What does it take to have a successful start to a head coaching tenure? AthleticDirectorU sat down with three first-time head basketball coaches to discuss their first 100 days in the seat, including the mistakes they made and the lessons they’ve learned.
If you could have a two-minute conversation with yourself exactly one day prior to becoming a head coach, what would you say?
Brian “Penny” Collins (Head Coach – Tennessee State): Naturally, when I got the job I wanted to make a strong first impression, so I drafted a speech for my introductory press conference. But when a close mentor texted me “be yourself” the morning of, I literally tore up what I had written, realizing that being as genuine and real as I could was probably the most impactful thing I could do to start my tenure off. I might have been the first and only head coach to dance at his introductory press conference, but everything I did came from the heart and I know it resonated with our student-athletes, administrators and the entire university community. When you become a head coach for the first time, you have to remember why you joined this profession in the first place and keep that feeling with you at all times.
Tasha Pointer (Head Coach – Illinois Chicago): I would tell myself to pause before responding to any question or situation and really think it through. Information is thrown at new coaches at rapid speed, and your gut reaction is going to be to try to decide as quickly as possible when you really should be taking as much time as you need. The choices you make early on in your tenure can have a profound impact on the direction of your program in the future.
I would also tell myself to be ready to forget, that I’m going to make lots of mistakes and that’s just part of the journey and the only way I’m going to grow as a coach. Lastly, I would remind myself to laugh at those mistakes, because at the end of the day no one’s life is going to be at stake, and that it’s never going to be the end of the world. Take a deep breath, then take another.
Michael Fly (Head Coach – Florida Gulf Coast): I would have told myself to prepare for people to have their feelings hurt because I didn’t have time to return every call and hire every person. I wish I reminded myself to not let that bother me so much. In those first few weeks and months, I needed to focus on my players and their families, and it was impossible for me to answer back want amounted to nearly 1000 text messages and voicemails. In our instant gratification society, I think people sometimes lose prospective on what’s a priority and what can wait, and they jump to assumptions when someone doesn’t respond immediately. You can’t let that effect your perception on what responsibilities take precedent in your own job.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first 100 days on the job?
Collins: Not taking any time for myself because of working non-stop, whether it be a vacation or simply spending some downtime with the family. Case in point, we had a whole week in August where our players weren’t here, and I still found myself in the office the whole day finding something to do. And while I can sit here a few months in and feel fine, I also realize that there’s no way that its sustainable and I’m more likely to burn myself out than actually accomplish something. We all have strong work ethics, but you have to realize that there will always be something more to do; keeping your sanity by getting some rest might actually be the best competitive advantage you can create with your time.
Pointer: It might have been the biggest technical mistake of my entire coaching career. When I took over, I immediately looked at the schedule and saw we were committed to playing in a tournament that would require us to play the majority of our non-conference schedule away from home. I was fine with that because I figured playing in the tournament would be a great bonding experience for the team. When I confirmed our commitment to the event, I somehow missed that it was over Christmas break, when we had a home game schedule with UCLA! Worse yet, I didn’t realize this until I was about to leave for Africa to recruit for two weeks. Thankfully my assistants were able to move things around and make both commitments work. It was a very valuable lesson that with everything you have going on in the first few months of the job, you have to make sure you are surrounded by competent people. It was an oversight on my end that should have never happened and wouldn’t have had I taken the time to do things correctly instead of rushing to check it off my to-do list.
Fly: Letting myself get worked up about personal relationships during the onslaught of the hiring process. Someone is always going to have their feelings hurt because you didn’t hire them. Fact is I took over a program that won 6 league titles in 7 years and has had unprecedented success. Most people that wanted to come to FGCU did so because they saw it as an opportunity to boost their own career, not to help our program get to the next level. I wanted people that saw this as a long-term building project instead of just a stepping stone. Which is why I ended up hiring people I knew personally and had a preexisting relationship, and that I was certain wanted to put long-term roots down in Fort Meyers.
Who should new head coaches be building relationships with as soon as they step on campus?
Collins: You should work hard to build relationships with people who handle the administrative aspects of your university, from the admissions office, financial aid, purchasing… anyone that you’re going to be interacting with on a consistent basis. Before you realize it, you’re going to have a tsunami of paperwork on your desk, and you’re going to have no idea what to do with it. There’s so much institutional knowledge built up around campus inside individuals who have been dealing with these things for decades, why wouldn’t you lean on those people to help you? But don’t forget that no one outside your direct staff has to answer to you, so treat people with the respect that they deserve, especially when they aren’t responding to you as quickly as you’d like.
Pointer: Your Olympic sports coaches. Think about it for a moment – no matter what level of college athletics you’re at, Olympic sports almost always have to operate with less resources than men’s and women’s basketball. Which means their coaches are likely very adept at dealing with the very things that are giving you headaches. They are a depository of hacks and secrets on how to navigate the complexities of university and department administrative processes and are most likely more than happy to share that knowledge with you if you ask. Of course, relationships are two-way streets, and you should be figuring out how you can help them with some of the issues they may be dealing with.
Fly: Obviously, being on staff at FGCU for so many years, I’ve already had a number of pre-established relationships on campus. Thus, my most important priority after I was named head coach was to immediately build (or rebuild) relationships with players and their families. Literally the first hour after I learned I was getting the job, I spent reaching out to each one of our players parents and guardians and reassuring them that their son was going to be in good hands.
