There were some difficult nights for Andre Cook in the first few years as the head coach at St. Edward’s University, a Division II college in Austin, Texas. Those nights required some deep soul searching and self-reflection into what was going wrong.
Cook had come to Austin after a successful stint at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York. Over the course of five years, Cook had built Hudson Valley into a powerhouse program. During his tenure, the Watervliet, New York native tallied a 119-40 (.748) record, including a perfect 32-0 mark in conference in his final two seasons.
However, things weren’t so pretty when Cook made the trek halfway across the country to St. Edward’s University. In his first three seasons, the Hilltoppers went a combined 32-47 (.405).
“The people around there probably thought, ‘Man, this guy can’t coach,'” Cook said with a laugh. “Each level has been higher, and quite honestly, that’s what hurt me when I went to St. Edwards a little bit. I thought, ‘Oh man, it’s Division II basketball. I have to change some.’ I didn’t really stick to my guns.”
Fast forward eight years later and Cook has been the driving force behind one of the top Division II programs in the country. With winning seasons in seven of the past eight years and 30-4 and 27-4 records in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons respectively, Cook has placed his imprint on St. Edwards.
It’s all part of a journey that Cook set off on from a young age. By the time he was 14, the budding basketball player in Upstate New York knew he wanted to be a coach. After playing four years at Skidmore College and two years as a GA at Union College, Cook transitioned into teaching at Hudson Falls High School where he was also hired as the varsity basketball coach.
Cook helped lead a perpetual losing team into a consistent winner. In fact, there’s one championship banner in Hudson Falls’ gym today, and it’s from Cook’s time there. He also shot up the ranks within the high school, becoming the assistant principal and eventually being offered the school’s principal. It came with one stipulation that didn’t sit right with Cook.
“I got offered the principal job at 30 years old,” Cook said. “That’s when they said, the board of education said, ‘You can be the principal, but you can’t coach anymore.’ I’m like, ‘How did life go down this path so fast?’ Now people are coming to me saying here’s a six-figure job at 30 years old and no coaching. I had to take a step back and realize what I really wanted to do.”
Instead, Cook found out about a new head coaching opportunity about 50 miles south that would take him to the next level at Hudson Valley Community College. A good friend of Cook’s was the athletic director there, and after some discussions and going through the whole process, Cook was offered the job.
“We had a conversation and it was probably a $35,000 pay cut,” Cook said. “My daughter was just born, but I knew this was my opportunity, this was my shot. I left all the high school and administration behind. I took the job at Hudson Valley Community College.”
The risk paid off and Cook established himself over the five years with coach of the year honors and a trip to the semifinals of the NJCAA Division III national tournament in 2009.
“I went to Hudson Valley and I said it’s a good program that just needed rejuvenation and some energy,” Cook said. “I said this is how we're going to do it with some energy. We’re going to recruit. If you live within 60 miles of Hudson Valley and you’re not a Division I player, this is where you’re going to come to school. We got those guys.”
Years earlier, Cook formed a friendship with Ryan Marks, then head coach of Southern Vermont, when Marks was recruiting some of Cooks’ players. The duo stayed in touch as two young coaches in the profession. Marks eventually found himself at St. Edward’s University and invited Cook and one of his players down to Austin for a recruiting visit.
Little did Cook know that it was a trip that would alter the course of his life.
“I go for the two days or so on the recruiting trip and watch his team play,” Cook said. “It’s January in Austin and it’s 65 degrees outside. I’m thinking this place is great. Campus is beautiful, Austin is cool.
“Probably a year and a half later, he gets the Texas Pan Am job… We’re having this conversation. I say, ‘You think I’d have any chance for your job?’ If he said no, I wouldn’t have even gotten the resume out. I’m in my hometown. People think we’re pretty smart. We’re winning a lot of games, but he said, ‘Yeah, Andre, I think you would. It’s about the right fit here.’”
Long story short, Cook became the next head coach at St. Edward’s University. After spending the entirety of his career in Upstate New York where he had constructed deep ties, Cook now found himself in the middle of Texas where he didn’t know a soul.
“Now, instead of being 60 miles from my hometown always and that includes college, graduate school, my first high school job, a JUCO job, I was never outside of 60 miles of my hometown,” Cook said. “Now we’re going 1,860 miles.
“In Albany everybody knows Andre Cook. My whole life was there. College basketball player, high school basketball player, everything happened there. Now, he takes Hudson Valley to No. 1 in the country. Back-to-back years we had that post. Now you’re in this place where nobody knows you and you’re getting your butt kicked.”
In those first few years, Cook aimlessly traveled around Texas and never made any great connections along the way while recruiting. He used his regional connections back in New York to recruit some players to join him in Austin from the Empire State, but it wasn’t a lasting model.
“I remember saying to the athletic director, ‘We have to go get more four-year guys who are going to buy into it instead of trying to piecemeal it.’” Cook said. “A couple guys from New York, a couple junior college guys, we weren’t building a team. We weren’t building a program. We weren’t building a culture. We were just throwing whatever against the wall and seeing whatever stuck.”
Following an 18-14 record in year four at St. Edward’s, Cook made wholesale changes to his recruiting philosophy. Cook and Co. focused right in their own backyard in the Austin and San Antonio area. This homegrown talent formed the basis of a few rebuilding years where Cook could begin to learn from his past mistakes and set off on the right path this time.
“The AD said, ‘I believe in you. I believe in what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘We’re going to take a step back before we go forward.’ That year and the years 13-14, we were 10-16, but we started three freshmen,” Cook said. “We were getting beat, but we were moving in the right direction. We finally left the dock. Maybe no one else saw it, but I did… I felt like we’re moving. We’re not just a mish mosh. I had a vision and since then the last six years we are averaging 22 wins per year.”
With this newfound focus on the local recruiting, Cook also used his resources, such as assistant coach Taylor Land who played in Australia, and expanded his outlook overseas. Just in the past few seasons, players from Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, and Brazil have found a home in Texas. This amalgamation of international and local talent has produced a 57-8 record over the past two campaigns.
It’s the ebb and flow of coaching that produces the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Through it all, Cook has consistently demanded hard work on the court and a few laughs in the time in between with his players.
“I heard Tom Brennan, the old coach at Vermont, say, ‘I don’t want to recruit guys who can’t laugh at themselves.’ I want to have some fun,” Cook said. “When it’s time to work, it’s time to work. We’ve got guys like that that understand my door is open. I have compassion. I can talk to them about a lot of different things. Now, I need you. We’re on the court now and it’s not always sunshine and rainbows on the court. I’m not always going to tell you you’re wonderful, but they also know it’s never personal.
“I think guys get it and want to be a part of it. I think if you saw our team and saw our roster, I don’t know if we’d pass the eye test of a team that would average 87 points per game, but we do and we play fast and we play a fun style.”
Cook has heard his fair share of offers to move onto different places over the years, but he’s still laser-focused on the goal ahead at St. Edward’s because of the advice from an old coaching friend.
“If you don’t have two feet in, you’re just not going to do well. I always heeded that advice,” Cook said. “If you only have 1.9 feet in, you’re going to lose. We have to have both feet fully in.”
Most importantly, Cook and his family are content in Austin. He speaks with a tone of appreciation for all the schools that took a chance on him while the rest of his journey remains to be scene.
“I do know this, when I come home everybody is happy in my house,” Cook said. “My wife is happy here in Austin. My daughter is happy going to her school and my son is. Don’t try to be happier than happy, but if you have both feet in and have the right place, right time, right circumstances, maybe something else comes up and we’ll clearly look into it if it does.”