Building Blocks for a Successful Program

Aaron Thompson, Head Coach at Evansville Christian High School, Evansville, IN

Fundamentals.  Growth Mindset.  Culture.  These are common words used by coaches and leaders across the count, especially in the sports world.  Without meaning…an understanding by the team of what they mean…”words” are all they will ever be.  Successful coaches are the ones that can not only provide the meaning of these words, they can make them live day in and day out within their program and produce uncommon results.

I took over the head coaching job at Evansville Christian High School in mid-October of 2018…three weeks before our FIRST season as a high school basketball program.  While I had been involved in the planning of the program for a year, it wasn’t until October 15th that the baton was passed.  The school has been in existence, from K-8, since 1975.  In 2016, ECHS began offering high school classes for Freshmen.  This month, those Freshmen will be graduating.  

Our first campaign…albeit a 1-16 record…was a success.  The success was not in the number of wins we achieved (obviously), but rather in getting the program off the ground and creating a path for future teams to follow.  Evansville Christian joined the newly formed Southern Roads Conference and its lone win was against the eventual conference champions.  Furthermore, five other contests were decided by 5 points or less.  Not too bad for a team that only had eight players, two of which had less than two years of playing experience.  This past season, we experienced huge growth in our program as we nearly doubled our number of players, added four assistant coaches, and had a JV team.  ECHS posted a 12-12 record, won the Southern Roads Conference with an undefeated conference record, and made it to the Indiana Christian Schools Athletic Association State Finals. 

There were many conversations about where we needed to focus our efforts when starting a program.  There really isn’t a blueprint on how to do it at the high school level.  On the court, I knew we had to drill the team on fundamentals.  When you walk into a gym and don’t have enough players to scrimmage, there aren’t a ton of options.  When those numbers doubled, our staff continued to focus on those fundamentals.  Collectively we don’t have the highest basketball IQ.  Individually, we do not have a “star” that can get us a bucket when we need it.  So every practice, we work on the same fundamentals: being ready to shoot, stepping into the shot, stepping when making a pass, finding the right angle to pass, pass fakes, Mikan drill, etc.  I have listed the fundamentals under, “points of emphasis” each year in our team notebook each player receives.  Each time we run the drills, we find it important to give the “why” for doing it.  The kids need to understand why the repetition of each drill is necessary.  When they see it, hear it, and do it, progress can be seen.

One of the most difficult aspects of starting a new job, a new position, a new program is changing the mindset of individuals.  How often do we hear things like, “…this is the way we have always done it…”?  It is difficult to get a 16-year old to believe things and see things differently.  However, it is sometimes nearly impossible to get parents to think differently.  With a K-8th grade school that had been in existence for over 40 years, Evansville Christian had an established youth sports program.  Each year, the 8th graders would play in their last year of sports at ECS before going to one of the many high schools in the area.  The emphasis was always put on that 8th grade year as the “final” year to play at ECS.  That is not so anymore with a high school program that now has Varsity and JV teams.  

We are in the process of changing the grade school and middle school programs to operate more like a feeder program as opposed to individual teams that compete at different age groups.  We have pulled a couple of our teams away from leagues they have competed in for years to play school teams.  We have held multiple meetings to provide updates to the families as to the progress of the program.  We also have changed the coaches at various age groups so kids can be introduced to different styles of coaches.  All of this is done in an effort to get away from the fixed mindset of doing things out of a historical perspective.  We want kids to learn and flourish with the growth mindset that will develop more skills and confidence in themselves.  We aren’t out to win games at all costs in the 4th grade…we are out to capture the hearts of the kids and invest time in them so they have the opportunity to perform at their best.  Ultimately, we want everyone associated with our program to not just see the present, but have a vision of what the future can be.

During our first season, we spent the majority of the time focusing on building a foundation for the basketball program.  I instilled the concept that a house is only as good as its foundation.  The core of that foundation is the culture that is created.  In order to cultivate a positive culture for our team, I created a mission statement for our program.  It isn’t anything fancy or even original, but it is something we strive to follow every day.  It’s a combination of our school’s mission, the athletic code of conduct, and my vision of the program.  It reads: 

“Building a successful tradition of basketball by using the talents God has given each of us and prepare our players for life beyond high school and basketball.  Through our talents…and as a team…our goal is to improve as Christians, compete as Christians, and win as Christians.”  

This is also placed as the first page of our basketball notebook.  We try to hold ourselves accountable to our mission weekly.  We constantly teach the boys what it means to compete, and how to respect your opponents, but also play to win.  We pray after practices and with our opponents after games.  Our weekly practice plans are accompanied by Scripture that we discuss.  Finally, our culture is unique as we are a private Christian School, so we openly discuss how we can use our talents to spread the word of God.  

The implementation of fundamentals, a growth mindset, and a positive culture is how we are building at Evansville Christian.  Of course we fail to hit the mark every day.  And that is okay.  We tell our kids that it is okay to make a mistake as long as you are giving 100%.  That’s what we are striving for from everyone involved…coaches included.  100% effort.  If we do that…and live our Mission…we will be a successful program.

The Role of the Assistant Coach

Abraham Schwartz, Assistant Coach at Perry Central High School, Leopold, IN

Holding the title of an assistant basketball coach for a high school in Southern Indiana could mean many different things.  Roles may vary from manager to janitor and sometimes, even parent. If you are an assistant coach, you most likely are not doing it for the money or the fame. Most people cannot name the top College or NBA assistants in the game; why should they know you? 

