Rodney Billups never expected his career to turn out the way it did.
He dreamed about playing professional basketball. He wanted to be a business owner. Retire early. Follow in the footsteps of his brother Chauncey Billups — the former NBA star and arguably the best player to ever come out of Denver.
Coaching never was part of the equation.
“It was never one of the things I wanted to do,” says the former University of Denver star, who served as the Pioneers’ starting point guard from 2002–05. “When you’re young and you have some celebrity and you think you’re good, you think you can play forever.”
But life took unexpected turns: His mother’s cancer diagnosis cut his professional playing career in Europe short after two years. He returned to Denver, replacing basketball with business, serving stints at an investment firm and a personal lifestyle company. He was good at it, he says, but his heart remained with hoops.
He returned to the game in a different way in 2010, when he joined the coaching staff at the University of Colorado as director of basketball operations. He was responsible for a lot of the team’s grunt work: compliance, travel, organizing summer camps, acting as the team’s liaison in academia.
“That experience was fun and frustrating because I wanted to be on the floor; I wanted to coach,” he says. “Coach [Tad] Boyle saw something in me and bumped me up to assistant coach.”
After four years at that post, Billups got a call from the University of Denver. And just like that, he returned to his alma mater in March 2016 as head coach of the men’s basketball team.
“It’s surreal,” he says. “It means the world to me to be back here and have this opportunity. There’s nothing I want to do the rest of my life except coach.”
At 34, Billups is one of the youngest head coaches in Division I history. It’s a fact he acknowledges could have worked against him: “I have no head coaching experience. They went out on a limb to hire me,” he says. “I’m going to prove to everyone who doesn’t think I should have this position that I’m worthy of it.”
Billups has the stats to support his argument. The former Pioneers standout and Denver native remains among DU’s all-time leaders in assists and steals, and he helped DU end a 46-year NIT drought in 2005. He earned three all-team Sun Belt Conference honors his senior year. And with Billups on the sidelines in Boulder, the CU Buffaloes had six straight seasons of postseason play and made the NCAA Tournament every season except one.
Peg Bradley-Doppes, vice chancellor for athletics and recreation, says Billups’ energy and “passion for the collegiate game” makes him the right man for the job—one with the potential to lead the team into “an exciting new era.”
“Rodney was an outstanding student-athlete who embodied the characteristics of a successful Pioneer,” Bradley-Doppes says. “He has taken those traits with him into his coaching career. We’re confident in his ability to create and develop a winning environment here.”
Billups has the chance to make a significant impact on DU’s program, which suffers a less-than-stellar history. The team, which finished last in the Summit League in scoring in 2015–16, has never made it to the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps more significantly, lackluster fan support has plagued the program. Attendance at games last year averaged just 1,675—a 67 percent decrease from 2012. The sport consistently has been in the shadow of DU’s hockey team—seven-time NCAA champions—and, more recently, the Pioneers lacrosse team, which has made four Final Four appearances since 2010 and took home its first national championship in 2015.
Billups knows he faces a big challenge.
“It’s really hard to change the culture,” he admits. “Everyone in the city loves coming to hockey games. But there’s no reason we can’t share it. And that all comes with success. Denver’s a city where, when you’re winning, everything’s great and people are showing up and it’s exciting. But when you lose, no one is around. We have to do our job as a staff to recruit good players and create some energy and make the fan experience better than it’s been.
“If we don’t win, I can’t expect people to start talking about it,” he continues. “It takes a village: It takes the students coming to the games, it takes the community coming to the games, it takes us to put a good product on the floor and the student-athletes playing really hard. It’s a chain effect.”
Billups has advantages — in addition to his recognizable last name — when it comes to connecting with current and potential players. He has his own personal DU experiences to share, which makes it easy for players to relate to him.
“It was fun,” he says of his three years playing at DU. “I still have the relationship with my teammates. I would do it 10 times over.”
His experience off the court was just as significant, he says. “A lot of people want the big-school experience, but small schools are where it’s at,” he says. “You have relationships with your professors, and you know everyone. It’s easier that way. It’s really a family.”
A graduate of the Daniels College of Business, Billups credits DU with introducing him to a whole new culture — one much different than that at George Washington High School in northeast Denver, where Billups led the state in steals and assists for three seasons.
“Going to management classes, learning about different personality types and learning how to interact in professional atmospheres … it’s priceless,” he says of his business education. “I would have never thought being a business major and focusing on management would help me become a basketball coach, but I reflect on things I learned every day.”
Perhaps the biggest asset Billups brings to DU’s program is his pure, unadulterated love of the game — one he inherited when he was just a toddler.
“My dad put basketball in the house [when I was] very, very young,” he says. “I would watch my brother and my dad play when I was very little, and I always wanted to be like both of them. Basketball was the common thread. It’s always been a part of our life.”
Does he look at the game differently now as a coach? “Absolutely,” he says. “When you’re a student-athlete, you love the competition of it. It’s a good stress reliever for the kids; you can go out there and talk some smack and forget about every adversity. There are no cell phones; there are no parents; it’s just you and your guys.”
But now, as a coach, “I love the preparation of it,” he says. “I’m preparing our guys to compete in practice, to compete in games, to compete in life. When you’re in the moment, you kind of have tunnel vision. But as a coach, it’s a little more fun to sit back and say, ‘OK, I taught them that, and it works and it feels really good.’ That’s the fun part of it.”