The secret to their success

St. Thomas coach John Tauer: "The level of success in any group comes down to how well the members trust each other.”
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

By Ryan Scott 

“I had a mentor tell me,” says Augustana head men’s basketball coach, Grey Giovanine, “You’ll know you’re a good coach, not so much by the wins and losses, but by the number of wedding invitations you receive. I think that was prophetic.”

In my experience every successful coach tells you that the key to coaching is the relationship they have with their players. It’s a common refrain to say that athletes, especially college athletes, won’t listen until they know you care about them, understand them, and hear them.

When you move beyond the coach speak, though, there’s an incredible amount of thought and intentionality that goes into how coaches develop and maintain relationships with players. We understand there is something specific that makes a coach successful, but it’s certainly not the same specific thing for everyone.

Coaches spend a lot of time thinking and talking about leadership development, reaching players and improving relationships, but I’m not sure how often those conversations reach the larger basketball audience. I struggled for a while to define an “angle” to this column and come to some conclusions, but perhaps it’s better to just pull back the curtain on how some of the most successful coaches approach what is a dynamic and ever-evolving challenge.

“The research on group dynamics is pretty clear,” says St. Thomas men’s basketball coach John Tauer, who also has a PhD in psychology and can speak to the issue both as a practitioner and academic. “The level of success in any group comes down to how well the members trust each other.”

Giovanine puts it very succinctly, “We challenge our veterans to help the newcomers assimilate. You can keep them at arm’s length and slow the development of our team, or you can embrace them and we’ll all move forward together.”

If there has been any change from previous coaching approaches to today, it’s the involvement of a more collaborate environment. Coach after coach told me players today need to know “why,” which is not a question the players of previous generations would’ve ever expected to ask or have answered.

“[Leadership in] sports has lagged behind military leadership by 10-20 years,” says Christopher Newport men’s coach John Krikorian, who served as head coach at Merchant Marine and as an assistant at the Naval Academy. “There was a robust, authoritarian military through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s and many of the great coaches had military backgrounds or learned from those who did – Bobby Knight, Coach K, Fran Dunphy, Greg Popovich – that’s what coaching was: don’t question authority.”

“The military started to shift and sports has started to follow more recently. It’s much less hierarchical, with soldiers empowered to make decisions in the field. There’s much more freedom. Younger coaches are embracing this and coaching differently. For those of us in the middle, we’re having to learn and change some of the ways we coach. It’s been a positive experience for me and it’s made me a better coach.”

Some of those changes come with a new generation of athletes. The current one, raised on social media, is accustomed to constant feedback and frequent interaction. Before cell phones, it was much more difficult for players to even see or interact with coaches outside of practice. Now, those relationships are paramount, even if modern communication is a lot less verbal.

“Sometimes they don’t know how to have a conversation,” says Whitman women’s coach Michelle Ferenz, “In the last five to ten years, we’ve spent more time in the fall establishing our culture, making sure we talk about communication. How do you solve issues? How do you have a difficult conversation? We have to get on the same page, which pays dividends later in the season.”

“We have to teach leadership more and more now than I did earlier in my career,” says Marymount women’s coach Ashlee Rogers, “We don’t have captains, but we have a leadership team – two seniors, two juniors, and usually a sophomore. We have tough conversations off the court – more than just how are classes going – we’re intentional about building deep relationships and teaching them how to take on leadership roles.”

Glenn Robinson, head men’s coach at Franklin & Marshall, said very much the same thing. “Senior leadership is everything in basketball. If you don’t have it, you’re missing such a huge chunk of what it takes to be good that I don’t think you’ll be able to be good. Coaches teach enough and we talk enough, if you don’t have the leadership of the players, you can’t survive.”

Adds Rogers, “I have a wonderful support system with my assistants. We balance each other out. They understand me and they know their role, when to take a player aside to help them understand something they didn’t get from the way I said it.”

“It’s hard to cater to sixteen different personalities, especially during a game. They have to understand it’s not always about how something is said, but what is said. Between the leadership team and the coaching staff, we’re all saying the same thing; we’re all giving the same message, but we’re fortunate to have a lot of great people who can say it in different ways for different personalities.”

At the Division III level, those coaching staffs are invaluable and often volunteers. Tauer puts it in perspective. “All six of our assistants are part time, some work other jobs. They come to campus at two o’clock, after work. We have staff meeting from two to four, practice from four to six, then there’s film work and recruiting. If all you want to do is win games and be successful, there are a lot of other ways to do it that don’t require this much time. It’s a labor of love, because they care about shaping the next generation of leaders.”

