By David Thackham
Don’t feel bad if you can’t reach J.D. Powell right away.
He’s probably taking a recruit on a tour of the Citadel’s campus, meeting with established alumni across the country or jetting off to Michigan or Texas for the weekend to scout an AAU star.
In a job like Powell’s, a recruiting director rarely sticks to the office.
“I don’t like being in a building every day,” the assistant basketball coach said recently. “I like going out and meeting with the kids I work with.”
Powell’s life has been busy lately. But it’s a far cry from what he used to be dealing with during his playing days at West-Oak High School.
In the end, it took being in the right place at the right time to rocket one man from collegiate obscurity to the verge of becoming one of the most successful assistant coaches in the Southeast.
By his own admittance, Jack Denver Powell was, at best, a utility player at West-Oak during his high school years from 1993-97.
“I started only one game in my history there, if that says anything,” he said.
“He was a very average player,” his old Warriors coach, Jimmy Dean, added. “He had to work extremely hard for the playing time he got. He wasn’t very athletically gifted, but he wanted to be good so bad you couldn’t help but appreciate how hard he worked.”
Powell remained undeterred. Because his father played at Western Carolina University, Junior wanted to get in on the college game, too.
“I always wanted to play,” Powell said. “I grew up around it, but unfortunately I wasn’t very good at the time. I could tell my future was there in college, though.”
‘RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME’
By the time Powell graduated from West-Oak in 1997, he had two things figured out — he wanted to become a student manager in college to see if coaching was right for him and he wanted to go to college at Clemson University.
“After I graduated from West-Oak,” he said, “I knew I wanted to go into coaching, and I’ve always, always been a big Tiger fan.”
He had to wait out a year before he could chase that dream. In order to boost his grades, Powell took classes at Tri-County Technical College before joining Clemson as a sophomore in the summer of 1997.
Then-coach Larry Shyatt signed him up as an assistant student manager immediately.
So Powell pored over playbooks, participated in practices and learned the game from the other side of the bench. Slowly but surely, he understood what it took to be a Tiger.
Two weeks into practice in the fall of 1998, Shyatt called the young Powell into his office for a meeting.
“I could tell he wasn’t real happy with the guys going into the workouts as walk-ons,” said Powell. “I’ve grown up a Clemson guy all my life, so when he asked me if I wanted to be the walk-on, it was a dream come true.
“I got lucky, I was there in the right place at the right time.”
Back home, his old coach was sure he was still dreaming when he heard the news.
“It was extremely shocking,” Dean said. “We all knew he wasn’t a D-1 college player when he left West-Oak. It was amazing how fortunate he was to be a walk-on.”
The guard played 11 minutes in six games in his first year in a uniform, but for Powell, it didn’t matter. He was playing collegiate basketball, just like he had striven for back at West-Oak.
When Powell left high school, he knew he wanted to coach. Yet after his time with the Tigers ended in 2000, burnout was becoming a factor.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to do (coaching) still,” he said. “I was tired after such a long time around the game.”
So upon graduation, he took a job at a local Target for six months.
“I hated it,” he said. “I didn’t like being in a building every day, that’s not for me.”
And when a friend sent him an email about an NBA Development team, the Greenville Groove, hiring basketball interns, Powell got right back in the game.
“They gave me about $200 a month as a basketball operations guy, so I was coordinating travel and hotels, watching video, and I absolutely loved it. I loved being around basketball again,” he said.
A year with the Groove led to work at Furman University, doing unpaid volunteer work with the Paladins’ men’s basketball team as he worked for his master’s degree in technology and human resource management back in Clemson.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “I did it because of that, not because of money. I was basically living in a booster’s basement for two years.”
His time at Furman would eventually pay dividends for Powell to secure his first full coaching job at Charleston Southern.
While he worked at Furman, he traveled the country working basketball camps and AAU tournaments. One particular trip to New Orleans put him in touch with an assistant coach at the University of Miami.
“Barclay Radebaugh got to talking with me as we were on the road sometime in the summer and put me in touch for a job working with Charleston Southern,” he said. “So when the head coach there left for a job at Army, Barclay, the guy who got me the job, eventually ended up at Charleston Southern as the new head coach.”
Powell can’t help but feeling blessed.
‘SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOU’
The spring of 2010 saw Powell take a small drive down I-26 to take a similar job at The Citadel. The 2012-13 season will mark his ninth in Charleston and third with the Bulldogs.
He’s still taking cross-country trips for recruitment (“75-80 nights a year, probably”), but he wouldn’t have anything else be the case.
“We’ve signed players from New Mexico, Texas, New Jersey, Wisconsin,” he said. “I’ve grown my network a lot and it’s been great.”
He’s come a long way from West-Oak. And he’s still not finished yet.
“I want to be a head coach,” he said. “I want to lead a program. It’s about the responsibility, to lead and mold something that’s bigger than you. I’d like to represent an institution, for people to look at and be proud of, for alumni and students to look at and say that’s our team.”