From Sweats to Suits: Moving Up the Coaching Ladder is More Than X’s and O’s

Reflecting on the most recent ebb and flow of change within the women’s basketball coaching ranks, Carol Sprague, Pittsburgh University’s Senior Woman’s Administrator, observed, “It seems like there’s a wave and then there’s another wave. A couple of years ago we went through a period where we had some people that really paved the way finally get a chance to rest and retire.”

It has been encouraging to watch the coaching ranks being replenished by former players who want to be head coaches. But, said Sprague, “Coaching is a lot more than just being a good player.”

So, as the pace of change speeds up and these young hopefuls begin navigating the maze that is the college hiring process, what skills – beyond those they learned on the hardwood — do they need to master in order to move up the profession’s ladder?

STEP ONE: DESIGNING THE RÉSUMÉ
“The only thing résumés do for me is give me a reason to eliminate candidates,” said Eric Schoh, Athletic Director at Division II Wayne State College (NE). “In college coaching, there are an overwhelming number of applications for every position. So to get 100+ applications down to a manageable pool, you have to have ways to eliminate people. We always ask for excellent communication skills – both written and oral. If you can’t submit a résumé without typos, or one that is concise and easily readable, then they obviously don’t have excellent written communication skills.

“I think you need to list where you are at now, and a lot of people don’t do that. They list what they think was their best accomplishment first. If they had better luck at a different school, they list that first. I’m looking for a résumé in chronological order so that I can clearly follow their progress. The initial application is not the time for coaches to submit booklets on how they run a program or their coaching philosophy or team rules,” Schoh added. “I want the basics, and I want it well written.”

THE ART of the COVER LETTER
If a candidate doesn’t want their application dismissed out of hand, cover letters should display specific knowledge of the institution, its athletic program, conference and major competitors. Additionally, in an age of e-mails, text-messaging and on-line applications, applicants need to be aware that both content and form count.

“What I’m seeing is just how casual people have become in their cover letters — which to me is a mistake,” said Kathy Hagerstrom. In her 17th year as head coach of Division III Wellesley College (MA), she was in the process of looking for an assistant. “I’m in my mid-to-late 40’s, so maybe it’s my generation [and] younger coaches are okay with that casualness. But for me, it’s kind of like you want to be on your Sunday best when you’re applying for a job. So part of me is like, “Wow, if you’re this casual in the interview process starting with your cover letter, then that might be a little bit more of a slippery slope than I want to go on.”

“The second thing,” she added, “is just simple, basic stuff: people aren’t doing spell check. I actually had one application come in and at the top it said ‘Simmons College,’ and then ‘Dear Coach Hagerstrom.’ And I’m like, ‘Strike one.’”

“I didn’t remove them [from consideration], but hey, it’s a detail. And guess what? You send a recruiting letter out like that and that kid is going to remove us.”

BRINGING ADDITIONAL SUPPORT
When asked how many support letters or phone calls candidates should solicit, Pete Carlon, Director of Athletics at the University of Texas-Arlington errs on the side of moderation. Why? In the last two years he has replaced both the men and women’s basketball head coaches.

“I’m in my 28th year at this institution,” he said, “and [the searches were] probably two of the most exhausting things I’ve done in my career. The phone just rings off the wall, you get all sorts of documents you need to go through, plus phone calls you want to make yourself….” His voice trailed off. “It’s important to pick out maybe a half-dozen folks to write or call for you, because sometimes, even though you might be the best person, if the person making the decision gets too overwhelmed with calls and letters it can turn them off.”

REFERENCES: IN AND OUT OF YOUR CONTROL
“Clearly, we’re all going to put down references who are going to speak highly of us,” acknowledged Hagerstrom. But, she added, “When I call, the thing that I’ve learned to do better is read between the lines. I’ll call a reference and ask about somebody, but then they’ll trigger another question or another person that I’m going to call — somebody who’s not necessarily someone’s reference. And it’s not that I’m trying to catch anybody ‘being bad,’ if you will, but I want to make sure that the person understands what they’re getting in to and that they’re a good fit.”

When contacting references, Sprague has encountered some fundamental, and occasionally costly, mistakes: “People put people on a reference list and they haven’t asked them or told them. [Applicants] need to take sure they let people know, ‘Hey, I’m applying for this job and you might get a call,’ or, ‘Could you make a call?’”

”You have to ask people or mentors that are supportive of you and can look a colleague in the eye and say, ’If you hire this person they’re not going let you down.’”

MEET THE INTERVIEWERS
When the search process moves into the interview process, sometimes the interviewer will be a coach, but most often it will be a small search committee made up of faculty, staff, alumni, representatives from student affairs, booster club members, community people and, on occasion, current student-athletes. Candidates should ask for an itinerary as well as a list of those they’ll be meeting – and then use the internet to their advantage.

“My experience,” said Sprague,”is that by the time you get to the interview process [candidates] have done their homework about the institution. They walk in and they see a face, and they saw that in the face in the media guide and they know this person does facilities.” Make sure you have a question for every committee member, suggested Schoh. For example: “What’s the reputation of women’s basketball on campus? Are they known for going to class? How to you prefer to handle your women’s budget?”

“The people we have hired for head coaching positions,” noted UT-A’s Carlon,”were the ones that were most prepared. They not only had answers to the questions, but they knew as much about us as we knew about ourselves.”

QUESTION AND ANSWER TIME
The questions a candidate is asked are dictated both by the internal and external focus of the institution — and often have little to do with basketball.

