Former Ohio State assistant Greg Paulus makes return as Niagara coach

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Butler University Men's Basketball Coach Chris Holtmann (foreground) and Ohio State Assistant Coach Greg Paulus (top) watched the action between Southport and Park Tudor in their second round Marion County Boys Tournament game won by Southport 54-47, played at Southport on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015.

Greg Paulus always knew he wanted to be a coach. Even when he was starring as a two-sport elite high school athlete, he saw a future on the sidelines.

That was put to the test during a three-year period in which it seemed the rug was constantly being pulled out from underneath him. But through those challenging years, Paulus learned about the game, learned about himself and confirmed that this is the journey he wants to take.

Friday night, that adventure takes him back to a pivotal part of his development. After calling Value City Arena home for six years, Paulus will be on the visitors’ bench leading Niagara into a road game against No. 17 Ohio State.

“Ohio State is special,” Paulus said. “We are grateful for having six years here. I loved my time at Ohio State.”

Following a four-year career at Duke and one season playing quarterback at Syracuse, Paulus got into coaching as an assistant at the Naval Academy for the 2010-11 season before leaving to become video coordinator at Ohio State in 2011, a position he held until 2013. While the move meant a step away from on-court coaching duties, Paulus said the chance to learn from Ohio State coach Thad Matta and be part of the program was too much to pass up.

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Matta was the first player to offer Paulus a scholarship during his playing days. At the time, Matta was the coach at Xavier and Paulus had just finished his freshman season. He took an unofficial visit to check out the Musketeers on what was his first recruiting trip.

“The opportunity to be part of Ohio State, the opportunity to work with amazing people like coach Matta and the staff and a chance to be part of something special like Ohio State, that all went into the decision to come here to Ohio State,” Paulus said. “The opportunity to learn from him, to be part of Ohio State and learn and do whatever we could to help the program out, the people we had a chance to meet and work with every day, just unbelievable.”

After being promoted to full-time assistant in 2013, Paulus was a part of Matta’s staff when the head coach was fired in June 2017. When Chris Holtmann was hired as Matta’s replacement and brought his staff with him from Butler, Paulus was suddenly adrift at a time of year where basically no Division I coaching openings exist. With the next step unknown, Paulus took to the road as a college basketball nomad, watching practices and taking notes while keeping himself as immersed in the game as possible.

He watched practices at Michigan State, Youngstown State, Santa Clara and everywhere in between. He spent time with the Detroit Pistons and watched Kevin Durant work out with the Golden State Warriors. Paulus even took in AAU events, watched multiple events at the prep level and checked in with Versailles, Ohio, product Justin Ahrens, a player who had committed to play for the Buckeyes and will play against Paulus as a fourth-year senior.

“I just feel really grateful for that (time),” Paulus said. “Coach K (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) talks all the time about follow your instincts and trust your heart and do it with great passion. That was something he taught me and a player and that’s something I use each and every day. For me, my passion has grown over the course of time and I enjoy waking up each and every day continuing to work towards growing our program here at Niagara and the people here.”

Those lessons were pivotal when Paulus was hired as an assistant coach for interim Louisville coach David Padgett as the program tried to pick up the pieces after firing Rick Pitino prior to the 2017-18 season. The staff was not retained after a 22-14 season that ended in the third round of the NIT, and from there Paulus was hired on staff at George Washington for the 2018-19 season.

The Colonials went 9-24 in Maurice Joseph’s third season and he was fired, again sending Paulus into the coaching carousel. This time, he emerged as the Niagara coach and was named to the position in November, right on the eve of the season’s start. He earned the Joe B. Hall award given annually to the nation’s top first-year coach as the Purple Eagles went 9-11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and won a game in the conference tournament before the season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Looking at the Louisville experience, I was able to reflect back on that and come here with Niagara just a couple days before the season and now I can use that experience with the relationship building and how we did things,” Paulus said. “At that time, you’re just in the moment and you’re trying to do the best you can but as you go through those experiences, you pull from them as you move forward.”

His third season at Niagara started Tuesday with a three-point loss at Xavier. On his way to Ohio State, Paulus said he was texting with a litany of former Buckeyes he coached including Jae’Sean Tate, Aaron Craft and Keita Bates-Diop. He’s remained close with Matta, now the associate athletic director for men’s basketball at Indiana. Columbus itself remains special to Paulus: he met and married his wife, Megan, while he was with the Buckeyes.

A return under any circumstances would be special.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity Niagara has given me,” he said. “I’m really proud to be a part of the community and a part of Niagara. On and off the floor, I think our team has taken steps each year. We’re continuing to work to get that foundation for our program and build that identity of who we are.”