The first time we really got to know our new team was Labor Day weekend. Most of our guys were gone for the summer, and email, text and twitter aren’t exactly the best ways to start building trust. Our staff hadn’t been in place when most of our guys left for the summer, so many of our players were meeting coaches for the first time when they got back to school the Sunday before Labor Day.
The good news is we could get started right away. One of the biggest differences between Division 3 and Division 1 is at the D1 level you can coach your kids as soon as they get back to school (a rule that needs to change at Division 3). The toughest 6 weeks for a Division 3 coach were always the first 6 weeks of school, when you had a new team back at school and you couldn’t do anything with them. You literally could not coach your new team, and that made the fall very hard.
At the University of Maine – as with every other Division 1 school – we were good to go once school started. We had 8 hours per week we could spend together starting to establish our culture. We started as we did at RIC with academics. We have a brand new academic center at UMaine and a great academic support program, and that is where we started developing trust. I realized at RIC that holding guys accountable wasn’t only the right thing to do, but it also made me a better coach. By the time we were playing tough games in February trying to win our league, you could feel the trust on the court. That trust started with study hall, being on time for your 8 AM and competing at a high level in the classroom.
I’m fortunate that the guys coming back to UMaine are two things – hungry and coachable. I could tell from our first meeting that they were together and committed to each other, with the right attitude about accepting a new approach. I learned when I took over at RIC that new leadership will always involve an adjustment – good or bad, better or worse, the emphasis is just different. Being up front with our guys that the approach we were going to take would be different for them was very important.
With 6 of our 8 hours each week being strength and conditioning per NCAA rules, we started in the weight room. We talked early on as a staff about “thinking culture” with every decision we make. It’s one of the toughest challenges for every coach, whether you are in your 1st year or your 21st – short-term versus long-term thinking. As much as we want our program to look a certain way right now, we have to be patient. And that’s not easy, as Coach Cosgrove recently said to me, “‘Patience’ really isn’t in our vocabulary, is it?” But if we had to sacrifice some reps for some of the more advanced guys in the weight room to make sure everyone was working out correctly, we did just that. Our approach is to consistently focus on the process, to do everything the right way, rather than focus on results.
We were able to get on the floor with our guys for 2 hours per week, which is something I really missed at RIC. Division 3 rules prohibit individual workouts in the off-season (any rules against a math teacher working with a student who wants help in the summer?). Some of my best experiences as a coach are being in the gym with guys in a one-on-one setting. I loved meeting Donnie McGrath before his 8 AM class every day at PC, or having John Linehan call me on a Sunday night to meet me in Alumni. It’s satisfying to help a kid improve, but that’s also where you really start to develop a relationship.
So getting on the floor for individuals was a great change for me. I’ve always felt that trust starts to develop with players once they realize you are invested in making them better, and getting on the floor with them individually is the first time they really get to see that. Our individual development program is a big part of the championship culture we are building at the University of Maine, and it’s really the first place our staff and players got to know each other.
We spent as much time as we could with our players in the pre-season, trying to learn everything we could about them while starting to establish a culture. One challenge I’ve faced that is different for me is the demands on my time. At RIC my time was almost always my own, and at UMaine that isn’t always the case. There are so many things to be involved in when trying to establish a new culture at this level – more meetings, getting to know alumni, people who want to stop by and say hello, media interest – all great stuff, but there is just more of it. I’m also lucky to have a great staff with me, and that is something I have to get used to as well. Delegating responsibility to my staff is important for us to be efficient – and I’ve gone from having 2 part-time assistants at RIC to having 4 full-time staff members in the office every day. So managing my time in the most efficient way is a challenge. I’ve always felt it was important to respond to people who call or email me who have an interest in our program, but I’m learning that doing that here is almost impossible. I can find myself staring at my computer reading emails or returning text messages for hours at a time, without getting any real work accomplished. I can’t do that at the expense of coaching our team or developing relationships with our players.
The recruiting schedule at this level demands a lot of your time. It’s not that you are out recruiting more, you actually aren’t – at D3 you can recruit every day of the year, and I’m sure I was on the road last year more days than most D1 coaches simply because I could be. But with a stricter schedule, there are certain days and times where you have to be on the road. There are only so many opportunities to get out and see kids, and when you have a chance to get to a workout you really can’t stay home. You have much less control of your own schedule, and that takes some getting used to.
The most important challenge for me with the demands on my time is making sure I coach my team. That might sound pretty simplistic, but it’s true. Once practice started at RIC, the majority of my day was spent thinking about my players and planning practice. It was all about them, what would make them better and how I could get the most out of them. With different demands on my time, I have to make sure I’m not sacrificing any time with my players or preparation time for my team. While all of the other stuff is certainly important in building our program, none of that is as important as the connection I make with my players and our ability to coach our team.
The first week of practice has been a lot of fun, and certainly a challenge. The players have brought a great attitude and a desire to be coached. The challenge is for me, in coaching a group of players who don’t know me all that well or know what to expect. Everything we do is new for every single one of them, and I haven’t coached a team like that in 9 years. They are giving us everything they have, and I have to be the one to adjust. We are learning who they are and what they are capable of, and it’s our job to get the most out of them. That is the part that is challenging every day – trying to find a way to teach, to develop trust, and to get them to compete at a high level while doing something that they’ve never done before. Some people have decided to participate in things similar to Chicago Escape Room Fox in a Box to develop that trust and enjoy solving puzzles as a team.
Team building at this level is a year-round operation. At the D3 level you coach your kids for about 5 months, which means they are on their own for 7. We are allowed in the gym with our guys for most of the year, and we’ll have a lot more practices than we did at RIC. We usually had around 70 total practices at RIC, and that included annual trips to the NCAA Tournament. We’ll likely have somewhere around 100 practices at UMaine this year, a significantly more amount of time on the floor together.
It’s the best part of the job. Establishing the trust you need and developing the connection with your players that allows you to demand greatness out of them. It’s a daily process, something that literally happens step by step. It’s an exciting challenge that our guys are up for and our staff is embracing. I can’t wait to see where we can go as a group.