Many if not all of us coach because we love the game and we want to impact our athletes like someone once did for us. And then for some, it is also the desire to eventually grow to become a head coach one day.  I coach for all of these reasons, and plan to do it my whole life if God allows. 

The role of an assistant coach can look very different from one program to the next, but I believe no matter what program you are a part of, you should be doing the following with your team of assistants:

  • Each Assistant Coach (AC) should contribute a unique set of skills and strengths to the program.
  • Always represent the culture of the program and community while empowering the players to do the same.
  • Be present for everything; if the Head Coach (HC) is coming in an hour early, the assistant coach should be there as well.  
    • Serve as a role model for the team and be committed to working hard at all times.
    • Inspire the future players of the program by bringing energy to all youth events.
  • Serve the team by your willingness to do any task like sweeping the floor, folding the laundry, running the clock, etc.
  • Build personal relationships with each player alongside the HC and provide moments to share personal topics.
    • Relationships with players should always be professional, keep in mind sometimes players are intimidated by their HC and might be willing to share more with an AC.
    • Be familiar with the team handbook and team expectations and communicate directly with the HC on any player concerns.
  • Continuously contribute positive comments to all members of the program and speak in private with any member of the team if a problem arises.
  • Study the game and always be willing to learn more.  
    • Find a mentor that can guide you and prepare you to be a HC when the time comes.
  • Provide assistance to the HC with practice plans.  
    • Understand each drill and what skill is being taught.  
    • If the HC is sick, the AC can take over practice without skipping a beat.
  • Help communicate practice and game times, when the bus is leaving, or when meals are arriving, etc.
  • Memorize the scouting report of the opposing team, and your team’s game plan forwards and backwards.  
    • The AC assists with the organization of scouting reports by watching film or watching teams in-person.  
    • Be able to communicate the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team and their favorite plays.
  • Maintain the ability to draw up every single play and know all five spots of the team’s offense to help players when the HC cannot. 
  • Gather all of the equipment needed for home and away games and prepare them when the HC cannot.  
    • This takes stress off of the HC and allows them to focus on last-minute game preparations.
  • Assist with in-game decisions, and communicate ideas or thoughts when asked.  
    • The AC must understand when it is a good time to speak up and when to keep quiet (maybe most important).
  • Have all stat sheets prepared for practices and/or games.
    •  Always be ready to give the HC in-game summaries when asked. 
  • Always be aware of how many timeouts are left during a game, the foul situation, and who has the possession arrow.
  • Help calm and refocus an upset player coming to the bench.
  • Admit your mistakes in front of the team to show that everyone will make mistakes, but  also be willing to learn from them. 

Assistant coaches play a vital role in the growth of a player, a team, and a program.  Without them, many great things would cease to exist, but with them, a program’s possibilities become endless.  In my short time as assistant coach, I have made many mistakes but I never quit striving to learn and improve from them.  In order to become the head coach that I want to be someday, I know I must continue to serve and learn from one.

‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ ~Mahatma Gandhi

Different Level, Same Approach

I was fortunate to coach with Jason Delaney and Aundrey Wright for the Indy Heat 17’s EYBL team last season. What’s unique about the staff was we headed into the AAU seaspn all as high school head coaches as well. I really enjoyed our teamwork as a staff and our commitment to developing team play and a family atmosphere for our players. Here is a Q/A with Jason Delaney, head coach of that Indy Heat team and also of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, IN

Your coaching style for Cathedral seems very similar to that of the EYBL.  How important is being genuine and true to yourself as a coach, even when the talent/setting/personnel might be different?

I think it is very important to be genuine in all that you do no matter what setting you may be coaching in because players will see that. You have to stay true to who you are as a coach and what things make you successful. You have to believe in yourself because you have been placed in this situation for a reason and it is an honor to coach in both of these high level situations. You make adjustments in the EYBL, but your general philosophy needs to stay the same. 

Also, our game preparation, general serious approach to the EYBL games mirrored what we would expect in HS and even college basketball.  Not what people may think about when they hear “AAU Basketball”.  Can you talk about that?

Our biggest responsibility with our EYBL team was to prepare these players for college to the best of our ability. This included agendas for the road of where to be when, scouting reports, mini camps, and being held to a standard in work ethic. When you look at the EYBL it has been a trendsetter for college basketball including changing the three point line to the international three point line. I think players need to see the value in preparation and then when they have success they understand why it is needed. 

AAU can be tricky because it’s part about exposure, part about development, and part about winning.  And balancing those can be challenging.  I was really impressed with how our guys made it more about family and more about winning, and I think that’s because of our leadership.  Can you talk about that?

I believe we did a really good job of building relationships with our guys and they understood that we had their best interest in mind. We had such a short time to get to know them and prepare before hitting the road in front of college coaches. I believe they saw our passion for the game, our preparation, and how we as coaches sacrificed our egos. Each one of us brought something different to the table just like our players did. We modeled what we wanted from them in terms of sacrifice and teamwork and that group did the exact same thing. They realized when they did that then everyone could shine and how fun winning was because of it. 

What are some things over the years of coaching AAU that has made you a better HS coach?

