Holley lands ‘dream job’ as Middletown boys basketball coach

Eric Holley has been named the boys basketball coach at Middletown High School.

Eric Holley has been named the boys basketball coach at Middletown High School.

Submitted / Middletown High School

MIDDLETOWN — Since graduating from Middletown High in 1999, Eric Holley has directed a fair amount of time and energy into basketball as a mentor and coach for young players.

Holley and Middletown classmate JR Hargreaves, who grew up together in the same neighborhood close to Snow School, were just 19 when they came up with a grand plan for the Connecticut Basketball Club, an AAU program with one foot in Middletown and the other in Hartford.

Hargreaves and Holley raised funds for the players to participate in tournaments before getting commitments from sports apparel companies that enabled youngsters to travel far and wide to play against top competition and in front of college coaches. Future NBA players Andre Drummond and Kris Dunn were involved with CBC. By Holley’s estimation, 200 kids who came through CBC earned the opportunity to attend college.

But when the Middletown High boys basketball job opened up in August, one of his younger brothers, Stepfan, saw it as a chance for Eric to return to his roots.

“Eric, you’ve been doing all this good stuff, but you need to come back home and do it. Come back home,” Holley said, recounting the conversation. “‘As soon as the position was posted, my brother said ‘Go get it.’”

Holley, 40, was hired this week to succeed Rick Privott, who retired this summer after seven seasons as head coach. Holley calls it his “dream” job in basketball.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” he said. “I have a lot coming at me from different directions right now, as you can imagine, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. When I heard I got the job, (Stepfan) was the first one to tell me how proud he was.”

Holley is eager to circulate a preseason workout plan, meet the returning players’ parents and then the players themselves later this month. Practice begins Dec. 2 for the Blue Dragons, who return four starters from last season. They open the new season Dec. 16 at home against rival Maloney.

“I want these kids to benefit from the system that has shaped me,” said Holley, a three-sport athlete in high school who first learned basketball through the Prof Gallitto League and under longtime middle school coach John Geary (Geary wrote a letter of recommendation for Holley for the MHS job). “Who I am fundamentally as a man has been shaped by this system and through the community. Sports has given me everything.”

At Middletown High, he played for freshman coach Avery Askew and for Hank Koritkoski with the junior varsity. By the time he broke in with the varsity as a junior, he was playing again for Askew, who had succeeded Tom Zabek.

All were mentors to him. Holley believes aspects of their styles will be reflected in some way in his approach as a first-time high school coach.

“It was interesting seeing all of their different styles as a young player,” he said. “A lot of my philosophy and the way I do things, my outlook, are shaped by what they taught me. Coach Koritkoski was really, really hard on us in practice. In the games he didn’t say much. He believed that he did all of his teaching in practice and then let us play. Coach Zabek was a little more hands on. I loved him as well. With Avery, he was the most relatable because he was young.”

Holley was a good enough cornerback in football to play in college at Western Connecticut, where he earned a degree in communications in 2003. After his first post-college job at Aetna, he received a Master of Science with a concentration in organizational communication from CCSU. He’s also worked at The Hartford and was recently hired at MassMutual, where he oversees change management for the company.

“When I interviewed at MassMutual, we spent 10 minutes talking about my career, and then the assistant vice president looked at my AAU background and asked, ‘Why do you do that?’” Holley said. “I said I wanted to give back through basketball.”

They talked for a while about the importance of teamwork, how to handle selfish players, and what to do raise up individuals who don’t meet expectations, before Holley said he was told, ‘Eric, I think you may be the guy for this job because everything you’re doing sports-wise is a transferable skill. People need help with their skill sets. Everything you want to instill in kids are real-life, transferable skills.’

“And that’s why I think basketball and sports have given me everything,” Holley said.

He also counts his youth football coach, Mike Souza, as a strong influence, as well as an extended family tree of cousins whose names are well known on the Middletown sports scene.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say they were all of my mentors,” Holley said. “I come from arguably the biggest family in Middletown. I’m a Holley, but I’m related to Rankins, Perry, Hunter, Craig, Oliver. And I lived down the street from the Highsmiths. We all grew up in a lot of sports. It’s just a huge sports family tree. Middletown is a town full of athletes.”

For now, Holley is looking forward to building a basketball culture that reflects his own values and coaching style.

“We’ll be a defensive-minded team first and foremost,” he said. “We’ll be a pressure team, and we’re going to change defenses and make teams play fast. At the same time, my big thing is I want these kids on the offensive end to be quick but not hurry. Play fast, but also slow down and make firm decisions. We’ll be extremely skilled and push the ball every chance we get, and play to the big fella (6-foot-8 senior Elijah Wilborn) as well.”