Opportunity of a Lifetime or Career Killer: 5 Revealing Questions
Updated: Apr 16
As high school basketball head coaching jobs pop open on websites in every state across the country, some offer the opportunity of a lifetime, and others are dead ends---maybe even career killers. The problem is, salt looks the same as sugar, so how does a candidate differentiate between the two?
There are many variables that go into evaluating a head coaching position, and any candidate should ask / research the following questions when doing so:
1. Does the program fit well in its conference?
Are we similar in size to the other schools in the league?
Do we typically fit well competitively?
Is there a rivalry that generates excitement?
Is the league a good geographic fit, or will we spend countless hours on a bus going to every road game?
~These things ALL matter as a head coach strives to make a program relevant.
2. Does the community support the schools and athletics?
How do we draw at home?
Are season tickets sold?
Will the community come out for events like a Tip-off dinner or Meet The Team Night?
Does the community vote for school issues, or are we likely to be looking at financial issues that will adversely affect athletics.
~Of course, it is the head coach's job to put a product on the court that contributes to the success of all of the above, but it would be nice to know that there is some general interest going into the project.
3. Can I see the rosters and score books for the junior varsity and freshmen teams?
This may like an odd question, but it's one I'd ask before going to a 2nd interview in this day and age in order to evaluate the following:
What were their records?
Were the scores in the losses competitive?
Is there one or two kids who do a majority of the scoring?
Was the Junior Varsity team all sophomores and freshmen or were there juniors playing at that level that skewed the record?
~Here's the deal, folks. In today's coaching world, you're not guaranteed a third season. It's that simple. My last question coming up later will address trying to avoid a place that is only going to give you 2 years to get something done, but there's never any guarantees. Therefore, I would go into any job in the current coaching climate thinking that I had better make a splash in my first 2 seasons, and answers to the above questions would make it clear whether or not that would be feasible.
4. Can I see the varsity roster from last season?
In today's digital world, I wouldn't need the score book to evaluate the things I need to see because I would likely be able to find them all online.)
How many varsity players return?
Are any of them starters?
What kind of scoring returns?
What is the general physical makeup of the team as far as size goes?
~Again, in today's world, a new head coach isn't guaranteed any more than 2 years. I think looking into these variables has always been a smart idea, but looking into them today is critical. And if you don't believe me, look at the jobs that are open right now that were also open in the spring of 2021. The numbers are staggering---and they become more staggering when you look back one more year and see the numbers that are open again after 3 years.
Now for the BIG ONE---the 5th and Final Question---The ONLY Make or Break Question on the list:
5. Does the administration have a strong desire to back a basketball coach?
The Tricky Part: How do you know?
Ask questions during the interview.
Listen carefully to the responses because they often subtly reveal the truth.
Research the hiring and firing history of the administration / school.
Trust your gut. If your gut says you don't trust the administration, it's probably correct. Walk away and find another opportunity.
Question 1 to Test the Administration: Will I have the freedom to choose my coaching staff?
Will the school be willing to interview at least one person I want to bring with me to join my staff?
Are there holdovers from the former staff who want to continue to coach on my staff? If so, do I have to keep them all to maintain political correctness, even if I'm not comfortable with them?
Is there an assistant who applied that might feel shunned if he doesn't get the head coaching job? If so, do I have to keep him or her on the staff?
Are there good people in the district who would like to coach who weren't coaching on the previous staff for some reason? If so, Will I be permitted to interview and hire those people? (Listen to the answer to this question. It will be very revealing.)
Will I be able to remove an assistant coach who acts in ways detrimental to the program? (If the answer to this one is no, walk away from the job.)
~A ton of experience goes into the above questions. I mean, a ton! Today is a right now, immediate gratification world, and that makes it hard to find quality assistants. Many don't want to pay their dues anymore, and when that's the case, they often feel the quickest way to the first chair is to undermine the head coach. It seldom works for the assistant, but it does often cost a head coach his or her job. I have had some great assistant coaches, many of whom went on to head coaching careers of their own. Those people are some of the best friends I still have in this world today, and none of the success I ever enjoyed would have been possible without them. However, later here in my career, I have also run into the other side of things, and those experiences have not gone well. Assistants will absolutely make or break a head coach, so ask the above questions to make sure you have the authority to keep them from breaking you. If the AD hedges at all, walk away from the job.
