This basketball coaching article was written by University of North Carolina Wilmington Assistant Coach Doug Esleeck.
April 2017, I was a part of the basketball staff that took over at UNCW. The next few months happened in the blink of an eye, and we made a million decisions that would set the course for our basketball program in year 1 and beyond. There was a lot that was learned by me personally and the staff as a whole during this transition time. Here are some of the questions that I believe every coaching staff that takes over a new basketball program should ask themselves.
This basketball coaching article will directly address Division I coaching transitions, but some parts apply to any level of coaching.
(For clarity, the pronoun “you” designates the Head Coach. If you’re an assistant basketball coach, you need to ask your Head Coach these questions and then execute his vision.)
Questions to Ask Yourself
Time of Hiring
When do you get the job?
Is it early April, and you have the Spring still ahead of you to recruit, or is it late July and Fall Classes are getting ready to start in 2 weeks?
The timing of your hire will determine your priorities and what you can accomplish to a certain extent. April hires have a full recruiting cycle to make good decisions on roster additions. July/August hires may be stuck with the roster they inherited. The same is true of your staff positions. July hires may not be able to get exactly the basketball staff they hoped to have beside them.
The Vision for the Basketball Program
What is your vision for the basketball program?
Are you trying to win as many basketball games as possible this year, and you’re willing to make decisions with a short-term payoff and long-term risk, or do you want to build a basketball program that’s a consistent long-term winner, and you will sacrifice short-term W’s for long-term sustainability?
This is a HUGE deal. If you want to flip the roster and win as many basketball games as possible, you need to take risks with the players you sign. You need to schedule wins in year 1 and 2 aggressively. Every decision would be different if you wanted to build a basketball program built from the ground up for the long-term. For example, you need to hire basketball coaches who can develop the young guys you sign. You need to be careful signing kids with risky academics. You need to schedule in a way that builds excitement in your fan base while still protecting your basketball team from getting beat up in the non-conference slate.
Professional Basketball Goals
What do you want to accomplish professionally?
Do you want to climb the professional ladder and get the next job, or do you want to earn a lifetime contract at your current job?
This fits into the previous question. You must be sure that your professional basketball goals align with your program goals. If you want to build a long-term basketball program and settle in at your current job, but you sign high-risk players and burn bridges by clearing out the current roster, you’re going to end up in a bad situation. The reverse is also true. If you are building for the long term, maybe you sign four guys and redshirt all of them. You would never try that if you’re concerned about winning right away. You have to be honest with yourself and your staff about what you want to accomplish.
First Month Concerns
What’s the most important thing for you to spend your time on the first month on the job?
Do you need to sign ten guys, so you need to recruit all day, every day?
Do you need to raise $100k every year for your basketball program to function, so you need to spend time with the boosters?
Do you need to see the families of your current basketball players because you have a loaded roster?
Is there a ton of media exposure, so you need to be available to media?
You have to find out as much about the job as you possibly can before your first day. You need to hit the ground running hard at the things that will impact winning and your contract. Every basketball coaching job is different, and outside factors like the previous staff’s success/failure, the timing of your hire, or the roster make up can drastically change what’s really important for your success at this particular job at this particular time.
Returning Basketball Players
What players are returning, and how valuable are they?
You have to get to know your team as quickly as possible. Dive into film, statistics, individual meetings, meals together, skill work, weight room sessions… anything that can help you get an accurate read for what you’ve got and what you need.
How many scholarships do you have available?
How many visits do you have left?
What is your recruiting budget, and how much is left?
How can you add talent to what you already have?
Resources are a huge part of this equation: scholarship dollars and budget dollars.
What is the APR situation?
Can you make sweeping changes, or will flipping the roster hurt your basketball program?
How will the administration react to swift changes?
Try to find this out in the interview process, so you have a plan already formed when you take the job. If there are constraints on adjusting your roster, you need to know that on the front end.
Understand Player Relationships
What are the relationships like within your basketball program?
Which players are friends?
Which players don’t like each other?
As you consider personnel changes, what impact does cutting one player have on the rest of your roster… Who would be happy or sad that a kid is gone?
This can be hard to figure out, but before you cut a kid, you better know if he’s best friends with your two best returning players. You may get rid of the weakest link, but an unintended consequence could be your best two players decide to transfer too.
Building Trust With Your Players
How can you build trust with the returning players?
How can you show them you’re invested in the program and each of them?
Kids need to know you’re investing in their program and their games. Skill development and film study are a great way to build bonds and trust with players who don’t know you. Renovating a locker room, getting a new housing situation set up off-campus, or signing a new gear deal all communicate to your players that this coaching change can benefit them.
Basketball Scheduling Philosophy
What is your scheduling philosophy?
Are you trying to maximize wins or improve the appeal of your home schedule to sell season tickets?
Do you need to consider RPI and the quadrants for an at-large bid or seeding purposes?
Do you want to take your kids on a good trip each year with an MTE/foreign tour/pair of games somewhere in the country?
You should already have a scheduling philosophy based on the level of job you’re taking and what you want to accomplish. If you’re fighting for an at-large bid, then you need to know what you’re looking for in nonconference opponents. If all that matters is the conference tournament, then that’s a different scheduling consideration. The specific job you have will determine the details, but you should have a formula ready to go.
Next Years Basketball Schedule
What does your game schedule look like for next season?
What contracts have been signed?
What are the buy-outs?
If you have an unfavorable basketball schedule, what changes can you make?
Will your administration let you buy your way out of contracts that put you in a position to fail?
Can you push some games to year 2?
Can you buy winnable basketball games at home, D1 or Non-D1?
Can you find a home and home series that gives you a chance to win both games in year 1 and 2?
These questions will be specific to the schedule that the previous staff built and your basketball program’s resources. You need to try and figure this out quickly and be aggressive about backing out of games that aren’t advantageous for your program. Don’t be afraid to make another program/school upset. Your responsibility is to your basketball program and your institution. Be aggressive while you are in the honeymoon phase and rework the schedule to your advantage if you can.
Who can you hire with the timing and money available?
How quickly can you get someone on campus to help you with the administrative tasks that pile up?
If you have an operations guy, video, or even a GA in mind, get them on campus as quickly as possible to give you another set of hands in the office. It’s amazing how many things are coming at you that first summer. The quicker you have someone who can help you with the paperwork, details, etc., the quicker you can focus on the big decisions that have a long-term impact on your program.
Finding the Right Basketball Coaches to Hire
Do you love recruiting but not skill development?
Do you love offense but hate coaching defense?
Do you love spending time with your basketball players but hate fundraising?
When considering who to hire, attack your weaknesses with each new person you bring into the program. Your basketball coaching staff will help you become a more well-rounded head coach and allow you to supplement different areas of your coaching.
Transitioning Into a New College Basketball Program Conclusion
If you aren’t sure about a particular decision, then wait and gather more information. It can be tempting to make quick, sweeping decisions so that you can move onto the next thing. But, if you’re making decisions with bad or incomplete information, your chances of making the right decision are considerably diminished.
At the end of the day, you need basketball players who are good enough to win at your level; you need opponents that you can realistically beat, and you need resources to sign the players and travel to the games. Your professional goals should determine the decisions you make within those three categories to align your basketball program with your vision for where you want the program to be next year and five years from now.