How do you become a Hall of Fame coach?
I had the great honor of being inducted into the Rhode Island College Hall of Fame last fall. I spent 9 years at RIC and coached some great teams. We had a lot of talent, probably had the most talented team in our league every single year I was there. If we weren’t at the top, we were a close second a few years. Our players were really good.
On the day of the ceremony about 20-25 former players got together for an Alumni Game on campus, and as I watched them play I started to think about why we were consistently so good. It started with talent, no doubt, and that talent gave us the chance to win and win big. But there was a reason we were able to sustain the loss of great talent and remain at a championship level year in and year out. As I watched the guys play I thought about how I got to the Hall of Fame. Man, we had a lot of talent, and that separated us. But what made us different from an approach standpoint was the way we brought it every day. I always said I’d put our practices at RIC up against any team at any level. We competed with a relentless intensity every day. That wasn’t just our talent, because some of our best players weren’t our best competitors. As I watched our guys play I realized not only did we have great talent, but we also had great teammates. Sounds simple, but it’s true – and vital.
I realized this as I thought about my teams at RIC and watched my former players play: Great teammates are the glue that holds championship cultures together. We had some unbelievable talent – guys like Kinsey Durgin, Tirrell Hill, Antone Gray, Mason Choice and Tahrike Carter. But the fabric of our culture – the guys who really sustained our identity, were the guys who brought the energy, who had a chip on their shoulder, who showed up with something to prove every day. They bought in and did their job selflessly, and the culture of the team became unbreakable because of them.
You can be both. It’s not like the really talented guys weren’t great teammates. Most of them were, and that’s what made us really special. I don’t mean to say you are one or the other. But if you can combine great talent with great teammates, you’ve got a chance to do something special for a long time. And great talent is a little more fleeting – harder to find, harder to keep. Great teammates can sustain what you do for a long time.
Great teammates are the caretakers of your approach. They believe so much in what you do, and their identity comes from their belief in your approach. They don’t necessarily identify with how many points they score, rebounds they grab or shots they take. That’s why a lot of times they may not be your best players. They don’t have the responsibility of scoring 20 points or getting a double-double. Their responsibility is simply about the competitive edge, the preparation and the mentality that define your program. That’s what they bring to the table. And that’s what really sustains a championship culture. Your leading scorer can have a bad day or your point guard can turn the ball over a lot, but that doesn’t mean practice was not productive. Competing at a championship level every day makes you better, and that’s driven by great teammates.
Tony Pierlioni and John Weir were best friends, roommates and classmates, and both 6-9 centers. I inherited them as juniors and they rarely if ever were on the court together. If one guy was playing, the other was sitting. But they cared so much about each other and their teammates, that it didn’t matter to them. When John Weir was on the court playing his ass off Tony was on the bench going crazy for him, and vice-versa.
Nick Manson walked into my office one spring afternoon with long blonde hair telling me he had just transferred in and wanted to go out for the team. We had room for walk-ons, and he could shoot it a little bit, so we put him on the team. He sat on the bench for a year and a half, coming into my office periodically to tell me he was ready to help us win. Sure, Nick, I get it. Great. I finally gave him a shot in December of his junior year when I was pissed off at my starters, and he never came out of the lineup again. He started on back-to-back Sweet 16 teams and was our best defensive player for two years.
We told Darius Debnam not to come to RIC because he wasn’t good enough to play for us. He came anyway. Showed up in the Rec Center each day in the fall when the guys were playing and shot on the side until he finally got a chance to play in the pick-up games. He was a captain and starter on those same back-to-back Sweet 16 teams. Showed up every day with a level of toughness that was contagious, and never said a word. Just did anything we needed him to do to help us win.
Ethan Gaye walked into my office in the fall and asked me for a shot. He played with our guys all fall in pick-up, but I didn’t really know anything about him. About a week before practice, four of my returning players came into my office and begged me to make sure we had a spot for Ethan on the team. They said he just played so hard and was so tough we had to keep him. Ethan was a starting two guard for us on two straight NCAA teams, even though he really wasn’t a great shooter, passer or ball-handler. He changed the level of practice every day with how hard he competed. One of the best defenders I’ve ever coached.
My last year at RIC we lost our two leading scorers heading into the LEC Tournament. We had a talented team that had been inconsistent all year, but we felt we were good enough to win the league. But how many teams can lose their two leading scorers and still go on to win? Tom DeCiantis and Mike Palumbo were seniors on that team who just dug into their DNA and carried us to another championship. They were role guys who just showed up every day and did their job, and were ready to answer the bell when it was time. They helped us win a lot of games over their careers, but none more important than the final 3 LEC games they played in that tournament, to give us our 8th straight NCAA trip.
It’s hard to put a value on having great teammates. And it’s hard to identify, and certainly hard to recruit. How many times do you go watch a kid play and say “he’d be great for us because he’s a great teammate?” You don’t prepare to beat your league rival by saying you are going to throw your best teammates at them. But having great teammates is essential to sustained success.
Championship cultures rely on great teammates. Great teammates don’t bring a lot of drama. They don’t care much about numbers or individual success. They are willing to sacrifice. They do the hard stuff because they love the process and they believe in it. They carry your culture when the coaches aren’t around with what they say and how they operate. They are reliable and invested. They show up mentally prepared. They defend at a high level because they are willing to do the hard stuff. High-achieving teams are filled with great teammates.
Everyone can be a great teammate, but not everyone can be the best player on the team. Not everyone can score 15 or dish out 10 assists. That takes talent. Not everyone is good enough. But every player can play an essential role on a championship team. They can drive a championship culture, day after day, with their approach.
Great players give you a chance to win a championship. Great teammates allow you to sustain a championship culture.