Commentary

Wide-ranging jobs of assistant coaches never stop

Updated: April 8, 2008, 3:06 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tennessee coach Pat Summitt is quick to credit associate coach Holly Warlick and assistant coaches Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood for coming up with what she terms the best scouting reports in the game. It turns out that's not all they come up with.

"We have some amazing assistant coaches," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "They do a great job, one, with the scouting and making sure we're prepared, but two, just motivating and encouraging. … I'm pretty confident in saying nobody in America has the pregames that we have with Dean Lockwood and Nikki and Holly."

[+] EnlargeTennessee coaches
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPat Summitt, who has won 983 games, gets plenty of help from Dean Lockwood, Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell.

In the moments immediately before Sunday's semifinal victory over LSU, Caldwell finished her scouting report by reading a poem tailored to remind each player of her part in the collective whole. Before another game, the assistants donned military-style jackets to emphasize a theme related to going to battle. And Lockwood, despite receiving reviews worthy of Simon Cowell from a number of players, even broke out his dance moves recently to help drive home a point.

"Whoever has the scouting report is in charge of our little pregame talk or motivation, whether it's a poem, whether it's -- they do little skits," Hornbuckle explained. "They do everything. I mean, it's just good to see them step out and put themselves out there and be vulnerable to our laughter. But at the same time, they're doing it all with one purpose, and that's to motivate us and get a point across that we're here for business and want to take care of it."

It's all part of the job for the role players in a coaching world littered with stars and star egos.

As with a corporation, long-term stability and success for championship programs depend in large part on the leadership at the top. But also as with any typical cube farm, day-to-day sanity and satisfaction for those doing the work of the moment can have as much to do with the relationships between those who have the most open lines of communication.

For Tennessee, that comes from the stability of having had the same trio of assistants in place for four years.

"They're just a tremendous asset," Summitt said. "They've been very instrumental in bringing our team together, working with individuals, working with the communication. Having two former players has been important because they've lived it. And having someone with Dean's energy and enthusiasm and passion for teaching, coaching -- he's brought more than I could have ever imagined. I knew he was good, but I didn't know how great he was."

The five women and one man who will serve as assistant coaches in Tuesday's national championship game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) aren't exactly middle managers, but they are the people placed in the middle of a team dynamic that runs from the coach down to the players.

Assistants are the head coach's surrogates, charged with pressing home her message and doing the grunt work of X's and O's, but they are also the players' advocates.

"Having been a head coach, I can tell you it's a different role," Lockwood sad. "It's very much a different role. And it is important that you have somebody because sometimes, like any leader, you have to draw a hard line. You can be close, to a degree, but then there are moments where you can't get as close as maybe you would like to get because you have to make hard decisions where people are concerned. So that's where it's important as assistant coaches that we are that buffer.

Stanford coaches
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensFormer Stanford player Kate Paye, right, joined Tara VanDerveer, middle, and Amy Tucker on the Cardinal bench this season.

"And we are completely supportive of Pat and what she does, how we run this program, but at the same time, sometimes all we need to do is be a listening ear. So yeah, you've got to have that balance."

On the other end of the sideline, Stanford enters the title tilt having found its balance when it brought home two former Cardinal players to fill vacancies alongside Tara VanDerveer and longtime associate coach Amy Tucker. On the court, Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey focus intently on guards and defense, respectively. Off the court, they help lighten an atmosphere that needed a jolt after last season's disappointing conclusion.

"It's been a different mind-set, almost," sophomore Jayne Appel said. "It's been a lot lighter and a lot more relaxed and fun. And that might have to do with … Kate being added to our coaching staff, but it's just been a fun year."

Coaches such as VanDerveer set the standards players are supposed to live up to. But whether it's a lost shooting stroke, the aftereffects of a serious injury, a mental funk or some combination of the above, players inevitably fall off that pace. And as often as not, it's going to be an assistant stepping in to shepherd one back to the flock.

"I think that last year's coaching staff was very good -- I miss the assistant coaches from last year's coaching staff -- but this year's coaching staff brings something fresh," Stanford sophomore Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said. "They're funny; this year's coaching staff is laughing more. But they also bring a lot out of us. … I also have a very personal relationship with Bobbie Kelsey. I've had a lot of highs and lows to the season, and when I was kind of struggling this season, she kind of helped me mentally get back into the flow of things."

For Kelsey, who came back to Stanford after stints at Virginia Tech, Western Carolina, Evansville and Florida, it all comes down to knowing how to reach people.

"Some players you know need more than others," Kelsey said. "Kayla [Pedersen] doesn't need a lot; she's self-sufficient. That's just her personality. … Players like Ros, they need somebody to kind of help them and guide them a little bit more than maybe a Kayla. You learn them as you come in; you learn the players and learn their personalities. … With Ros, in particular, she was just struggling. She didn't know how to get out of it. Some people can figure it out, and it's harder for some than others. But as a coach, that's our job. Our job is to see what they're doing and, when they're struggling, help them."

In the locker room after Sunday's win against Connecticut, VanDerveer singled out Gold-Onwude for the work she had put in during the season and the improvement she had made. Kelsey didn't get a chance to savor the recognition of a job well done; she was already courtside with Paye and Tucker, scouting Stanford's next opponent.

Sometimes the job requires a receptive ear. Sometimes it means hours in the film room. Other times it means a firm hand and a sharp whistle. Occasionally, it even means breaking out some poetry or improv comedy. The only constant is that assistant coaches have to be ready to do a little of everything.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.