Atypical Questions I’d Ask
I’m drawn to business and sports leaders. Little whets my analytical mind and awakens my curiosity more than observing and studying someone with fantastic leadership skills. Too often in sporting events I find myself observing a coach’s sideline behavior and post-game interview more than the actual game. In business, I read and observe how leaders structure and reward teams, or don’t, and how this affects the organization’s bottom line.
Rarely is it a leader’s aptitude that shines. It’s not the plays or the posturing or the buyouts. Instead, it’s their ability to understand and capitalize on group dynamics. The way they motivate, inspire and teach. It shows in sideline body language, player and employee appreciation, and always in results.
In sport, the team coach is the most heavily weighted variable I use to pick March Madness and Super Bowl teams. And, my longitudinal results with this approach-well, pretty darn good.
Coaches today, for me, are sort of the military generals of years past.
Thankfully our country hasn’t been in a position lately to rely heavily on historically great generals like Eisenhower and Schwarzkopf, and even George Washington.
Instead, we turn, rightly or wrongly, to leaders in business and sport for examples of leadership.
Like generals of year’s past, today’s coaches are often elevated to public figure status. I’m much too old to view any coach as a role model. Instead, I simply enjoy observing and studying the sport and X’s and O’s of their coaching positions. I readily admit; however, I often have unschooled opinions on both of these though I try hard to leave the analysis and critique of play calls and player choices to those with more esteemed credentials.
I despise having to justify my interest and intentions. But, through the years I have had to. I’ve even been called a lesbian by some ignorant observers as I engaged in basketball, football, tennis and soccer with our young, athletically talented son.
What is wrong with a woman having a keen interest in athletics and sport leaders?
To be clear, the attraction and observation of coaches has nothing to do with a coach’s physical appearance or the appeal of their public personas or bank accounts. I assume each has established relationships that I want nothing to do with. I’ve been married to the same great man for over 25 years.
Truth. My interest in studying coaches and deeply desiring to meet and chat with them is purely as a student of coaching and leadership. I want to soak up their wisdom and apply it to my living.
Here’s my list of coaches who’d I’ve give almost anything to sit down with and learn from. They are in no particular order. I’ve never met any of them. I’ve only observed and listened to them through my television.
For all I know they collectively, or individually, may be ego maniacs and/or jerks. Somehow, I seriously doubt it. I generally have great radar for character.
I present a brief bio on each coach and a sample of questions I’d ask that they’ve likely never answered before.
I have justifiable reasons to both love and loathe Coach Klieman.
LOVE: I’m a North Dakota native. Klieman coached Fargo’s NDSU Bison from 2011-2018. He was named head coach in 2014 when Coach Bohl left after 10 years (2003-2013) to coach at Wyoming.
NDSU is a storied football program. Kleiman led NDSU to the 2018 Division I FSC Championship-his fourth national championship in five seasons with NDSU.
NDSU fans had total faith in this coach. Well before the playoffs began, many, including family members, booked Frisco, Texas hotel rooms early in the season. They stocked their vehicles and campers and joyfully prepared for the journey south, letting everyone on the route know they were part of the “Thundering Herd.”
Kleiman exudes confidence and produces winning teams.
He left NDSU in 2019 for the Kansas State head coaching job made vacant with the retirement of long-term coach, Bill Snyder.
LOATHE: I’m also a dual Iowa State University graduate. Our schools now compete against one another in the Big 12 Conference. Thankfully, Iowa State has been reformed under Coach Matt Campbell. However, I don’t take recent Cyclone victories over the Wildcats lightly knowing Kleiman’s history. I sit on the edge of my seat until the final whistle blows and I can celebrate a Cyclone win!
When ISU isn’t playing Kansas State, I cheer him on. He deserves greatness. He’s put in his time and he gave North Dakotans much to celebrate.
Coach: You are the son of a Hall of Fame official and and Iowa catholic high school football and golf coach. Seems like your father had an immense impact on your life choices. What’s the one thing your mother did in your childhood that’s had the greatest impact on your professional life? Have you introduced the beloved North Dakota Knoephla soup to your players at a team dinner yet?
