Of the many lessons Tahj Holden learned during his time at Maryland, perhaps the most applicable one in his post-college life has been this:
Always have a contingency plan.
Holden, an integral member of Maryland’s 2002 national championship team, finished his college career in 2003 and immediately began preparations for what he assumed would be a lengthy professional basketball career. But nearly a year later, injuries prematurely derailed those overseas hoop dreams.
Seven years later, Holden completed his first season as an assistant coach at Monmouth following two years as the Hawks’ director of basketball operations. Despite Monmouth laboring through an 11-18 season in 2010-11, Holden expressed an undeniable enthusiasm for college coaching. But excitement over his Division I future was unceremoniously halted last spring when the MU athletic department dismissed the basketball coaching staff.
“… I'm now wondering what else I can do to earn a paycheck,” Holden wrote on his blog last June. “I'm not exactly sure what I want to do, or can do considering that I haven't really done much else besides basketball.”
The situation may have seemed dire at the time. Staying involved with basketball was Holden’s No. 1 priority after finishing his Terps career, and the abrupt end to his coaching career was a definite shock to his system. But armed with his Maryland degree -- and a connection from his basketball past -- Holden rebounded in a hurry. Ten years after winning a national title, Holden has embarked on a new career as an analyst for a global financial services company in Jersey City, not far from where he grew up. And Holden has stayed involved with the game he loves as a coach for his former youth team.
What Holden now does with his life wasn’t meticulously mapped out in a College Park classroom. The introspective former athlete could never have predicted that this would be his life. But how he has responded to uncertainty and adversity in his professional life can be traced back to his time at Maryland – specifically his unforgettable junior season.
“It doesn’t feel like 10 years ago when we won,” Holden said. “But you get busy with life and you kind of forget that it’s been so long. Steve Blake has three kids now. Life happens. It’s incredible to think about.”
A 6-foot-10, 270-pound forward/center out of Red Bank (N.J.) Regional High, Holden came to College Park in 1999 as a Top 50 recruit with enormous potential. He left with a reputation on the court as a physical defender seemingly unconcerned with personal glory, and a reputation off the court for being a well-spoken, passionate leader in student government.
His basketball career with the Terps got off to a solid start. Holden appeared in all 35 of Maryland’s games as a freshman, and saw action in 27 matchups the following year – missing just nine with a broken bone in his foot.
As a junior, Holden started 11 games and appeared in all 36. In the Terps’ Final Four matchup with Kansas, Holden stepped in for a foul-troubled Lonny Baxter and contributed 13 points and four rebounds in 24 minutes.
“There was no drop-off in our play when he came off the bench,” Gary Williams later said of Holden’s 2001-02 contributions. “He was like having a sixth starter, and was very important to our success. His play against Kansas certainly was a key factor in our winning that game in the semifinals of the Final Four.”
Against Indiana in the NCAA championship game -- a 64-52 Terps victory -- Holden provided his typically tough defense and added two points, four assists and three rebounds. On the season, Holden finished with averages of 5.6 points and 2.7 rebounds. While he doesn’t live in the past, Holden can’t help but occasionally reminisce about that 2001-02 season.
“Every time in the past couple months they’ve been replaying the championship game, my mom and my aunt are telling me the championship’s on,” Holden said. “It gives me the opportunity to think about it. I was at an alumni event [last weekend], and we talked about the 2002 team. The guys at the alumni event bring it up. I talk to Steve [Blake] and Drew [Nicholas], telling old Gary Williams stories to each other. I think back on all four of my years there, not just the national championship team. That’s obviously special.”
After a senior year in which he averaged career highs in points (8.7), rebounds (4.4) and assists (1.8), Holden headed overseas. He landed a deal with Aras I.T.U. in Turkey, but a series of Achilles’ injuries prematurely ended his playing career. One year after helping Maryland to the Sweet 16, Holden’s playing days were done.
