July 12, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
This isn’t the first time the idea of diving into the head of a Georgia Tech coach has popped up, but it’s the first time that Billy Schmidt’s been subject to a Winquisition.
Here’s hoping no lasting damage was done, no impressions ruined.
At some point many hard-core fans of sport go beyond wondering about the X’s & O’s of a game and move onward to spend time pondering not only game plans but the psychology that goes into implementing them, the brain work that helps a coaching staff convince players to believe, buy in and bust their butts.
Mind matters are more a part of every game as age and skill level increase.
First, an easy assessment: The most recent addition to men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory’s staff does not require deep psychoanalysis with regard to his professional origins.
Long before Schmidt’s coaching career, which incubated while he was a team manager and coach’s aide at Wake Forest (1988-’92) as an undergraduate, he knew – quite frankly – what he wanted to do.
While in high school in Stamford, Conn., “I knew I wanted to be a coach,” he said. “I volunteered to coach a church team of younger kids, and knew right then that it was all I wanted to do.”
So, Schmidt set about doing it by landing a big break soon out of Wake when high school coaching legend Steve Smith brought him on board at Oak Hill Academy (Va.). Together, they won consecutive mythical national titles.
From there, he was an assistant under Kevin O’Neill at Tennessee and Northwestern (where Gregory was on staff with him for a couple years), and then under Tommy Amaker at Seton Hall and Michigan.
When Gregory was named head coach at Dayton in 2003, his first hire was Schmidt.
It might not be completely fair to say of Schmidt, who is in line to work with Tech’s front court players, but an early read suggests that he can cast a stern look.
That prompted a question that comes from my background.
Pretext: having been around a good many coaching staffs from high school up through colleges and into the NFL and NBA, I’ve noted over the years – more easily in football, to be honest – that it’s somewhat typical to have at least one coach who really, really gets after it . . . often with gale-force audio.
Two that leap to mind are former Atlanta Falcons defensive line coach Bill Kollar, and former Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta – legendary barkers.
There is no way for me to know yet, if ever, that this is Schmidt’s M.O., but he did well recently to cut me off at the pass when I began going down that road.
“I think the best thing about our profession is that you can’t fake the kids,” he said. “It keeps you grounded and keeps you humble. They know if you know what you’re talking about and if you don’t, and they know if you care and if you don’t. So anything you do has to be genuine and has to be real.”
That was impossible logic to refute, and Schmidt had a look, but I kept poking. Are there not times when barking is the way to go?
“If you’re speaking from your heart, and you show up prepared, that’s what they respond to,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think it’s something you can contrive or fake; it has to be who you are or kids will see right through it.
“That being said, I think there is no head coach who would want three assistant coaches who are identical to each other. You’re going to have different personalities, and that’s healthy, but I don’t think you can act and portray a role that is not consistent with who you are.”
All of this seemed genuine in its delivery. So I moved to the very topic of delivery, and my notion that despite the cliché that you (as a coach) have to treat every player the same, that is impossible in a real-world setting.
Schmidt played along, and worked his way back to the concept of being genuine without my having used the word in a question. Irony or coincidence? You decide (be patient as this will take a while to unfold).
“I think as you get older [Schmidt’s 41], you get wiser. You never relent on your standards, you never compromise on your values,” he said. “You just deliver the message in different ways, and you always hold them accountable in line with those standards.
“If that message is delivered in the same package every day, it wears thin and they tune you out.”
If that strikes you as a thought for deep thinking with, say, your kids, well, it did me as well. Coach, tell me more; what do you mean?
“I think you have to find different ways and different times to deliver that message. Sometimes, it’s not what the message is, but when you deliver it. How you choose your spots is more important,” Schmidt said.
“If you come along at a time when a kid is not receptive . . . then the point is lost. You have to find your times and ways to get your message across.”
Speaking from the experience of having identical twin daughters I understand that the same message when delivered the same way to more than one person might not be absorbed the same way by each.
Sounds like a fundamental truism of coaching. So how to reach players with the same message when some hear it differently than each other?
“I think our responsibility is to be fair to everyone, and that means you’re honest and you care about them, but you never treat them the same because they’re all different,” Schmidt said. “The standards are the same, the expectations are the same, and they’re all accountable to the same standards . . . but they’re all different.
“Some kids need a pat on the back, some need to be told more . . . whatever the message, you don’t change it. You tailor it.”
Time prevented/prevents me from getting into examples of tailoring messages, but the concept seems clear without more detail.
Lest one believe that Schmidt cannot play the game of political correctness, consider the balk described herein.
This is a man who likes to read in the offseason, frequently about other coaches and their back stories, their methods, their philosophies.
Sometimes, the subjects are basketball coaches, often they are football coaches (although he said he’s never had interest in coaching any sport but basketball).
When quizzed for examples, Schmidt said, “I’d probably refrain from answering those questions on tape in the Deep South, where passions get pretty intense. I’ll give you some safe ones that won’t alienate anybody as there are some great coaches in the Deep South.”
So, no deal on college coaches; the names of Lombardi, Parcells and Jimmy Johnson, whose autobiography Schmidt said he recently read, will have to stand for now as examples of coaches whom Tech’s newest basketball assistant has looked up to in his drive to have players look up to him.
Points awarded for candor, which Schmidt claims is so critical, and cunning.
When I suggest that the man has a Belichick-ian countenance, I say that as a form of respect and from having engaged the New England coach in group and one-on-one settings. Perhaps an analogous basketball reference from the pro ranks, so as not to rankle, would be Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, whom I’ve also been around.
“You want relationships to be based on honesty, and kids knowing the message you’re delivering is in their best interests and designed to help them improve,” he said. “That gives you a forum for kids to trust you. I like the old saying that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
“Over time, you establish that you know what you’re talking about. When they realize that you can help them achieve their goals and dreams, you become a resource. Ultimately as a coach that’s what you’re trying to do — help kids achieve their goals.”