The Carolina Panthers were the team many Charleston, South Carolina residents, including us, cheered for in the absence of our own professional football team. When I started paying attention to the Panthers, John Fox, the team’s third and longest-tenured coach was at the helm. (2002-2010)
Rivera was named head coach in 2011. He remained with the Panthers until 2019. Twelve games into the season he was fired when relatively new owner, David Tepper, wanted a culture change.
In January 2020, Coach Rivera was chosen to lead the Washington Football Team (formerly Washington Redskins)-another team I followed while living in the D.C. metropolitan area.
I literally knew nothing of this man’s background. I’d never heard his name or even knew if he was a former player (He was. He played for the Chicago Bears and was a linebacker on the 1985 team many say was the greatest defense in NFL history.), yet was drawn to his quiet on-screen sideline demeanor while both winning and losing.
I hypothesized he was volcanically competitive and deeply intense in the right setting-the practice field and playing field.
Now relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, we seldom saw teams coached by Rivera. However, whenever I did, my curiosity of “what makes the man” only intensified. My desire to have a face-to-face chat with him only deepened in the fall of 2020.
Riverboat, as he is affectionately known, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in a lymph node in August 2020. Five months later he announced he’d “kicked cancer’s ass.” No one ever doubted this’d be the outcome. All celebrated with the man admired for his strength and resilience by legions of fans, including me.
Coach: You win on the field. You win in life. What’s the one characteristic within you that makes you an overall winner? Name the one coach still coaching in the NFL you admire most and explain why. Do you see similarities between your coaching style and Andy Reid’s style? If so, how? If not, why not? What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make regarding a player?
Coach McDermott and I have similar journeys-well, at least in terms of locations where we’ve lived and worked.
He was raised in rural Cascade, Iowa and held two coaching jobs in North Dakota. One as an Assistant Coach at the University of North Dakota (1989-1994) and Head Coach for the NDSU Bison from 2000-2001. He coached at my alma mater, Iowa State University, from 2006-2010 and he’s been coaching at Omaha’s Creighton University since then. He’s the current Big East Coach of the Year. Proudly, he coached his son, Doug, at Creighton before Doug joined the NBA (currently with the Indiana Pacers).
I have to support an Iowan who rises to the top of his profession, always. In some ways, Coach McDermott reminds me of the great former professional basketball player and coach, Phil Jackson, from my home state of North Dakota.
I suspect the caring nature exuded through my television screen is likely the same when all the cameras are off. I also suspect McDermott has a tell-it-like-it-is approach while holding his players and staff accountable. It’s just the Midwestern way…and it’s working for Coach McDermott.
Coach: What is the one thing you consistently pray for unrelated to basketball? Identify three things from your youth that contribute to your success, as you define it, today. What elements make a great basketball player a great coach? Complete this sentence. The one player I wish I would’ve spent more off-the-court time with is, and why.
I was unfamiliar with revered Coach Mendoza until recently binging Netflix’s Basketball or Nothing. The series, which was released in August of 2019, follows the 2018 basketball team at Chinle High School located in Arizona’s Navajo Nation.
Mendoza, a certified high school counselor, has coached Native American teams for more than 30 years. He has been honored as a two-time Arizona Coaches Coach of the Year and the 2011 Arizona Republic Small Schools Coach of the Year.
Watching the series, one can readily see Coach Mendoza’s mission is far greater than winning basketball games, though he possesses intensity and an obvious will to win. He’s charged with developing and leading talented young men, who along with their families, face real hardships.
His players call him “old school” but his love for the game and for his players is ever-present.
One theme that comes through loud and clear is that Mendoza believes “offense sells tickets and defense wins games.”
Do yourself a favor and watch this Netflix award-winning series. It was recently named the 2021 Non-Fiction Sports Documentary Winner at the Realscreen Awards.
Doing so may put the life obstacles you believe you need to overcome in perspective.
