Former Williams coach Dave Paulsen ’87 finds success in Div. I

Dave Paulsen ’87 coached the Ephs to winning the 2003 Div. III Men’s Basketball Championship. Photo Courtesy of Andres Alonso.

On Jan. 28, George Mason men’s basketball Head Coach Dave Paulsen ’87 led his team to victory over the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Somewhere in the bleachers was fellow Williams alumnus Benjamin Coffin ’04, who played under Paulsen at the College. The fact that Coffin was in attendance may have been unusual for other college basketball coaches, but it is typical for Paulsen. According to Coffin’s teammate, Michael Crotty ’04, several former Ephs “have a group chat with Coach P that [they] always text into … and go to games whenever he’s in the area.” This closeness between athlete and coach — relationships that extend beyond college years — is a key feature of the success of Paulsen’s coaching career.

Paulsen said that he knew he wanted to be a basketball coach since he was 10 years old. “I watched the game on television where Notre Dame broke the UCLA winning streak, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he shared. 

At the College, Paulsen played basketball and was a history major. Although his professors tried to persuade him to trade basketball for “more serious academic pursuits,” Paulsen was set on coaching.

“My way of reaching young people is through coaching,” he said.

He focused on his dream in the classroom as well as on the court. He pursued a Winter Study 99 on the theory of coaching basketball. He worked with then-Head Coach Harry Sheehy ’75, read books, watched videos and even accompanied the coach on recruiting trips.

“I was fortunate to have some unbelievably great professors at Williams, but no one was a better teacher to me than Coach Sheehy,” Paulsen said.

He added that Sheehy taught him “the essential values, the team culture — the toughness, discipline and accountability — really everything that is most important” about basketball. However, the nuts and bolts of Paulsen’s coaching — things like his defensive style and distinctive offensive strategy, characterized by kinetic motion — are very different from Sheehy’s approach.

According to his players, Paulsen’s combination of Sheehy’s values and his own tactics made for an outstanding coaching style. Crotty described workouts with the team.

“It was focused but energetic,” he said. “We certainly weren’t going easy, but we were able to have a blast while doing it. And Coach P, he’s the leader of the pack. He set the culture and the tone. He took a super group of very talented players and brought them to 100 percent.”

Paulsen made it clear that his biggest objective as a coach has always been “helping young men reach their potential as people, as students, and as athletes.” As a coach, he sees players six days a week, six months a year, for four years — “at their highest highs and lowest lows”— and builds lasting and meaningful relationships withhis team, the kind of relationships that lead to group chats and cheering.

Crotty is now director of the Middlesex Magic AAU basketball program.

“I learned — and this is from Coach as well as my dad — relationships are everything,” he said. “If you don’t pay attention to and really care about the players, you can’t build the trust to make great things happen on the court, and you can’t have those relationships that extend beyond it.”

Coffin agreed that Paulsen exemplified this lesson.

“[Paulsen] cared about each player as a person first and a player second,” he said. “The lessons that he taught us on the floor are very applicable to the real world, and I find myself still using them.” 

After his eight years coaching the Ephs, Paulsen moved to Div. I basketball, spending seven years at Bucknell before taking his current position at George Mason.

He said that coaching at Bucknell was “more similar to coaching at the College than it was different.”

I think the differences [between divisions] are overblown,” he said.

Across all divisions and programs, he insisted that “the goal is the same: to try to reach the individual players and mold an unselfish, disciplined team.”

Much like his unshakable coaching philosophy, “Williams continues to change,” he said, “but the values have always been a bedrock.”