Tom Spanbauer has two trusted assistants coaching basketball with him at Cortland State College, but his support staff swells every time the Red Dragons play in Buffalo.
“I’ve got a couple brothers who are expert coaches,” Spanbauer says. “They can figure out everything we need to do in a 40-minute time block, when we take the whole season to try and figure it out.”
John, Tom and Jim, the younger half of the six-sibling Spanbauer clan, were all three-sport athletes at Niagara Catholic High School who went on to coach after college.
John Spanbauer, 54, has since settled into a job as director of recreation, intramurals and club sports at Niagara University, and Jim Spanbauer, 50, has ascended to the principal’s office at Niagara Falls High School.
“Coaching is one of those things I thought I would do for the rest of my life,” says Jim Spanbauer, who coached the football teams at Trott Vocational, LaSalle and Niagara Falls high schools. “But then life plans kind of change over time.”
For Tom Spanbauer, 52, coaching is still a way of life. He started coaching the junior varsity basketball team at Cortland while he was still going to school for his master’s, and in his 19th season as the Red Dragons head coach, he is the school’s all-time wins leader.
The dean of Division III basketball coaches in New York State, Tom Spanbauer also took up coaching women’s tennis at Cortland five years ago. “It has made me a better coach in both sports, and coaching women has made me better at coaching men,” he says.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I have ever met,” Jim Spanbauer says. “Whether it’s a card game or pitching pennies, it’s in his bones and in his blood.
“And even though he is a little bit younger than my brother John, when we were playing out in the neighborhood, he was always the quarterback, he was always the point guard. So I think coaching came natural to him, since he was always in those leadership roles.”
Tom Spanbauer credits former Niagara Catholic football and basketball coach Rich Condino with igniting his passion for coaching.
“He has had a huge influence on my coaching philosophies, and I think that has been critical to my success,” says Tom Spanbauer, who was inducted into Niagara Catholic’s Athletics Hall of Fame last year.
“From the basketball side of things, the game has changed a lot. We played without the arc. But in regards to program and team management, being well-prepared, playing as a team, playing hard at all times – those were the values that were instilled to me as core values.”
Spanbauer coached at Albany High School, the University at Albany and Alfred University before he was offered the head coaching job at his alma mater in 1995. Early on, Spanbauer says, he was disappointed he couldn’t land a teaching job that would’ve allowed him to coach back home in Niagara Falls.
“He always had more of an ambition to make coaching a career than we did,” says John Spanbauer, who coached football at basketball at Trott and Niagara Catholic. “And he sacrificed moving away to do that.”
In 1996, Spanbauer’s first season, Cortland reached the finals of the ECAC tournament for the first time. The next year, Cortland made its first NCAA Division III playoff appearance. The Red Dragons reached the NCAA “Sweet 16” in 1999 and returned the following year after setting a school record with 24 victories.
“We’ve had some really nice family trips going to watch him play,” John Spanbauer says.
“When my father was alive, he would lead the trips. And he was always the first one to criticize Tom after the game. The running joke was he would only see the team once a year, but he knew more about them than Tom did.”
Spanbauer had opportunities to move up the coaching ladder in those days, but none of the offers enticed him enough to leave Cortland.
“If you’ve ever been to Cortland, it’s a unique place,” says Jim Spanbauer, who played football at Cortland for two years. “The whole makeup of the school and the community there is a perfect fit for him.”
Cortland is coming off one of its best seasons under Spanbauer. Last year’s senior-laden squad became the third in school history to win 24 games, won the State University of New York Athletic Conference championship for the first time since 2000 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Spanbauer passed the 300-win milestone last winter and was named SUNYAC Coach of the Year for the fifth time. The National Association of Basketball Coaches East Region and New York State Basketball Coaches Association both recognized Spanbauer as Coach of the Year for a third time.
With a youthful roster this season, Cortland got off to a 3-0 start that included a season-opening win at Medaille College. The Red Dragons will return to play SUNYAC rival Buffalo State on Jan. 10.
Spanbauer enjoys the limited family time he gets during the Red Dragons’ Western New York road trips, but there is another reason he looks forward to the homecomings.
“Hopefully we can recruit a few more players from up there,” he says. “We’re always checking out the Western New York area, because I think it’s one of the better areas for high school basketball from top to bottom.”