When it came time to name a new head coach for the Nashville Soul — the city’s newest attempt at an American Basketball Association franchise — owner John Rowe knew there was only one person for the job.
“Jan van Breda Kolff was my main target right off the bat,” Rowe said. “I like him as a person, he’s a fantastic coach, and he’s a good solid Christian guy. … Nobody could fit our model for a coach any better than he does.”
Passionate about sports, Rowe bought into the franchise in December, and has been carrying out what he calls a “grassroots campaign” ever since. Certain that van Breda Kolff could lead his team to success, he spent three months commuting from Knoxville to Nashville on a weekly basis and attempted to recruit the former Vanderbilt star and coach.
But from van Breda Kolff’s perspective, he had been down this road before in the ABA — twice. The coach knows what it takes to play the game. While at Vanderbilt, he was named SEC Player of the Year in 1974, leading the Commodores to a Southeastern Conference championship.
He also knows what it takes to win. After playing for the Denver Nuggets in the original ABA (before it merged with the NBA in 1976) and ending his NBA career with the New Jersey Nets, he went to Italy in 1983, where he helped Virtus Bologna win a championship.
And van Breda Kolff knows what it takes to lead. He spent a year coaching in the NBA after 17 years of coaching college ball. Those decades included taking the Commodores to the NIT three times and the NCAA tournament between 1993 and 1999. Later, he found success at Pepperdine University, where he went 47-18 in three seasons as coach.
Nashville’s first ABA expansion team in 2004 collapsed after only one season. When another owner set out to bring the ABA back to Middle Tennessee three years later, the call came for the first time.
Van Breda Kolff did what he could to help the Nashville Broncs survive when they debuted in the ABA in 2008-09. He led them to a 23-4 record. They went into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and lost in the semifinals.
“I developed really good relationships with the players on the team,” he said. “I loved being around them, we played well, and it was a marriage made in heaven in a way.”
That summer, the team changed in both ownership and name — becoming the Music City Stars — but van Breda Kolff and his players stayed on, hoping to win a championship. They had early success but dismantled in January 2010 after just 12 games, as the new owner — who also owned another team in the ABA — couldn’t find the time to market both.
So when Rowe asked in December if he wanted to coach the Soul, van Breda Kolff needed him to prove he was committed. By April, he was convinced.
“John wants to get our name out there and get us as coaches and players out in the community,” van Breda Kolff said. “I really feel he’s doing it the right way, he wants to do it the right way, and he shows that he’s a lot more of a down-to-earth-type person the way he approaches everything.”
Rowe has a background in sales and marketing, and said he’s concentrating on community involvement, reaching out to church groups, youth sports, nonprofits and other organizations around Nashville to gain and maintain a solid fan base.
The franchise officially will launch its publicity campaign Monday when, among other things, it will release its schedule.
“We want to be truly entrenched in the communities, not just in Nashville but all around Middle Tennessee,” Rowe said. “Following some failed attempts, we had to make up for some past mistakes, and to do that we didn’t expect anyone to just jump on board right away. We have to go out and get fans and show them what we’re really about.”
The regular season begins in early December, and Rowe’s team will play at different venues all over the area — typically at a college arena — with a goal of creating a strong and unique following.