Head Men's Basketball Coach – Pratt Cannoneers
Each of the past two summers I have attended University of Maine head coach Bob Walsh’s Dynamic Leadership Academy (2014 & 2015). Both times I have left with a full notebook, great new ideas and a series of interesting new perspectives on a seemingly simple game. Coach Walsh has offered very interesting insights both years that highlight his originality as a basketball coach. In this interview we talk about some of his philosophies, the jump from Division III to Division I, the Leadership Academy and much more.
For more on Coach Walsh, be sure to visit his website.
Coach Sass: After spending nine years at Rhode Island College in Division III and having a ton of success there, you jumped to Maine last year and if I’m not mistaken, I believe you guys won three games. How was that first year?
Coach Walsh: It was tremendous. And you are not mistaken. We won three games, so that is the truth. First of all, it was a tremendous challenge and I think if you’re a coach, if you get an opportunity like this, building a culture from scratch is a great challenge, but also a lot of fun. If you enjoy being in the gym, if you enjoy leadership, if you like trying to develop connections with your players to get the most out of them, which is really what coaching is, and the team building aspect of it, it was a ton of fun quite honestly. We didn’t like our record, we certainly don’t enjoy losing and that’s not going to be a part of our culture moving forward, but it was a tremendous challenge taking over a group late. I got the job in May and we didn’t have our team together until September and trying to establish a completely new, different approach and way of going about things was a lot of fun. You show up everyday going into the gym looking to build a team and I thought it was great.
Sass: Obviously you spent plenty of time before RIC in the DI ranks, at Providence and some other places, but what are the biggest differences between Division III and Division I?
Walsh: First of all, I didn’t have to ref intramural football on Tuesdays, so that was one difference that really jumped out at me. But the biggest change for me was really my time. Time management. My time at Maine this year was not my own, meaning there are so many more people that need pieces of your time. Whether it’s recruiting, whether it’s your staff – we had a staff of four guys that were here full time every day – the players, their families, responsibilities to the department, boosters, [or] community relations. When showed up at Rhode Island College every day, especially during the season, I would watch tape, scout games, prepare, plan practice and then go to practice. And that was the majority of my day, whereas now, my time is needed in a lot more areas.
So really the biggest difference is not anything that happens in the gym, it’s what’s happening around you. More people care, which is great. When we blew the whistle at the beginning of practice and 15 guys ran to center court and we started talking, it was the exact same thing. They’re a little bit taller, maybe a little bit quicker and a little bit more athletic, but it was the stuff around the program that was really the most significant difference at this level.
Sass: One of the things that I’ve heard you talk about is that you have a really supportive administration around that has really bought into this long-term plan. A lot of times now in Division I, you see people expecting quick fixes. How did you get the administration to buy into this long-term vision that you have?
Walsh: It starts with our Athletic Director Karlton Creech who is new to the University of Maine as well. He was hired in February and then hired me in May. And he recognized and understood that the culture of our program was nowhere near a championship level. I think in the process, and one of the reasons why I was fortunate enough to be the right fit, he was looking for somebody who would build a program long term that was sustainable.
You know, the truth is, because of where the program had slipped to, there weren’t a lot of expectations. It’s not like there was a lot of pressure where we expect to win tomorrow. It was more we’d like to have a team and a culture and a program that we can be proud of, that we can root for and taking care of that stuff that didn’t necessarily have to do with wins and losses. The state, the community, the school have been very supportive, because they love basketball and understand where the program was. When you have an athletic director, who literally once a week in our meetings would say to me, ‘Make sure you do what you know is right. Don’t worry about anything else. Just make sure you do the right thing.’ So it allows you to think long term in all your decisions and build a program the right way.
Sass: You’re a guy who has been pretty outspoken, whether on your website, your blog or just in general about different strategies you have and which you feel strongly about. Two of which, off the top of my head, are fouling up three and you don’t believe in changing your ball screen defense under 10 or 12 seconds on the shot clock. How did you develop certain things like those that you feel strongly about?
Walsh: I think naturally I was the younger brother, so maybe I’m a contrarian by nature. I always wanted to see the other side of things or challenge conventional thinking. I think my mom and my dad and my brother sort of encouraged that. I was always a kid who I wanted you to explain to me, ‘Why?’ and then after you explained to me why, I wanted to look at it and go, ‘Okay, does that make sense?” I think there is so much conventional thinking and coach-speak in our game that sort of stifles creativity and to be honest, when you get a job like a Division III school Rhode Island College, where they haven’t had a lot of success and you have an opportunity to test some of those ideas. When if you make a mistake there’s not going to be a blog about it, there’s not going to be highlights on SportsCenter, there’s not going to be analysts claiming that you’re an idiot. You get a chance to test it. It allows those ideas to grow.
