Unlikely chain of events helped launch prolific LCC coaching career for Dave Cassaw

LCC's Dave Cassaw is one of the top 10 winningest prep basketball coaches in San Diego history.
LCC’s Dave Cassaw is one of the top 10 winningest prep basketball coaches in San Diego history.
(Ken Grosse)

Most people who know Dave Cassaw in his role as the veteran coach of the boys’ basketball team at La Costa Canyon High School would probably not describe him as someone likely to do anything that even bordered on being impulsive.

A man who understands and values who he is, Cassaw rarely strays far from his core beliefs in basketball or life. That approach has clearly served him well as he’s enjoyed a remarkable run of success in his 23 years guiding Maverick hoops. Ironically, it was a string of improbable events and self-belief that steered Cassaw halfway across the country, helped land him his dream job at LCC and become one of San Diego’s premier prep coaches.

Cassaw has been La Costa Canyon's head coach for 23 seasons.
Cassaw has been La Costa Canyon’s head coach for 23 seasons.
(Ken Grosse)

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Cassaw grew up in Colby, a west Kansas agricultural community 50 miles from the Colorado border. He was a four-sport (football, basketball, baseball, track & field) standout at Colby High School and earned a secondary education degree four hours away at Kansas State in Manhattan.

While still in his teens, Cassaw already had designs on a coaching career. “It was kind of weird, but when I was a little kid, I kind of already knew I wanted to be a coach,” he said. “And then in high school I used to go to practice and be thinking ‘yeah, I like this drill, I think I would do that if I were coaching.’

“I always kind of thought of myself as a coach.”

He had Division III and junior college recruiting options out of Colby but instead chose Kansas State and the life of a “regular” student. It didn’t take long before he found himself missing basketball and that’s when fate first intervened on his career journey. One day, while casually scanning the KSU school newspaper, an ad seeking junior varsity basketball coaching candidates at Blue Valley High School in nearby Randolph, Kansas, caught Cassaw’s attention.

“It was sheer luck that I picked up the newspaper that day,” recalled Cassaw. “The school was just 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, so I applied. I’m not sure why I thought I could get the job. I guess I was cursed with self-confidence but for some reason, they hired me. I was 20, just a young kid—luck of the draw.”

After three years at Blue Valley, by then armed with his K-State diploma, Cassaw became the head varsity basketball coach at tiny Golden Plains High School (enrollment 50) in Rexford, Kansas.

LCC Coach Dave Cassaw
(Ken Grosse)

During his tenure at Golden Plains, another random but eventually life-changing experience fell in Cassaw’s lap. In the summer of 1996, he came out to San Diego on a vacation with friends, during which he met and started dating his future wife, Krista, the cousin of one of his travel companions. After the conclusion of his third season at Golden Plains, the combination of basketball reality and the long distance nature of the relationship resulted in yet another roll of the dice—a move to the West Coast.

“I was ready for a change,” said Cassaw. “After three years at a fairly non-competitive lower division school, I was still at the very bottom of the coaching ladder in Kansas—I might not have been on the ladder at all. The coaching world there was really impacted and I kind of saw myself locked into a struggle to try to rise through the ranks.

“Coupling that with my personal life, I decided to quit my job and move out here, hoping to find something.”

Initially, that “something,” facilitated by a friend in the coaching fraternity, turned out to be a position with the football program at Army-Navy Academy in Oceanside, handling special teams and study hall. Good fortune again presented itself shortly after he began his stint at Army-Navy. A fellow coach suggested he “drive up to the end of La Costa Ave.,” where a new school had recently opened, and “see if they need any coaches.”

Cassaw took the drive and remembers that first reconnaissance trip to the LCC campus well. “I parked in front of the school, went in the gym, looked over the railing and thought ‘this school doesn’t need any coaches, this is the most amazing high school gym I’ve ever seen.’ I was actually kind of intimidated.”

Awestruck or not, he called and left a message with then-Athletic Director Tom Pellegrino who passed it on to newly-hired basketball coach Tom Gorrell.

“The school had only been open a year, he was just building his staff out and he needed a JV coach. He was a Kansas fan and despite the fact I was a K-State guy, he called me back and I got the JV job on the basis of my head coaching experience in Kansas. Two years later, he (Gorrell) left for a head coaching position in Orange County.

“I applied to be his replacement and as a 29-year-old, they hired me to be the head coach at La Costa Canyon. It was pretty insane.”

Twenty-three years later, that “insanity” has resulted in 488 wins (an average of 21 per year), six league championships, four San Diego CIF championships, two section runner-up finishes and a SoCal CIF Regional title, all while consistently competing directly against some of the top programs in the county. His 2021-22 squad, a savvy, hard-working unit, recently finished 21-8, losing a classic 66-65 (OT) CIF semi-final to eventual champ St. Augustine, before reaching the second round of the SoCal Regionals.

Along with the success has come virtually universal respect from his coaching peers and others in the local basketball community.

