I was able to meet with and interview many great Kentucky high school basketball coaches while researching for my book, How Sweet It Is. The experience proved to be so influential that it led me into the coaching profession. In an effort to learn the stories of more Kentucky hoops coaches, I am posting a series of email Q&As with a few of them as the 2019-2020 season gets rolling. From now until December 20, you can purchase copies of my aforementioned book for just $5 (75% off) through my publisher by clicking here. Thank you to Greenup County Boys Head Coach Robert Amis for the responses below.
JV: You played at Perry County Central and coached at Breathitt County. Describe Mountain basketball for anyone not familiar.
RA: Growing up a fan, becoming a participant, and then getting the opportunity to coach basketball in the mountains has given me some of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Mountain basketball is a way of life to the people and the communities that the teams proudly represent. Passion, pride, and importance are ways in which I would describe mountain basketball. Due to the location/terrain and lack of urbanization, mountain people have always felt the need to prove themselves and overcome stereotypes from the outside world. The basketball court has always been a platform to do so. On average, the gymnasiums are larger than most parts of the state and the lineage of years past graces the walls and trophy cases. The majority of the time an athlete’s father, uncle, and grandfather played for the school. Generational pride through years of dedication to a school is a very common occurrence.
JV: What do they do in towns like Hazard to instill a love of the game in kids at such a young age?
RA: With the success that multiple schools have had in Perry County (some of those being lost to consolidation), the passion and desire is instilled in you at a young age. The stories of years past are passed down before the time you’re able to dribble a basketball. Walking in the gymnasium/arenas Perry County offers, you get the sense you’re walking into a cathedral-like setting. You look at the numerous championship banners that line the ceilings and walls. The oversized photographs that all have one common word, “Champions”. Wanting to become one of those players on the wall, perhaps subconsciously, instills a love for the game.
JV: What is the youth basketball scene like in the mountains? Is it a lot of youth leagues, pickup, or driveway ball?
RA: Every school system, especially the successful ones, have great youth leagues and feeder programs. The amount of travel basketball being played now has increased tremendously since I was a youngster. For competition purposes, you have a biddy league, 3rd/4th grade, 5th/6th grade, 7th/8th grade, etc. Many high school programs in the mountains run their youth basketball leagues as fundraisers for the high school programs but also in an attempt to get involved and be hands on with the youth of their community. Pickup and driveway basketball has significantly decreased but I feel it has all across the Commonwealth, not just in the mountains.
JV: Who was your high school coach and what did you learn from him?
RA: I had, in my opinion, one of the best high school coaches in the state, Allan Holland. His track record speaks for itself and he’s been successful everywhere he’s ever been. He taught me, along with countless others, the importance of winning. That mental toughness could carry you through adversity and be an asset to you the rest of your life. Coach Holland eliminated any fear or intimidation we would’ve had against our opponents. The pride and confidence he instilled in us led us to believe we could compete with anyone. I’m forever grateful for that.
JV: You served as a Graduate Assistant at Marshall. Describe the GA grind for someone who might be considering it, and the greatest lessons you learned during your two-year experience.
RA: Getting the opportunity to join an up-and-coming program at the Division 1 level in my early twenties was a great break for me. Not only did I get to earn a Masters degree free of charge, but I got to be involved with a great mid-major program. In speaking with many colleagues and friends in the business, the GA experience is different everywhere. My experience allowed me to be hands on with the players, assist in recruiting visits, monitor academic progress, travel with the team, provide on-floor assistance, scouting reports, community service projects, build relationships, and network. These experiences have assisted me in gaining a better understanding of student-athlete backgrounds, an abundance of X’s and O’s, game adjustments, strategy, scouting high-level talent, and coaching professionalism.
JV: What do people not realize about D1 coaches/coaching at the D1 level?
RA: The amount of hours you spend traveling or away from your family. Either through recruiting, practice times, speaking engagements, or games. That was what really stood out to me when I was first involved. The outside world thinks D1 coaches have it made and get paid to merely recruit/coach. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The amount of pressure on D1 coaches gets unbearable at times. Besides being subject to public scrutiny and dissatisfaction, you can be fired at anytime with phrases like “lack of institutional control”. Depending on the school or level, the amount of support staff at D1 schools can be impressive. Ultimately, all of those people, including their actions, fall under the head coach’s watch.
JV: You also spent time as an assistant coach at the junior college level. Describe the day-to-day differences of coaching at the JUCO level after having been at a D1 program in Marshall?
RA: The awareness of junior college athletics has increased due to the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U”. There’s a lot of truth and similarities in JUCO athletics as to what is seen on the show. What the show didn’t make people aware of is how much time coaches have to spend with, and the watchful eye they must keep on, their student-athletes. At the JUCO level, you try and eliminate as much free/downtime as possible. Contrary to popular belief, not all JUCO kids are problem kids. Many have made mistakes off the court or not met educational requirements to be eligible for NCAA competition. The amount of diverse backgrounds you interact with at this level, is great for anyone to broaden their outlook and personal horizons. JUCO student-athletes require more structured days and individual attention than D1 players. When the coaching/support staff isn’t nearly the size of a D1 staff, you get to be involved in every aspect of the program.
