JD Pollock: Unfinished Business

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Credit: Paul Garrison/ EVT Sports

Above John Deston (JD) Pollock’s head during an upcoming interview on the San Diego State Basketball Podcast were framed photos of his beautiful family. He has a few loves in his life, his wife Irene, their two children, Paisley and Payton, and of course, the game of basketball.

Pollock is currently an assistant coach for the SDSU Basketball team. Like most in the industry, his coaching journey began during his playing days. He began his college career as an undersized guard who had to focus on the nuances of the game in order to be successful. While some players smile after scoring 30 points, Pollock would grin running down the court after creating a steal.

After playing two years at Berry College, an NAIA school, he hit a growth spurt. For the first time in his life, he was a big guard. Pollock decided to pursue his lifetime goal of being a division one player and transferred to Kennesaw State. 

It was here that the idea of coaching first popped into Pollock’s head. 

“I didn’t know I wanted to coach my whole life,” Pollock explained. “When I redshirted from transferring, I went to go get suits with my dad. As I pulled up, he told me, you are going to be like a coach this year, in a suit, as a redshirt, you should maybe coach. And he coached me my whole life, he said you should think about coaching, and that thought just never left.”

In his senior season, he started the teams first six games, averaging double figures, but during the seventh game, tragedy struck. Pollock suffered a career-ending knee injury. He was not ready to give up on the game he loved dearly, “I always felt like I had some unfinished business,” Pollock said.

With his dad’s words staying with him, he began his coaching trek 14 seasons ago as a Graduate Associate for TCU. It was in this year that he found his dream school, San Diego State.

The Horn Frogs were playing the Aztecs in the 2009 season. “I want to be over there,” he remembers thinking as he saw the fun energy coming from the Red and Black bench. So, he kept up with the SDSU assistant coaches, and he pushed himself to earn a legitimate coaching role. 

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His first opportunity after TCU was to work as an assistant coach at Central Arizona College. (CAC). CAC is located in Coolidge, Arizona, and had a population around 10,000 people at the time. Pollock was willing to take any coaching position in order to bolster his career.

“I was hungry. It was really, how badly did I want to do it,” Pollock said. “Do you want to move in the middle of nowhere and start your coaching career or stay home with your buddies and hope something pops up? I was all in. My dad is like, you are going to move out to Casa Grande, Arizona, and make $18,000, and you are telling me you are going to live on it? I was like, hell yeah!”

At the age of 25, he began his adventure at CAC, where he spent three seasons, two of which he was the head coach. He then moved on to the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners, where he spent two seasons as director of operations and one as an assistant coach.

He won at both programs. At CAC, he was part of teams that took home conference, region, and district championships. With CSUB in 2017, he helped lead the program to their first regular-season WAC championship. Though the Roadrunners missed out on the NCAA tournament after falling to New Mexico State in the conference tournament championship game, they went on to become the first No. 8 seed to go to the national semifinals at Madison Square Garden in the NIT tournament.

Despite the success, he kept his eye on the coaching situation at SDSU. The problem was, over the years, there was very little turnover on the Aztec staff. Between Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher, they allow their assistants a lot of freedom, value their input, and give them true responsibility within the program. This is rare in college basketball, which resulted in the assistants on staff staying put. But in 2017, there was an opening with Fisher retiring and the rest of the assistants moving up the ladder.

Pollock hoped it would be an easy entry through his connection with the Aztec coaching staff over the past decade. But there was one member he had no relationship with, the new head coach, Brian Dutcher.

“I know the staff was working for me behind the scenes,” Pollock said. “I sat down with Coach Dutch and said, I think I’m going about this backward because I know everyone on this staff except for you, and you’re the one making the decision. So nice to meet you.”

“He (Dutcher) said it from then. I don’t hire people to fully groom them and make them be like us. I would hire you because you’ve done some stuff. I don’t want to hire you to be a yes man. He means that; he wants an opinion from everyone in the meetings. You are not just here to look at me. You are going to get called on, too. The credibility is instant. You aren’t here as a favor. Everyone has an opinion, and I want to hear it. Then at the end of the day, he is going to make the final decision.”

