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Jerry Sullivan: Mike Mennenga travels winding path from Buffalo to Final Four

It was early Wednesday, around 7 a.m. in the West, when I caught up with Oregon assistant coach Mike Mennenga by phone. The rest of the Ducks contingent, including his wife and two daughters, would fly to Phoenix for the Final Four later in the day.

Mennenga was already at the airport, eager to travel south to Los Angeles to do what he does best: Recruit. Three days before the big event and he was out chasing basketball players.

"You've got to strike while the iron's hot, man," Mennenga said with a laugh. "This is the best time to do it, even though you don't get much sleep."

The iron has never been hotter for Oregon, or for its third-year assistant coach. Last Sunday in Kansas City, the Ducks stunned favored Kansas in the Midwest Region final, advancing to the Final Four for the first time since they won the first NCAA tourney in 1939.

Suddenly, Oregon is a hot item. Mennenga, a former assistant for the University at Buffalo and Canisius, is one of the top names in the recruiting game, a tireless hoop junkie whose roots in Canadian AAU ball delivered three of the Ducks' top players to faraway Eugene and helped transform Oregon into a title contender.

But it wasn't easy for Mennenga, an Illinois native who traveled a winding, often frustrating journey, one that had him briefly considering a career as a cable TV salesman.

From 2001-05, he worked under Reggie Witherspoon at UB, helping bring in some top-rated recruiting classes that turned the Bulls into a MAC title contender. In 2005, he took an assistant's job at Iowa State. It was a big-time job, back in the Midwest. He and his wife, Shannetta, who was pregnant with their second child, moved to Iowa for a new adventure. But after one year, head coach Wayne Morgan was fired and Mike, out of a job, moved back to Buffalo.

Shannetta, who had worked at Kaleida Health before the move, landed a job as director of human resources at BlueCross BlueShield in Buffalo. It was a great job, and she became the chief breadwinner while Mike re-established himself in the game.

Mennenga worked as an assistant high school coach at Nichols. He became a co-director of the CIA Bounce Program in Toronto and set up a similar program in Buffalo.

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"It's crazy to look back on it now," said Jim Kwitchoff, who was an assistant with Mennenga at UB. "But what I think helped Mike more than anything was the couple of years he spent out of the college game."

Mennenga was laying the groundwork for what would come later. Kwitchoff said Mennenga was "light years ahead" on Canada. Mike had recognized it as a fertile recruiting in 1997, when he took his first assistant's job at Maine. He made contacts, built trust with coaches. His late father, Marv, his mentor in basketball, had always told him relationships were the key.

"On the family front, we were toughing it out," said Mennenga, who finished his playing career at Morehead State in 1993. "But we were doing some big things in Toronto. Two of our kids were back-to-back No. 1 picks in the NBA – Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett."

Still, he was eager to get back into college. In 2010, Mennenga took an assistant's job at Providence. Shannetta, secure in her job and raising two young girls, said they'd give it a year. She'd stay in Buffalo. Again, the head coach was fired after a year. A year later, Mike took an assistant's job at Illinois-Chicago.

"I said, 'We're going to give it a year, see if it works out,'" Shannetta said with a laugh. "Again, that didn't work out, and so he came back again."

It wasn't so funny at the time. It had been six years since Mike left UB for Iowa State. Coaching high school and cultivating the Toronto hoop market wasn't bringing in much money. Mennenga needed to get a real job, something where he could keep his own hours and still have time for his basketball obsession.

He landed a job selling cable TV in Buffalo. His whole life had been basketball. He and his dad, a former AAU hoop coach who was the best man in his wedding, used to draw up plays on napkins when the family went out to dinner. But he was going to work in the real world.

"I came close!" Mennenga said. "Shoot, man. It must have been all in the plan. It was tough on the family at the time, but I kept looking in the mirror and seeing a basketball coach. And thank God, Coach Baron saw the same thing."

Assistant coach Mike Mennenga (far right) is part of the celebration as Oregon topped Utah, 88-57, for the 2016 Pac-12 Basketball Tournament title in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

In the spring of 2012, just as Mennenga was about to start selling cable, he got a phone call from Jim Baron, who had just taken the Canisius job and wanted him to be an assistant. Mike broke down crying in Baron's office when he accepted the job.

"It was all timing," said Shannetta, an Illinois native. "Mike is a very emotional guy, especially when it comes to basketball. I remember when we were first dating and getting kind of serious. He sat me down and said, 'Shannetta, I just want you to know that basketball is first in my life.' He wanted me to know there's a plan, and basketball is it."

Mennenga spent two productive years at Canisius, the Billy Baron years. Then, in 2014, he got his big break when Dana Altman offered him a job at Oregon. Altman had wanted to hire him at Creighton four years earlier, just before the Oregon job opened. At the time, Altman felt Mennenga lacked the recruiting contacts out West.

But the key to Oregon's success was in Canada, where Mennenga had been establishing AAU roots for two decades. He got Mississauga's Dillon Brooks, now a junior all-American. Star guard Dylan Ennis (brother of former Syracuse star Tyler) came from Toronto. Mike brought in transfer Chris Boucher, one of the nation's top shot blockers, from Montreal.

"It's just exploding up there in Canada," Mennenga said, "and there's a lot more to come. It all started when I was at Maine and working for John Giannini. We had to get out of the box a little bit and find kids willing to come to Maine. One thing we found out real quick – Canadian kids don't care. They just want to go play ball."

When Mike got the Oregon job, Shannetta again told him, "Let's give it a year." She stayed in Buffalo, where she was thriving at Blue Cross and raising the girls. But she knew, deep down, that the timing was right. After a year, after calling Buffalo her home for the better part of 13 years, she moved out to Eugene.

"Oh, the folks in Buffalo!" said Shannetta, whom Mike calls "a true Buffalonian at heart." "It's really our second home, with all our friends and support. We come back there every summer. All our Buffalo friends are rooting for the Oregon Ducks."

Mike Mennenga, right, pictured as an assistant for the University at Buffalo Bulls in 2004, is now an assistant with Oregon. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

In 2015-16, Mike's second year as an assistant, Oregon went to the Elite Eight. Hopes were high this year, but things looked bleak when Boucher, a 6-10 forward with NBA potential, tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tourney semifinals.

"Man, we were in shock," Mennenga said. "Coaches and players were in shock. Tears were shed. But we have a tough, tough unit, and that really brought us together. It was horrible for Chris, but it brought the remaining soldiers together for sure."

They persevered, as their top assistant and recruiter had along the way. Altman, who has 597 career wins and is among the more underrated coaches in the nation, didn't change the Ducks' plan and they rolled over Kansas by 14 in the regional final.

After the game, Shannetta was texting with Mennenga's sister, who recalled Mike as a boy, dreaming about making it to the Final Four. He would act out the coaches and players roles, pretend to make the winning shot, cut down the nets, the whole deal.

They talked about Marv, who had died around the time Mike got fired at Iowa State, and his mom, who passed away just after Shannetta and Mike started dating. They felt both his parents were looking down on him last weekend in Kansas City.So Saturday will be the culmination of a boyhood dream. Mennenga will walk onto that floor in Phoenix for the North Carolina game and it will wash over him. His father, who told him to be kind to people even when they could do you no good, who treated a 9-year-old the same as a college star, would have cherished that moment.

"My family dedicated our lives to basketball," he said. "I'll probably be crying on the inside and at the same time, ready to fight somebody on the outside."

Part of him, no doubt, will also be wondering if he's going to win the fight for that latest recruit.

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