First Timer’s Guide to Head Coaching in Basketball

First Timer's Guide to Head Coaching in Basketball

This basketball coaching article was written by Coach Adam Parmenter. He is a former Director of Development for Five-Star Basketball Camps, is a coaching veteran of 14 seasons, 9 at the college level, and 4 seasons as a Head Coach at NCAA DII program Mercy College in NY. Contact coach Parmenter:, @coachparm

The initial concept for this basketball coaching article came from the request for advice from a close friend, an experienced and accomplished assistant coach who would be taking on a head coaching position at a small college. The content is geared toward the first-time head basketball coach at the small college level, hoping that it might also be helpful to any coach, either just starting a new position or continuing in any capacity.

Remember that every hire is made with a different scenario in terms of time prior to the upcoming season. The content of this article is derived from personal experience and observations of others’ experiences. Feel free to customize and prioritize the advice per your unique situation.



Your Basketball Coaching Network

First and foremost, you must lean on your network, which you more than likely have already done to get the job in the first place. It is vital that, as a basketball coach in any capacity, we are ready, willing, and able to accept advice and derive information from both the successes and failures of others in the industry. No single basketball coaching career is long enough to learn everything on your own.

No doubt, you have done your homework on the position you are stepping into and have a good idea of the general outside opinion of the school, athletics program, and competitive relation within the conference and level of play. If not, this is a good place to start. Often, the outside opinion of the school may not match the internal messaging you have been presented with. Be ready to put effort into either adjusting the external view or adapting your own internal view, or a combination.

After you are hired and before meeting with your basketball team for the first time, reach back out to those you know. In addition to gauging the external opinion of the school and program, you will want to gather any information possible about specific returning players and staff members.

Do not let your first meeting with someone in the program be exploratory. Having an understanding of their background and abilities will help in the conversation and also shows them your commitment, whether both sides choose to continue the relationship or not. This is also your first opportunity to lay the groundwork for recruiting, discussed more in-depth below.


Critical Decisions:

  • Who and how many contacts to reach out to?
  • How much time do you have to connect?
  • Which internal team members (players, staff, and administrators) have relationships with key external contacts, and what knowledge can you draw about them?



Your Basketball Staff and the Athletic Administration

Staffing can be a tricky proposition when beginning with a new basketball program. Who are the returning staff members, if any? If you are open to it, allow the returning staff to finish out their contract period (if they have one) and then re-post, re-interview, and make hires from there. They may or may not be interested.

You also might not want to keep guys around if there was turmoil previously, or you might inherit a talented assistant coach who could use a fresh start with a new head coach. You will never know if you do not take the time to get to know those involved in the program. Keep in mind that staff members may have a better idea of turnover from previous experience. Whether they do or not, be upfront, honest, and informative in your communication.

Obviously, if you are not retaining staff, only include them in initial team meetings if you are confident in their ability to assist with the transition to the new staff. Otherwise, no matter your opinion, holding exit interviews at a minimum is probably a good idea.

Even a disgruntled coach can sometimes shed some light on potential issues you may not have previously been aware of. However, most coaches will present good information and deserve to be shown some appreciation, even if on their way out.

During the initial weeks of your new job, you want to familiarize yourself with any athletic administrators and coaches you will interact with regularly. This goes beyond being courteous to coaches you may share facilities (offices, film room, court time, weight room, etc.) with. It extends to those tasked with administrative responsibilities (compliance, recruiting coordinator, business officer, sports information, SWA, etc.).

You probably have met many of the key staff members through the interview process but will now want to get their unabridged views of how you can best do your job, so they can best do theirs.

Think, if you have or had multiple roles, how can other coaches help you do your administrative job the best and quickest so that you can focus on the basketball program you are trying to build. Put yourself in each of their roles, and ask them how you can best prepare documents or take steps to make their life easier.

Also, if there are successful, long-term coaches on staff in any sport, seek them out as they can provide valuable insight into best practices for success specific to the school.

Scheduling is a final piece that may already have been completed, but you want to get a handle on scheduling before it becomes an issue that takes up valuable time and resources. This applies to both basketball games and practice.