I think that AAU has really helped me pay attention to the details of the game and become a better teacher. The margin of error in the EYBL is so small because of the talent level you are going against that you have to pay attention to details. The 24 second shot clock, illegal defense, and athletic ability of your opponent makes you have to become a better game manager as well. Coaches have to make adjustments and have a solid game plan going in, so there again is why scouting reports were so important. 

Win The Interview

—John Atkins, CAA, Athletic Director – Corydon Central High School

Think for a moment about any interview you have been in as a coach. What stood out to you about the people who were conducting that interview? Were they going through the motions and asking a systematic array of questions or were they sincere and open? Did they seem passionate about the position, their program, and their student-athletes? Were they knowledgeable about you and your background? Now ask those same questions about yourself in that interview. Were your answers calculated and premeditated, or were they profound? Did you do your homework and show knowledge of the program’s past, present, and future? Did you convey that you were passionate about being the next head coach at that school? As the landscape of coaching in sports has changed over the years, so has the description of what schools are looking for in their coaches. For this athletic director, it is a solid mixture of old school values and new school approaches that I desire and here are five categories of questions I ask myself about each candidate that I interview.

  1. Is this candidate knowledgeable? Do they actually know what they are talking about or are they just a good interview? Can they think and react to questions and scenarios on the fly with little to no preparation? Were they honest and sincere about their past experiences?
  1. What kind of relationships is this candidate going to have within our school and community? Can they relate with the student-athletes in our program from top to bottom? Will they work well, and in cooperation with other coaches, especially when it comes to multi-sport athletes? Can they be productive members of our school staff outside of their coaching responsibilities? Are they willing to be a public figure?
  1. Are they driven and passionate about their job? Will our kids buy in to him/her? Are they a program coach who takes pride in success at every level? Do they have fun coaching the game and will they allow it to be fun for those around them?
  1. Is he/she a system coach or are they flexible in their approach? Is this person open to suggestions and insights or do they have to have full control? Can they recruit a coaching staff that they trust and feel comfortable delegating authority to?
  1. Is this person going to follow the rules (school & IHSAA) or are they going to try to find ways to bend and circumvent them? Is this a person that I will have to keep a close eye on or can I trust them completely? Is he/she the same person when nobody’s looking?

It needs to be understood that as an athletic director, I am not looking for the perfect person because the perfect person simply doesn’t exist. It is extremely unlikely that you are going to give me the perfect answer to every question you are asked, and if you did it would raise some concerns for me about your sincerity and honesty. I have never come away from an interview, reflected upon my answers to the questions above, and realized that a certain candidate had checked every single box for me. However, the majority of the time the candidate who gets offered the job is the one who answered questions honestly and left me with confidence that they were the right person for our job.

The author can be reached for questions or comments at

Extremely Competitive and All-Consuming

A Peek into the High School Hoops Scene in LA

Colin Pfaff is entering his fifth season as head boys basketball coach at  Windward High School, a private school of about 500 students in Los Angeles.  “Windward does a great job balancing athletics and academics,” Coach Pfaff says.  “It’s certainly a community, and focused on relational leadership.”

Since taking over, Coach Pfaff has led the Windward to a 93-33 record. The Wildcats went 28-8 this past season. “We had a great year,” Coach said, referring to this 2019-20 season.. “28 wins; set multiple school records.” While Windward finished the season ranked as the 27th best team in the nation, there were five teams ranked higher than them in LA alone.

Coach Pfaff describes the LA hoops scene as “extremely competitive. It’s all consuming. There are events every weekend of the year, for every level it seems like. The depth of talent is unreal. It seems as if every team you play has at least one college prospect on the team.Quite a few teams have multiple college prospects. There is a ton of opportunity for our players to get exposure, but the main thing is not to get caught up in the hype. We’ve got to make sure we stay focused and continue to get better.”

While he has enjoyed success the past couple seasons, the next couple seasons offer even greater anticipation for Pfaff.  They stand to return all 5 starters, with two juniors leading the way.  Both Dylan Andrews and Kijani Wright are Top 100 ranked players, who both hold offers from USC and UCLA.

Coach was a bit understated when describing next year’s team.  “Should be a solid group,” he described.  Sure it will.  

And so will many other teams in LA.

Program Staples of Reitz Basketball

Michael Adams, Reitz High School, Evansville, IN

When you asked me to share, I was honored and humbled.  I know as the years keep passing by, more than 30 years now, that I find myself wondering more and more, how are other coaches doing things?  Am I way off or out of touch with how things should be done in this day and age? 

I wish I had the opportunity to go out and study and see how others are doing things.  I would love to be able to go visit other programs, and watch practices, sit in on coaching meetings, film sessions, scouting reports, X and O with them, and on and on.  Obviously, this would be difficult and unrealistic since we are all coaching and busy with our own teams.  I’m sure that I’m probably not the only coach that has these thoughts. 

Young and old coaches alike would embrace this opportunity.  Since we can’t do this, I believe things like going to clinics, reading, talking to other coaches, watching videos, getting involved with things like “Feel for the Game” are always good alternatives to fill this void. 

With these thoughts in mind, I thought I would share some things we have done at Reitz.

  • The first is a letter I sent to all of our players when it was obvious we were not going to be able to meet because of the pandemic. 
  • The second is titled “Panther Absolutes”.  Things we feel must happen to have success as a team. 
  • The third are some thoughts on creating a good “Culture”. 