I think that the foul when up three [points] thing really came form Coach [Dave] Gavitt at Providence. When I first got there as an assistant, we used to talk and he said, ‘Look, for you to lose in that situation there’s four things that have to happen. They’ve got to make the first free throw, they’ve got to miss the second free throw, they’ve got to get the rebound and they’ve got to score. And all that’s got to happen in a pretty short period of time.’ Whereas, if you don’t foul, only one thing has to happen: they have to make a three [pointer].
Over time, studying the game, I want to be consistent with our guys, especially in crunch-time situations. I want them to know exactly what’s expected of them. I feel like late in the shot clock, or in the last possession of a game, final 30 seconds, where a coach says, ‘Okay, we’re going to switch everything so we don’t get caught on screens’ we are asking your guys to do something different at the most crucial point of a game and I just don’t think that’s the most productive way to get things accomplished.
Sass: I want to go back to the transition from Division III to Division I quickly. Bo Ryan was a Division III coach and he got a lot of press for being in the National Championship this year and his background and obviously Dave Paulsen just got the George Mason job and he has a Division III background. But you don’t typically see a ton of DIII head coach to D1 head coach jumps, at least not as often as you see D1 guys moving up from low to mid-major or assistants being promoted. And obviously you have experience at the DI level, but do you think coming from DIII gives you an advantage or a disadvantage?
Walsh: I think it gives me an advantage, because I’ve had the ability to test our culture, test our process and sustain success with it. So if I was still an assistant at Providence College and I got the Maine job, I’d be bringing in a culture that I believed in, but had never really executed or accomplished anything. Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff we did wrong at Rhode Island College and being able to do it at the Division III level allowed us to try that out and figure out what worked and develop a culture that was really tight and sustainable at a championship level. For me personally, there’s no doubt in my mind that it has helped me.
I also think it really teaches you to be low maintenance. You know that at the Division III level there’s not a lot of bells and whistles, there’s not a lot of perks. If you show up and the practice gear isn’t dry, well, you’ve got to dry the practice gear, or you’ve got to sweep the floor. So you’ve got to develop a low-maintenance mentality. When you get the chance at the Division I level, and I know I’m very fortunate to get this opportunity, that carries with you and you appreciate things more. It’s sort of a lack of entitlement that you get used to, that I think helps you long term as a coach. I’m sure guys like John Beilein and Bo Ryan are looking at some of the perks they have at Michigan and Wisconsin, with charter flights and the arena, saying, ‘Man, did I ever think I was going to have all this?’ So I think for me it’s been a great help, a great advantage and quite honestly, I am surprised that more athletic directors don’t look for lower-level head coaches when trying to find leadership for their programs.
Sass: The last thing I want to ask you about is your Dynamic Leadership Academy. I’ve gone last year and this year and have found it to be really, really good. So two-part question. One, why is it so important for you to focus on leadership, as opposed to most other coaching clinics, which are Xs and Os based? And two, give me a little background of how you put this together and why it started?
Walsh: Absolutely. That’s a great question. For the first part, it comes down to this. When I became a head coach at Rhode Island College, I found myself, when I was talking to my team, probably 75 percent of the time – and I’m talking before practice, in meetings, during practice, during games, in huddles, in the heat of the action – 75 percent of what I was talking to them about was leadership based, was mentality based, was approach based. It wasn’t nearly as much Xs and Os, get to the corner, wait for the screen, we’re going to flex cut here and double away, as it was mental toughness, staying focused, playing together, fighting through adversity. I kind of learned when I was at Rhode Island College that I want to be a great coach and a great leader, but if I could only be one, I’d rather be a great leader.
And the Leadership Academy started from that thinking and talking with coaches year after year. Young coaches like yourself, who would say, ‘How do you move up in the business? How do you get a head job? How did your career path work? What can I do? What can I do and how can I learn?’ And understanding in our business, quite honestly, there’s not a great process set up for coaches to learn and grow that’s formalized. Essentially, you try like heck to get a coaching job somewhere. A lot of guys have to start at the lowest levels for very little money and just take the job you can get. And you may work for a boss that really helps you in your career and really teaches you the ins and outs of the game and you may really like what he does, or you may not like what he does. And that’s essentially what you’re learning. I saw a void in sort of developing a leadership philosophy and that’s where we really started the Leadership Academy, to help people develop and challenge their own personal leadership philosophy, so when they do get to be a head coach or when they go back to their team in the fall that they’re already coaching, they have that philosophy established and they’re maybe willing to look at things a different way.