Written by Andrew Ottoson Wednesday, 21 November 2007 06:51
Sometimes the inevitable cycle of coaching changes works out in a way that puts a familiar face in a new role—as happened when Rusty Allen resigned the head-coaching job for Tabor College women’s basketball and became vice president of enrollment management.
First-year head coach Shawn Winter is the first coach to take the reins of the women’s basketball program in the post-Allen era.
“I think the temptation is to think and feel that the program is still in Rusty’s shadow, but I think that’s more of a perception than it is a reality,” Winter said.
On account of a 128-59 record—including a run of 42 consecutive regular-season conference wins—in six seasons that culminated in three consecutive trips to the second round of the NAIA playoffs, there is no doubt Allen’s name will not soon be dissociated from the program’s history.
But the program’s present is a different matter.
“The reality is that it’s a new team and a new season, it’s new players and new coaches and we have to stay focused on what we’re committed to,” Winter said.
He is also keenly aware that the road in front of him may not be the easiest to tread—but also that it has been carefully paved.
“It would be somewhat easier to walk into a program that did not have the run of success, where the expectations were not as high,” he admitted.
Still, Winter is setting out to follow in his mentor’s footsteps.
“It’s a challenge to keep the program at the level we’ve built it to, and I’m confident that I understand what it takes meet that challenge,” he said.
Beginning in 2001, Winter spent four years as Allen’s assistant coach.
“During my first go-around with the program, I was able to learn a lot from Rusty about coaching on the court and how to handle the administrative stuff,” Winter said.
Much of what he learned continues to serve him well.
“I’ve been transferring a lot of that knowledge over,” Winter said.
“I still maintain a lot of the fundamental administrative things I learned under him,” he added.
Winter has Allen’s wealth of experience available to him on request.
“Rusty has been willing to lend an ear, to listen to what I have to say and to answer whatever questions I’ve had,” he said. “He’s always very quick to respond when I call him up or send him an e-mail, and he’s helped me out with whatever advice I’ve looked for.
“And I’m not too proud to ask people who have more experience than me for advice. I think that’s one of the best ways to learn.”
Once a top-flight assistant, Winter now has a fine assistant coach aiding his success.
“I get a lot of help from Landon Jordan, who has done everything I’ve asked him to do and is a great assistant coach,” he said.
Hours and output
While being a first-year coach involves climbing a steep learning curve at any college, working at a small college poses an even taller challenge.
“At a college like Tabor, you’re required to run the entire program and you’re limited to having one assistant, whereas at a bigger school head coaches are used to having three or four assistants and maybe a grad assistant or two to do most of the administrative things that have to be done,” Winter said.
This higher hurdle, though expected, is still difficult one to prepare for.
“At Tabor we’re called on to do most of the administrative work in addition to the other coaching work,” Winter said. “I knew that coming in, but you can never really be ready for it until you experience it for yourself.”
The job reaches its apex during the season.
“If you want to stay competitive and put a good team on the floor, you have to put extra time and energy in,” Winter said.
Recruiting, scouting and running practices are major components of a typical day, but there is more going on behind the scenes.
“Staying competitive means watching a lot of film and doing a good job with recruiting,” Winter said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much time coaches have to put into watching tape of their own team.”
Bringing in players and assessing their strengths and weaknesses is only the tip of the iceberg.
“Beyond that, there’s breaking down film of your opponents to prepare a game plan for each opponent,” he said.
When practices and games begin, the job can be, in Winter’s words, “pretty consuming.”
“It’s a seven-days-a-week job and you try to take a break one of those days—I try to always take Sundays off,” he said.
Looking to conference play
The early non-conference schedule is, for Tabor, a time to shape and sharpen the team’s identity.
“The challenge of the head coach is to get 20 people onto the same page, to get them to buy in to what you’re trying to accomplish both on and off the court,” Winter said. “It’s a real challenge to be responsible for them and to provide leadership that will get them to respond to you in positive ways.”
Beginning with a group of players that may or may not be familiar with a coach’s expectations, let alone with one another, the first task is to determine the assets each individual brings to the table.
“In the beginning you play a lot of people and you look at what combinations and which groups of five are going to be able to get it done in the main part of the season,” Winter said.
Assessing the unique sets of abilities of each player includes learning the way each player applies her skills.
“I think understanding players’ personalities and egos is involved at every level of coaching, whether you’re talking about third-grade boys or college women or the NBA,” Winter said. “To learn your players and understand them and then to understand the personality of your team is a huge challenge.”
Dealing with the differences between players in a way that strengthens the team is “an art and a science,” in Winter’s view.
“One of the things I’ve learned from the other coaches I’ve worked with is that oftentimes fair is not equal,” he said. “To treat everybody the same, you have to treat everybody differently according to their personality.
“It’s hard to do in the first year. I think it’s something that takes time and experience to master,” he added.
As conference play approaches, the rotations the team will rely on through the season begin to emerge.
“Early on we’ve played a lot of people and just recently we’ve started to limit our rotation down to the people who get it done in practice and in games,” Winter said.
Schools with more resources may have a metric available that Tabor does not.
“It’d be a great idea to run our practices in such a way as to stat each player and stat our team to have another measuring stick for who is being productive and who’s not,” Winter said. “But with two coaches and 20 players, we’re just not staffed to do something like that.”
But Tabor coaches have what may still be the best means to assess their player—their own eyes.
“We rely on our ability to see clearly which players are being productive and which are not, so we make our (personnel) decisions based on what we see,” Winter said.
Statistical measures might help a coach assess some aspects of a player’s game, but some intangibles remain harder to pinpoint.
“Attitude and work ethic and consistency are big parts of what we’re looking for—and a lot of times you’ll have players who are great in practice but have a hard time stepping into games,” Winter said. “And vice versa—there are some kids who do not practice well who can step in and be effective in games.”
As the team works toward cohesion, Winter is imprinting a view of the big picture on his players.
“I keep telling them that I’m a coach that is more concerned with how we play the game—with our level of effort and intensity and willingness to execute what we’re trying to do than I am with wins and losses,” he said.
“We all love to win and we don’t so much like to lose, but I’m trying to convince the players that winning is a byproduct of the hard work and dedication given in practice and games and off the court,” he continued. “I think if we’re dedicated to that big picture, the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”