Top 10 Traits of a College Assistant Coach

At a clinic I attended about three decades ago, I heard a head coach say that his assistants’ jobs were to “make my life easier.” That’s right only so long as your program exists for and revolves around your head coach. Nearly every (other) coach I know feels that the job of every coach is to make your program as successful as it can possibly be.

1 – Loyalty: if you work for a man, work for him (or her). A head coach has many concerns and responsibilities – worrying about whether he (or she) can trust you shouldn’t be one of them.

2 – Recruit: not just sign players but players who can play for your head coach, e.g.
a) does your guy “break players down to build them back up?” Be careful when recruiting a sensitive, spoiled kid. b) do you use a double low post offense? If so, don’t recruit a high post player.
c) do you run dribble-drive? Make sure you’re recruiting guys who can create their own shot and don’t try to sign a post player who is used to being the focal point of the offense.
d) evaluation is key Forget the rep and the scouting services; no one ought to know whether the kid can play for you better than you.

3 – Don’t be a “yes man.” It might seem as though the head coach wants or needs agreement, but not making suggestions you believe in – even if your head guy feels otherwise just means you can ride with him/her out of town when the pink slip is issued. You can disagree without being disagreeable. Push hard for your beliefs, explain why you feel that way but know when to surrender and be united when a decision is made.

4 – Be as low maintenance as possible. Being self-sufficient frees everyone else to do their jobs. Coaching in college has become such a tenuous position; head coaches are given less time (but more money); ancillary issues only take away from a staff’s effectiveness.

5 – Scouting: on many staffs, the games are split among the assistants. You need to be able to break down opponents’ games to give your team “advance knowledge” of what to expect. The ability to a) understand opponents’ personnel and tendencies and b) be able to pass that information on to your players (or what good is it?) in a short amount of time.

6 – End-of-game situations: thoroughly understanding (quickly) what your team’s philosophy is in the final minutes, depending on the several factors, especially if the game is your scout. It is the one time in a game in which you may have the greatest impact. Most coaches (and many fans) will remember Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook was having the game of his life with 43 points. He’d scored 17 of the Thunder’s 23 points in the fourth quarter, including 13 in a row. The Thunder were down three with 17 seconds to go but there were only 5 seconds on the Heat’s shot clock so even though the they controlled the tip, just five seconds of good D and the Thunder would have had a chance to tie. Inexplicably, Westbrook intentionally fouled Mario Chalmers. The debate was, “Who’s fault: Westbrook or head coach Scott Brooks?” Sure, Westbrook is an NBA player who ought to know time and score. Yet, he was in that zone players get and, sometimes, that can include a mental lapse. So, was Brooks to blame? As a head coach he was thinking of what three point they needed to run once they got the ball. The mistake was the assistants! At least one of them should have known and relayed the information to Westbrook. If all assistants are going to do is yell and cheer, they may as well have pom-poms.

7 – Be the players’ confidante: with 12-15 players on a team, there’s never enough playing time to go around and it would be a first if every player was satisfied with their minutes. It’s so easy to blame the head coach. The assistant has to be a good listener – to the player, high school coach, parents (or whoever helped with the recruitment process) – but also need to “tell it like it is” – in an empathetic manner. In addition, there are home sick problems, roommate situations, girlfriend/boyfriend issues, whatever. A good assistant solves the problems – gracefully, legally and truthfully – so they seldom, if ever, reach the head coach.

8 – Handle the BS: there are scores of people and groups who “want a piece” of the head coach. Many of them can be dealt with by an assistant but nobody wants to deal with just a #2, 3 or 4. The assistant must be able to take care of such items so the person will be satisfied. The head coach must be able to use the greater majority of the time on the vital items: practice time, recruiting calls or correspondence, media interviews, etc.

9 – Represent your school in a positive, dignified manner: with the invention of the Internet, all bets are off! There’s no such thing as being anonymous. Nowadays, any slip up, be it a confrontation with an obnoxious fan, a humorous but off color email, driving after you’ve had a couple of beers and probably aren’t over the limit (but might be close), trouble in your personal life – anything – makes for a good story or, worse yet, a budding writer’s breakthrough. Your integrity must be above reproach.

10 – Ability to improve players’ performance: many programs have workout guys, strength & conditioning personnel. The game shouldn’t become so specialized that assistants shouldn’t be able to help kids they recruited and have great relationships with get closer to their potential. Make sure they reach their academic potential as well, even if it’s staying in close touch with the academic counselors and tutors.

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Jack Fertig

Jack Fertig

30 year assistant in nine Division I programs | Grad asst: Vermont, Washington State, Oregon (4 yrs), Full-time asst: Robert Morris, Western Carolina, Tennessee (11 yrs) | Associate Head Coach: Toledo, USC (8 yrs), Director of Basketball Ops: Fresno State (7 yrs)