Coach: You’ve obviously witnessed tremendous changes in youth during your nearly four decades of coaching. What is the one thing that has remained consistent in these young men you’ve had the privilege of coaching? At the end of each season, how do you measure success? Finally, when a banner for you is hung in the high school, what sentence do you want inscribed under your name?
Coach Hammon was hired by the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs as a full-time assistant coach in August of 2014 when we were South Dakota residents. It was a big deal to the citizens of South Dakota and to women athletes everywhere. Why? Hammon is a Rapid City, South Dakota native. She played collegiately for Colorado State Rams (1995-1999) and then for the San Antonio Stars and New York Liberty of the Women’s Basketball Association (WNBA). Hammon was also a six-time All-Star in the WNBA in her 16 seasons with these teams.
She represented the Russian national team as a naturalized Russian citizen in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics before becoming the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports in North America.
On December 30, 2020 Hammon became the first female acting head coach in NBA history when head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Many see her as a pioneer. Hammon sees herself as a coach of basketball players. Coach Hammon is highly qualified. She has the skills, the aptitude and the experience to lead a team on her own, one day soon. Fingers crossed.
Coach: I know you’d like to lessen the references to trail-blazer and pioneer; however, since you were the first, and there’s still few women on NBA coaching staffs throughout the league, what three things must female coaches, who aspire to lead an NBA team, do now to achieve this goal? Also, what one person do you credit most with your career success, and why? Identify three personality traits within yourself that are uniquely South Dakotan.
Robert (Bob) Huggins
What is not to love about a guy nicknamed “Huggy Bear?” Every time I watch Coach Huggins frantically pace the sidelines, exclaiming his silent thoughts with grand hand gestures and then plopping his rear end on a wooden sideline stool, I smile. He just makes me happy. That is unless his Mountaineers are beating my Iowa State Cyclones. We are Big 12 Conference foes.
He’s been coaching his alma mater (1977) since 2007 and is under contract to continue coaching there until 2027, when he’ll be 74. Huggins coached in multiple locations including Kansas State (2006-07) and for 16 years in Cincinnati-where I first started watching this guy as the leader of the Bearcats.
Wherever he’s been, Huggins has achieved success as a recruiter, game strategist and program builder. His teams regularly play in the NCAA March Madness tournament. The Mountaineers, in fact, were in the 2010 NCAA Final Four. He’s rightfully the proud collegiate coach of multiple NBA players, including Jevon Carter-point guard currently with the Phoenix Suns.
Coach: Do you ever fear falling off that wooden sideline stool much like Georgia State’s Ron Hunter did during the 2015 NCAA tournament? Does that stool travel with the team, or does each location provide a stool for you? When you’re recruiting young men to your program what is the only guarantee you can offer them and their parents? What is something unique to your program that you’d like to see implemented throughout NCAA basketball? May I hug you?
I have family living in Columbus, Ohio who are understandably rabid Buckeye fans. Occasionally I make the time to watch their teams in support of them, but not always, especially if we’re competing. For instance, my ISU Cyclones faced the Buckeyes in the first round of the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament. We had a wager on the game, which the Cyclones were expected to win. They didn’t. We lost 62-59.
A box of Nebraska made products was promptly, but begrudgingly, mailed to their Ohio home. Graceful winners, they mailed me buckeye chocolates as a consolation prize. The chocolates were fantastic. The loss still stung.
Ever since I’ve been paying more attention to their teams and coaches. One Buckeye coach who continually impresses me is head football coach, Ryan Day. He was named acting football coach in August 2018, winning all three games during his tenure, and then was named head coach in 2019, succeeding Coach Urban Meyer.
Like most coaches, his resume spans multiple positions, teams and locations. For example, Day coached quarterbacks for the Eagles in 2015 and the 49ers in 2016.
Day hails from Manchester, New Hampshire and played quarterback and linebacker for the University of New Hampshire after being named the state’s High School Gatorade Player of the Year.
He was awarded the 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year. In 2020, the Buckeyes had an enviable 6-0 perfect regular season (We live in Omaha, Nebraska. The Nebraska Huskers play OSU in the Big 10.). Day’s Buckeyes went on to beat my beloved Clemson Tigers (We lived in SC for 20 years.) in the 2021 Sugar Bowl but lost in the National Championship game to Alabama 55-24. Despite these losses, that I could take somewhat personally, I have uber respect for Day.