The views of his long time supervisor, LCC Director of Athletics Kari DiGiulio, are typical. “I knew Dave before I started at LCC and have always admired him and liked watching his teams,” said DiGiulio. “Growing up a basketball coach’s daughter, I really appreciate the different ways he sees the game and gets his team to approach it.

“Aside from the accomplishments on the court, I also admire him for the human being he is. Off the court, with his boys, the things he institutes in his program and what he’s done to develop the personal characteristics he wants to see in his players—that’s the part that gets me the most. As an AD, as a mom, I’d want my kids to play for a coach like that.”

Still in the prime of his career at 51 and already among the section’s top 10 all-time winningest coaches, Cassaw sat down recently and reflected on his coaching career, some of the lessons he’s learned and the keys to his longevity at the helm of La Costa Canyon boys’ basketball.

LCC Coach Dave Cassaw on the court.
LCC Coach Dave Cassaw on the court.
(Ken Grosse)

Q—You played a variety of sports through the high school level, why was basketball the one you chose to pursue professionally?

CASSAW—Interesting question. I always considered football to be my best sport, but I always loved basketball, probably because if you have a ball and a hoop, you can always play basketball. My high school basketball coach was a very special man and I was fortunate to have good coaches all through my life with basketball. There was a special connection.

I have also coached football and track & field but always felt that, as a basketball coach, you had way more ability to impact the game moment-to-moment, you can adjust the personnel, change a strategy on the fly and alter a game pretty quick. There’s also a smaller roster, providing a chance to be a little more personal with the players.

Q—A small town Kansas boy coming to San Diego, how difficult was it to adapt, in a general sense and basketball-wise?

CASSAW—Actually, when I got here, it immediately felt like home. By nature, I’m a really busy guy. I love doing things, going places and constantly being on the move. I love the weather and all the things you can do here and plug into—I was thrilled to be here.

That said, I absolutely love Kansas. I miss the people and my parents. A lot of friends are still there. But now, I’ve lived here longer than I did Kansas. I’m at home and at peace here.

As far as coaching, I think basketball is sort of a universal language and my love and passion for the game has always been obvious to my players, so that transition was fairly easy. I found that when I got here as the JV coach, Tom Gorrell was a tremendous mentor, someone I could go to with any questions I had.

There were different challenges that I’d never faced in Kansas. I’d literally never had a parent interaction my whole time there—email wasn’t even a thing then. There was a different skill set that I needed to develop for that part of it, but on the court, it was the same.

Q—Twenty-five years is a long time. Given the opportunities that inevitably present themselves to successful coaches, what’s kept you at LCC?

CASSAW—Really, a lot of it probably has to do with my previous head coaching job at Golden Plains. There, we were taking long bus rides on bumpy, dirt roads to get to games. You’d get back from games in the middle of the night and, in the dark, have to chip ice off your windshield before going home, sometimes after getting beat by 30. So, what I can tell you about being here in the warm, sunny weather, at this beautiful school with this beautiful gym is that there’s not a day I don’t appreciate it.

Whatever battles I have to face, at the end of the day, coming from where I came from has always given me an appreciation for my job. It’s natural to think about things like moving on but if I have thought about it, it hasn’t been for very long. My life’s work will be here at LCC. I’m very proud of this school, the community and the kids we have here—I absolutely love them. I’ll finish here and as long as they’ll have me as their coach, I’ll be here.

Q—Never any thoughts of pursuing college coaching?

CASSAW—When I was younger, I did, but two things came to the top of my mind pretty quickly. One, I don’t think I have the necessary recruiting skill set and that’s probably skill set No. 1 for any successful college coach. I admire what they do with the x’s and o’s but I think that’s secondary to getting the right people in the door.

Secondly, you can’t really pick where you want to start out. You have to go where the opportunities are and I wasn’t interested in being an assistant coach in, say, Aberdeen, SD. I’ve met a lot of college coaches who’ve come through our gym recruiting and we’d have conversations. Guys from all over the country would say how much they loved their recruiting visits to San Diego. I thought “why would I want to move anywhere else when I’m already in such a great place?”

Q—As any high school coach does, you’ve experienced difficult years; what gets you through tough times?

CASSAW—It sounds simple, but what I’ve realized over the years of coaching is that it’s always about the talent that you have and how much you can get out of those guys. That’s the challenge—can we get our team to the level or above the level of its talent in a given year? As long as you keep that focus in mind, it gets you through the good times and bad.

John Wooden used to say that he enjoyed practices more than games and I’ve found that to be absolutely true. I’m telling you there have been days I’ve driven home from practice so excited because of the progress kids are making and my opportunity to work with them. I’ve won championships, gone home, and not felt that much of a thrill. It really does happen that way.

Q—How much has coaching high school basketball changed since you became head coach at LCC in 1999??

CASSAW—Let’s start with what’s the same. I still feel like kids are kids. They want coaching. They want rules, boundaries and someone to push them to be the best they can be—they appreciate that.

