This was supposed to the perennial Prince George's County power Gwynn Park High School boys' basketball team's worst season. Or so eighth-year Yellow Jackets' coach Mike Glick heard.
How, many county high school basketball pundits seemed to wonder, would a team historically reliant on size and strength employ its traditional game with just one true “big [man]?” To answer simply: They don't, because Glick knows how to coach to his talent. Rather than attempt to overpower their opponents, the Yellow Jackets (11-5, 9-2 Prince George's 3A/2A/1A League) have taken to a more guard-oriented approach this winter, and they are doing just fine. Gwynn Park is 136-55 overall in Glick's tenure.
Similarly, Eleanor Roosevelt has been one of the biggest teams in the state in recent history. This year, the Raiders (11-4) don't have anyone over 6-foot-3 in their starting lineup, but they still remain on pace to compete for another state championship, just with a different style of play.
“Some coaches try and make a team fit into their style, we change our style according to players,” Glick said.
Added Charles H. Flowers coach Mark Edwards following the Jaguars' loss to Roosevelt earlier this month: “[Roosevelt] might not have as much talent offensively, but [coach] Brendan [O'Connell] has them so disciplined. He does a great job getting guys to understand their roles and what they want to do.”
Prince George's has been privy to some pretty spectacular basketball players, but not every team is fortunate enough to have future NCAA Division I- or NBA-caliber stars on it every year, or ever. Nevertheless, there are programs that are able to produce some of the county's best ball play year in and year out, and much of that has to do with coaches' ability connect with and bring out the best in their student-athletes.
It takes a certain type of patient person to get through to and build prosperous coach-athlete relationships with high school basketball players, but the county has seen its fair share of coaches who seem to perennially draw the best out of whatever talent, or lack thereof, they are dealt.
The ability to communicate and get players to buy into one's coaching system should be at the top of every coach's list of priorities, Glick said. But what does it take to earn that respect in the first place? Coaches agreed finding a way to relate to their players plays a major role.
“I kind of try to relate to the kids in a way where I try to teach them that sports and life are challenges and we use a lot of examples of real-life situations and apply them to [basketball],” said sixth-year Frederick Douglass boys' coach Tyrone Massenburg, who has been coaching in the county since 1987. “The kids have to understand the meaning of why they should try to achieve certain goals. I've been fortunate enough to be in three areas of the county, I've seen all types of kids in this area and I know what buttons to push to be consistent.”
Part of relating to players, Glick added, is keeping up with the times — five years ago he said he would never have texted his athletes but does it quite often these days. Adolescents are pulled in all different directions these days and don't receive criticism the same way they did 20 years ago, so it's important for coaches to convey constructive criticism in a positive manner.
“If coaches don't criticize in a positive way, if they berate the kids, they're just going to tune them out,” Glick said.
It's also imperative, coaches agreed, for them to show their players they truly care about their well-being. Whether it's attending a game during another sports season or listening when a player is in need, the kids need to know their coach genuinely cares.
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. Within that, Glick said, is the development of a good junior varsity program to ensure that players are familiar with the Gwynn Park system and ready for varsity ball. Glick said hiring 2002 Gwynn Park graduate Spencer Way six years ago to head up the Yellow Jackets' junior varsity team was the best decision he's made for his program.
O'Connell said he is a players' coach. Many of the county's most effective leaders probably are. They remember what they enjoyed most as a player and speak to their charges in those terms.
“I think the fun part about coaching public school basketball is that we coach who's there,” O'Connell said. “We don't get to go get players like colleges or some of the private schools do. One year you can have a ton of big guys, the next year all guards. That's kind of the fun part.”