In the Fight with Your Guys
I get the questions all the time, from officials, parents, fans – “Hey son, can you tell me where the Head Coach is?”, or “You’re the Head Coach? How old are you?” “C’mon man, you can’t be serious?” Sometimes I have to point to my wife and two young sons in the crowd to convince people that I’m not 18.
I take it in stride, because I know I look like your average college basketball team manager. It’s all good. You play with the cards you’re dealt, right?
When I got my first head coaching job at Trinity International University in July 2014, I knew the deck was stacked against me. I was 28, and my wife and five-month old moved away from everything we knew: West Coast, family, a tight group of friends, our church – our entire community – to take a job just north of Chicago, where we knew approximately one person, at a school whose basketball program hadn’t been .500 since the 1990s and had won five games the previous season.
There were several coaches in my new league that had been coaching longer than I had been alive, and multiple who have 500, 600, 700+ wins in their careers. I had zero wins. I had no recruiting ties in the Midwest, little time to sign any of my own recruits, and most importantly, no clue how to deal with snow. It was crazy. But my wife and I relied on our faith (Jeremiah 17:7-8, Psalm 139:5, Isaiah 26:3), each other, and our desire to live a life of adventure, and we jumped in the fight.
Fast forward to March 2017. TIU Men’s Basketball finished the season ranked 7th in the country at the NAIA II level. We won 30 games, advanced to the Elite-8 at the National Tournament, and had the conference POY, two All-Americans and the NAIA national dunk contest champion. Our SID told me that we just completed the greatest three-year turnaround (from 5 wins to 30) than any school at any level of college basketball in the nation. Truth be told, there are still better coaches in our league than I.
There are better facilities, better operating and scholarship budgets. But our steady climb has led to a much more fun question: “How did y’all do it?” My answer is always the same: we work really hard, prayed harder, and have found that one thing makes all the difference: the ability to be in the fight with our guys.
What does that mean, exactly? It means that our guys, from the time we first contact them in recruiting to the moment they walk across that stage on graduation with a diploma in hand, know that their coaches are 100% invested in their lives. Not just their ability on the floor, or even their performance in the classroom. Everything. Our goal in our program is to build faithful husbands and loving fathers (Proverbs 3:3-4).
We love to compete, and we want to win lots of games, conference titles, and hopefully national titles. But those things don’t last. We’re after stuff that lasts. To build faithful husbands and loving fathers, you have to become tight with your guys. Not necessarily in a buddy-buddy way, but in a way that each of them knows you love them, like really LOVE them, and would do anything to help them grow. Love is an action, stemming from time, effort, and being real. So we dive in, with the distinct intention of loving our guys with our time, our effort, and our lives.
Throughout the year, our coaches condition with our guys. Not just a sprint here or there when we feel like raising the level. Suicides, 17s, 20 in 20s, Beginning Conditioning. We make them touch every line, so we touch every line. In the fight. We lift with our guys – every single rep, even the stuff that isn’t as fun for us, like burpees, cleans, and core. It’s not about winning the sprints, or being physically strong. It’s not even about beating the guys who are a little slower, or weaker. It’s about being in the fight. It’s about our 16 guys knowing that everything we ask them to do for us, we are willing to do for them.
They don’t care if I’m slow, or if I can’t squat or bench as much as them. They see their coaches sweating, scrapping, talking, grinding, competing. On the same level as them. With the same investment as they have. I’m a movie guy, and my goal is to lead our guys like Benjamin Martin (The Patriot) and William Wallace (Braveheart). Real leaders don’t lead from the throne, or on some horse in the background yelling orders. Real leaders are in the fight!
Before TIU, I played four years and coached six years at Vanguard University, an NAIA school in California. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to be the top assistant on our National Title squad. During those ten years, I learned from some incredible coaches and mentors (Rhett Soliday, Russ Davis, Bob Wilson, Mark Campbell, Donnie Bostwick, Bill Czech, among others). Each of those guys are big-time leaders, and I tried to glean things from every one of them
One of the reasons I love the NAIA level is because the rules within the NAIA allow us to dive into our guys’ lives, to build relationships with them by spending significant amounts of time with them. We take our guys recruiting with us. We take them scouting with us. We take them to church with us and our families.
We host Bible studies and game nights. In the fight. We do a team retreat in the fall where we get away for a weekend and deepen the relationships in our basketball family. At that retreat, we eat, compete, and just hang with the fellas. We do skits, where we let the guys clown on us and each other. In the fight. We open up about our past, our failures and successes, and how God brought us together for such a time as this. In the fight.
In recruiting, we try to recruit as many high-level guys as we can, as long as they fit what we’re about at Trinity. We pray specifically that God would bring the right guys at the right time. If you’ve seen us play, we are talented, but there are more talented teams. We are athletic and deep, but there are more athletic and deeper teams. There are certainly smarter teams, and many teams who are better coached. But I will put our family atmosphere against any program in the country. One of our goals is to lead the nation in high-fives. We want to have incredible joy, incredible love, and incredible toughness.
Our guys love each other and they love their coaches. Our foundation, our purpose, is something deeper than winning and losing. We’re after stuff that lasts. We’re in the fight.
*If you have suggestions or ideas of how to be “In the Fight” with your team, please email me, because I’d love to hear ‘em!
TIU Men’s Basketball