There was one main driving force behind 24th-year Col. Zadok Magruder High School boys' basketball coach Dan Harwood's pursuit of a high school coaching position when he returned to Montgomery County following a Division I career and short stint playing abroad: Love for the sport.
“I got into coaching because I love basketball and the next best thing to playing, is coaching,” Harwood said. “I did not want to be a role model or anything like that. I was in my 20s and I wanted to play and coach basketball.”
It wasn't long before he relished in the ability to impact young aspiring athletes. With 454 wins, 412 of them at Magruder, Harwood is Montgomery County's winningest boys' basketball coach.
A transcendental passion for the sport of basketball is at the core of every one of the county's finest basketball coaches, 12th-year Walt Whitman girls' coach Pete Kenah said. As heading a program has become more and more of a year-round endeavor over the past decade, it truly has to be a labor of love on the coaches' part. But sheer talent and knowledge of the ins and outs of basketball do not alone ensure that a coach will be successful.
It takes a certain type of patient person to get through to and build prosperous coach-athlete relationships with high school athletes, but the county has seen its fair share of coaches who seem to be able to perennially draw the best out of whatever traditional talent, or lack thereof, they are dealt.
The ability to communicate and get players to buy into one's coaching system is the most important factor, Harwood said. But, what does it take to earn that respect?
According to 13th-year Quince Orchard boys' basketball coach Paul Foringer, it's finding a way to relate to players.
“One thing I've learned is, when you're in the gym and you're coaching, you can push kids as hard as you want to and they might dislike it and they might not care for that but when you're outside of the gym and the last horn sounds, they have to know you're a human being,” Foringer said. “You have to let them see the other side of you, let them see you're one of the guys, that you're right there with them. They have to see you smile, that you're just a regular guy.”
It is also imperative, coaches agreed, that players know their coach truly cares about their well-being. Whether it's attending a soccer game in the fall season or writing an individual note to a player at the start of the season, student-athletes need to know a coach has their back, Kenah said, and genuinely cares about them.
It took 11th-year Thomas S. Wootton High girls' coach Maggie Dyer precisely two years to turn a county doormat program into a perennial postseason contender. In her third season, the Patriots went from four wins to 16, their first winning campaign in more than 15 years. Since then Wootton has only endured one non-winning season, two years ago when starting essentially an entirely freshman lineup — even then the Patriots almost met the .500 record mark. And it has not been for the number of Division I athletes who have walked through Dyer's door.
“People don't remember but before Maggie got there, Wootton was a guaranteed win, they were winning one or two games, period,” Kenah said. “I think she's only had one Division I player but she's been able to get guards to scrap and shoot and they're so well prepared. Now you put Wootton in the bank for 15 to 18 wins a year.”
Dyer, like Harwood, Kenah, Foringer, Whitman boys' coach Chris Lun, John F. Kennedy's Diallo Nelson, Montgomery Blair's Damon Pigrom, Damascus girls' coach Steve Pisarski and the plethora of other coaches who have established consistently competitive programs within the county, is a players' coach.
Up until a sore knee sidelined him this year, Harwood has been playing recreational league basketball every week with the same team for two decades. Basketball should be fun, he said, and it's important for coaches to remember the parts of playing basketball that they enjoy.
Coaches also agreed there is a correlation between consistency within a coaching staff and a program's success. Most of the county's perennially successful teams have longer standing coaches. This helps the future players know what to expect when they come in, Foringer said. But that doesn't necessarily mean a team will play the same style year in and year out. The best coaches are flexible with their approach and can make adjustment based on each season's personnel.
For example, Pisarski said he had to deviate from the guard-oriented approach he intended to employ at Damascus to involve the post players he's been lucky enough to have. Foringer's teams have played 3-2 zone and full-court press in back-to-back years thanks to teams with completely different dynamics. The best coaches are in tune with what best suits their players and are unafraid to step outside their own comfort zones.
“I think like anything else, I searched for what I was passionate about and for me it was basketball,” Dyer said. “If I couldn't play anywhere, I wanted to coach, to be a part of it. You always try to surround yourself with things you're passionate about.”