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Coaching culture & longevity: The secret recipe to a Sweet 16 college basketball run

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, March Madness took on another dimension this week. More Division 1 basketball players entered the transfer portal this year than any other. Last year, 21,000 athletes across all Division 1 sports did the same thing. And all of this creates turbulence on college campuses, turbulence that some campuses are better prepared to handle than others, according to Graham Honaker, who looks at the cultures of small schools in his book "The Cinderella Strategy."

Graham Honaker joins us now. Welcome.

GRAHAM HONAKER: Thank you for having me, Ailsa. It's an honor to be with you today.

CHANG: Oh, it's so great to have you. Can we just start by talking about coaches? Because, you know, once upon a time, a school and a coach went hand in hand, right? Like, it's what attracted athletes to certain programs. And in this year's Sweet 16, there are maybe - what? - only two of those schools left? I'm talking about Gonzaga with Mark Few and Michigan State with Tom Izzo. I guess a third could be Houston and Kelvin Sampson. But tell me, what is it about their style of coaching that you think leads to results like making the Sweet 16?

HONAKER: You know, big focus for us - my co-author Jerry Logan and I - in our second book, "Unbracketed," is continuity. So a coach has to build a culture. But there's a massive turnover of coaches. There's the temptation of a coach who's coming off of a big run in the Sweet 16, a Cinderella story. Well, the bigger schools scoop them up, and they don't have a chance to sustain that culture. And a Mark Few, you know, who's really a tremendous servant leader, has really put his roots down at Gonzaga. And he's an amazing story of longevity - Tom Izzo too - of, you know, coaches who have - you know, they have stayed and they've built something sustainable. And there's a reason they're in the tournament every year and they make runs every year.

CHANG: You say the word culture. Tell me more about that. Like, how does the wider culture at a whole school help shape the style of coaching that we see in a Tom Izzo or a Mark Few?

HONAKER: In some cases, there's century-old traditions that are the foundations for the culture. For instance, you've got Gonzaga and you've got Loyola's Jesuit institutions focusing on the whole person. You have Villanova - they've got a credo of unselfishness that goes back centuries in the Augustinian faith. And, you know, these coaches play on that culture. Here at Butler University, where I work, we have something called The Butler Way, which gained a lot of prominence when we went to back-to-back Final Fours - again on teamwork, unselfishness, unity. But there's an ethos that crosses across the campus.

CHANG: I want to touch upon all of these transfers that we mentioned at the top of this conversation. How do all of these transfers and attempted transfers by players through the portal, how is all of that destabilizing the student athlete experience and the culture?

HONAKER: I think it's really, really challenging. I think a lot of coaches would tell you right now that, you know, in the past, it was - when the season ended, you were focused on getting out there in the summer and going to camps. Now, first and foremost, it is re-recruiting your team. In terms of the stabilization, I think it's unfortunate because in some areas, it's become a revolving door of players leaving. And I think it's just a disjointed experience right now for those student athletes, some of which, you know, again, I totally respect wanting better opportunities, but I think some are finding that the grass isn't always greener in terms of leaving their current location.

CHANG: I'm curious, with the Sweet 16 coming up this weekend, how surprised are you that some of the findings from your last two books are showing up on the court during this tournament?

HONAKER: I'm not surprised at all. The attributes of some of the smaller Cinderella schools that we've studied are absolutely there in terms of continuity, in some of the coaches that have been there; cohesiveness - teams that have been together for a while; when you think about a Princeton who haven't had many players transfer out nor in; the unselfishness - passing the ball, moving the ball around, getting the better shot; and then toughness. You know, really, it comes down to toughness as well - and scrappy hard-nosed teams. We saw it with Fairleigh Dickinson beating Purdue. I'm not surprised at all. It's a beautiful tournament because, again, it's not only the Goliaths that always win. It's often the Davids.

CHANG: Graham Honaker - his two books are called "The Cinderella Strategy" and "Unbracketed." Thank you so much.

HONAKER: Thank you. It's an honor to be with you today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.