There are so many other things that we could include, but hopefully these few things will give you a glimpse into some of the things we do and believe in.  I hope this helps someone and don’t hesitate to contact me if you think I could help you in any way.  Stay safe and blessings.

A Couple Seats Down the Bench

Brandon Allman, Brownstown Central High School, Brownstown, IN

How much different could things really be moving just a couple of seats down the bench? Being the freshmen boys basketball coach, I already plan my own practices, take care of paperwork, transportation to and from games, and coach my games. Plus, I attend every varsity practice and game. I also have coached varsity boys’ and girls’ golf for many years. However as I found out in year one as head varsity basketball coach at Brownstown Central, it is more difficult than I ever imagined but a lot of fun, so here are a few lessons I learned from year one hoping it might help some future head coaches and maybe even a veteran or two. 

Lesson #1: Be Thankful for the Job You Have 

I know this is much easier to say now during all of the chaos we are currently experiencing with Covid-19, but I am truly thankful for the opportunity that was afforded to me by the Brownstown administration. To quote Coach Nathan Fleenor, “It’s okay to be patient. It has to be the right fit for you.” This has resonated with me since his Coach’s Roundtable presentation. I had been in coaching for 13 years, 10 of those at Brownstown when I decided to take my first varsity job. I have been presented with several opportunities to become a head coach for other programs, but turned them down because they were just not the right fit for me. I am also beyond thankful for those administrators for allowing me to grow as a coach during the interview process. All of those years helped prepare me for the challenges and responsibilities of being head coach. Most importantly, just thankful my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has put me in this position to help young people. 

Lesson #2: Be You and Go to Work 

I have had the distinguished opportunity to play for and coach under Dave Benter, who is hands down one of the best in the business. He is my mentor and go-to for any questions I might have, but at the end of the day I am not him and I have to be myself and run the program with my touch with what works for my coaching style. Always take, steal, and use whatever you can, but put your own touch or emphasis on it to benefit your team. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and lean on other coaches; most are more than willing to help. I know it is cliche, but treat every job like it is your dream job or your last job (never know what is going to happen) and to paraphrase Merle Haggard, keep your nose on the grindstone and work hard every day. 

Lesson #3: Have to be Organized 

Trust me I am still working a ton on this one! Organization might be the most difficult one for me. If you come into my office, most of the time my desk is completely covered with stuff; some say that is a mark of a genius though. In all seriousness, the stuff behind the scenes is what wears me down at times. All of the paperwork,fundraisers, ordering of materials, scheduling spring/summer/fall stuff, meetings, and all of the in-season scheduling is extremely difficult and frustrating. Sometimes I wish I could hire my own secretary. However, it has taught me to become more organized by taking more notes and creating calendars to stay more organized. Make sure you have your player/parent expectations set up and clearly communicated to help alleviate any issues that may occur or help you get out ahead of them. 

Lesson #4: Delegation 

Another area that I have to continue to improve on is delegating tasks to my assistants and players. One other tough aspect of year one was selecting loyal, supportive, and dedicated assistants. I am confident I have done that, so I need to become better at handing off some of the responsibilities to them. Give them jobs to do and things to focus on. I was guilty of trying to do everything on my own because that is my mentality. Also, it is important to give players control to do some things as well. I take the approach that it is not “my” team; it is “our” team. The more influence the players have the more buy-in they will have. For instance, my two seniors have already taken leadership leading Zoom workouts with their teammates. 

Lesson #5: You Must Have Support and Balance 

Don’t let the job completely consume you! If you do, it won’t be fun anymore. I’m a firm believer that you have to enjoy what you are doing. You must have balance in your home life and family life. You must have a spouse that loves and supports you and wants you to achieve your goals. I have never made my wife attend my games, but she seems to make it to every one of them. She pushes me to be the best version of myself and takes care of the kids during the busy season. Most importantly, no matter what happens at practice or during a game, my two kids always bring a smile to my face. Do not neglect them and make it a priority to find time to spend with them. I also feel it is important to have them around our team; it is great for the players, but my children also get a bunch of role models to look up to. After all, we are all family. Winning a sectional and a regional would not mean much if I didn’t have family to share it with. 

In closing, sometimes I wonder if all the time and hassle that coaches put into the season and off-season are worth it. However as coaches, we have a very unique job. Not only do we get to teach a game that we love, but we get to inspire and push young people to be the best versions of themselves they can be. If you make this job about yourself, you are not going to get nearly as much gratification if you make it about your players. Buy into them and let them know how much you care and how much work you put in for them, and in return, they will buy in to you and run through brick walls for you. Value the relationships that you make more than the victories.

My Foundation for Surviving in Coaching

Kevin Oxley, Tecumseh High School, Lynnville, IN

Just having completed my 37th year of coaching, the first nine as an assistant and the last twenty-eight as head coach (and unbelievably, all at the same school), I am frequently asked by young coaches, “Why and how do you still do it?”.  The “why” is easy; I still enjoy the challenge of practice and the excitement of game night.  All coaches look forward to these.  It is the “how” that several coaches usually struggle with the most.  It is more about establishing and keeping priorities than anything else.  The game is simple; the life around it sometimes is not.  Basketball is a game based on the execution of fundamentals and a good balance in these four fundamental areas usually provides a coach a solid foundation.