If you have not dealt with sharing gym and other facility time with other programs and classes, you will want to familiarize yourself with the processes in place for scheduling. Be prepared to give and take, and definitely familiarize yourself with other coaches, administrators, and leaders of groups who have access.


Critical Decisions:

  • Will you keep anyone on staff?
  • How quickly do you need new assistants in house, and how long is the school’s hiring process?
  • Work with AD and Assistants to ensure you are completing tasks in ways that they need them completed.
  • Are you inheriting a summer camp? If not, do you have the time and resources to start one?
  • What work is needed on your upcoming schedule? When will you practice? Is there an opportunity to swap court time with other programs?



Meeting Your Basketball Team

Exactly how you first meet with your basketball team is a matter of personal preference. Some may feel better in a group setting, meeting first with all returning staff and any incoming staff if already decided upon, and then with all returning players. Others may choose to meet individually with all parties and then connect with the core group afterward, rooting out those who are not inclined to be a part of the program moving forward.

How you handle potential returning players is important. Some chose the school for the previous coach and may not even care to meet with you. Others may love the school and want to be a part of things moving forward. Either group may or may not fit your idea of what a player needs to bring to a team skill-wise.

You can use any of these scenarios in a positive manner by communicating clearly your expectations with each individual. What are their expectations? Make sure they are aware of yours!

If a player just does not fit, tell them as much. A committed student-athlete may surprise you if you lay out exactly why they do not fit your mold. Another may be looking for promises, playing time, captainship, or something else that you are not ready to commit to at this time.

There are many different approaches to handling requests to transfer, and your school may have a set policy, be sure to follow it. Regardless of the approach you choose, try to be impartial and fair.

The only promise you should feel any pressure to make is to ensure that existing team members get a fair shake, that they don’t feel unfairly rooted out, and that they have an opportunity to continue their academic and playing careers in a role they are comfortable with and capable of performing. This role will not always be with your basketball program, it may require a change, and that’s okay. Just do not make that decision without input from the individuals being impacted!

In all cases, recognizing the time and energy that players and staff have given to the basketball program’s development, regardless of the results, is important. Always keep your internal actions on par with your external messaging. Saying that you are “cleaning up the program” is not just about cutting players loose, just as “maintaining momentum” is not just about appeasing players to stay.

This is your first opportunity to establish the culture you want for your program.


Critical Decisions:

  • What is your external message?
  • How will you deal with transfer requests?
  • Are there players you would rather not have in the program? Are there reasons sufficient enough to no longer include them?
  • What can you provide returning players in terms of off-season guidance (classes/workouts/etc.)?



Getting to Know Your New Campus – Make Friends

One detail that is often overlooked in favor of basketball-related activity is the importance of building relationships across campus. Your ability to do this will be impacted to a certain extent by association, conference, and departmental regulations. There is no rule against making friends, and you will, at some point, find it beneficial to know individuals in administrative roles around campus.

Keep in mind, if your athletic department has a designated liaison, go through them to initiate relationships on campus, include them, and do not create opportunities for conflict. We are not talking about building relationships to impact administrative decisions in other offices. Still, there is a tremendous wealth of knowledge offered by contacts that work in these units daily. It also can be beneficial to have a network on campus to celebrate and commiserate with.

Admissions plays a pivotal role in recruiting. Set up a campus tour with a director or associate director of admissions. Shortly, you will probably be giving your own tours, so gathering as much info from a trained admissions guide is ideal.

Find out what the hot academic programs are on campus and if there are equal opportunity programs or admissions incentives for certain demographics, geographic, or other groups. Learn exactly how a recruit applies, start to finish, and what weight is given to letters of recommendation, test scores, and personal essays.

If an entrance interview is necessary or beneficial, find out who and how to help recruits set these meetings. These things can change annually, is there someone who might give you the update over lunch?

Financial Aid is also clearly key to recruiting. You must have a strong knowledge of the financial aid process at your school to best identify prospective student-athletes that will be able to manage financially for the duration of their career.

