The Development of an Assistant College Basketball Coach

While head coaches are the face of a college basketball team, many times it’s the assistants that can determine the success (or failure) of a program.

All conversation regarding an assistant coach begins with recruiting. It’s understood by just about everyone in the business that the lifeblood of any program is the recruitment of talented student-athletes. Even though recruiting calendars and NCAA rules are constantly changing, the most critical responsibility of any assistant is evaluating prospects, sustaining a workable database and successfully recruiting student-athletes to a program. But recruiting today is far more than just the identification of a prospect and judging the fit between talent and program – it’s also about establishing and building relationships with those around the prospect – and much of that work must be done by the assistant coach.
As I reflect on twenty years in college basketball, a lot has changed. While recruiting remains the top priority of every assistant coach, today’s assistant is required to be well-rounded if they are going to be successful. An assistant is asked to deal with a wide variety of issues – on and off the court – in order to help manage a program.

I find it interesting that while there are a lot of quality assistants throughout the game today, many have entered the profession differently than those of 20 or 30 years ago. Not nearly as many coaches “cut their teeth” as graduate or administrative assistants today. Therefore, they need to be aware of developing all of the necessary skills to be an effective and efficient assistant as well as a potential head coach.

In no particular order, I have determined the following areas to be of vital importance in the development of a college basketball assistant. I also believe these traits are deemed critical if one aspires to run their own program some day:

Time Management:

Time management and handling crisis are keys to success in college athletics. An assistant coach must understand that 3 or 4 things will come up in a day that were NOT planned or accounted for. How a person reacts will, in many instances, determine their success. We live in a world of instant gratification, yet many young people lack the patience and self-awareness to manage their day, especially when crisis hits.

It’s critical to have the ability to multi-task as an assistant coach will no doubt be pulled in several different directions throughout the course of a given day.

Technology:

First it was the growth of the internet, then it was the advent of the cell phone and then texting became the norm for casual conversation. Now Twitter has become almost as common. A coach who can maintain a strong social media presence has the ability to connect with the young generation of players.

Being “hip” and “up-to-date” with regards to technology can only help an assistant forge relationships. But this must be done the right way as things can quickly spiral out of control in today’s virtual world.

Watching Film:

It is my considered opinion that this is a critical area to learn about the game of basketball. Remember, you can never watch too much film, especially during the off-season. Like players, coaches can really improve their “game” in the off-season.

During the season, I also suggest that an assistant find time to watch at least one film of the next opponent even if it’s not their scout. This will help develop a better understanding of the upcoming game – and they just might pick something up.

Taking Notes:

Taking five minutes after each practice to write down notes can help an assistant as well the head coach.

As Coach Raveling used to tell his staff, “Prepare for war in times of peace.” There is a lot of truth in this statement. I believe assistants need to spend time after practice evaluating what was good and what was bad. They also need to evaluate themselves. Taking five minutes to jot down notes will only help them reach their short-term and long-term goals.

I have also found that the best coaches learn from their players – so watching what they do, listening to what they do and understanding why they do it can only help make for a better teacher / coach.

Learning to Run a Program off the Court:

While winning generally cures most ills, young assistant coaches need to learn the art of running a program away from the court.

This is the area where an assistant needs to be self-motivated as well as self-aware in order to grow professionally. Sure the “it” factor comes into play when dealing with the intangibles of running a program (dealing with the AD, booster relations and fundraising), but an assistant can also learn by observing others, including their head coach.

Developing a Philosophy:

One of the biggest catastrophes an assistant can make is to fail to develop a philosophy. This is all encompassing – an assistant must have an offensive, defensive, leadership and motivational philosophy BEFORE accepting a head coaching position. Sure, a coach will grow in the head chair, but they must have an idea of how they want to play the game and run a program well before taking that first job.

And remember, an assistant doesn’t have to develop the same philosophy of the head coach they are working for or have worked for in the past. But if their philosophies differ, they simply need to remain loyal to the head coach and their way of teaching while working for them.

Recruiting Philosophy:

As previously mentioned, recruiting is at the heart of an assistant’s job. As I reflect, I would never change the level of seriousness I took during evaluation opportunities. Too many times I witnessed guys having conversations or being distracted instead of really evaluating a prospect at an event or high school game. And if the prospect didn’t play well or was seldom used on the travel team, I would go to practice and/or get to the games early in order to watch warm-ups to truly evaluate the players skill set.

A couple of things I would consider doing differently:

I would value – and evaluate – shooting even more than I did. More than any other skill this is something that needs to be studied. If you recruit shooters, you help solve lots of problems.

I would make a habit of calling two AAU and two high school coaches per week – of players that I was not currently recruiting. Calling in favors when you’ve done your work months, even years in advance, is much easier than trying to forge a friendship in a few months.

I would also attempt to acquire more video of a prospect, especially prior to a live evaluation. I believe this would have saved me time and money and allowed me to work a bit more efficiently.

Adding to Your Skill Set:

Always aspire to get better! Remember, you either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same as an assistant. Therefore, it is the obligation of every assistant coach to manage their portfolio of skills and add something each year.

Assistants can do this by refining a skill they’re already proficient in or attempting to capture something new. They can attend a clinic, study videos, read books or visit other staffs. I’m not sure I wouldn’t attempt to learn a foreign language as this could really set an assistant apart from others in recruiting.

Understanding the Value of a Quality Staff:

Coaching is very much a relationship-driven business and while hiring in any industry is not an exact science, the value of a quality staff is a critical component to a successful program. Therefore, just as assistants must learn the art of interviewing, they must also learn how to interview potential candidates when they become a head coach. Learning to probe deeply into the wants and needs of an individual as well as determining their strengths and weaknesses can help determine if someone is right for a staff and minimize hiring mistakes.

Aligning Yourself:

It is of paramount importance that young coaches align themselves with solid people. The quickest way to derail a promising career is to work for someone that is going to cut corners or simply not do things the right way.

The development of an assistant coach can and will occur in many different ways. Sure, luck plays a role in any career, but I firmly believe if an assistant prepares the right way, they will have a greater chance at success. If a coach truly develops in the areas mentioned in this article, I believe their odds of becoming a head coach increase dramatically, as they will have become a more complete coach.

Here’s wishing every coach the very best!

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Dean Keener

Dean Keener