College basketball coaches are used to having power and control. But things are changing rather quickly. Players are now able to transfer one time without having to sit out a year. And soon to be enacted legislation will allow players to make money while in college off of their name, image and likeness. Every player has also been given an extra year to play due to the pandemic. The players will now have more power and freedom than they’ve ever had.
So much of the conversation about what’s happening right now, with over 1,000 players in the transfer portal already, is focused on the players. They aren’t being loyal, they don’t want to face adversity, they are just taking the easy way out. Kids these days, kids these days, blah blah blah. Keep in mind, the majority of players in the transfer portal are not in there on their own. They have been told that there might not be playing time for them next year and they may want to look elsewhere. It’s the coaches making those decisions more so than the players.
As a coach, I think the focus needs to be on how we are going to adapt. When I was the head coach at Maine, I dealt with a large number of transfers. We had nine guys transfer up in four years, to places like Oklahoma, VCU, South Carolina and Colorado State. We dealt with young players who came to Maine and put up good numbers, and then looked elsewhere for a better basketball experience. It wasn’t easy, and it changed the dynamic of our entire program. But it was the reality we were dealing with.
I knew when I took the job we had to try and win on culture. We didn’t have a lot of advantages as a school or program, and we had our share of disadvantages. We had to create an environment that kids wanted to be a part of and one that made them better players and people. There was no sense worrying about our location, the weather, long bus rides or a lack of tradition. We couldn’t do anything about that. What we could was control our own environment and the way we coached our players every day. That was our best chance, really our only chance. Ultimately before we could really establish that culture and create the buy-in, our young players had opportunities to play at a much higher level. We did change the culture but it took time, and in that time most of our recruited talent went elsewhere. But complaining about our reality was of no help to us. We had to figure out how to best navigate that reality.
That is the challenge for college coaches today. With the pandemic, everyone granted an extra year, no live recruiting for at least 15 months, new transfer rules and the incoming NIL legislation, everything is changing. We can spend time complaining about what we don’t like about it, or we can look inward, and figure out what we are going to do about it.
We’ve long enjoyed the comfort of power and control as college coaches. If we are being truthful, many head coaches haven’t really had to answer to anyone. You run the program the way you want to run the program, and as long as you pile up enough wins you continue on without much challenge to your control.
The lifeblood of every program is recruiting, and that world is cutthroat. You do and say what you need to do to land the players you can win with. I’m not talking about cheating, although of course there is some of that going on. I’m talking about communicating in a grey area. Telling the players want they want to hear to make them comfortable, to get them to sign. Once they signed, in the past, they really didn’t have any power. Up until recently if they were thinking of transferring they needed to get permission just to talk to any other schools. And if permission was granted, they’d have to sit out a year wherever they went. When you got them to sign, you now had them under your control.
Now things are very different for the players. With technology they have instant access to information whenever they want it. They know everything that is going on everywhere else. They will also have the ability to make money off of their name, giving them financial freedom. And they can enter the transfer portal whenever they want, giving them back the power that they generally relinquish when they sign a letter of intent. They don’t need permission to leave, or to talk to other coaches. They have more control. You can disagree with all of this, but it is the new reality. So what are you going to do about it?
As coaches we really have to examine everything we do. Take a long look at our culture and the environment we have established for our players. Are we making them better? Do they enjoy being a part of it everyday? Think about the way we communicate. Are we being transparent and honest with our players? Or are we treading in that grey area, where we don’t really commit one way or another, giving ourselves an out if we want to change our minds? Are the players who aren’t getting the playing time they want comfortable that they are at least getting an opportunity to play? Are they treated the same as the players who play a lot? It’s one thing to want to play more. It’s another thing to feel like you aren’t being treated fairly. We have to think about what we promise when we recruit kids to play for us. Are we delivering on what we are selling to them?
We also have to think about our coaching approach. There has always been a lot of yelling and screaming in coaching, with a lot of anger often in the mix. Whether we like to admit it or not, cursing, berating and some rather unpleasant communication exists in coaching on a lot of levels. With just about all of the power and control in the dynamic, a lot of coaches can get away with that approach. We have long accepted it in coaching, and the players usually can’t do much about it. I hope this will be the impetus for some of that to change. With the players having more options, will they continue to accept a coaching approach that makes them uncomfortable? The days of closing the gym doors and yelling and cursing at your team could be coming to an end, especially if the kids decide they don’t want to be coached that way. Whether or not coaches can and will change their approach will be interesting.
The new reality in college basketball gives coaches a lot to think about. We can complain about the players and “kids these days” all we want, but that isn’t going to change anything. The level of power and control is shifting, whether we like it or not. A lot of coaches are uncomfortable with this new dynamic, as is often the case when you are forced to give up some power and control. Our job is to find the best ways to adapt and connect with our players, and doing so now seems more important than ever.
There is a lot of talk about all of the changes coming to college athletics, but I’m not sure we are talking about the right things. Complaining about the kids and the new rules isn’t going to help. Those who look introspectively at how to address the new reality will be a step ahead. Coaches who don’t adapt may find themselves wondering where it all went wrong.