“I didn’t know exactly where my path would take me,” Holden said. “I was a communications major at Maryland. I didn’t realize that my playing career after college would be so short. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I anticipated playing for another 10 years or so. It came a little bit quicker than I anticipated.”
Holden returned to the U.S., and began plotting his next move. He worked a string of financial jobs while finishing his degree at Maryland – which he completed in 2007. From there Holden moved West, with the former Terp landing a coaching and substitute teaching job at La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego.
For three years, Holden roamed the sidelines for the private school’s JV, varsity and eighth-grade squads. He felt at home instructing younger players and developing their games. So when Monmouth – located roughly 15 minutes away from his hometown – offered him the director of basketball operations job in 2008, Holden jumped at the opportunity. After two seasons in that role, he was elevated to assistant coach.
“I really enjoyed my time at Monmouth,” Holden said. “It was a little tough because I came from a winning program. We didn’t do a lot of winning there. When I was younger at Maryland, they were a pretty successful team. … [When] I got an opportunity to be bumped up to assistant coach, I could get on the road and recruit, work with the guys one-on-one, small group, correct things they did wrong. … Overall, my time at Monmouth was great. It was good being home. It was a great opportunity to get into basketball. The toughest part was that we didn’t win a whole lot of games.”
Monmouth’s decision to dismiss the men’s basketball staff left Holden jobless and anxious about his future. He searched for other assistant coaching positions, but no offers materialized. In the meantime, Holden volunteered with the Central Jersey Hawks – the once-proud program that he led to AAU nationals more than a decade ago. Now he’s set to coach the fourth-grade team this summer.
“I’ve got a pretty good team,” Holden said. “It’s an adventure every day with 10-year-olds. Their attention span is pretty short. But I enjoy it. They just love playing basketball. They’re not worried about getting a scholarship or going to the pros. They just come to play and try to be the best they can be. They have a great time, I have a great time, and we win some games.”
Surprisingly enough, Holden’s affiliation with the Central Jersey Hawks eventually led to his full-time job. One of the program’s other coaches worked at the Knight Capital Group and put in a good word for Holden, who eventually interviewed for an open position and was hired as an analyst in November.
At Knight -- a firm “that engages in market making and trading across global equities, fixed income, foreign exchange, options and futures” -- Holden works in the purchasing and sales department. His work day begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at around 3:30 p.m., leaving him time to coach in the afternoon and early evening. During a typical work day, Holden is in constant contact with traders, while also making sure certain accounts are “all squared away.” It’s early in his Knight tenure, but Holden has already noticed that his time with the Terps has given him a leg up.
At Maryland, “I had to work hard to come in every day and not be embarrassed,” he said. “The same holds true for the financial world. You’re not going to come in and be a superstar. Very few guys do that. But you can come in and put in the work every day and get a little bit better. Doing my job now, it’s just coming in and putting in the work and putting in the time. A ton of guys make a great living in the financial world by coming in and putting in the work. That takes time. Freshman year, nobody expected us to be good, and we had a 25-10 season. Then we made the Final Four and then we won the national championship. Guys stayed around and put in the work. That’s something you can think about with that team at Maryland. I take that with me in everything I do.”
Holden hasn’t entirely given up on his college coaching dream. If the right opportunity came his way, he’d definitely consider getting back in the game. But his family is still in New Jersey, and his wife Carrie – a Maryland native – is happy there, too. He also likes his job at Knight, and is excited about his work with the Central Jersey Hawks. The fourth-graders can’t exactly grasp the significance of playing for a coach who reached the highest level of college basketball, but that won’t stop Holden from imparting some of the wisdom he acquired 10 years ago.
“They’re too young to figure any of it out,” Holden said of his Maryland career. “I think they appreciate it. The parents do appreciate it. One of the things I can pull out in the near future and say is, ‘Listen to me. I did win a national championship, so I think I know what I’m talking about.’”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun