When you first take over a program, you have a vision of how you want it to look and the way you want to play. You want to get there immediately, and patience is hard to come by. Often you take over a team that just isn’t very good, so they might not be fit for your style fo play. So what is your best approach?
When I took over at Maine I knew we were going to play fast. We had played fast at RIC, I loved coaching and playing that way, and everyone in the America East at the time was playing pretty slow and deliberate. Playing fast was our way to be different, and I was confident we could get the athletes to do so.
But our first year we were really bad. The program just wasn’t in good shape when we took over, and we didn’t have the personnel that was fit to play fast. I’m not sure we had the personnel fit to play any way really, but playing slower would have given us a chance to keep games closer.
I wanted to establish our mentality, our approach and our culture right away. I knew we weren’t going to be very good. But I wanted our guys to get used to the way we were going to run, the way we were going to practice, and the effort it would take every day. I thought it was the right move, and I still do. We didn’t win a lot of games, but as we moved into the following year and brought in a really athletic, talented recruiting class, we were ready to take the next step.
That’s a great challenge to think about. I know a number of coaches (some just this year) who took over a struggling program with plans to play a certain way, but their personnel didn’t fit that style of play so they completely flipped it. They put the brakes on and it gave that team in their first year a better chance to win.
In some ways I’m sure that gives your kids some confidence in winning maybe a few more games and having a chance to win in some close losses. The flip side, however, is that it might stunt the growth of your culture because you aren’t playing the way you plan to play in the future. Even if your team takes a few more lumps, getting them used to everything it takes to play the way you are going to play might pay off better over the long term.
I’m not sure there is a right answer. I feel good about trying to establish who you are right away, regardless of how good you can be that first year. For the record, the biggest mistake I made from a coaching standpoint at Maine was in my third year. After we lost all of our best athletes and players to transfer after the second year, that’s when we should have changed our style of play. At that point, with the kids we were able to get late to replace our guys, we should have played at a much slower pace. We were the 3rd fastest team in the country in my second year, and we lost our 5 best athletes. I realized midway through the year that we were trying to play a way we weren’t capable of, and it was my fault.
Establishing who you are and how you are going to play is really important when you take over a program. Putting your players in the best position to win is really important as well. Figuring out the best way to marry those two ideas is a great challenge as a head coach.