I think the greatest challenge is continually creating a team out of individuals. It’s about doing things as a team. Today, it seems everybody has their own game, wants to create their own brand and you’ve got to create a team out of that, create a balance. So I want to respect the kids as individuals, promote them and be about their ultimate success while still creating a team—and that’s what I love the most, creating teams.

That said, there are a lot more outside influences to deal with today. With the prevalence of social media, players moving from school to school and other societal trends that get reflected in sports, there’s a lot more time spent managing egos and expectations. I try to adjust and keep doing the things I think we need to do for the kids to be successful on and off the court.

Q—In your opinion, what are the bedrock elements needed to be a successful high school coach?

CASSAW—One is getting your kids to play in a way that you can envision them being successful. Getting them to buy into that vision collectively is the foundation. Along with that, you’ve got to be able to connect with kids in a way that allows them to understand that you have their best interests at heart and genuinely want the best for them.

You also have to be a hard worker and have really thick skin. I’ve never considered myself to be an incredibly smart guy but I will put in all the work necessary for my team to be successful. No matter what, you’re going to take a lot of criticism. You have to understand that any job you’re in, there are certain realities. In the job I’m in, I get to work with peoples’ kids, kids they love and want the best for. In any given year, I’m going to hear from at least two or three that are frustrated with what’s going on. That’s the reality and if I don’t embrace that reality, I’m probably not going to be in the profession very long.

Q—If you could change anything about high school basketball, what would it be?

CASSAW—I don’t think there’s much I’d change. All I would say is I really enjoyed the years we played where it was based on enrollment, kids stayed in their neighborhood and played for their local high school. I know that’s kind of like an old man yelling at the clouds but it seemed there was something special about that.

Q—Are there any coaches you may have tried to model yourself after?

CASSAW—I think I’ve tried to be myself but have definitely taken bits and pieces from everybody. When we played against someone (particularly when I was younger), I would always look at the characteristics of the opposing team and ask, “what’s hard about playing against that?” and try to integrate some of it into our kids and our program where it made sense.

When I broke in at LCC, our league was brutally tough and the coaches were amazing. Every night we were playing against a really good coach and a really good program. I think that helped mold me in terms of tactics and preparation. You learn a lot by osmosis when you’re up against really good coaches.

Ray Johnson at El Camino was a fantastic coach and we had some amazing battles against his teams. John Olive over at Torrey Pines, we’ve gone back-and-forth for all 23 years I’ve been head coach. That’s been fun because he’s so good and so is his program. That helps you to be successful.

As far as coaching philosophy and style, I’ve read all of Wooden’s books and try to integrate a lot of his philosophy into what I do. A lot of people comment on how calm I am on the bench and I think that comes from watching coaches like Lon Krueger (when he was at Kansas State). He always had such a composed demeanor and I thought that was the best way to coach—my emotions, whatever they might be, aren’t really necessary. What matters is that I’m concentrating on the game. There’s also a lot to be said for setting an example for your kids, fans and the community. When you’re coaching, there are usually a lot of eyes on you.

Q—What kind of interests do you have outside of basketball?

CASSAW—Family. That’s always the strength behind the scenes for anybody. Obviously your immediate family (Cassaw and his wife have two daughters, ages 20 and 15) but, in my case, my parents still come out every year to watch the team play, my brothers—having all those levels of support behind you is huge.

Interestingly, I felt like Covid helped me grow, especially from the standpoint of taking more time for myself and being willing to let go of some things. It was a crazy situation and, in several instances, it forced me to step away and hand the keys to my assistants for a while. Everything turned out fine and it taught me that I didn’t have to micromanage as much and could trust others.

Personally, mountain biking is my No. 1 activity. I also like to play golf, pickle ball, hit the gym and just generally be active. We took a van and converted it into a camper that can be used for trips—one of the coolest places I’ve been to is Whitefish, Montana.

Q—Besides coaching, you teach four AP History courses at La Costa Canyon. Is there an individual in the course of history that you find fascinating?

CASSAW—I would say Gandhi was a remarkable individual. You can pivot off him in a lot of ways. One of the things Gandhi was about is that he didn’t see people as Hindu, Muslim or a certain caste member. His whole thing in India was to unite people.

I try to incorporate that idea into my own life and, in my opinion, it is something that we need to be thinking about in our world today. We’re more divided than ever and Gandhi is an example of the power of unity.

Q—How do you hope to be remembered?

CASSAW—Honestly, I don’t really care. I know this—within a year or two of me being gone, there will be a lot of kids who don’t know who I am, will never have heard of me and it’s not going to matter.

I don’t put any energy into that whatsoever. When I’m done, I’m done. I’ll move on, the school will move on. I hope they’ll have a great new coach after I walk away.

What I worry about is making sure I’m impacting the kids right in front of me. If anything, I guess I would want to be remembered as someone the kids were thankful they had as a coach, someone who worked hard for them and made them the most important thing.