By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

HANOVER – Braeden Estes has followed a challenging road since he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a college basketball coach. 

There is no easy road.

Estes, a 24-year old Lebanon High school graduate and the director of operations for Dartmouth College’s men’s basketball team, made his first impression on Big Green coach David McLaughlin while working at the program’s summer camps. 

McLaughlin noticed that although some young staffers hustled out of the gym at lunch or at the end of the afternoon, Estes tended to stick around. Were all the basketballs accounted for? Did the older coaches need assistance in any way? The local guy also forged bonds with the campers, quick to ask them questions or to offer a consoling presence after a tough day.

“You knew he was putting in extra effort when he didn’t have to,” McLaughlin said.

Lebanon High coach Kieth Matte, whose son, K.J., played youth and high school basketball alongside Estes, noticed the same strong character. He breaks into a smile while recalling the boys’ back-seat chatter during car rides to games.

“They’d argue about whether Santa Claus was real or not,” Matte said. “Braeden was a great role player on some very good teams.”

Estes, a wing, started as a Raiders junior and captained the team as a senior, both seasons ending with losses to Portsmouth in the state semifinals. He mulled a few chances to play NCAA Division III basketball but ultimately decided to attend the University of New Hampshire.

Estes and former Dartmouth coach Dave Faucher were involved in the local Longhorns AAU program, and the latter introduced the former to UNH coach Bill Herrion, who suggested Estes become a Wildcats student manager. Once in the door, the newcomer’s passion for the game became evident and he progressed from mundane tasks to video responsibilities and assisting the coaching staff with scouting.

Estes also drove home to Lebanon frequently to coach and administer the Longhorns. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and Herrion, whose brother was on the University of South Florida staff, helped him land with the Bulls as a graduate assistant.

While pursuing a master’s degree in physical education, Estes lived alongside many of the team’s players in an apartment complex across the street from USF’s athletic facilities. His meals were provided and, when he moved to new accommodations a few mile away, he rode a bike through Tampa’s notorious summer rain storms rather than buy a car. 

At USF, Estes again did plenty of video work and scouting. He assisted on the court, sometimes competing as part of the scout team, which ran upcoming opponents’ sets and plays. Promoted to assistant director of operations earlier this year, Estes learned the ins and outs of travel administration, booking a season’s worth of buses, hotels, restaurant meals and entertainment options. 

While back in the Upper Valley to visit his family last summer, Estes asked permission to watch Dartmouth’s off-season workouts. McLaughlin told his former camp counselor he was about to begin interviewing candidates for his own director of operations job. Would he like to be the first candidate in line?

Estes jumped at the opportunity but finished as runner up. He’d been back in Florida for several months when his phone rang in October. The Big Green job was again open and this time, it was his to turn down, although the season’s imminent start made the timing less than ideal.

“The last thing I wanted to do was burn a bridge at South Florida,” Estes said. “So I went into (head coach Brian Gregory’s) office and told him about the opportunity and asked what he thought was the right decision.”

Estes took the gig with Gregory’s blessing, driving a 15-foot U-Haul truck almost the full length of the East Coast during a single weekend. A relentless networker, Estes made stops in North Carolina and Virginia to see coaching peers. 

The first visit was at High Point University, where he got to meet and question head coach Tubby Smith, a legendary bench boss who guided Kentucky to the 1998 national championship.

Estes left Tampa on a Friday, arrived at his parents’ house on Sunday and began work at Dartmouth on Monday. A week later, the Big Green opened the season at Boston College. It’s been a whirlwind of adjustments, from inheriting his predecessor’s travel arrangements to keeping track of timeouts, fouls and the possession arrow while seated next to McLaughlin during games.

The NCAA prohibits directors of operations from directly coaching players, but recently amended that rule to allow them to do so if an assistant coach is not on campus. That gives a DOO the chance for court time and interaction, primarily when assistants are out recruiting.

“The director of operations is the front door to our house,” McLaughlin said. “Anything we do logistically, he’s going to have a huge role in it. Recruiting, travel, budget and game and practice scheduling.

“This profession isn’t easy and you have to grind as you move up. He’s in the middle of that right now and it’s a great lesson for any young professional.”

Estes might go from sweeping the court to shepherding a group of junior high players watching a Dartmouth practice to negotiating room rates with a national hotel chain. What will dinner’s side dishes be at Yale in February? Have the bus reservations at the Washington, D.C. airport been triple-checked?

Estes would love to remain in his current position for several years, perhaps helping Dartmouth reach the Ivy League tournament for the first time. After that, choices abound. 

He could remain in a support-staff role at a bigger program or go the Division II or III assistant coach’s route, where he’d get more court time and wider responsibilities. Time is on the side of a young man keenly focused on attaining his goal of becoming a Division I head coach.

“When I got to UNH, I realized I had a lot to learn about basketball,” Estes said. “The longer I’m involved, the more I realize how much there still is to learn.”

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