Suggestions For 1st Year Head Coaches

Many times, an incoming D1 head coach dooms his program to failure within his first 30 days on the job. Here are some suggestions to help avoid that fate (NOTE: please keep in mind that these are rules of thumb, not hard and fast rules, as every situation is different).

Read the existing roadmap to success (if there is one)

If the school that just hired you has had previous success, make immediate time to study that road map. Really, you should be studying that road map before you get the job, because it should inform so many of your early decisions, particularly your hiring decisions (ie, if you have limited experience with the terrain and the landmarks depicted on the roadmap to success, you should hire people who know that terrain and those landmarks like the backs of their hands).

Beware the temptation to make an immediate “recruiting splash”

At the low-major D1 level, you can find plenty of available high school and JuCo prospects with the talent to help you win games. At the mid-major D1 level and especially at the mid-plus to high-major levels, the vast majority of available kids who look like they might be good enough are available for a reason. At the low-major level, you can find kids who just got missed, but at the higher levels, kids didn’t get “missed”- rather, a bunch of other people took a good look and said, “no thanks.” Really, regardless of your “level”, and even if you are able to find kids who are clearly talented enough, you just flat do not have enough time to carefully evaluate the prospect as BOTH a player and person- and you can’t afford to make recruiting mistakes right off the bat, especially not 4-year mistakes (NOTE: at the high-major level, it’s also important to understand that although you’re way behind on the rising senior class, you CAN NOT spend all of your time trying to play catch up on the rising seniors or you’ll be way behind on rising juniors and rising sophomores as well).

Urinate on all the trees

You’ll have more slack in your leash the first 30 days than you will at any other time during the life of your first contract, so mark your territory. I’m not saying you should be a bull in the china shop, rudely tornadoing your way through campus making nothing but permanent enemies as you go. However, your first 30 days is no time to act like Little Timid Tommy- for example, if you need another $10K to be able to hire the assistant coach you need, (politely but firmly) fight for that assistant coach. Or, if you need to get a kid into school who is less qualified academically than your admissions office would normally accept, (politely but firmly) fight for that kid. If you don’t urinate on all the trees, you should expect all the trees to urinate on you.

The “first” day, end every conversation before you start it

Timing is everything- you want everyone to feel that they’re an immediate or “top” priority because key recruiting advisors and big money boosters both tend to be highly sensitive people, but you can’t make real time for hardly anyone the “first” day because of all the directions you’re being pulled. Therefore, you should begin EVERY conversation with, “I have to walk into a meeting in about 90 seconds, but I wanted to reach out to you right away because of how important you are to this program- would it be OK if we scheduled a time in the next several weeks to get together in person?” By using this strategy, you’ll be able to hit 50-100 key people the “first” day, as opposed to 10 or 12, and all of them could very well become allies moving forward because you respected them enough to make time for them on your “first” day on the job. It’s important to remember that people never forget a perceived slight, and the combination of big egos and thin skin runs wild in many circles that matter to you (boosters, recruiting advisors, members of the media, etc), which is why the “first” day matters so much. Also, to clarify, the reason “first” is in quotes is that depending on the circumstances, an incoming head coach might have as many as 5 days they can plausibly sell as being the “first” day to the key person they’re speaking with- the day they know they’re going to be offered the job, the day they’re actually offered the job, the day it’s announced, the day of the press conference, and their first day “in the office”.

Have a backup cell phone charged and synced and ready to go

The volume of incoming text messages and phone calls when you get a D1 gig is absolutely incomprehensible, and you should assume that every single person who texts or calls expects you to get back to them in a similar time frame as you normally would, and you should also assume that all of them will get their feelings hurt if you do not. Obviously, hurting the feelings of basketball people who might be valuable allies to your program isn’t helpful to you, and hurting the feelings of (or “big timing”) your actual friends who don’t want a job or some other favor makes you feel (and potentially look) like a selfish jerk. If, on the other hand, you cut your cell phone off IMMEDIATELY (before your hiring is even announced) and start using your backup phone, you control the volume of incoming messages and calls, and no one should be hurt because it was policy, not personal (aka, you didn’t make the choice not to get back to people, you made the understandable strategic choice to make yourself unreachable). You’re going to be extremely overwhelmed anyway, and you’re severely exacerbating this problem by feeling the need to answer text messages from old friends at 4:00 AM when you have a 6:00 AM breakfast with the most important booster “in the morning” and you haven’t even been to sleep yet.