Fundamental #1:  FAITH / HUMBLENESS – It is by God’s grace that we get to do this job and to Him belongs the glory.  We do very little in life on our own.  I was taught early in life; appreciate success, don’t celebrate it. 

Fundamental #2:  FAMILY AND TEAM – Each of us knows how important our own children are, but as coaches, sometimes we forget.  We also need to realize that the members of our teams have to be treated as our children at times as well.  We have to find time to consider their individual needs as well as we do our own children’s needs.  Our time and attention are the most important things we can give to a child – whether that child is our own or a player.  Find the time to share your attention with your children and your players.  Let them know that they are important to you as individuals.

Fundamental #3:  IMPORTANCE OF CLASSROOM – A lot of us are hired as teachers as well as coaches.  Good coaches use the same skills in the gym as good teachers use in the classroom.  Every kid deserves our best effort whether it be in the classroom or in the gym.  Don’t waste an educational opportunity for a student/athlete… in the gym or in the classroom.  You can’t expect your student/athlete to give more effort than you do.  Prepare yourself to give your best and then give it.

Fundamental #4:  YOURSELF – You can’t coach like someone else and you can’t live like someone else.  You have to be yourself.  Players can sense when you are not real as well as your family members can.  You have to believe in what you are doing and do it as well as you can.  Accept the mistakes; appreciate the successes.  You also have to find time away from the game to relax, to recharge and to stay connected with your spouse/children… even during the season.  Your actions in these areas ultimately tell who you really are.  

Stay safe and I hope to see you on the court soon.

Recruiting that STEMs from Academia

The recruiting steps for student-athletes as viewed through the lens of a Division III coach at a high academic STEM institution

-Coach Rusty Loyd, Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

THE OVERALL LANDSCAPE – It is important to understand that every school, at every level, has challenges in its ability to recruit.  Some schools just have more challenges than others.  At the highest levels of Division I, recruiting comes down to facilities, relationships, playing style, and life after college.  Some schools provide in these areas better than others, which gives them a recruiting advantage.  What do the practice facility, arena, and locker rooms look like?  Who will be teammates, and what coach will be training, teaching, and mentoring me?  What will the team run to best accentuate what I do as a player and create opportunities for me after college?  Answering these questions allows a coach to successfully recruit at that level.  Moving from Division I high-major to Division I mid-major to Division II to Division III, two things are clear…the lines between the levels are incredibly undefined and ambiguous, and the questions student-athletes need answered change drastically from Division to Division and school to school.

THE DIVISION III LANDSCAPE – Division III coaches have a different list of questions than those at Division I.  Some are inherent to the level that we work…schools do not have massive budgets for practice facilities, separate playing arenas, and athletic dorms.  Schools do not offer athletic scholarships to help cover the costs for players.  Coaches are not paid hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars along with their five, six, or seven man staffs of assistants and operations directors and strength coaches to support the players in every way possible.  What Division III athletics does have are nice facilities (some that are new and cost millions of dollars – and some that are older and don’t), financial aid that is determined similarly to every other non-athletic student who attends the school, and finally, most only have two paid coaches (and sometimes a graduate assistant) doing the jobs of larger staffs at higher levels.  But like I said, we all have challenges.  Some of us just have more challenges than others.  

THE INSTITUTIONAL QUIRKS – While navigating the Division III landscape, coaches are also navigating those challenges that are specific to the school for whom they work…what I refer to as “the quirks.”  What is your geographic recruiting radius (intra-state, intra-region, or national)?  What majors does the school offer?  What are the minimum academic requirements for admission?  And the most important question of all…how competitive is financial aid?  These are the questions that a coach should have asked when he interviewed for the job, and these are the challenges that he agreed to overcome when he decided to take the job.  Every coach has to recruit through “the quirks” of their school to find success.  Because at every school, there is an ideal student in that school who would thrive at a particular institution.  The job of a Division III coach is to find that young man (and hope that he is good at basketball). 

THE STEM SCHOOL SEARCH – My school, a Division III school, certainly has its quirks in recruiting.  

What are the steps necessary to recruit at a high academic Division III school that only offers STEM majors?  To understand these steps, it is essential to know my recruiting philosophy.  

We only bring in four to six recruits each year.  Some years it is more (we had a class of nine), and some years it is less (we had a class of three).  Our goal, unlike most Division III programs, is to keep every newcomer in the program for all four years.  Most Division III schools do not have a recruiting philosophy centered around maintaining recruits in the program for four years.  Often, schools recruit as many players as possible, create competition in practices/games, and the best players survive for the entire four years.  I believe that promising players a four-year experience (not promising playing time, but being a part of the team) creates a culture of competitiveness, but also camaraderie.  Players understand that their teammates are counting on them to perform, improve, and succeed.  In 11 years (five as an assistant and six as the head coach), 59 players have decided to join our program after being extended “an offer” (explained later).  Of those 59, 49 have made it through the program all four years.  That is an 83% retention rate, which would be incredible for most scholarship schools and is almost unprecedented at the Division III level.  I believe the greatest factor in our high retention rate is the philosophy that the individual matters to team success; recruiting is not about bringing in the most players and seeing who can survive.  I believe in educating players about the challenges they will face before they arrive.  This creates a culture where the expectation is that players help one another survive and thrive.

