When A Coach Loses His Team     

During my career, I’ve been fortunate to have mostly winning teams.  Not always have I been that lucky.  It’s one thing to have your team lose, but there is nothing worse than to lose your team.

Most the time, if you lose your team, you are already losing.  That’s not always true.  Sometimes winning makes the players think there are smarter than the coaches. That’s when you can lose your team and still win.

It makes me shudder just to think about the times I did lose a team.  Very early in my coaching career, it hit my team like a ton of bricks.  I was young and inexperienced and I didn’t see it coming.

The team that I lost just had the first winning team in the school’s history.  Almost everyone returned from that squad.  There was talk of a state championship.  I lost them because I was blind to what was going on and there was no leadership.

Looking back, it started in the summer.  Most of the varsity players decided to attend the same basketball camp at Hastings College.  It was a really good camp, but when the honors were handed out, one of my young players won all the awards.  Colleges will do that to get an inside track in recruiting that player.

Why that caused problems is a question I’ll never be able to answer.  Were my seniors jealous and resented the sophomore getting the awards?   Did my sophomore rub the awards in the seniors’ faces?  Did the parents help make the split between the young and old players get wider?

By the time the season started, the split was as wide as the Grand Canyon.  I just didn’t see it coming and I should have.  The leaders on the team should have put a halt to it.  None of that happened.  What should have been a trip deep into the post season, ended in a second game loss in districts.

Surprisingly, I’ve had a team with very few wins stay tight until almost the end.  My first year at Northwest was one of those teams.  I had mostly kids the retiring coach had recruited.  It would have been easy to lose those players just out of a sense of loyalty to their past coach.

At Christmas, we were 4 – 4, but lost every game in the first half of the conference season.  At the end of January, I had an idea to cut down our terrible turnover problem. In one Sunday morning, we changed the offense at a practice at Missouri State University.

All of a sudden, we weren’t turning the ball over.  My post player was always in position to get a one-on-one situation close to the basket.  My dribble penetrator found clear outs and my three-point shooter was finding more openings.

Instead of getting beat by 20, 30 or even 40 points, we were competitive.  A series of close losses was really tough.  By the end, the players were ready to move on.  I don’t think I lost them for two reasons.  I had a great assistant coach that was very loyal even if some parents weren’t terribly positive.  Also, I had strong leadership on the team.

We finished 4 – 22, but I felt good about the players’ effort.  I hated the losing, but it was one time I couldn’t blame the players drive to blame for the losses.

The most unusual was a team that was favored to finish high in the MIAA.  I lost the team with poor leadership in the locker room.  After finishing in the middle of the MIAA, the team turned around.  They won the MIAA Tournament and upset the number one seed in the regional tournament.

Losing a team and then getting them back hardly ever happens.  I had a great assistant coach.  Also, the positive players finally won over the locker room.

My last team at Northwest is still the team I feel the worst about.  We were coming off a Final Four finish the year before.  We graduated a lot of good players, but we had a good base and a good recruiting class for the next year.

That’s where everything went wrong.  Things were okay after we returned from a Hawaii trip before Christmas.  After  the holidays, we started losing.  The team was pointing fingers and most of the fingers were pointing at me.

I need my assistant coach to be strong, but she agreed with the players in putting the blame on my doorstep.  I needed the locker room leadership to be strong, but the arrow pointed right in my direction.

I have broad shoulders and I take the blame for what happened that last year.  It was a tough time for the players, parents and coaches.  By the end of the year, I had lost almost everyone.  Players weren’t happy, my assistant coach had abandoned me and the glare from the stands told me where the parents stood.

After all the great things that coaching gave me, all the great relationships I still have today with my ex-players and the memories the parents took with them from college athletics was seriously marred by that final year.

I take the blame for that final year.  I just hope that the players, assistant coaches and parents pull together whether it is a high school team or college team.  Great experiences will come from the season, no matter how successful.

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