Have specific timeline-based plans in place

While writing this article, I spoke with Coach Rav about this topic, and he stressed the importance of having a plan in place for your first 30 days on the job (the rest of this paragraph is my expansion on Coach Rav’s thoughts, and I do not mean to put words in his mouth). Speaking broadly, you need a fairly comprehensive “to-do” list for your first 30 days on the job. However, it’s also very important to attach a specific timetable to each item on the to-do list and closely monitor your execution of your plan to check everything off your list. In my opinion, you should have a very specific to-do list for your first 3 days, as well as your first week, first 2 weeks, and first month.

Here is a partial list of things you need to be on top of within your first 30 days on the job (NOTE: in addition to Coach Rav, Matthew “Ski” Lisiewski contributed to this list):

Figure out the list of people who can get you fired and make friends with them

Speak with all returning players, incoming players, their parents, and their “people” back home

Crush your call list (end the conversations before they start)

Get on the same page with your secretary (syncing of contacts, calendars, etc)

Finalize the game schedule for the coming season (if it hasn’t been finalized already)

Get organized academically (get schedules, meet w/ academic advisors, implement your academic monitoring plan, check with the NCAA about the eligibility status of your incoming recruits, etc)

Pick up the ball with prospects the outgoing staff had already made headway with

Meet with any local media people (traditional and “new”) who cover your program

Arrange on-campus meetings with key people (facilities, housing, food services, compliance, equipment, security, department chairs, etc, etc)

Reach out to former players and managers and coaches

Take control of all social media outlets for your program (Twitter, Facebook, etc- might also be a good idea to appoint someone to monitor the social media accounts of your returning and incoming players)

Study the budgets from past years as well as future budget projections

Find out processes for things like cash advances, reimbursements, etc

Look into the procedures surrounding Summer school

Secure access to all of your offices, etc (new keys and new codes)

Choose hotels and restaurants and activities for official visits (your current players should be a good resource for information on this topic)

Establish Spring schedules for any shared facilities

Get summer camp in order

Hire the right staff

Obviously, hiring the right staff is key, but way too many incoming head coaches prioritize hiring a staff that will help them feel comfortable rather than prioritizing hiring a staff that will help them win games. Here are some specifics to consider:

1. Insisting that you should only hire people you know severely restricts the size of your hiring pool- at the very least, consider hiring friends of friends as well. If you think about it, it’s foolish to believe that the only people with the skill sets and relationships and track records and character to help you win are people you personally know.
2. It’s wise to hire people with skill sets that complement rather than supplement your skill sets- ie, if you’re a great X’s and O’s guy offensively, don’t hire someone whose best asset is offensive X’s and O’s.
3. Hire at least 1 person who can tell you “no, you’re wrong” (but don’t hire a whole staff of people who are over-eager to tell you that).
4. If you’re coming into an area where you don’t know many people, hire at least 1 assistant with extensive regional relationships- to use an analogy, if a friend comes to you and says, “Hey, my buddy lost his wallet and I don’t have any cash on me- can you give him $2 for his bus fare home?”, you’re probably going to reach into your pocket and hand that total stranger $2. But, if the total stranger were a homeless person who asked you for $2 without the introduction from your friend, that’s a whole different scenario, right? It works the same way in recruiting- without the power of a connecting relationship, you’re just some homeless guy begging for $2.
5. Hire a Director of Basketball Operations who wants to be an administrator, not a coach- a DOBO who wants to coach will try to include himself in coaching and recruiting at the expense of administration, and your program will have thick, numerous, and eventually irreparable cracks in its foundation.
6. NOTE: Offer to wire all of your hires a few thousand dollars as a short-term loan to help them with various immediate expenses. Not only will your incoming staff appreciate the gesture, but that loan will also likely be helpful to your program moving forward.

Focus on your TEAM, not just your recruits

In your first year, it’s important to establish a culture, which you can not do without buy-in. With this in mind, the players you inherited must feel that you appreciate them, respect them, and have their best interests in your heart. If your returning players never see you or spend time with you or speak with you during your first 30 days on the job because you’re flying to every corner of the earth looking for their replacements, they’ll remember it- and they will consequently be (perhaps subconsciously) resistant to your message and reluctant to trust you.

Do not try to hammer the square peg into the round hole

If the previous head coach believed in a different style of play than the one you prefer, you might want to make short-term style concessions based on the talent you inherited. Remember that a) establishing culture and habits are much more important than establishing a style of play and b) 13-17 in year 1 is a whole lot better than 6-24.

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