To matriculate a class of four to six players, we begin with approximately 2000 names in our database.  Most of those 2000 student-athletes will never step foot on campus, and our staff will never watch most of them play. About 80% of them will not meet our admissions standards, but to get to that class of four to six players, you must start somewhere.

STEP 1A – FOUND THE STUDENT (March through February)

I (it is the collective “we” of my staff, but for simplicity, I will use “I” throughout) find the student-athletes that eventually join my team using two methods.  FOUND THE STUDENT or FOUND THE ATHLETE.  There are a multitude of ways that I can find academic information for a prospective student-athlete.  They include but are not limited to…

  • Email/phone call/direct message from the prospect
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a high school or AAU coach
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a reference such as a parent or an alumnus

On those occasions, when I receive the academic information for a student and they meet our academics requirements, I have FOUND THE STUDENT and now must determine his athletic ability.

At the same, I have rosters from elite camps, AAU tournaments, summer shootouts, and recruiting services.  I spend countless hours entering information into our database (our student workers do most of this) to contact each of them individually.  Every single player that enters our database is contacted via text/email (or both) and asked two simple questions, “What is your GPA/test score?  What do you want to study in college?”  When a student-athlete sends back information that meets our minimum requirements AND identifies a STEM major – we have FOUND THE STUDENT.  Now I must determine his athletic ability by FILLING IN THE BLANK (Step 2).

STEP 1B – FIND THE ATHLETE (March through February)

There are a multitude of ways that I can gather information regarding an impactful player for a program.  They include but are not limited to…

  • Email/phone call/direct message from the prospect
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a high school or AAU coach
  • Email/phone call/direct message from a reference such as a parent or an alumnus
  • Evaluating players in high school games, AAU games, Elite Camps, All-Star games, and every other conceivable type of game where a high school player participates.

On those occasions when I receive information about a player who could positively impact our program, I have FOUND THE PLAYER and now must determine his academic ability.

The biggest difference between FOUND THE PLAYER and FOUND THE STUDENT is accessibility to information.  For me, it is much harder to find a student because anyone can watch a basketball game and recognize the great players.  But no one can observe that same game and recognize which great players are also great students!  There are hundreds of thousands of players competing in high school basketball games around the world who could help my team win games.  However, only a small percentage of those students have the academic resume to get accepted to my institution.  Similarly, an even smaller percentage want to study within the STEM field.  

Finding a great player is hard.  Finding a great player who has excellent academic credentials is extremely hard.  Finding a great player who has excellent academic credentials and wants to study STEM is like finding a needle in a haystack.  I am the guy who is always digging through the haystacks!

Combining steps 1A and 1B allows me to identify and recruit enough quality student-athletes to assemble a strong recruiting class at the Division III level.  Once identified as a strong student OR as a strong player, the next step is to FILL IN THE BLANK.

STEP 2 – FILL IN THE BLANK (March through February)

Filling in the blank is a simple process.  If I have FOUND THE STUDENT, the next step is to determine his athletic ability.  With the internet and more widespread use of game film platforms like Hudl and Synergy, this step used to take weeks, if not months, to complete.  Now it can be done in hours, if not minutes.  Conversely, if I have FOUND THE PLAYER, then I must identify how strong of a student he is and what he plans to study in college.  Asking players via text or email for their academic info is the best and most time-efficient way to gather information.  One of the resources that helps combine this process into one simultaneous search is a recruiting service.  They provide academic info and film evaluations in one-stop shopping.  Streamlining the process is a huge time saver in finding prospects, but transforming this information into serious interest is the next challenge.

STEP 3 – GAUGING INTEREST (March through February)

After a prospect is identified, and the blanks are filled in (with positive information), a student-athlete becomes a “TOP RECRUIT.”   Every top recruit is contacted and introduced to our institution and program.  In initial conversations, I provide information and gauge a prospect’s interest.  An interested prospect receives an invitation to visit campus.  Within my program, an invitation to campus is the greatest measuring stick of our sincere interest in a prospective student-athlete.  

Potentially admissible students who are good players but have little to no interest in a high academic institution are removed from our top list. Players in this category seldom matriculate to our institution.  Recruiting is about the allocation of resources, and time is the most critical resource coaches have at their disposal.  Coaches cannot spend time pursuing individuals that they believe will choose a different institution – for any reason.  

Although I may pursue a few students who fall into this category each year, more often than not, I remove those who do not prioritize academics.  Removing a player from the list does not mean I remove him from my recruiting list entirely.  I will continue to educate every student who is academically qualified for our school on the opportunities available academically and athletically.  If at some point, the prospect shows an interest in visiting campus, I reevaluate his priorities and determine if a visit is a good use of his time and my time.  

STEP 4 – CAMPUS VISIT (September, March, April)

I offer two types of campus visits– both of which are unofficial visits as defined by the NCAA.  The first is a visit during the school year to spend most or all of a day learning about the different academic and athletic opportunities we provide.  On a typical visit, a student-athlete will participate in a variety of non-academic activities: campus tour, eat with the team in the dining hall, tour the athletic facility, and meet with our coaching staff.  On this same visit, he will participate in more academic meetings than non-academic meetings.  He will engage in the following activities: meet with an admissions counselor, meet with career services, attend a class, and meet with a professor. These visits are VERY extensive and time-consuming, but they give the best glimpse into the life of our players.  Because of the considerable investment in time, I reserve these visits for students whom I have FILLED IN THE BLANKS, GAUGED THEIR INTEREST as positive, and consider a top recruit.  I believe that an in-person visit to campus is the crucial building block to a young man choosing our institution.  I majority of current players would agree their visit to campus solidified us as their number one college choice.

