J. Paul Vance Jr. is comfortable in the role of chief decision-maker. As Connecticut’s claims commissioner, he holds the power to decide when to waive sovereign immunity and allow a party to sue the state.
Prior to landing that governor-appointed position in 2011, he ran for mayor in his hometown of Waterbury, where he also had served as board of alderman president and held other civic leadership positions.
So what happens when a leader like Vance decides to indulge his love of basketball? He becomes a head coach, of course.
“I’ve always been a basketball junkie,” said Vance, the 39-year-old head coach of the private Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury. “I love the free-flowing jazz nature of basketball. You have a strategy that you try to execute but you also have to change on the fly. It’s a little like being in the courtroom, too.”
In late November, Chase Collegiate tipped off its fourth season with Vance at the helm. The school plays in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council against schools as far north as Maine. Chase Collegiate competes in the division reserved for the smallest schools in the NEPSAC, but Vance isn’t afraid to test his team against competition from all over the Northeast.
“We play schools in New York, we play military schools and we play in Maine for a weekend,” Vance said. “It’s a nice experience for the kids with the traveling. It’s more like playing small-college basketball, and it’s a tough academic school.”
Vance also can recruit players to the private school, something that coaches at public schools can’t do. That process adds to the college feel of the program. Vance has led his teams through some successful seasons, including last year when his senior-laden squad finished runner-up in the New England Tournament. “We lost six seniors from last year, so we’re struggling and we’re not used to that,” Vance said last week after his team had lost the first two games of the season.
Vance’s coaching career started shortly after he graduated from the Seton Hall University School of Law in 1999. He began working as a trial attorney in a Waterbury firm handling insurance and municipal defense cases as well as workers’ compensation cases while coaching in his spare time. He also was experienced in competitive athletics, having played football at Villanova University during his undergraduate days.
“A friend at Crosby High School in Waterbury asked if I wanted to be an assistant coach for the girls’ team,” he said, “so I learned the game from a different perspective.”
He spent five seasons as an assistant at Crosby before landing the head coaching job at Chase Collegiate. He runs into former Crosby players frequently around Waterbury. One woman is a law student at St. John’s. Vance saw another former player in the grocery store with her children. “That’s the best part about it, to keep in touch with your former players,” Vance said. “It’s like an extended family of younger cousins.”
During the summer months, Vance travels to coaching clinics in the region to meet and learn from some of the most successful college coaches in the country. He takes tips and plays from those coaches to implement at Chase Collegiate, which has an impact on his players when they know they’re running the same play used by the University of Kentucky, for example.
“I love meeting with those [coaches],” Vance said. “I like the collaborative nature of the basketball clinics and coaches. College coaches let you borrow all the time and implement things with your own team.”
He said the collaboration is similar to what he experiences when he participates in Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association workshops and continuing legal education sessions, and “it’s a lot more collaborative than in politics,” he noted.
Vance said he’s always impressed when a big-name college coach takes time to answer his email and share some insight, and he enjoys a part-time job that allows him to continue learning new concepts.
“I love what I’m doing as the claims commissioner, and then I have a little bit of a taste of coaching basketball,” Vance said. “It’s more of a calling, a way to stay close to the game. If I can help those guys become good young men, I’m doing my job.” •