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Midvale Journal

New Hillcrest boys’ basketball coach to emphasize team, character and hard work

May 26, 2020 11:26AM ● By Julie Slama

In a video introduction to the Hillcrest High community, Principal Greg Leavitt, left, introduces the new boys basketball coach Brandon Sluga. (Video screenshot)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In a video introduction from the recently built gym, Hillcrest High School new boys basketball coach Brandon Sluga promised he could exceed expectations.

“I love Hillcrest High School, with its reputation of strong academics and extracurricular activities,” he said. “I believe in them. I send my kids there. I know I can exceed their expectations. We’re going to have an awesome team that matches the beauty of this gym. We’re going to bring everyone in to play. We want the whole school community involved.”

Hillcrest High School Principal Greg Leavitt used YouTube to distribute the announcement March 23 amid the school closure in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Brandon Sluga has lots of head coaching experience and the right teaching credentials,” Leavitt said. “We want our coaches in the building, to work with kids all day long, to say ‘hi’ in the halls, to know who the students are. He’s a respectful, all-around guy.”

Sluga met his team and the boys’ parents virtually because of social distancing. He comes on board after Hillcrest High didn’t renew the contract of former coach Sanjin Kolovrat. Last year, the Huskies went 10-14, 7-7 in region.

“I’m happy and excited about working at Hillcrest,” Sluga said. “We can definitely contend in region. We have experienced players back and can improve every step of the way. I have a plan for skill development, which will be creative with social distancing, but I can post skills for them to work on and be in the process of knowing and interacting with them. I believe boys basketball can be a winner and a highly successful program.”

In addition to coaching, Sluga will be teaching math and physical education. 

“Our priority will be in the classroom. Hillcrest basketball has one of the higher GPAs in the state, and I’m excited to work with the boys academically. My door will always be open,” he said.

Sluga played basketball for his father and long-time coach George Sluga, who was just honored for his coaching by Bingham High this past season. 

“My dad is about a lot of things, primarily teaching the boys about team – how to interact; how to communicate;  how to behave at home with parents, choirs and schoolwork,” the new Hillcrest High coach said. “My dad’s flamboyant coaching style is different than mine. He’s outgoing and can strike up a conversation with anyone. I’m more focused on the team.”

Sluga founded and became president of the non-profit Salt Lake Summit Youth Foundation and coached alongside his father 100 games per year, traveling from California to Houston to Orlando. 

“It was a lot of fun coaching with Dad,” he said before he eventually took over the head coaching role. “We were involved in every aspect.” 

In Sluga’s playing days, he went on from Bingham to become the most famous University of Utah walk-on in recent history, with the crowds chanting “Slooga, Slooga” to bring him into the last parts of a game under coach Rick Majerus, who coached the team to the NCAA Finals.

“Coach Majerus shared defensive principles along with offense concepts. His philosophy was solid. I’m a logical person, so he taught in a way that players could buy into,” he said, adding that he’s adopted some of Majerus’ coaching techniques. “My teams are solid defensively. My role was to help guys in practice as well as I can. I’d run other teams’ defense and was more of a player-coach. Players, like Andre (Miller) would ask, ‘What do you think I should do?’ It was a new level of respect and responsibility.”

Majerus, who died in 2012, was quoted praising his walk-on, who was awarded a scholarship his final year.

“I love Sluga,” Majerus told the Deseret News. “He’s terrific, his attitude is outstanding. He makes our players better every day in practice. He’s happy for his teammates’ success. He’s very smart. He’ll be a great coach someday.”

The hard-working Sluga was known for taking the opportunities to earn his 16 points – including six for six from the charity stripe, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block during his four years on the team.

“I was a good teammate and gave support. When I was in the game, I lived it to the fullest, made the most of it,” he said.

The role of teammate is strong with Sluga.

“I want my teams to translate the role of teammate to life because it’s so much more than the game,” he said. “I want to unite our team, in the classroom, at school, in the gym and that will translate to the job, college, family, work, future jobs. Hard work and strong character are the common denominators.”

Sluga, who also has coached Challenger, Jr. Jazz, AAU and Utah Pump-N-Run, also looks up to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

“He had a process, that when we focus and take care of the fundamentals, and have discipline, we will have a lot of opportunity, and the results will take care of themselves,” Sluga said.

Sluga has used those philosophies from his dad, Majerus and Wooden as head coach at Juan Diego Catholic High (and named teacher of the year in 2016) and last year, as an assistant coach at Cottonwood High, where he also credits learning from head coach Marc Miller.

For now, Sluga has looked at the schedule change – with both boys and girls basketball being played in different gyms on the same night – and at the way he can introduce fundamentals to his team during this new reality in the off-season.

Sluga also would like to bring in some former teammates — from the Utes to European teams — and coaches to summer camps.

“I’d like the teams to have the exposure of good athletes, learn skills, develop fundamentals with them,” he said.  

“I have a year-to-year contract, but I want Hillcrest to be my home,” Sluga said. “I figure I have 20 to 25 years in my teaching career, and I love basketball. We have the athletic ability, talent and good people to work with in a team concept. Every individual brings different skills, a different perspective and twist, but it’s a nice recipe for success – and not just athletically, but about improving abilities, teamwork and work ethic.”