The second type of visit is an invitation to attend our Elite Camp in June.  This one day camp provides the opportunity to see campus, meet current players, interact with our staff in a basketball setting, and compete in games and drills with other recruits.  Our numbers stay low for camp because there are not that many strong students who want a STEM education and want to play college basketball.  These small numbers (usually in the 20s or 30s) allow our staff to work with players in an individualized setting which helps foster a relationship.  Players who come for Elite Camp, and are on our top prospect list, are also invited to campus for an individual visit day.  Elite Camp does not provide enough academic info for a young man and his family to determine if we are a good fit.

STEP 5 – THE OFFER (September, March, April)

The final meeting during a visit is with me.  I wrap up the visit, answer any remaining questions, and discuss the next steps in the recruiting process.  However, the most critical part of this final meeting is my pledge to the player and his family that he is a priority to me and our program.  I want the player to join our team, but more importantly, I want him to join our community.  I believe the best way to show a player that he is a priority is to “offer” him a spot on the team.  

My explanation of “the offer” is simple.  

  • It is a public declaration, at every level, that a program wants that prospect to join their team because the staff believes he can be an impactful player.  It translates to, “we think you are good, and we want you on our team.”
  • Divisions I, II and NAIA offers have a financial component.  They are offering athletic financial aid in exchange for a player participating on the team.
  • Division III offers have no financial component. If the player decides not to play or is removed from the team, his financial aid package will not change in any way.
  • My offer is for the player to receive the best undergraduate engineering degree in the country, a guarantee that he will be on the team for four years, and an opportunity to compete in practice every day to show he deserves a chance to impact our success.  

While explaining the offer, I also explain that my Division III offer has more validity than a Division I, Division II, or NAIA offer because it will not be rescinded.  At those schools, the coach could offer three forwards simultaneously, knowing that he only has one scholarship available for that position.  If and when one of the players chooses to accept the offer, the other two scholarships are no longer available, and the offer is often rescinded.  At the Division III level, once I make an offer, it will not go away or be revoked if other players accept an offer.  I am willing to take three forwards onto my team because there are no financial ramifications to my proposal.  If all three young men choose our program, and more importantly, our education, then our institution and team are better for having them.  In a given year, we typically make between 20 and 30 offers to get our class of four to six incoming recruits. Not every one that receives an offer will choose to attend.  In five years of making offers to players (over 100 in total), I have never once contacted a player to rescind an offer.  

STEP 6 – ADMISSIONS PROCESS (March through May 1)

The only contingency to an offer is that the student must get accepted to the institution on his own accord.  This contingency often does not become a factor because I spend a great deal of time FINDING THE STUDENT as a part of our early process, and therefore I don’t often invite someone to campus who will not be accepted.  The admissions process, while tedious and sometimes laborious, requires providing proof of the academic work completed in high school in the form of a transcript, securing recommendations from teachers, and submitting standardized test scores.  Each institution has its own set of criteria that they require for admission, and each school sets its deadlines for submission.  At our institution, the “Early Action” period has a deadline of November 1.  We also have a “Regular Decision” deadline that we rarely work with because we try to get all of our recruits to apply early action.  All applications completed by November 1 will receive a decision from admissions sometime in mid-December.  There can be a long period between receiving a positive admissions decision and receiving a financial aid package.  This window allows our staff to give each admitted recruit a ton of individual attention by SHOWING THE LOVE.

STEP 7 – SHOW THE LOVE (April through May 1)

For a typical recruit, I like to do steps 1-6 in a fairly natural progression.  The only step that cannot be skipped or bypassed is the admissions process.  Once that occurs, then I move on to showing the prospect that he is a high priority for our program.  Showing love is accomplished by attending practices, having regular text conversations, talking with his high school coaches, and lots AND lots of phone calls.  However, the best method of showing individual attention is by attending basketball games.  After a visit in September or October, our school is typically one of the recruit’s top five college choices.  To become their first choice, the player needs to see a member of my staff as often as possible for positive affirmation.  My staff will attend between three and five high school games a week to accomplish this goal.  Building a relationship with a player (and his family) is the single best indicator of whether my school will be at the top of a recruits list.  The greatest determining factor of whether he chooses my school or not is financial aid.

STEP 7 – FINANCIAL AID (December through May 1)

At the Division III level, financial aid is the process by which institutions “package” together funding in the form of loans, grants, work opportunities, and family contributions to cover the cost of attendance.  There are many details and intricacies to this process which make it difficult to understand.  From the FAFSA to unsubsidized loans to EFC, the process can be very confusing and create uncertainty for families.  Ultimately, a family hopes their financial aid package lowers the cost so they can pay for the student to attend without making too many financial sacrifices. For some families, this sacrifice is greater than others.  Out-of-pocket cost is one factor in making this sacrifice, and taking out student loans is another.  At our institution, financial aid packages typically come out in mid-January.  With a decision deadline of May 1, families have time to evaluate the financial aid components and determine if the decision to attend is a sound investment.  I try, throughout the process, to remind families of a few simple factors when considering financial aid. 