After this interaction, Pollock applied for director of player development and was overlooked. The Aztecs hired Jay Morris. But one month after accepting the offer, Morris was given the opportunity to be an assistant coach at San Jose State. Pollock was delighted to hear from Coach Dutcher with a job offer. He has not looked back since.

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Next season will be Pollock’s sixth season on the Mesa as the program director of player development.

“Titles these days are just kind of ways that HR needs to file paperwork,” Pollock said. “Director of player development, I didn’t even know what it meant when I got hired. I just knew I wanted to work on this coaching staff.”

In basketball terms, his main responsibility is scouting. He said he looks at more film of SDSU’s opponents than he does of the Aztecs. He scouts well in advance of the scheduled game. Then he categorizes the plays so the scout team can do their best imitations in practice.

“It starts with watching that first game. The program is called SportsCode. I have a code window open. I have every (opposing) player up there, every offensive set. I watch every play that they run. I put it in order of most used-down. It’s kind of like a waterfall effect.”

The Aztecs’ defensive philosophy is a reason why Pollock loves his job. Some schools stick to only one system regardless of their opponent. SDSU changes its defense every night. This tactic succeeds because of Pollock’s preparation which gives the players an authentic look during practice and film session. 

Video is the primary way the coaches disseminate the game plan to their players. Many programs create an entire scouting booklet and expect the players to memorize the information. The Aztecs focus on video learning and instructions through practice.

This skill is one reason that SDSU has been a top 30 defense in four of Pollock’s five seasons with the Aztecs, according to Kenpom. This dedication and attention to detail elevates the team and is embraced by the players.

“I don’t care if you call Jeremy Hemsley and Trey Kell up right now, and you ask them, how do we guard Utah State?” Pollock said. “They will tell you it’s by nothing but film. We watch a ton of film.”

His day-to-day life over the last five years has been hectic. The season may last up to six months, but Pollock calls it a nonstop sprint. Basketball takes over most of his responsibilities, but there are still some things that take precedent, such as being a father.

Last season against Utah State, Pollock missed the first game of his 14-year coaching career for the birth of his second child, Payton. His passions collided. He watched the Aztecs game from the hospital room, sitting in awe as he held his new baby boy. 

He loves the grind of basketball and has learned to appreciate the moments that come during the process. Like most competitors, he always appreciates winning.

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“We won the title my first year (2017-2018). We weren’t supposed to, we had talent, but it wasn’t smooth yet,” Pollock responded when asked what his favorite moment has been at SDSU. “I think Tim Shelton came running to me, yelling, this is why you came! I’m like, yes, it is!”

This first title was one of his favorite memories. His other most memorable one was the Aztec team that went 30-2 in 2019-2020. Like all of Aztec Nation, he is still disappointed thinking of the unfortunate ending that season had due to COVID-19.

With no one in the room, he remembers yelling that the NCAA needed to delay the tournament for a later date and not cancel it altogether. It did not matter to him when the games were played only that SDSU would have a chance to finish what they had started. His screaming to the universe came to no avail. The miraculous season, a lot like his basketball career was left unfinished.

But as Pollock has continued to do his whole life, he looks forward and builds off his accomplishments. For this year’s team, he sees the same potential as the historic one.

“I do think we’re going to be good this year. I think we have a chance to be special this year,” Pollock said. “It’s all going to come down to chemistry. That’s what made the other year special. Those dudes loved each other.”

In the NCAA tournament, the Aztecs still have unfinished business. Pollock is ready to embrace the challenge of blending the new additions and the difficulty that lies ahead of the Aztecs’ non-conference schedule. His whole career, he has faced obstacles head-on. He is ready to write new chapters in his basketball journey.

The coach who continues to aspire for more wants to keep winning. He concluded the podcast with, “Let’s go get some more rings. I like confetti chasing.”

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