JV: What were the greatest lessons you learned at the JUCO level?
RA: The greatest lesson was the impact you could have on a student-athlete’s life that you may have only known for a handful of months. This was academically, personally, and athletically. Patience and accountability are two words that describe JUCO. You have to have patience with these young men who may have never had any structure in their lives. You provide that for them. You must hold them accountable both on and off the court. Spending three seasons as a JUCO assistant coach, you learn to never be shocked, how to grind it out, psychological motivation for your players (they’re all different), and how to be a better listener.
JV: You spent a season at Eminence, a very small high school school in a small community in Kentucky. What was that like? What were the greatest challenges you faced there? How did you try to shake up the feeder system and reestablish a love of basketball there?
RA: My father had coached at a school similar in size before becoming the superintendent of schools for Perry County. I had been around a small town/school setting before but it had been over twenty years. It was a very unique setting, both town and school-wise. I had to get creative in ways to bring excitement to our program. We took to social media, ordered an abundance of the latest gear, made a competitive schedule (had to schedule 17 games in August when I arrived). A YBL was already in place but we hired a 6th-8th coach that was also my varsity assistant/JV coach. We were able to win 15 games there, which was the most in over 15 years.
JV: Greenup County is a different situation in that it is a larger urban area. What changes have you made in your time there so far, both from a culture standpoint and an execution standpoint?
RA: Greenup County was once one of the better programs in Eastern Kentucky. One of the first things I said in my inaugural interview was to set expectations: “I’m here to get this program back to Rupp Arena”. With that came some excitement. I made a summer schedule that took us to NKU, Lipscomb, Marshall, and UPIKE for games. This was to expose them to what winning cultures, players, and coaches acted/lived like. All four of those teams won conference regular season titles at the very least, and participated in postseason collegiate play. Greenup County team was known for leading the region in technical fouls and had developed an overall poor reputation amongst officials and opposing coaches. I implemented a team effort contract, rules sheet, and mandated they wear shirts and ties to home games and travel suits to away games. This was to set an example for those who looked up to them. I am continuously expressing the importance of “team.”
JV: What do you do to improve as a coach? Read books, reach out to people to ask questions, watch film?
RA: I constantly ask advice from several coaches, but not all of them are basketball coaches. Having been at the collegiate level for five years of my career, I had the opportunity to meet and network with many coaches. Through text or calls, I’m always looking for new ideas to help me grow as a coach and person. Being a lifelong learner in athletics and life is an essential to both our personal and professional successes. I read books on motivation, psychology, and the management of people. There’s no less than 50 instructional DVD’s in my home and office. Twitter has been a great way to accumulate drills, sets, and quotes.
JV: You have spent time at almost every level. What have you discovered to be universal truths of the coaching profession?
RA: I’ve truly been blessed with some fantastic coaching opportunities. Every place, job, level, player, boss, etc. is different. I’ve found the following to be my universal truths of the coaching profession
Be yourself – You can learn from but never copy another coach’s blueprint for success.
Willingness to change – the game is ever-evolving, you either adjust with the times or get left behind.
Don’t sell out your beliefs – You have to have a set of core beliefs and never stray from those.
Fall in love with the process – Rome wasn’t built in a day, every team and situation is different.
Accountability – hold your players accountable both on and off the floor. This will go with them the rest of their life.
Don’t be afraid to be different or wrong – We all fail and make wrong choices. Do we learn from it? Have the courage to admit when we’re wrong?
Adjust your system – Don’t let your ego get in the way of success. Especially at the high school level, we have to adjust our system to our personnel.
JV: What advice would you give to young coaches starting out?
RA: Be a sponge for knowledge! Ask questions, attend practices, watch DVDs, be well-read, and constantly look for opportunities to grow. Make a timeline of where you are and where you want to be in 5,10,15,20 years. What are you going to do in order to reach those goals in coaching?
Develop relationships and make connections with people. You’ll never realize how important that is. Be sincere in your motives and what you say, no one appreciates fakeness or lip service.
A good friend of mine and fellow Eastern Kentucky native, Preston Spradlin (head coach at Morehead St.), gave me a piece of advice that was once given to him. “The big time, is where you’re at”. Worry about the here and now or the future won’t be a possibility.
Always take time to let the ones that helped you along your coaching journey know how much you appreciate it. At the first of every season, I write a handwritten note to coaches at every level. These notes include either appreciation, questions, seeking advice, or simply wishing them luck. Anyone can send a text or email, be different in your approach.
I wouldn’t trade the experiences, friendships, and places that coaching this games provided me for any amount of money.