When Justin Leslie took over the Cougar basketball program from legendary coach Bill Odell in 2007, the program was in the midst of its best run in history, having made made the NAIA tournament 11 straight times.
Leslie has since carried the program’s historic success into the new age, leading this season’s team to the Elite Eight in its first year of NCAA postseason eligibility — a feat that had been accomplished just once before in Division II history.
His relationship to the program’s success begins 11 years before taking his coaching tenure, when he was a freshman center for the Cougars.
He joined the program four years into its nine-year stretch of consecutive Golden State Athletic Conference championship titles.
His five-year career developed simultaneously with a pivotal turning point for the program: establishing a nationally dominant presence in the NAIA. After a Sweet 16 appearance his freshman year, the team advanced to the Final Four his sophomore and junior seasons for the first time in school history.
“This became the expectation that we created for the program,” Leslie said. “That was the standard we started holding ourselves to.”
After suffering a wrist injury, Leslie was forced to redshirt the 1999-2000 season. The next year he returned to what current Director of Athletics Gary Pine described as “arguably the best team” in school history.
“He had showed promise of being a scorer his junior year, and I mean a big-time scorer. But we were a much more talented team his senior year,” Pine said. “That turned into significant leadership, but diminished numbers. Not time, but numbers.”
Then-head coach Odell noted the leadership potential Leslie exhibited from the get-go, describing him as the ultimate team player who sacrificed whatever was needed for the good of the team.
“I always wanted to be the main guy. But as my career started unfolding, I realized I wasn’t going to be. Everybody was a star wherever they came from,” Leslie said. “When I bought into the fact I could be the best leader, the best screener and a great team defender, I realized, ‘Wow, I can start making other people around me better.'”
The team would advance to the Elite Eight in Leslie’s final season as a player before losing to the eventual national champion. He was the only senior the team would lose the next season, which would mark the first time in nine years Azusa Pacific didn’t win the GSAC title.
“I remember talking to one of his former teammates that year and saying, ‘Why haven’t we been able to do as well?’ He said, ‘Justin Leslie.’ He was a great leader, was very intelligent and did things that don’t show up in the box score,” Pine said.
Leslie served as an assistant for Odell that season before leaving the next year to work for a public consulting company in Newport Beach. His absence would mark the only season in an eight-year stretch the team didn’t make at least the Sweet 16.
He returned to Azusa Pacific as an assistant again one year later.
“Going out into the corporate world and making really good money and then deciding he wanted to be a coach really shows him as a team player,” Odell said.
After his 16-year tenure as head coach, Odell passed the baton to Leslie in 2007.
“It was easy for me,” Odell said. “I knew there would be no break in what we were doing or the continuity of the successes that we had in the past. He was so much a part of that as a player and as an assistant. He just moved over 18 inches into the head coaching role.”
Leslie led the Cougar team to an Elite Eight appearance his first season as head coach, the national championship game in 2009-10 and another Sweet 16 appearance in 2010-11.
Then the NCAA era dawned. The university’s application for Division II membership was approved in July 2011, kicking off a three-year transitional period.
“I know there are a lot of coaches on our staff, most of which I hired, that really look up to Justin as they’ve gone through this whole process — his quiet leadership, his ability to navigate all of the nuances of going into Division II,” said Odell, who retired from his position as director of athletics in 2011 after kickstarting the transition.
Leslie’s preparation for the program’s first season of postseason eligibility began immediately. It was a three-year process of recruiting and redshirting players with the goal of laying a long-term foundation for the program.
“Everyone will say this about him: ‘Boy, he’s very smart.’ He is very smart. He sees things that others don’t see. While I agree with that, I think the thing that sets him apart is he is very methodical,” Pine said. “He is probably the most well-planned coach you’re ever going to find. He spends time thinking through the possibilities and having plans for those possibilities. Rarely, if ever, is Justin caught unaware.”
The three-year transitional process culminated in the team’s successes this season as the PacWest regular-season co-champion, the NCAA Division II West Region champion and advancing to the Elite Eight, not to mention a plethora of conference honors.
“That goes to how bright he is and how much forethought he gave into what he was doing,” Odell said. “You see it in little things, but there’s a lot of really big things too. Developing a team, having them peak at the right time and working with them individually. … If I was an athletic director some place and I saw what he has done, I’d be going after him.”
Although the team doesn’t “pass the eye test,” as Leslie has said, the depth of its bench and its understanding of each player’s respective roles have been significant factors in the Cougars’ success this season. The players adopted a motto of sacrifice — a true reflection how Odell described Leslie as a player and as a coach.
“The same former teammate who I asked why aren’t we as good, he came back and was at our regular-season Cal Baptist game this year. He told me: ‘Man, I love watching this team because a) they play team basketball and b) they really love each other. They play the game for and with each other. There’s no hint of an individual out there that throws his head back when he doesn’t get his shot or rolls his eyes when he has to come out of the game. They really do play for each other,'” Pine said. “That was all Justin.”
Odell admitted the biggest thing that stuck out in his mind was not a moment when Leslie came down the middle of the lane and dunked on somebody.
“It’s much deeper than that,” Odell said. “It’s how balanced he is. I’m just proud of him as a father and as a husband. That’s not an easy thing to coach a team, to teach, to do all of the recruiting, all the scouting, have three kids and a wife. … How he has handled the balance of life, a lot of people can’t do. That’s the thing that impresses me the most.”
Unsurprisingly, Leslie attributes this balance to Odell’s influence.
“Bill [Odell] is my hero. He was ultimately the one that led me to the Lord, to know what it means to be a Christian man, how to love your wife, how to lead your family. I took more of those things from Bill than basketball,” Leslie said. “That’s my greatest responsibility to my team: the man that I am.”