Moving on Up

The casual North Carolina basketball fan may not know of L.J. Hepp. But one year and 3,000 miles removed from graduate school at UNC, he is now the youngest assistant coach in major college basketball.

Hepp, 25, was promoted to assistant coach at Stanford last week, after spending the previous year as the video coordinator. He'll be the third bench assistant on new head coach Trent Johnson's staff.

"Obviously it's a tremendous opportunity," Hepp said. "I'm extremely appreciative and 100 percent committed to do everything I can do to help Coach Johnson continue the strong success of Stanford basketball."

Hepp's path from Tar Heel student to assistant coach at one of the nation's top college hoops programs is unique not because of where he came from – after all, North Carolina has one of the most impressive coaching trees in the game – but rather how quickly he rose through the ranks.

It's a testament to commitment, hard work and sacrifice – and it began four years ago in Chapel Hill.

A Raleigh, N.C. native, Hepp was on the JV basketball team his first two years at UNC, and during the summer before his senior year, he witnessed the monumental changing of the guard at Carolina.

Bill Guthridge stepped down, Matt Doherty was hired – and Hepp took the first step in realizing his dream of becoming a college coach.

"When Doherty got here I walked into his office and told him I wanted to coach," Hepp said. "I was bugging those guys to let me volunteer. I wanted to work in the office and learn recruiting, X's and O's and anything else I could."

The first task was data entry, but soon thereafter he began working closely with Doug Wojcik, the assistant coach who headed the JV program, and Hepp became a fixture in the Smith Center.

"Senior year and two years of grad school I lived in the basketball office," he said. "If I wasn't in class, I was in the office – 100 percent of the year."

Hepp earned the respect of the staff over time and his responsibilities increased – signified by a spot on the coaches' team in the 3-on-3 game at Midnight with the Heels.

But the profession of college coaching is anything but stable, and Doherty resigned in the early spring of 2003, leaving the assistants temporarily out of work.

Five days later, thanks to the same determination that landed him on the UNC staff, Hepp was at the Final Four in New Orleans meeting with Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery. And later that month he departed for Palo Alto, California.

"One of the first things I did when I got to Stanford was to write a letter to Coach [Dean] Smith to thank him for keeping the JV program at Carolina," he said. "Without the JV program, there'd have been no way I'd be at Stanford.

"During those three years at UNC, I got six years worth of experience – two teams, two practices each night … it was six seasons of experience in three years."

As the video coordinator, Hepp spent the majority of his time in the editing room and assisting with opponent scouting reports. His first year at Stanford was a historic season -- the Cardinal were one of the biggest sports stories of the year, winning their first 26 games.

"I hope to coach for 50 years and I'll be surprised if I'm around a team as special as last year's group was," Hepp said.

While the move to assistant coach means Hepp will have a seat on the bench, his most important role will be to become further involved with recruiting. And one of his first serious recruits proved to be quite an entrance exam. In an ironic twist, Hepp found himself recruiting against his alma mater this spring.

Stanford had been pursuing Chicago guard Bobby Frasor since last summer, but North Carolina entered the picture in April and six weeks later Frasor was a Tar Heel.

"Carolina is Carolina," Hepp said. "There's a special tradition there, though few programs can match Stanford's success over the last decade."

And while Stanford didn't land the heralded recruit, Hepp left an indelible impression on the Frasor family.

"He was probably the most refreshing and engaging person we met in the process," said Frasor's father, Bob. "I see nothing but a great, great future for him."

Hepp began traveling on the recruiting trail as an assistant coach last weekend in Los Angeles and will head to Las Vegas on Sunday. While he no longer represents UNC and is based on the other side of the country, he is the newest branch on the vast Carolina coaching tree -- with a bright future in the game.

"He is well on his way to developing into an excellent head coach," Stanford's Coach Johnson said.

(Note: This article is a condensed version of a feature story that will appear in the Inside Carolina Magazine this fall. For more info about the IC Magazine, CLICK HERE)

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