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 Mayfield Boys Head Coach Payton Croft for the responses below.
JV: You grew up the son of a coach. What did you dad do to give you earlier exposure to the game than most kids your age?
PC: I was almost born in the gym… literally. My Mom’s water broke during one of my Dads games while he was coaching. I was constantly scouting with him and in the gym watching practice. He never pushed me to play and that is a lesson that I have learned to use with my own two sons. He kept me around it and let me develop my own love.
JV: What did he do to maintain balance?
PC: He went by Coach Croft on the floor and Dad at home. We have a relationship that is really unique and one I am proud of. He let me know up front that if I was going to play for him, I better be good enough to start for him because he would cut me quick. I respected that and just learned how to have his back as a player.
JV: How do you personally manage both?
PC: Basketball and Family have been my life. Its kind of come second nature and you learn how to balance your basketball life and your family life. One way is less sleep. I learned from a coaching mentor that you can sleep plenty when you’re dead. In the meantime there is work to be done. So I try to spend time with family and work when they sleep so I don’t miss any more than I have too when it comes to games, practice, and scouting.
JV: What is the biggest myth about growing up as “a coach’s son”? What do people get wrong about it?
PC: You play because your Dad is the coach. I dealt with that at an early age but my goal was to work myself so hard that he didn’t have a choice but to play me. And once he played me, I wanted to work so hard that he could never take me off the floor. I think next to that, a lot of the myths depend on the relationship between that coach and his son.
JV: How is your coaching style similar to your dad’s? How is it different?
PC: I still have a little old school in me where I demand a level of respect and hold my players to a certain standard. We believe that hard work guarantees you nothing, but without it you don’t stand a chance. I find myself more focused on building relationships with my players because its a different day and time and our kids need us more than ever. There is a fine line to walk as a coach in holding kids accountable.
JV: You spent time as an assistant under Tim Haworth at Hopkinsville. What lessons did you learn from him about raising a young family in such a time-consuming profession?
PC: Tim and I watched a lot of film, ate a lot of doughnuts, and drank a lot of sweet tea during the midnight hours. He is a go-getter. I was married without kids which gave me a little more freedom than him at the time but we did a lot of our work at night and learned to spend as much family time as possible in the off season.
JV: What did you learn from him as far as player/personality management?
PC: Coach is great about managing personalities. We know every kid is different and I was able to witness him keep groups of kids and teams together that no one else could have. He is great at what he does and it all starts with relationships and caring about your players as young men first.
JV: What did you learn from him from an X’s and O’s standpoint?
PC: Coach is great about finding ways to make sure his best player(s) have the ball in their hands. He does a great job of teaching the 5-out and 4-out-1-in motion and had tons of great sets that I still carry with me and run today.
JV: Mayfield has an enduring love for high school sports that you don’t see too often anymore, particularly when it comes to football. What have you done to keep basketball in the forefront of the conversation there?
PC: For me personally, its been a blessing to learn under (football coach) Joe Morris and his staff. I attended practices, pre game talks, halftime speeches, as well as post game. Being around his program has really taught me a lot about how to handle our kids here. He is obviously great at what he does and when you get a chance to learn from someone like that, it is priceless. Our basketball program has been up for the last two/three seasons and had a great class of kids come through. It has been my goal to maintain a level of expectation to keep our name where it has been to the best of my ability.
JV: What is it like coaching high school sports in Mayfield, KY?
PC: Its unmatched. Im not sure how else to say it. Our fans, our administration, our teachers, and our kids just “Get it”. Kids needs sports plain and simple and this community backs its coaches and players and because of it they have seen a lot of success across the board.
JV: How is the culture of western Kentucky different than the rest of the state?
PC: I think all areas of the state are different in their own ways. I believe our area is under-recruited and I am doing my best to change that. I love helping kids get to the next level to get their education paid for and to continue their playing careers at that collegiate level. Fans here are very passionate and go above and beyond to support local teams.
JV: You got your first head coach job at a young age. What were the biggest lessons you learned from being thrown into the ring so early?
PC: I was 26 when I got my first job and found myself having to grow up quick within the profession. I learned that you better not blink or you will be going on year seven as a head coach wondering where time went. I have learned to slow down a little and enjoy the small things. The coaches office, the team meals, the kid who brings you his progress report and is proud to show you he got his D up to a B. All of the little things are what make this profession what it is. I would also say that I learned to “Coach Your Team”. My Mom made me a sign my first year of coaching that said those words. She was a cheer coach for 25 years so she was always in the gym too. Her advice was push away distractions and any negativity and just coach your team. I still have that sign and live by it.
JV: In hindsight, what about that first season would you do differently?
PC: A lot of me would say be nicer to my guys, haha! But that first group will be a group I never forget. I remember big shots they hit, big rebounds, quotes, and a million laughs and cries we shared together. They knew I had to be tough to get the most out of them and they won the district that year so I am proud of the men they have become and who they are today as people.
JV: What do you do to improve as a coach? Read books, watch film, make phone calls to ask for advice?
PC: I am a believer that the best coaches are thieves from other coaches. I am constantly on the road scouting and watching other high school or college practices to learn new things. I believe that once you stop trying to learn, thats when the game will pass you up. The greats in college basketball have proven that with the way they recruit and how they coach and manage their teams.
JV: What advice would you give a young coach just starting out?
PC: The same advice I give me kids before every game. The last two words I say to them are HAVE FUN! You get one shot at it so make the most of it. Build relationships with your players because those last a lot longer than any record will and will mean a lot more to you later in life. Don’t be scared to use the word love. Its a strong word but your kids need to hear it from you and understand what it means to you. Last but not least, find a wife that supports your every move and has your back. Without the support of my wife, I couldn’t do what I do. She is the glue behind the scenes holding everything together.