In the final installment of Building A Small School Program, I will discuss the concept of building a family culture within your program and the methods that we used at White Oak to create this family culture within our program. Hopefully, you will find some ideas that you like but, more importantly, you will be challenged to come up with your own ways of creating a family culture within your program or reinforce many of the ideas that you are already doing. Whatever your situation, I encourage you to be about it and not just casually throw around the latest buzzword or slogan.
Loyalty…it’s all about loyalty. Earning it and giving it. For me, the tone is set my how a coach selects his team. One popular method for deciding whether or not to take a younger player on the varsity instead of an older player (considering the 2 players are otherwise equal) is to take the younger player since he would have more eligibility remaining. I totally understand the logic but, in my opinion, a coach will never build a small school program with this philosophy. I always believed it was up to the younger player to prove that he was better than the older player. If that was the case, so be it. If not, out of loyalty, I took the older player assuming they were meeting the standards of our program. I believe this philosophy rewards kids who are willing to make an investment in your program while also setting the standard for having to earn your way to the varsity. In my opinion, too many times, head coaches jump the gun and create problems within their team by promoting younger players who have not earned their uniform yet. The head coach must always be able to feel the pulse of the team and chemistry is crucial to success. Having an established, consistent method for climbing the ladder that is communicated to everyone in the program helps to eliminate internal issues that can lead to the demise of the team. It’s hard enough to beat the other guys, it’s even more difficult if you’re fighting yourself as well.
Along these same lines, once a player entered our high school program, if they quit on their team before the season was complete, I did not allow them to re-enter our program. I was going to be loyal to the players that honored their commitments. Many people believed this was too strict of a policy, especially for younger players but I did not. I believe quitting is huge problem in our society today….people quit jobs at the first sign of adversity, people quit on their marriage, and parents quit on their kids. Quitting is far too easy and far too common. Before a player quit, I would always make sure they understood my policy. I just don’t think it is too hard to finish the season you had committed to playing. Often times, usually around graduation time, I’d have seniors make it a point to tell me they regretted their decision to quit but they now understood the value of honoring a commitment. I never had a problem with players not wanting to play basketball for 4 years of high school but the time to make that decision was after the commitment to the team had been honored for that season. I never viewed it as players being on a 4 year commitment but it was a 1 year commitment.
Another policy that I followed out of loyalty to the players in our program was to require any player who sat out a season to complete at least 1 year on the JV before being considered for a varsity position. Most commonly, this scenario would come up when a junior was going to be a JV player. Instead of using this year as an opportunity to improve and contribute to the varsity as a senior, some players believe it is beneath their status to play on the JV as a junior. They would prefer to sit out their junior year then come back out as a senior to be a varsity player. I would much rather be loyal to the player who stayed in our program than try to build a program on the back of mercenaries who were more concerned about their image. Basically, by the time players were a junior they had to make a commitment…in or out. I believe in being loyal to the players that show loyalty….again, it’s a 2 way street.
The other most common scenario is a freshman football player who felt like he needed to be in offseason football in order to make the varsity football team the next fall. Sometimes, this was the player’s decision but other times, unfortunately, it was the result of being influenced by someone else. One thing was always for sure, if a player didn’t have a future in our program, I would tell them but it needed to come from me and not anyone else. Nobody knew better than me what it took to play at White Oak and it’s not for everyone. I believe in being honest and upfront with players and though they might not want to hear it at the time, they appreciate an honest evaluation. This will be a topic of its own later.
At the conclusion of each season, the last thing I would do on the night of our last game is meet with our seniors. Many times this is a very emotional meeting because it signifies the end of their playing days in our program. However, it also signifies the beginning…their entry into our basketball family. Before every season, I make a promise to my seniors….they will get my best effort. At the end of that season, I will make them a second promise….a promise of loyalty. If they are sitting in my office at the end of their senior season it means they have stayed the course and they have finished the race…they have fulfilled their commitment. It was now time for me to fulfill mine…loyalty for life.
I will now share with you the things I did to make sure our players knew they would always be a part of our basketball family. First of all, every graduating senior had their name and number put on a plaque on the wall in our dressing room…the Wall of Honor. Putting your name on that wall meant something….you met the standard and the standard was high. It wasn’t given to you, you earned it. It had nothing to do with talent or achievement…you finish the race, your name goes on the wall…and that means something at White Oak.
Also, as a graduation gift, each senior would receive a basketball medallion key chain with their number and “I Believe” engraved on the back. Inside the box with this key chain would be a note explaining that every player during my tenure at White Oak had received one of these key chains upon graduation. With the inclusion of my 2016 seniors, this brought the total number to 111 of these key chains in existence today. I also give a key chain to our stat girls and managers upon graduation.
Along with the key chain, each graduating senior received a copy of The White Oak Way which was basically the encyclopedia of White Oak basketball from 1992 to present. This manual included inspirational slogans, poetry, and stories along with meaningful lessons from Dr. Charles Stanley’s Life Principles Bible. In the back of the manual was a complete listing of a our season and career record holders, superlative winners, descriptions of each team, and short biography of each player. Most of these items are located, as well, in the left column (pages section) of this blog.
Next, we played an Alumni game each season to honor the players who had played in our program. Each player was eligible to play for 3 years after graduation and attendance is 100% most years. It was always a fun night for the Alums to get to put on the uniform again and for us to pay tribute to them. We have played this game for the last 18 of my tenure and it was always a huge success…even when the Alums won! The entire community, our current players, and our Alumni always looked forward to this night.
Another thing I did to keep our former players involved with our program was to create a database of email addresses so that I could keep them informed on our season. I would normally send at least 3 emails per season. The first was at the beginning of our season to thank them for their role in our program and for paving the way for our current teams. I would also assure them that our team would be held to the same standards they were and that we would represent them on and off the court in a manner that was expected.
The second email would be prior to the start of district play. I would update them on our season up until that point and give a short preview of the district race. The third email would be at the conclusion of district play. If we were fortunate enough to make the playoffs, I would also update them with our playoff information. The final email would be after our last game and I would again thank them for their loyalty and support of our program.
Every Christmas, I would send a Christmas card to each of our Alumni. The cornerstone of the “I Believe” philosophy at White Oak is faith so Christmas was a great opportunity to reinforce the value of faith in our program. For the first 20 or so years, I would write a personal note to each player inside their Christmas card until this just became too daunting of a task to maintain. I struggled greatly with this decision but I had to eventually eliminate the personal notes so I regret that I wasn’t able to do this for my boys that graduated within the past 4 or 5 years.
I would also use our email database to send out prayer requests that affected members of our basketball family. I also look forward to attending as many graduations, weddings, etc that I can.
In summation, I always believed our program needed to be about more than just basketball….basketball would be a vehicle for teaching life. The things I have outlined today are some of the ways I attempted to fulfill my commitment. It’s my prayer that every player who graduated our program knew they were always a valuable member of our basketball family. No matter how old they get, they will always be my boys.
This concludes the series of entries entitled “Building A Small School Program” and I hope you have found it to be beneficial. As the saying goes, “There are many ways to skin a cat”….this was the White Oak way.
The next series of entries will focus on the role of each particular part of our program.
Thanks for reading and Coach With A Purpose!