I have no doubt Coach Day will have his team positioned to repeat success, time and time again.
Coach: Are you the most popular man hailing from New Hampshire, or do Adam Sandler and Seth Meyers still trump you? Which is most important for a great quarterback-skill or attitude, and why? I’m specifically asking as a North Dakotan following Carson Wentz’s volatile career. Buckeye fans are historically loyal and loud. What’s the craziest thing you’ve received from a Buckeye fan?
Luigi “Geno” Auriemma
Anyone who follows collegiate sports, particularly basketball, has heard of Coach Geno. The man is a legend in women’s basketball. He’s been the head coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies since 1985. Yes, nearly 40 years!
He’s led the Huskies to 11 NCAA Division I national championships, the most in women’s college basketball history. He’s also coached the United States women’s national basketball team earning gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics.
The coach and the man Auriemma are today likely spawned from his early days. He emigrated in 1961 with his family from Italy to Norristown, Pennsylvania when he was only seven years old. He played varsity high school basketball for one of the most significant influencers in his life-Buddy Gardler. Today, Coach Geno admits he’s modeled his coaching style after his mentor. Both are considered old school and believed in toughness and grit. “Know the rules and follow them.”
This approach has served him well as he holds the record for the best winning percentage in the history of the sport: 955-134. He’s also an eight-time AP College Basketball Coach of the Year, seven-time Naismith Coach of the Year, six-time WBCA National Coach of the Year, 10-time Big East Coach of the Year and three-time American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
He’s coached some outstanding basketball players, including Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles who each went on to play in the WNBA.
In addition to coaching, enterprising Coach Geno owns several Connecticut restaurants.
Coach: Will you take me on in a game of Horse or a free throw shooting challenge? Even at my age I’m still fond of doing both. A competitive spirit never dies, right? What would be the biggest shift you’d have to make in your coaching style, if tomorrow you decided to coach a men’s team? What do you see yourself doing on a daily basis after you retire from coaching? Is that day eminent? If you could wave a magic wand and place the next coach into your seat, who would it be, and why? What’s your favorite entrée of any on the menus at your restaurants, and why?
If there ever was a coach for me who projects lovability and a need to be loved, it’s Andy Reid. In fact, he may require that now more than ever with the recent pre-Super Bowl accident in Kansas City where his son, Britt Reid, outside linebackers coach, was involved in a three-car crash injuring two children.
Coach Reid has experienced loss in his life. Yet, he paces the sidelines with an enviable calmness and confidence that must only come from decades of experience and deep faith.
He and his wife, Tammy, practicing Mormons, have five children. Part of what makes Coach Reid so appealing is that he doesn’t pretend to be something other than he is. Nor does he try to cover up his family’s struggles. He’s non-judgmental.
Two of his sons have fought drug and alcohol addiction. Garrett, his oldest son, died from an accidental heroin overdose in 2012. He’d also served time in prison for various crimes. Britt has also been arrested for drug possession and firearms charges. He was sentenced to eight to 23 months in prison and five years’ probation.
Prior to coaching the Kansas City Chiefs, Reid, one of the NFL’s winningest coaches, was the head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999 to 2012. What he was unable to achieve there, he did with the Chiefs-a Super Bowl win in 2020-the first in 50 years for the Chief’s, and his first as a head coach.
He’s known as a trainer of coaches. Eleven of his assistants have become head coaches and two have won the Super Bowl. Most will cite Reid’s intelligence, discipline and attention to detail for his success. Throughout the league, he’s known for giving second chances, having an even-keeled vision for the game and being somewhat of a teddy bear gentleman who treats others like he’d like to be treated.
Kansas City is the nearest city with an NFL team to Omaha, where we live today. Until Coach Reid joined the team, I didn’t bother to pay attention. One game in, I was hooked, not so much on the team, but the coach. Of course, it helps that he has a superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but Reid’s legacy drew me in and keeps me watching and cheering for the Chiefs.