Depending upon the level, league, or school policy, you may not be able to discuss individual cases with any administrator, or you may be able to discuss only certain specifics. Even if you benefit from a fully-funded scholarship program, you will want to know what economic and academic profile tends to get the most aid at your school.

You also will want to be familiar with who, where, and when to send recruits for assistance and what deadlines recruits and returners need to meet to maintain their financial aid packages.


Critical Decisions:

  • How will you adapt your recruiting approach to the specific requirements of your school?
  • Who will you lean on to learn quickly what contact is and is not allowed?
  • What non-athletic related events are worth attending? Do you have the time to attend without overlooking other responsibilities?



Recruiting Your New Basketball Team

This step is very much dependent upon the timeline, as your ability to bring in new recruits will be directly impacted by the stage of the admissions process and the school’s willingness to make exceptions within that process. If the admission process has closed, you are limited to searching for current applicants recruited by the previous staff or who have sought out the school on their own.

While this is not ideal, make the most of the situation: request an admissions list with applicants who listed varsity participation in high school or junior college; either have yourself or an assistant coach be present at accepted student’s days to seek out potential athletes; discuss with returning athletes any fellow students who may be capable of helping the team as a practice and bench player for a season.

If the opportunity to get a late admit is available, use it with extreme caution. You may be looking at the immediate season, thinking that an additional body or two would be beneficial. But administrators do not, and should not, take these cases lightly and will be expecting a future graduate who excels in all areas. If you have a recruit who is a great fit for the school, by all means, push for late admission.

If the admissions process is still open, you have already adapted your recruiting plans to the profile of potential students and begin breaking down lists of potential student-athletes to find those that fit best. Ideally, you will have time to fully vet potential candidates to join the program. If you are up against an accelerated timeline, take as much time and extra care as you can to ensure you have identified the best fit.

Sometimes the pressure of time can cause a coach to accept a student that may not be a fit for the school simply because they will help on the court. This can be toxic. If you are feeling the heat of a short timeline for recruiting, spend extra time eliminating prospects that are not a fit, your program will benefit later.

This applies at the scholarship level as well. Do not offer a scholarship to a recruit just because you have a scholarship to give. Be certain of the player’s academic, athletic, social, and financial fit to your basketball program and school.

If you are lucky, you will have prospects in mind from your previous job, and they will fit the bill. Most likely, you are starting somewhere closer to square one. Either way, you want your first full class, whether in year one or two, to set the stage for future recruiting success.


Critical Decisions:

  • What are the critical needs of your roster?
  • How many student-athletes will you contact? Get to apply? Invite to visit campus? Offer roster spots? In order to fill out your roster.
  • Do you have a prospect worthy of requesting assistance with a late admissions application? If allowed by the school.



Getting to Know Student Life – aka Making More Friends

The most important relationships you will have on campus will probably have very little to do with basketball and everything to do with your players’ futures. The key is to realize early and often where there are pitfalls for your players and which ones you will need assistance with. One great way to meet other leaders on campus is to pick their brains as part of formulating your own program philosophy.

Residence life or, in the case of a commuter school, whichever office handles off-campus housing referrals, staff can assist you in understanding the deadlines for housing applications and deposits; the limitations, if any, for inter-session housing (believe it or not, this can be a major issue at some schools that close down yet still compete during the winter term); and, probably most importantly, offer alignment on behavioral guidelines as well as offer opportunities for team members to become campus leaders as residence life student staff or through volunteer opportunities.



The Office of Student Life may actually be the division that houses your athletic department. Regardless, partnering with student life can offer great opportunities for community service, student leadership, and volunteering, as well as ways to get students active in supporting your program.

Security (Public Safety) officials play an important role in keeping the campus safe. You will want to learn when buildings and classrooms are closed and how to best gain access, if permissible by department rules. They can be great resources when developing team rules or guidelines for campus behavior and will provide an overview of campus policies.

Academic Officials can be a great resource for non-academic purposes. Your department will have set in stone rules regarding what can be discussed, if anything with professors, or program administrators regarding academics. Follow these first and foremost. There is a clear difference between seeking out the best study opportunities and pushing for a better grade on a test.

There are tremendous opportunities for collaboration, which, of course, need to be cleared by the athletics administration first. Would students in the communications department benefit from broadcasting games? Maybe there are sport administration students who would benefit from being managers with the program?

Maybe there is a psychology professor who would offer sports psychology services as part of potential research? There are certainly other ideas, not pressing to the startup of your program, but not possible without socializing across campus.


Critical Decisions:

  • What campus events can you attend to meet individuals in each department and academic unit?
  • Can you offer support of an event even if unable to attend?
  • What responsibilities with residence life and academic monitoring will you and staff handle, and what will be handled by athletic department staff?



Plan to Coach the Game

Believe it or not, there will be actual basketball. You will have practice and games and should now have a clear idea of your roster so you can begin to plan.

You should already have a coaching portfolio ready, with your philosophy, basketball drills, defenses and offensive sets outlined. Now is the time to revisit it and determine what you can enact in year one, with an eye toward building the program over the long term.

You have already watched prior years’ film in evaluating returning players. Take another look back to see if there are team concepts that you can adopt into your plan. There may be things done previously that fit perfectly with what you wish to do, or there may be nothing.

Either way and especially if you have a number of returning players, you will want to see the overall strengths and weaknesses of prior seasons’ teams. Find out how soon you are allowed to be in the gym with returning players, and spend the maximum amount of time on the court with them.

Time spent in the gym helps establish trust in the player/coach relationship. If you cannot be on the court, you can always be informative by providing workouts, film cuts, and other material to aid in player development.

Most importantly, establish your culture, which is the subject of an entire series of thoughtful papers, posts, and studies. Without going too in-depth, make sure that the culture you wish to establish actually fits the boundaries of the school itself and that you plan specifically how to implement and reflect upon it with every stage of growth that your basketball program experiences.

Locating practice and game film of prior seasons can be helpful in your planning process. Don’t just look at your own personnel; also look at other basketball programs in your conference and how your team matches up to their ability and schemes. It can be beneficial to watch film with returning players to identify sets, actions, and drills that they enjoyed and were beneficial.

Keeping some things consistent may be a positive, or you may choose to depart altogether if you feel another approach may be more successful. Film is a great way to find out that what you wanted to do might not work as well as you hoped. It’s better to find out now than during a game.

Be ready to adapt. You might have plans to run and press for 40 minutes a game, but if you get hired after admissions closes, and you are replacing a coach who recruited to run pack line and a Princeton style offense, it may not work. You might think about gradually introducing your philosophy in year 1 and putting it in fully once you have time to bring in athletes who better fit the system.

This in particular with pressing and trapping defensive philosophies or offensive systems that take years to implement. Coaches are “establishing their style” even though they only have 2 or 3 recruits who actually fit the style. But it could also occur if you love post play and have no post players.

Do not just run a double post motion or flex post entry offense because that’s what you are comfortable with. Adjust and then gradually move toward your concepts as you recruit players to fit. Remember that your system is not your culture. You can establish culture no matter what style you play.


Critical Decisions

  • What is YOUR culture, and how will you establish it?
  • How will you adapt your overall plan to the current climate of your roster and campus?
  • Develop your practice and game plans around these decisions.
  • How soon can you work with your returning players?



Lastly… You Guessed it, Make More Friends

Alumni and other supporters can be extremely important, and the level of which depends on the school. Find out if there are prominent supporters you should get to know and let them know they are important to your program. Even a brief interaction early (when they know you are busy!) will go a long way.

Eventually, you will need their help in establishing or sustaining programs like alumni events, golf outings, booster clubs, or other important fundraising mechanisms. They also serve as key networking contacts, not only for you but also for your graduating student-athletes.

Most importantly, there are non-basketball reasons for making friends in any new situation. A workplace where you have more people to converse with is almost always more comfortable. Set up or participate in a weekly pickup game or an intramural team, or sign up to take professional development or graduate classes.

There is a benefit to being active on campus as long as it doesn’t take too much time from your program commitments. Sometimes, these relationships will outlast those you have built within basketball. Working in higher education allows you to meet some truly exceptional people, make sure you do it!


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