I figured out in high school I wanted to be a basketball coach. When I went to college, I learned that the best thing to do in the summer was a to work basketball camps. So like a lot of young coaches I started to work the camp circuit after my sophomore year.
My brother was two years older than me and he was at the University of Pennsylvania. His roommate at Penn, by happenstance, was Brendan Wootten, who’s father Morgan was the hall of fame coach at Dematha High School in D.C. I’d go visit every now and then and spend time with Brendan and his brother Joe, and when the conversation turned to coaching they would always say “You should come work my Dad’s camp in the summer.”
Mason-Dixon basketball camp, at Mount St. Mary’s college back then, is where I learned how to coach. More specifically, it’s where I learned how to teach the game. At that time all of Coach Wootten’s former assistants were coming back to work his camp at some point, so you had Division I coaches as commissioners at the camp. And it wasn’t a recruiting showcase camp, it was your standard old school basketball camp. Teaching fundamentals, stations, 3 games a day, outdoor courts, all of it. But you weren’t just coaching a team. You were teaching the game.
Jack Bruen was the head coach at Colgate at the time, and he was one of my commissioners. I remember watching him teaching 4 on 4 shell drill in stations, and building up from just jumping to the ball, to screens, to cutters, and adding dribble penetration. That’s where I learned how to teach defense. It wasn’t about philosophy, positioning or approach, it was really about how to teach whatever your fundamentals were to a team of guys.
My advice to younger coaches who are assistants is to make sure you learn how to teach the game. Don’t just learn to coach. So much of camp today is just showcase games, and coaching becomes trying to install a couple of plays and getting on your guys to play hard. But you don’t actually teach the fundamentals. When is the last time at a camp you talked to one of your players about his footwork when he shot the ball? Or explained a rebounding technique to them? It seems like that just doesn’t happen that often.
When you do get on a college staff, at any level, it seems to still be all about the players. Go out and get players and prove that you can recruit. That’s how you advance, and that’s generally how you keep your boss happy. But young coaches aren’t necessarily asked to teach that much. I know my assistants at Rhode Island College did a lot more recruiting than they did teaching. I did most of the teaching, and they could really take what they liked or didn’t like from what I was doing. But most coaches who have part-time assistants at the lower levels really need guys who can go out and watch kids play 3-4 nights per week.
Camp used to be a great place to learn how to actually teach the game. I’m not sure it is the same today. So make sure you figure out a way to learn to teach as a coach. I notice a lot of coaches and programs who don’t really teach a specific defensive system, and my guess is that’s because they’ve never really seen someone teach it fundamentally. The single most important basketball element that I brought when I first became a head coach was a defined, defensive system. That was the biggest key to my success as a head coach. I learned how to teach that system when I was a sophomore in college working summer camp.
The way college basketball works today, it really isn’t set up for coaches to learn how to teach. But when you get a chance to be a head coach, to sustain success, you have to be able to teach and do it consistently. You don’t want to just coach your team. You have to teach the game.