I know I’m not the only fan wondering what Coach is thinking as tight camera shots focus on his half smile and half wink. I never doubt his strong outward presence has an inner softness.
He’s beloved, winning or not.
Coach: What is the most valuable lesson you want all coaches to glean from Bill Walsh’s Finding the Winning Edge book-a favorite of yours? If you got one do-over in life what would you do-over, and why? Do you have any plans to shave your mustache anytime soon? If you could choose only one assistant coach from the legions of many you’ve worked with over time to be on a deserted island with, whom would it be, and why? How do art and science merge in your play calling? What is your all-time favorite bedtime story to read to your grandchildren, and why?
We lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for a few years after leaving South Carolina. Imagine our delight in discovering the Miami Heat had a developmental team there-the Skyforce. We enjoyed attending many games during G League seasons as South Dakota residents.
It was during our Sioux Falls tenure that our sports-obsessed son relentlessly urged me to start paying attention to the Miami Heat coach, Eric Spoelstra. I did, and I’m thankful for the nudge. I’ve been studying him ever since.
A lot of attention is given to Coach Spoelstra’s ethnic background: The first Asian-American head coach in the history of the four major North American sports leagues, thus the first Asian-American head coach to win an NBA Championship.
While his ethnicity is notable, Spoelstra’s winning methods, player development technique, work ethic and record are remarkable. The Miami Heat made four consecutive NBA final appearances under his leadership (2011-2014), winning the championship in 2012 and 2013. He also took his team to the NBA Finals in 2020. There, the Heat lost to the Los Angeles Lakes in the best of seven-game series, 4-2.
In a somewhat old-fashioned manner, Spoelstra is an NBA coach who worked his way up to the top of the Heat’s organization during a 25-year span. He started as a video coordinator in 1995. Two years later he was an assistant coach and video coordinator. In 1999 he was promoted to advance scout and assistant coach. In 2001, he was again promoted. This time to assistant coach/director of scouting-a position he held until 2008 when legendary coach, Pat Riley, resigned to become the Heat’s President and Spoelstra was appointed head coach at age 37.
Spoelstra was raised in a basketball family. He was a point guard for his hometown University of Portland Pilots. His father, Jon Spoelstra, is a former NBA executive who’s worked for several NBA teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers, New Jersey Nets, Buffalo Braves and Denver Nuggets. His grandfather was a sportswriter for the Detroit News.
Though he’s never identified juggling as a skill, I can only imagine what’s required trying to sooth egos of NBA superstars the likes of former and current players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Ray Allen, etc. while managing coaching duties with the pressure to consistently produce winning teams for the organization and its fans.
Not easy, but impressively well done, Coach Spoelstra.
Coach: Seems you’re a fan of not only inserting G League players into your team but also coaches who’ve lived and worked in Sioux Falls for the Skyforce. Explain why this is important to you. What is the one business lesson about the NBA your Dad taught you that no longer is true? When is the last time you’ve made Lumpia-the traditional Filipino recipe? Do you ever play Frisbee on Miami beach? If you hadn’t chosen basketball as a career, what would you be doing today? What is the one thing about Coach Pat Riley no one else knows?
Game Over, for Now
This was truly one of my favorite articles to research and write.
I’m a sports fan. I’m a coach observer. I certainly did not know the depth of each coach’s professional experience or personal background until I began this piece.
I was merely a silent observer of their great work and achievements.
Now, I long to know more about the person who became the coach and leader I admire.
I suspect I may have a part two to this post because at my desk I have a list of other coaches I’d like to know more about and speak to. These include: Fred Hoiberg, Bob McKillop, Rick Pitino, Chris Beard, John Cook, Ed Orgeron, Doc Rivers, Todd Golden, Tony Bennett, Matt Campbell, Kyle Kempt, and Tony Dungy.
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Linda Leier Thomason writes freelance business and travel stories along with feature articles. Her work experience includes a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Read more about her background and qualifications by clicking on the “Meet Linda” tab above.