have accomplished any of this if I didn’t have a family that has supported me and celebrated with me all along the way.

Published October 2016