Question #2 to Test an Administration: Will I be allowed to raise funds solely for the basketball program?
Is there a basketball specific booster club / parent club?
If not, can I start one?
Will I be able to spend the funds raised by our club as I see fit to benefit the program?
~I know the rules can vary from state to state, but I have coached in both Georgia and Ohio, and the basketball specific booster / parent clubs were essential to the operation of every program I've ever led. On the other hand, the one place that didn't allow a basketball-specific booster club, was the one program that I was unable to improve. I'm just being honest here. A head coach has to have funds available in order to update and make improvements. If he or she doesn't, what you have is a bad program, and an administration that isn't committed to a basketball coach. Walk away.
Question # 3 to Test an Administration: Is there a locker room area specifically--and only--for the varsity basketball team?
Is there already a locker room that nobody else uses?
Will I be permitted to use funds to improve the locker room space?
If there isn't a locker room space, can I find a space that works in the building and raise funds to build one? (Notice the connection to the last question)
~The locker room doesn't need to look like a college or NBA locker room; it just needs to be a place where the players and coaches are comfortable meeting, and a place that displays some of the program's traditions. Some schools, of course, have more space than others to build such a locker room, but every school I have evehas the potentialr been in to build something. To that point, my co-author Randy Montgomery talks about taking an old dusty storage room and turning it into one of the nicest locker rooms in Ohio when he took over his first job at Triway High School back in the 1980's. An AD / administration that is committed to a basketball coach would show great enthusiasm for a project like this. On the other hand, if it seems like the question annoys the administration, or if they give you reasons why it can't happen, it likely means they don't want to be bothered with improving the basketball program. It may seem like a small thing, but think about a program where the players have nowhere to put their belongings and nowhere to hang out after a practice or game where they can interact, then ask yourself if you think you can create the culture you want under those circumstances. At this stage in my career, I'd walk away.
Question #4 to Test an Administration: When we hit a bump in the road, and someone's parent or grandparent or a community basketball expert (that one always makes me laugh) confronts you (AD) to challenge our game plan or style of play, are you going to give that person an audience?
Are you (AD) going to be able to simply tell that person you stand by your coach?
Are you (AD) going to be able to tell that person you are not going to validate their complaint?
Are you (AD) going to be able to tell that person that the coach you hired makes the game plan and decides who plays--not a fan or parent or community expert?
Or are you (AD) going to validate their complaint by agreeing with some of what they say while also adding some things you would do differently if you were the head coach?
~Again, listen very carefully to the response you get here. If there is any hint of the AD that is described in that last bullet point, don't walk away from the job. Run! And that AD does exist, so beware!
Finally, once all of the questions have been asked and answered, research an answer to the following question:
Does the school I'm considering have a history of being patient with its head coaches in the key sports, or do those in charge fire quickly when the varsity team struggles for a season or two?
Here's the deal, folks, if the school was looking to hire a basketball coach in 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2023, it's likely to be looking again in 2025 or 2026. There's a reason it's happening so often, and it isn't because all of those hires were lousy coaches. What you have there is a school leadership problem. The people in charge at that school don't understand that it takes time and patience to build a program, and that's why their program never gets any better. I would strongly discourage even considering a job like this, regardless of any other variables.
With that said, if it was just a great school with a ton to offer---a place you'd really love to be---I'd maybe be willing to ignore the red flags if all of the following were true:
You have a strong returning group of varsity players.
There is a strong sophomore class.
There is a strong freshmen class.
The 7th and 8th grade teams are both solid to strong.
~If all of those pieces are in place, timing has given you a chance to be the coach who saves the program. That's 6 classes you feel you can be competitive with, which means you have a chance to win early and sustain it for several seasons while developing a youth feeder program that ensures the tradition will continue. You get down the road 5 or 6 years as a proven winner, and you may, just maybe, have some support during a tough season---but don't bet on it!
Looking forward to seeing how members of The 98% Club weigh in on these ideas.
To those who have been here before, welcome back to Club 98; to all first-time visitors, glad to have you aboard!
As always, this is an open forum, so we welcome those leaders who agree with our ideas as well as those who respectfully disagree. Different perspectives lead to great discussions and great discussions lead to learning for everyone in our network, so we value hearing what everyone has to say.
With that in mind, give it a read, add a comment, and tell a friend to join us. Remember, when coaches share ideas, we all win!