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Capital head coach Dixie Jeffers knows that showing players how much you care will help them succeed on the court and off it.
Capital University athletics file photo 

With the departure of Nancy Fahey to Illinois, Capital head coach Dixie Jeffers has more wins than any other woman coaching in Division III. “Wins are important,” she says, “But if those wins aren’t teaching them and preparing them for life, then I’m not really doing my job. I told my team the other day, even if we don’t win a game this year, I’m bound and determined that you’re going to grow as people, that you’ll have the best experience as possible here to prepare you for life. And in the process of preparing and doing things the right way, we will win basketball games.”

Those games happen on the court, in the heat of pressure and with limited time. Relationships built outside of games become the foundation for interaction during games, but that’s not always easy either. We see it. Some coaches are screamers or stompers or wildly animated. Other coaches are silent and reserved. In my conversations with coaches, nearly all of them expressed a desire to be less emotional or more attentive to individual needs – everyone wanted to be a better coach, but each also emphasized how important it is to be yourself.

“I push my guys pretty hard. I think we’ve lost some of that. Young people today have been given so much without working for it. They need to be pushed a little,” says NJCU men’s coach, Marc Brown, who spent 15 years playing professionally before taking his current position, “I’ve had lots of different coaches, lots of different teammates. I’ve seen it all, experienced it all, but I have to stay true to myself. I was intense as a player; I’m intense as a coach.”

“It’s situational,” says Ferenz, “Calm them down or hype them up; you have to give them what they need. The last thing a player needs if they’re too hyped up is to be yelled at.”

“It’s our challenge as coaches,” says Tauer, “How do we help our players change their behavior in ways that are optimal for their and our team’s performance?”

The answer is really that you don’t know. Players are different from game to game, depending on what’s happening in life and every person is an individual. Coaches can only do what comes naturally to them in light of the relationships they’ve built with their players, but coaches are always learning.

“When my first son turned fifteen I became a better coach,” says Giovanine. “I began to really appreciate the distractions and demands that are made on young people outside of the basketball commitment. It made me more empathic, helped me understand my own players better.”

Glenn Robinson is the dean of Division III basketball. With 938 wins and innumerable accomplishments – heck, there’s a national coach of the year award named for him – it would be easy to rest on his laurels or stick rigidly to a system that’s served him really well.

“It’s always a work in progress,” Robinson says, about himself and his coaching abilities. “There are always more things to learn.” Last season, with a rash of injuries, the Diplomats had to abandon their system and change things up a bit. When I complemented Robinson on his willingness to change after all these years, he responded, “I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like it. It was the best thing for the team.” If there is one answer on how to be a successful coach, that might be it.

It’s also the lesson coaches have to communicate. Thomas More women’s coach Jeff Hans relayed a story about Devin Beasley, the point guard he inherited when he took over the team in 2011. “By senior year, she wasn’t as successful as she had been before,” says Hans. “She was used to having 25 point games and as a senior she didn’t do that. We sat down and talked and she changed the way she played, getting her teammates involved more and she led the country in assist to turnover ratio.”

It’s a coaching success story, but it’s also a lesson for Hans. “If that had been my first year coaching, it wouldn’t have gone so well. I needed to learn to see her points of view, to meet in the middle, and not just be a dictator from my end.”

Collaborative, considerate, intentional, caring – and that’s all without even addressing the ability to draw up plays, teach skills, or make the on-court decisions that lead to wins. It can be a bit daunting, even for the most successful and experienced coaches, when they think about all the job entails.

“In the end, though, it’s about consistency,” says Ferenz. “My players need to know what to expect of me and that applies no matter your style.”

Rogers agrees, “If the players know me and I provide consistency, they know what I’m going to say and do, because they understand who I am. If I call the first timeout in a game, they know they’re not doing what they’re supposed to; they know what I’m going to say and how to adjust before I say anything.”

To bring things full circle, coaching is a people profession. It’s about knowing who your players are and what they need to succeed. Brown succeeded his father, Charles, at New Jersey City who coached 25 seasons and never had a losing record with the Gothic Knights.

“My dad told me, when I took over this program, how emotionally invested I would get in the guys and I laughed at him. I told him I’m not a social worker; I’m here to coach basketball. But of course he was so right. You form a bond with these guys that is so long lasting.”

I asked the coaches what a successful season looked like from an overall perspective and Scranton women’s coach Trevor Woodruff summed it up really well: “It’s unlikely all your players are ever going to walk away loving everything about you as a coach, but if they walk away feeling like I worked hard for them, showed up every day prepared, and gave my best for them – that we got the best out of each other – you can feel real success in that.”

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon