The Transition from Coach to Athletic Director

Tyler Phillips, Athletic Director at Hauser High School (IN)

When I was asked to write this article, I have to admit I never put a lot of thought into this transition from coaching high school basketball to running an athletic department.  For me, they are two different animals; however, running a high school program helped prepare me for running an entire athletic department.  I remember at an earlier point in my career, I interviewed for an AD position and didn’t get it.  Their reasoning?  I had never been a head coach and they didn’t feel I was ready.  Being young and inexperienced, I thought that was a bogus excuse, but now that I am on the AD side of the desk, I see they were exactly right.

The biggest similarity I have come to find in being a head coach and an athletic director is the management piece.  As a high school basketball coach, everything that happens in your program is on your watch and your responsibility.  As an AD, the happenings of the entire athletic department, from coaches to athletes to even the spectators in your bleachers, are on your watch and your responsibility.  Both roles are similar to owning a small business; when you move from coaching to being an athletic director, your business just expanded.

I’m thankful for my time as a coach because of the memories and relationships I was able to build and still maintain today.  I am also thankful for the role it played in helping me prepare for my new position as an AD.  Through coaching, I was able to learn how to make tough decisions, budget, manage time, manage personnel, evaluate players and assistant coaches, and so much more.  Much of these same things are things that I have to do on a daily basis as an AD.  Instead of coaching kids to be better at their given sport, I now have to coach coaches on how to be better professionals, better communicators, better leaders…in a word, better coaches.  This would not have been impossible had I not been in their shoes and experienced first hand what they have to deal with on a daily basis.  So while I was upset in my youth for not getting that AD job, I am now thankful that they saved me from failure as I was nowhere near ready for such a role.

As all coaches know, one of the hardest parts of coaching is getting your foot in the door of being a head high school basketball coach.  I interviewed and finished runner up more times than I care to share, and all for the same reason… lack of experience.  Every great coach needs that first chance to show they can run a successful program.  Bob Knight was an unknown coach when Army hired him; he wasn’t exactly proven when Indiana University brought him to Bloomington.  During those times interviewing, I always tried to put myself in the shoes of the interviewers.

  • What are they looking for?  Are they looking for something similar to the coach they just had, or are they looking to move on from that persona completely? 
  • How can I mold myself to fit what they need so I can get this job? 
  • What questions will they ask?  Are they putting more weight in this question over that question? 

Anyone who has interviewed for a head coaching position knows what I’m talking about.  While I can’t speak for all AD’s, I can tell you in my first year as an AD and hiring coaches (between junior high and high school), I had to hire 15! I can share what I have noticed that I look for.

The biggest thing I have noticed about hiring coaches is I look for the things that were important to me as a coach.  I wanted to build relationships, culture, chemistry, and a family atmosphere.  I wasn’t as worried about X’s and O’s or the system I ran offensively or defensively.  As I look back at the questions I was asked at various interviews, I can now see what was important to each interviewer… I can see what they put their stock into.  I can also look back and see what jobs I am thankful I didn’t get because of where the importance seemed to be placed… the almighty W-L record! I would have to think long and hard what my records as a high school player were; I’m sure we lost more than we won, but I do remember the relationships and lessons I learned that help me now as a grown adult that far outweigh the games we won or lost.  As an administrator, I’m looking to hire coaches with that same mentality.

So as for me as an athletic director, here’s what I look for and emphasize when searching for a coach:

  1. Will you fit the culture I’m trying to build across all of my athletic programs?
  • Will you support the other programs? Not just say you will during the interview, but will you really support and promote our other athletes and programs?
  1. Will you put kids first in your decision making?
  • Will a kid’s well-being trump your record?  Will your decision making be driven by what’s best for you, your staff, appeasing parents, or your kids?
  1. Will you model the culture you want in your program and I want in our athletic program as a whole?
  • Will you practice what you preach?  Will you be accountable and reliable to our school, our community, and our student athletes?
  1. Are you coachable?
  • Are you willing to learn and get better, or are you completely set in your ways and stuck on doing the same thing over and over?
  1. Do you have a plan for your program, top to bottom?
  • A house isn’t strong if the foundation is shaky; any high school program’s foundation is the feeder system.  Do you have a plan of how to get your system in place?  
  1. Are you willing to put the work in?
  • Coaching is a multi-tiered, tireless, sometimes thankless profession.  To be successful in today’s world, you have to be willing to put in the long days and the late nights.  You can’t leave any stone unturned because your kids deserve that from you.  Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to do that?
  1. Are you a good teacher?
  • When making reference calls, I always call the principal and ask about their teaching.  A wise AD once told me, “If you show me a good teacher, I’ll show you a good coach, because they are one in the same.”  He was exactly right.  To be a good coach, you have to be a good teacher.  Also, if you are teaching in our school system while being a coach, you need to understand that teaching has to come first and can’t be laid aside just because you’re a coach.  You have a responsibility to provide a quality education to the kids that are students only. Are you willing to do that?

A very experienced, wise Indiana basketball coach once told me that everyone in Indiana thinks they can coach basketball… he’s not wrong in saying this.  Everyone has a system, a set of X’s and O’s they think are better than everyone else’s. That is what makes coaching so much fun.  There are numerous ways to coach basketball and they are all right. When hiring a coach, I’m not looking for a system coach or a masterful X and O coach; I’m looking for a coach that will invest in kids and build relationships that will last far beyond their time in our basketball program.  If these relationships are created and that type of culture is established, winning will take care of itself… and you will win some basketball games as well.  

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