“You don’t ask them much about x’s and o’s,” acknowledged Carlon. “You might ask them about their style of play, but the Academic Progress Report is huge now. So we ask them questions about their attitudes on academic discipline and how they intend to make sure their team meets the academic standards. I might give them a couple scenarios on disciplinary issues and ask how they might handle different situations.”

“I think it’s important to — particularly in our situation,” continued Carlon, “that they show how they’ll collaborate with other support staff to promote their programs, how involved they get in the communities, and that they are willing to go out and do public speaking. We don’t have all the amenities to pay extra for every little thing that they do — a lot of it is expected in our situation. That’s part of the job and you just do it.”

“The first question I asked [the eventual hire Chris] Kielsmeier when he called,” said Schoh, “was, ‘Why Wayne State College and what do you know about us?’ The reason for that was he was in Texas [at Division III Howard Payne University] and I wanted to know why he had an interest in a small school in a small community in northeast Nebraska. When he told me where he grew up (on a farm near a small town in Iowa) I knew he’d fit in our community. Then, it was a matter of getting to know him to see if he would fit with our department and campus, which he did.”

When Howard Payne’s athletic director Mike Jones searched for Kielsmeier’s replacement, his committee first had phone interviews with applicants, “just to get a feel for how they would respond to our questions, like, ‘Tell us about your Christian faith. How does your faith fit into your coaching and your recruiting?’ Which we can do,” he explained, “because we’re a private Christian institution — a school couldn’t ask that question.”

Once on HPU’s campus, the interview might include such questions as: What are your personal goals? Spiritual goals? Professional goals? Give us your strengths. Your weaknesses. How do you get along with the other sports? The other coaches? How would you support them? How will you get along with men’s basketball?

“That seems to always be a problem,” Jones laughed, “when you have to share a facility.

THE PORTFOLIO – PAPER or HANDS ON
While the content will vary from coach to coach, many create portfolios to document their work. They can contain photographs, clippings and outlines of plays. They also include written out versions of a coach’s philosophy in terms of X’s and O’s, discipline and team rules. A coach might outline how they envision their academic program within their basketball program, and how they envision their training program within their basketball program. The goal is to show a panel or athletic director these are things the things they’ve thought about and this is how they intend to execute them.

Of course, portfolio’s ability to represent a candidate’s ‘body of work’ presupposes a certain level of experience. As Hagerstrom pointed out, “I’m getting people at the beginning of their career. Which is fine — but there’s a high learning curve. So this year I’m going ask the finalists to bring in one sideline play and one end-line play. I’m going to give them a quick scenario of what our strengths and limitations are and say, ‘I want you to devise an end-line play that you think will work based on what I’ve told you,’ and then ask them to talk me through it.”

“I want to see who takes risks, who plays it safe, who’s honest and says, ‘Man, you really threw me a curveball and I really need a lot of help here — this is the best I can do,’” explained Hagerstrom. “I just want to see how they go about it, what their comfort level is, what their confidence level is, and how they interact with me as I give them feedback like, ‘Remember when I said our point guard sucked so we’ve got to hide her? You have her being the second option?’”

“If someone comes in and they come across as a know-it-all, that might seem like, ‘Wow, this person is really sure and they have this great pedigree.’ But,” she continued, “I don’t even know it all, and I’ve been in the business 25-plus years. If you think you know it all, then you’re going to stop growing, and stop learning, and look down your nose at the high school program who’s running the best press-break in the area.”

BUILDING NETWORKS
For the past two years, Nike has teamed with Virginia Commonwealth University’s SportsCenter to host a two-day consortium for assistant coaches. The objective is to help them prepare to become head coaches. “Sometimes when you’ve never been in the position, you don’t even know what all you have to think about,” explained Jill Pizzotti, Nike’s Manager of Women’s College Basketball.

One of the most popular components of the consortium has been dubbed “Speed Dating.” Each of the thirty or so attendees spends five or six minutes speaking with six different administrators, including associate commissioners, athletic directors and assistant athletic directors. “They were great,” said Jeff House, currently an assistant at Virginia. “They said, ‘Okay, here is how this works: basketball is not rocket science. You going up there and talking about your philosophy or how you’re going to push the ball – that’s not what we want to hear. We need to know what you can do to empower young woman to this, this, and this.’”
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The conversations also helped House address what he considers his major professional weakness: “I’m not a network guy. I could care less about that stuff. I think I’m personable, I’ll talk with people, but I don’t go and seek out a lot of people. And that’s what the athletic administrators said at this consortium: ‘You need to get to know us.’”

“You could be the best coach out there and have this great plan and do all these great things, but if you never expose yourself to us, we won’t know who you are and you’ll never even get on the radar. The only way you’ll be able to do that is, if you’re at a game and you see the athletic administrator is on duty, go and introduce yourself.”

So, after returning from being on the road this July, House sent out 75 hand-written notes to people he met.

THE INTANGIBLES: WORK ETHIC and PROFESSIONALISM
Though House is relatively new to the women’s game, the ethos of his 25-year career is rooted in lessons learned under the tutelage of Jeff and Stan Van Gundy – lessons that have little to do with résumés, cover letters, interviews or networking. “The time that you invest and the loyalty that you give to your current head coach, and to the players in your current program,” said House, “is going to build the foundation for who you are within this profession.”

“If that’s your foundation, and that’s what people associate with you, then that becomes part of your name. It empowers your head coach to one day be able to pick up the phone to talk to an AD or another head coach about you and say, ‘I tell you what — good, bad, or otherwise, this girl or this guy is going to have your back.’ Once that’s attached to you, it becomes part of what you are.”

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