Coaching character

Culture | Some NCAA basketball coaches are making a difference on and off the court

Issue: "Lord of the box office," Jan. 11, 2003

It surprised few last fall when the University of Arizona, a college basketball powerhouse, signed three high school players who are ranked among the best in the nation. Many analysts immediately touted the trio as the top recruiting class in the country.

As heavenly as that may seem to Wildcat fans, the signing trifecta was notable for another reason: Ndudi Ebi (Westbury Christian of Houston), Mustafa Shakur (Friends Central of Wynnewood, Pa.), and Kirk Walters (South Christian of Grand Rapids, Mich.) all are products of religious high schools. Not a coincidence, according to Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner.

"We're not going to bring in kids who don't have good character," Mr. Pastner said. "Yes, we have great players with great abilities, but they have great character. The success of Coach [Lute] Olson's program for the past 20 years has been built on people with great character."

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In the current world of college hoops, where four-year stars are becoming as rare as the two-handed chest pass, not only is recruiting character important to winning, but so is spirituality. While some coaches are content to leave players on their own off the court, others believe that keeping an eye on them after they've left the locker room is vital to long-term success for a program.

Rod Barnes has guided Ole Miss through its winningest stretch in school history, taking the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament three times in his four years at the helm. Not exactly a magnet for high school All-Americans, Ole Miss' success has been heavily dependent on the galvanizing force of Mr. Barnes, whose faith is evident even during post-game press conferences.

It's especially evident when he's with his players, where Mr. Barnes matches words with actions. He doesn't think one is effective without the other, and he is especially mindful to give his players a glimpse of his personal life.

"It used to be, a lot of kids looked up to their coach, and their coach is like a second father," Mr. Barnes said. "I don't think that's changed. I think as far as a coach, we're to teach the game of basketball, but we're also to teach life lessons.

"We haven't had the talent of some of the best teams. I think we're successful because those kids realize I'm looking out for them, and it's more than just basketball."

That's a sentiment shared by Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson. He has built his teams and his reputation through the kind of work ethic that brought him from a poor American Indian community in North Carolina to a Final Four appearance in March.

Respect and humility are two values all Oklahoma players have drilled into their skulls from Day 1, and while Mr. Sampson's often abrasive directness in such matters can be an ego irritant, his players learn to filter the teaching from the yelling.

"He does a good job telling you what you need to hear," sophomore guard Blake Johnston said. "He doesn't just coach teams, he develops his players."

And like Mr. Barnes, he will put down the whistle and speak gently when he senses a player is in trouble.

"I treat every kid on my team the way I'd want my son to be treated," Mr. Sampson said. "My antennas are out if they're going down the wrong path, and that's when I talk to them about why life has to be balanced."

Indiana head coach Mike Davis can attest to the effectiveness of that approach. He guided the Hoosiers to the national championship game last season (which they lost to Maryland) despite his team being seeded fifth out of 16 teams in its region and having to get by defending champ Duke in the Sweet Sixteen.

"I care a lot about them, and they care a lot about me," Mr. Davis said. "We knew we had a good team, maybe not the individual talent as most teams have. It was kind of like us against the world."

In the world of college hoops, these coaches' message should not go unheeded. As former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson once said, "When God checks in with you, He's not going to ask you how many games you won or how many trophies you've got. He's going to ask, 'What have you done to make someone's life better?'"


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