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. You can purchase copies of my aforementioned book for just $5 (75% off) through my publisher by clicking here. Thank you to Spencer County Boys Head Coach Jason Burns for the responses below.
JV: You grew up in Indiana. Describe the passion around Indiana high school basketball and what separates it from other places, even Kentucky.
JB: The fan and community passion for basketball in Indiana is unbelievable. Basketball is the sport that truly reigns throughout the entire state. The amount of people in the community that have no ties to players or coaches on the teams that show up to every game is just something that is different. I remember my family always getting season tickets to Scottsburg Warrior games growing up as a kid. We had the same seats every year….West end-zone row 10 seat 8-13. Families do not take their kids to the movies on Friday nights or go out to eat, they show up or travel to the high school basketball game. It’s just a different level of support and involvement.
JV: What about the actual basketball? It seems like Kentucky high school basketball is higher-scoring. Has that been the case in your experience?
JB: I do think scoring, as a whole, is up. I think it just has to do with the fact that more and more teams are playing up-tempo, spacing the floor, and shooting the three more. I think technology helps with that somewhat as well. Every coach can gain access to each other’s film so easily now, and it’s broken down and every stat imaginable can be accessed. Teams see where their efficient shot attempts are. We see colleges and the NBA teams doing their whole analytics thing. I think high schools are doing the same things for the most part, which helps our game.
JV: You were a manager and then a GA for Rick Pitino. I have heard that he likes to rip into guys after a win and pick them up after a loss to keep the ship steady throughout the season. Is that true? Do you use this tactic?
JB: Coach Pitino was a master at motivating and getting his players to play hard. He knew what made them tick and he was pedal to the metal all of the time. As the year went along though, that was definitely true. He would pick them up after a loss, but the plane ride home was never pleasant, especially when he had the film in front of him. As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten better and better about it. I try not to say a whole lot after a loss and just keep their minds on the next step.
JV: What were your biggest takeaways from your time in that program?
JB: To say I learned a lot from Coach Pitino is an understatement. He is one of the best to ever do it. I think the biggest thing I learned is to hold everyone in the program to the same high expectations. Every single person at Louisville was held to the same high expectations and those expectations were communicated regularly. Managers, players, assistant coaches, training staff, etc., everyone was expected to be excellent. Every single person was expected to be in great physical shape, show up early, etc. You had to be pretty tough to work in the program no matter what role you were in.
JV: Favorite Rick Pitino story?
JB: First year being a manager (heck, first week being a manager), Coach Pitino didn’t know my name or even care to know my name. I messed up an individual drill by passing to the wrong person. Immediately he ripped me and sent to the treadmill just like I was player or anyone else for that matter. I didn’t know if he was serious or not, which delayed my path to the weight room. So, instead of one minute on the treadmill, I got two minutes and an even bigger ripping. I learned from that mistake for sure. A couple of days later, for two days straight, I was watching film with our video coordinator and Coach P walked in, saw what I was doing, and asked what my name was. That’s how I got to know Coach Pitino, or how he got to know me. I think we both learned that day that I had a strong desire to learn about the game of basketball and Coach P helped me an awful lot after that.
JV: You made the jump from an assistant coach to the head job at Spencer County at 28. What was your pitch to Spencer County and what attributes do you think you have that as a coach that were most appealing to the school in selecting you at such a young age?
JB: Wow, that is a great question! I would say my energy and communication were key attributes as well as the belief I had. I knew the 8th region, knew a little bit about Spencer County, came from a really good program in South Oldham, and just had the belief that our system would work and that Spencer County had the parts and support from the community. I had a lot of help along the way as well. Steve Simpson was, and still is, my mentor and I learned a lot from him and he helped me through the entire process. I know he had a lot of influence on me even getting an interview.
JV: Describe Spencer County, KY to someone who has never been, both geographically and culturally.
JB: Spencer County is probably best described as a mix of a city suburb and a farming community. We are located 30 miles southeast of downtown Louisville, and close to Shelbyville and Bardstown. People probably are most familiar with Taylorsville Lake. We are a growing community with a top-rated school district. Most who live her would say we are community of nice, hard-working people with old fashion southern hospitality. There is a ton of support for our school and our teams and it’s a true hidden gem.
JV: What do you do to improve as a coach? Read, phone calls, attend practices?
JB: I do a little bit of everything. Before I had kids, I was able to get out and watch some college practices. I read a lot of books ranging from philosophies of football and basketball coaches to books on motivation, leaderships, etc. I try to attend a few coaches’ clinics every year or buy some coaching videos. I always keep a notepad around at home and find things from college games or NBA games. Some of the best coaches are high school coaches, and even high school coaches in KY, so a lot of times I’ll take something I see from other teams’ film. I’m always learning and just trying to soak it all in.
JV: Best advice you ever received?
JB: I’ve heard it several times. I had someone tell me “You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low.” They’re right. There are peaks and valleys in everything we do and we just have to stay level-headed.
I think I’ve learned this even more from my own kids. My five-year old loves every aspect of our team. When he was three, he knew every kid on our team, their jersey number, etc. One game, we had won on a buzzer beater but had played awful. There was zero excitement on my part. As we were going through the post-game handshake line, my three year old was at the end of line, excited as can be. He was pumping his fist and hugging his favorite player who’d just hit the game winning three. I learned right then that I should just enjoy the fact that we had won and be excited for our players and enjoy the whole experience.
JV: Your advice for young coaches starting out?
JB: Enjoy it, enjoy the entire process. Work hard, but enjoy the process. Probably the most important thing is to develop relationships with your players, assistants, and the coaches you compete with. They are probably the most valuable thing you gain as a coach.
JV: What is something you do that no other coach in Kentucky does? Whether it is in prep, execution, what you wear on the sidelines, what you eat, or even more broad than that. Could be anything.
JB: I don’t know if there’s really anything our staff does that others don’t do. I try to connect to our kids as much as possible. I get in a team Snapchat group, which isn’t easy. I’ve jumped on and played Fortnite a time or two with them. Just try to relate to them and get on their level.
One cool thing our staff has enjoyed is that we have collectively gotten hooked on playing video games on game days as we wait for our bus, specifically NBA Jam. Of course, NBA Jam is “our” game from my generation, so we’re good at it. My assistant, Kyle Board, and I put the beat down on the kids in NBA Jam. We even got into playing some hockey video games as well. It’s been a fun way to connect with our players and decompress before tipoff.
JV: What is your game day routine, from when you wake up until when your head hits the pillow?
JB: I am usually up around 5:30 a.m. I try to get some type of exercise in. I’ll walk the dog, workout, or get on the elliptical. I have to eat some type of breakfast, I can’t go without it. I get to the gym at 6:30 to let the kids in to shoot some before school. Our school days start at 7:35 and end at 2:30. I start setting up the gym at the end of the day during my planning period. Most of the time I like to set it up by myself with no one around. I put the bleachers out, set up bench chairs, etc. After school, we usually have quite a few kids who don’t go home and stay around. We will drop them off to eat or whatever they need, play video games in the locker room with them, etc. My entire staff likes to stick around after school as well, so we’ll all go get something to eat together and basically relax until game time. Once the game is over, we upload all of the film. We are lucky to have a support staff that takes everything down in the gym. As soon as that’s all done, I go home and spend as many minutes with my family as I can before going to bed. I’ve gotten better about not watching the film that night and just saving it for the next morning.