I was fortunate enough to get inducted into the Little East Hall of Fame recently. In 2016 I was inducted into the Rhode Island College Hall of Fame after coaching there for 9 years, and the league started a hall of fame a few years back. It’s really a tremendously cool honor. I grew up in New York rooting for the Yankees, and the words “hall of fame” meant the elite in any sport. Not that I’m comparing division III basketball to playing in Yankee Stadium, but I grew up revering what “hall of fame” meant. To hear my name next to those words is quite an honor.
A bunch of my former players, coaching staff, managers and some family members came up for the weekend and went to our PC-Butler game on Friday night as well as the RIC-Keene State game on Saturday where they had the ceremony. Spending time with so many former players was a great time to reflect on the things we accomplished and how we went about it. It made me think simply about how I got to the Hall of Fame.
When people used to ask me about the consistent we had year after year at RIC (8 straight NCAA Tournaments, 11 league titles – regular season and tournament – in 9 years) I would always tell them the same thing. Come watch us practice. That was the best answer I could give. Just come by practice and watch the way our guys competed for each other every day. Our guys bought into something that was uncommon, and the way we laid it on the line for each other every day – with no one watching, with no immediate reward – it was truly special. That is what made us consistently great.
We established standards for how we were going to compete, and we held our guys accountable for it every day. But I was a first-time head coach taking over a group of players who had never experienced high-level success, and were working on their 3rd coach in as many years. I knew what I hoped it would look like, but I really wasn’t sure what I was doing. There was a lot of walking out of that gym thinking “ok, thank God no one is watching, because that didn’t work.” But I’m reminded of the fact that Gregg Popovich actually thanks his players every year for allowing him to coach them. And it makes total sense. Because those players allowed me to make mistakes, they allowed me to demand excellence out of them, they allowed me to be hard on them and hold them to a high standard. Had they not been willing, would I have been comfortable continuing to push them the same way? I doubt I would have. But because of those players, I left Rhode Island College armed with the knowledge that I knew how to build a championship culture, and to maintain elite success year after year. That is really hard to do. But everyone of those players who showed up in the Murray Center gave that to me. They gave me the greatest give a young coach could ever ask for – they believed in me.
So how do you get to the hall of fame? Obviously you have to have great talent, and we had that at Rhode Island College. I’m comfortable saying that we had the best team in the league the first year I took over, and I recruited none of those players (we finished tied for 2nd). I was lucky. And I believe we had the best team in the league every single year of the nine that I was there. We were picked to win the league by the coaches 8 of the 9 years I was there, and the one year I wasn’t we were picked 2nd. We won the regular season 6 of the 9 years, and finished 2nd twice and 3rd once. We played in 8 straight LEC championship games and posted a 21-3 record in the conference tournament. We won 83% of all of our league games, and I’m comfortable saying we probably had the better players in almost all of them. Talent matters, and we had a lot of talent. Elite talent gets you to the hall of fame.
But the fabric of our program, what really made us special, was what we did in that gym every day when no one was watching. This weekend was a great reminder of that. Seeing so many different kids from so many different backgrounds – white kids from Newport and Maine, black kids from Fall River and the Bronx – who are still incredibly tight and connected just like they were back then, reminded me of how many great teammates I coached. They talked about how much they missed shell drill or running 8-6-4-2 sprints, and told stories about winning up at Keene or at East Conn. They made fun of some of the stuff I used to say, and laughed at their teammates who seemed to bear the brunt of my ire back in the day. But there they were, sitting in the Murray Center together one more time. Teammates again, teammates forever.
Most importantly they thanked me for holding them accountable and for holding them to a high standard. That is what really resonated with me. They talked about their jobs and their families, and how the standards of our program helped them achieve at work, or in graduate school, or in life, just because they were used to competing. They talked about how our program and culture were still a big part of their lives.
One of their teammates who couldn’t attend was John Weir, who was a junior on my first team and helped lead us to the Elite 8 in his second year. John recently became a father for the first time and was unable to get away for the weekend to come up to the ceremony. But he called me to say he was sorry he couldn’t make it. And he told me on different occasions “Coach, I really just want to say thank you. When I was going to become a father, everyone told me it was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done. And they were right. Being a father is awesome, but it is a ton of responsibility. So I want to thank you for holding me accountable the way you did, and for demanding that I compete at a high level every day. Because I wake up in the morning knowing I’m tough enough to handle whatever comes my way with my family, and I owe that to you and the way we worked every day. So thank you.” That is really why I coach.
I was reminded by John Weir and the other players this weekend that we many more great teammates than elite players. We had a room full of guys year after year willing to sacrifice, to commit, to compete at a high level and do to a ton of hard stuff without worrying about the results. What we did at practice was hard, it was uncommon, and it wasn’t always fun. And these guys embraced it with each other, and competed for each other. They weren’t so much about winning as they were about not letting one another down. That is a very powerful force. They competed for each other at a high level because they had great respect for one another – because they were great teammates. Great teammates get you to the hall of fame.
In fact, what I learned from those guys was that was the true reward – the ability to compete with each other every day. Laying it on the line without fear. Giving up everything you have for your teammates, with no one watching, because your teammates were counting on you. And they were doing the same for you. That was the true gift that athletics gave all of us – full measure. Walking out of the gym every day when no one was keeping score, knowing you had given everything you had to the team, surrounded by people who had done the same. Full measure. That was the gift.
It was their effort, their willingness to sacrifice, and their commitment that held me accountable and made me a better coach. When you are lucky enough to coach a team like that, you had better bring it every day. You. can’t let them down, or their compete level will expose you. That is an incredibly special feeling to have as a coach.
I’ve said this before and I truly to believe it – I’ll put our practices at RIC, the way our guys competed for one another and against one another, day in and day out, up against any practices at any level anywhere. I’ve still never seen or been a part of practices like the ones that took place in the Murray Center with those RIC teams.
The hall of fame is a tremendous honor, one that I will cherish forever. But what makes it feel so good is the relationships that still hold true to this day, same as they were in an October practice in 2007. The bond that was created through a willingness to compete, day after day, without fear. It’s an honor I accept on the shoulders of a unique group of young men, who cared more about their teammates than they did about themselves. That is really what makes the hall of fame special.