I will also point out though, that for new head coaches sometimes the most important information you can get on your team can come from an unexpected source – your managers. They have been living and hanging out with the players every day, they are likely to know every problem the program has and every issue that may be waiting to burst to the surface. You might see them as one of your last priorities to speak with early on, but they should probably be one of your first.
Have you found yourself faced with a decision that, when you were an assistant, you promised yourself that you would NOT handle the same way your head coach did?
Collins: When you’re an assistant coach, you always think you’re going to do things a different way and naively assume it won’t be difficult to make those decisions when it comes your time do so. Fortunately, I’ve been a JUCO head coach before and if you’ve ever been on that level your pretty much ready to face anything. More importantly, when I was an assistant and my boss was facing a decision, I would always ask myself “what would I do if it was up to me?” More often than not, whatever I decided was what my head coach ended up deciding too. That helped me realize I at least knew how to think like a head coach.
That being said, when I took over the program, I immediately decided that I was going to lead by example, set expectations, and hold our student-athletes accountable to them. We make it very clear what the rules are and that we’re not going to remind our players more than once. If the standards are there from the beginning, it helps reduce the difficulty of any decision you have to make as a result of someone going outside the framework you’ve created for them.
Pointer: Understanding when you have maxed out your staff. You’re going to push yourself and others around you like crazy in those first few months, but you have to remember that those around you are human beings too. When I was an assistant, I was very cognizant of when my head coach walked through door and start dictating what needed to get done without being cognizant of my emotional state or acknowledging the work I had done previously. Yet as soon as I became a head coach, I found myself doing the very same thing! You want to be successful, your going to work really hard, and that’s fine because the program’s success falls on your shoulders. But you can’t expect everyone that works for you to sacrifice like you without acknowledging their contribution from time to time.
Fly: Every. Single. Day. When I was an assistant, I recruited a lot of the players to this program. And naturally I was always worried that my head coach was often down on the guys that I brought in. He would always walk out of practice and say “we’re terrible” after I thought we had a good workout. Now that I’m in the seat, I realize it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the student-athlete. Ironically, I find myself doing the same thing after practices and our assistants are looking at me like I’m being overly dramatic! The truth is that whatever preconceived notions you have of what you’re going to do when you become a head coach go out the window when the responsibility of an entire program actually rest squarely on your shoulders.
What can assistants do better to help their head coaches succeed early on?
Collins: When I was an assistant, I always tried to put out the fire before my head coach ever saw it. Indeed, it was my job to make sure it never got past smoke. There’s already so much that a head coach has to worry and stress about; it’s the job of the assistants to take of things before they get out of control, even when they will get zero credit for it. Find people that want to make you and your program successful, not ones that only care what’s in it for them.
Pointer: When I set out to hire my staff, I intentionally tried to find those who would complement my skillset. There are people that I did not hire who had way more experience in certain areas like scouting and recruiting then some of my current staff but did not have other skills (especially soft skills) that helped augment my own strengths and offset my weaknesses. Assistants need to be as little maintenance as possible, and if you’re constantly having to explain things and delegate tasks, you probably have the wrong person working with you. If you hired correctly, they’ll know exactly where they fit in and what needs to happen to move the program forward in a positive direction.
Fly – When you hire a staff, it’s just like putting together a puzzle- the pieces don’t always fit well together. Just because you are the perfect fit for the job and program, doesn’t mean you fit perfectly with the other pieces (i.e. staff members). To that same end, it’s important for assistants to realize that they were hired for as specific reason, and that their skill set compliments their head coach and other assistants in unique ways. It’s easy to pass the buck and assume someone will take responsibility for a given task; but having the self-awareness to recognize that you’re probably the best equipped to deal with handling that situation, and the initiative to actually go do it, is what really helps push a program to another level.
What can young coaches do now to better position themselves for their first head coaching opportunity?
Collins: Moving up in the coaching world is not to dissimilar from recruiting. You can’t recruit 100 prospects, or even 50. But you can really hone in on a handful of student-athletes and give them the time and attention they each deserve. Similarly, you need to find a handful of people that you are building real relationships with in this industry, whether it be head coaches, athletic administrators or others. Building relationships means being authentic, it means caring as much about their success as yours and figuring out how to elevate them and help them achieve whatever it is they’ve set out to do. You’ll get a lot further in life by helping others than you will trying to get them to help you.
Pointer: Young coaches need to remember that when they finally get the opportunity to run their own program, actually coaching the sport is only a small part of the job. We spend so much time developing our game related skills that we forget about everything else. Budgeting, scheduling, dealing with administrators – all of these soft skills that are critical to running a successful program and yet we somehow assume we can learn them on the fly. But when you become a head coach you’re going to get pulled in a million different directions, and the last thing you can afford to do is lack the fundamental knowledge necessary to run a highly functioning organization.
Fly – Rather than always worrying about networking and building relationships to get to the next level, focus on becoming elite at what you’re being asked to do today. Are you the best video coordinator in the country? The best third assistant in the country? At each level there are certain things you are capable of doing and you are expected to do. Focus on being the best at doing those things first, and not only will people take notice, but that experience is going to help you one day when you get to run your own program.