Dan Vanhooren’s time as a player on the University of Alberta Golden Bears men’s basketball team made him fall in love with the game. But it was his career as a head coach that changed his life— and the modern Canadian collegiate basketball landscape. 

Vanhooren’s love for basketball grew as he was playing at the University of Alberta, where he was coached by Canadian collegiate basketball coaching legend Don Horwood. Even though Horwood’s coaching style was unorthodox, Vanhooren found himself becoming more passionate about the game.

“We’d watch Jimmy Connors play tennis or something in a video session so that we would watch mental toughness… and learn about what mental toughness was,” Vanhooren said.

Vanhooren moved on to coach the Medicine Hat Rattlers in 1996, and the team took off early, as he brought them to a bronze medal finish and won Coach of the Year for the ACAC South in just his fourth year. 

“Anytime you achieve something as a coach, you’re only as good as your players… You’re only as good as your staff around you and the people that are working with you,”

Dan VANHOOREN — u of c Dinos’ head coach

He was hired by the University of Calgary Dinos in 2000, after the team’s seventh straight season with a losing record. Vanhooren put his nose to the grindstone and did some savvy recruiting, getting the team ranked 10th in the country going into his first season as head coach. He firmly believed in creating a positive team culture and knew that each member, whether player or staff, would play a significant role in winning championships. 

“Anytime you achieve something as a coach, you’re only as good as your players… You’re only as good as your staff around you and the people that are working with you,” Vanhooren said.

By Christmas that year, though, five of his players suffered season-ending knee injuries. In 2003, they suffered a heartbreaking loss in the divisional title-deciding Game Three, even though they were up five with just eight seconds left. 

Vanhooren stayed determined and led the Dinos to a 20-7 record en route to their first Canada West Championship just a year later.

His most memorable story of that season was the birth of his daughter, which happened three weeks earlier than expected in the middle of a severe snowstorm. At the time, the Dinos were in Edmonton for a matchup against Vanhooren’s former team, the Golden Bears, but Vanhooren’s wife was going into labour back in Calgary. His assistant coaches urged him to go home while they would handle the game, so he booked a flight back to Calgary. But the weather remained an obstacle.

“I’m on the phone with my wife who’s in labour. I’m on another phone with Dean and he’s giving me updates on the game and Air Canada denies me access to another flight,” Vanhooren said.

Thankfully, he saw his friend at the airport, who was a pilot, and helped him beat the buzzer.

“WestJet got me on a flight, flew me to Calgary, made everybody wait. I got off the plane first. They delivered my bags to my house. I didn’t have to pick up luggage or anything. I just went straight to the hospital and I made it on time,” he recalls. 

Dan Vanhooren providing direction on the court. PHOTO: U SPORTS

From 2004 to 2020, the Dinos were the team to beat, going on to win five Canada West championships. Their eight appearances in the U SPORTS National Championship put a huge red-and-gold target on their backs, so Vanhooren prepared the Dinos for war on the basketball court every night.

“The difficulty when you’re winning regularly is to stay winning, to overcome complacency and when teams are all gunning for you because you’ve had a history of [winning] for a little… You know that you’re getting their best punch every game and you have to prepare.” 

The Dinos’ best year under Vanhooren came in the 2017-18 season, as the team went 29-5 on their way to cutting the nets as 2018 U SPORTS National Champions. That year, Vanhooren had an ace up his sleeve that no one expected: His point guard, David Kapinga.

Kapinga started his Dinos’ career in 2015 as a walk-on but quickly became Vanhooren’s starting point guard. In the 2017-18 season, Kapinga was the MVP of their USPORTS National Championship run, scoring 32 in the Canada West Final and 25 in the USPORTS National Championship game. According to Kapinga, Vanhooren’s trust in him and the rest of the players was the key to their success.

“[Vanhooren] always asks like, ‘What do you see on the court? What are you seeing? Should we keep doing this? How do the players feel about it?’ And I think it’s really powerful [to have] the coaching staff and the players on one page,” Kapinga said.

For those looking for a future in coaching or playing, Vanhooren stresses the importance of mastering the fundamentals and remaining calm during the ups and downs of the game.

“Understand that you cannot go beyond the basics to expert levels until you’re an expert at the basics… you’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never as bad as you think you are. So carry on.”

Vanhooren’s basketball legacy will forever be entrenched in Canadian collegiate sports history. Not only did he put a new roar behind the University of Calgary Dinos Men’s Basketball Team, but he also stayed true to his family, established a positive team culture, and inspired the best out of all of his teams and players, getting them to numerous championship stages and forever changing Calgary’s basketball scene.

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