1) The sticker price is how much the school costs, but is rarely how much a student pays to attend. Financial aid packages help mitigate that cost and make college more affordable.  The sticker price of my school is $70,000 per year and includes tuition, room and board, a laptop, and student fees for the year.  However, exactly zero players on my team pay $70,000 per year to attend.  They each receive an individualized financial aid package that takes many factors into account to provide financial assistance.  So even though the sticker price might be $70,000, some students may pay $20,000, and others may pay $50,000.  The only way to learn what the actual out-of-pocket cost of attendance will be is to apply, get accepted, and receive a package. 

2) My school will not be the cheapest option.  The cost of a private college education is quite expensive and, if a family’s single most crucial factor in deciding is cost, then that family will probably not choose our school.  Many of the student-athletes I recruit end up choosing four-year public institutions where they do not participate in athletics.  That decision is often financially driven. 

3) Even though we may be more expensive than other options, there is a high probability that we are worth the difference.  Some of the most important numbers to consider when choosing a college are return on investment and placement rate upon graduation.  Return on investment is a ratio of net profit versus initial investment.  Therefore, to make an initial cost of college “worth it,” a school must provide a high probability of a strong salary over time and a high likelihood of securing a job the first year.  Our sticker price is $70,000, but our average starting salary is approximately $70,000, and our job placement rate is over 90% each year at graduation. These two numbers (70,000 and 90%) are the biggest reasons that students choose our school.  

4) Sometimes loans are worth taking, and sometimes they are not.  Many individuals believe that student loans are a poor investment in a student’s future – and this can be true.  However, a loan is a sound investment if the borrowed amount, interest accrued, and necessary time to repay the loan are measured in juxtaposition with placement rate and, more importantly, the average starting salary of the school.  If the salary is high enough and the placement rate is strong enough, then the decision to take out a loan has a higher probability of being labeled as a “good investment” UNLESS the size of the loan financially cripples the borrower for an extended period.

If, after receiving a financial aid package, a family pays $20,000 per year out-of-pocket ($80,000 total), the student has to take out a $5,000 loan each year ($20,000 total), and upon graduation, the student’s starting salary is $70,000 (our average), then for that family, the return on investment is pretty solid.  They spend $80,000 in total over four years, have to repay $20,000 in loans, and over the next ten years, the student will make in the neighborhood $700,000 (which does not include regular salary adjustments for inflation, bonuses, or any raises that might occur).  That is a pretty solid return on investment for any family who can make that initial investment.

STEP 8 – RETURN TO CAMPUS (March and April)

The last step for many recruits before deciding is returning to campus for one final visit.  This visit may be necessary to answer questions about academics, athletics, financial aid, or team culture.  However, the single greatest reason students return to campus, and sometimes, more importantly, the family returns to campus, is to remind themselves why our institution has been at the top of their list for so long.  For many students, the last time they visited was in September, and this visit reminds them why they believe our institution is the best option for their academic and athletic success.  For some, this visit is just a short meeting with the coaching staff or maybe a few players to ask questions.  Most stop by the financial aid office to confirm information they received.  This last opportunity to be on campus confirms our school is the perfect match.  I genuinely believe that if a student has gone through all seven steps and returns to campus for one last visit, he will choose us.

STEP 9 – THE DECISION (on or before May 1)

Most people know that LeBron James made “the decision” in 2010 to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat.  That decision changed the course of NBA history and made some people extremely happy (and some Clevelanders very sad).  Similarly, young men across the country make decisions each spring that change the course of academic institutions and basketball programs across the country.  When they make these decisions, they make their soon-to-be basketball coach extremely happy (but they also make other coaches extremely sad).  

For any 18-year-old young man, making a college choice is difficult.  It does not matter if he plans on playing a sport or not; the process of deciding his future is challenging.  Similarly, having to tell someone “NO” who has spent countless hours texting, talking, educating, researching, driving, and investing in him is an even more daunting endeavor.  I am always hoping for a “YES” from each recruit, but the numbers show that for every “YES” I get, I will hear “NO” ten times over.  But, as a coach, I live for the “YES.”  It makes every mile driven, every call made, and every text sent worth the trouble.

In conclusion, the recruiting process is long.  I often describe it as a marathon – not a sprint.  A Division I coach may offer a kid on Monday and expect a decision by Friday.  At a Division III school, I offer a kid in September and hope for a decision by April.  From gathering their initial information to the final decision, it can take as long as an entire calendar year for a prospective student-athlete to make a final decision.  Over that period, there will be countless phone calls, texts, emails, conversations, games, practices, and questions, but a resilient coach and his staff will help the recruit navigate obstacles.  Each step provides challenges for the player to overcome, for the coaches to overcome, and for the school to overcome.  As I said before, everyone has challenges. Some just have more challenges than others.   

When a young man chooses my school and our program, I know that he has done so with a crystal-clear understanding of the hurdles that lie ahead of him, but more importantly, that he possesses a passion for overcoming those challenges and changing his future.  A wise man once said, “anything in life worth doing is hard.”  Finding a needle in a haystack in hard.  Being a college basketball player is hard.  Choosing to pursue your academic interest at the best STEM school in the country is hard.  But for those who want to take on the challenge of a lifetime, choosing Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is easy.