Successful transition starts from Day 1
I remember my first team meeting at St. John's University in May of 1996. It was only minutes after the news conference naming the new head basketball coach for a program rich in tradition, but one that was coming off three straight losing seasons.
I was inheriting a basketball program three seasons removed from the legendary Lou Carnesecca, one that had slipped to mediocrity at best, which isn't nearly good enough in the Big City.
As I arrived to meet my new players, those who'd gone 11-16 the year before, my starting point guard was holding a bag of Wendy's, which he expected to eat for lunch while I introduced myself. Two other players showed up with headphones on, while another walked in the room with his hat on sideways. First impressions weren't going so well, and those where of the players who showed up. Three players never made it to the meeting.
Needless to say, we rescheduled for 6 a.m. the next morning. I'm all for second chances.
But when two players were two minutes late the next morning, it was time to set a tone. The next morning's meeting came with a heavy dose of running. You could say we started our "spring conditioning program" right then and there.
Success didn't come overnight, as we finished with just two more wins than the season before. But a tone had been set for our program, and suprisingly, we had very little trouble getting the players to "buy in" to our plan.
We got St. John's back to the NCAA Tournament the next season -- winning 22 games and ending a five-year postseason drought. I left the next season for New Mexico, but I'd like to think what was accomplished in those two seasons set the stage for Mike Jarvis' skillful guidance of St. John's to the Elite Eight the next year (1999).
Like in any floundering business or organization, a losing basketball program usually requires a change in its "culture". A new coach is hired to fix what may be wrong. Often times, there has been a lack of direction, or simply a lack of talent. Sometimes, there's a talented but underachieving team left behind.
The first order of business is to meticulously organize a plan for success, both on and off the court. The players are looking for direction and will gain confidence in the coach quicker if the know he has a plan. Everything that is important to the coach should be laid out to the team in their first meeting. The old adage, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression," applies here. This is particularly important for a coach who comes into a program without a national rep, or one taking his first head coaching job.
This season, Roy Williams and Bill Self walk into situations oozing confidence because they have been successful at their previous stops, and the players they've inherited already know similar success is possible if they follow the new plan. Each of their adjustments is made easier by the fact that both North Carolina and Kansas are already stocked with quality players.
Ben Howland, meanwhile, arrives at a situation where there is some question about the talent level and even more concerns about the attitude of the UCLA players. But, given his success at Pittsburgh and the apparent need for discipline, he will have the full attention of the returning players -- or they won't be around long enough to get to know him.
And then there is Scott Drew, who faces a completely different task at Baylor. Few coaches have come into situations as difficult as Drew faces on the court, never mind the distractions off it. Drew has to, somehow, build a basketball team from scratch. And, at the same time, overcome one of college basketball's strangest and most tragic sagas.
Drew must maintain a positive attitude even as the losses mount, no matter how slow the process. He is, in effect, taking over an expansion franchise, and if there is a positive that can come out of all the tragedy, Drew can put his own stamp on Baylor basketball for a long time.
From picking uniforms to deciding where the players sit in the locker room to creating what the recruiting stationary will look like, everything must be well thought out. Drew's organization skills will be just as crucial as his recruiting and coaching abilities.
Think of any new coach's arrival as trying to make a "vision" the program's reality. How the team is going to play, and how they are going to act on and off the court, is the first priority. Williams, Self and Howland will all embrace the great tradition of their programs and use it to their advantage. Self has already put his mark on the rich tradition of Kansas, replacing the state of Kansas on the floor of Allen Field House with the biggest Jayhawk you have ever seen. It's not , but it does say something about Self's need to create his own identity in the wake of Williams' successful run in Lawrence, Kan.
One new head coach this fall told me he and his staff recently spent six hours working on the first practice with his new team. While this may sound extreme, he wanted to make sure his coaching staff got off on the right foot with their team. It makes sense. He'll never have a first practice of his head coaching career again.
And like anything else, that first step is always the most important.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico, before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.
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