By Andy Hertzog (as told to Jamie Rebner)
You have to know what you’re about.
The most important thing for me is not what the kids do at Vanier, it’s what they do after. I want to prepare them to get the next level in basketball, academically, and in life. Basketball is a tool for reaching kids and helping them do something with their lives. So many kids have been turned around in life because of basketball.
During my first year of coaching at Vanier, we had a kid who was into some serious drugs. We confronted him about it, he came clean, we got him help, and he cleaned up completely. I had never met his parents but I’m sitting in my office, about a month after the season, and I got a call from his mother and I’ll never forget what she said:
‘I just want to say, I don’t know what you did with my son this year but God bless you’.
That’s what makes it all worthwhile.
I have been coaching at Vanier for over 30 years, and 20 of those have been with the Division 1 team. My roots in basketball were as a player and I had wanted to play at the University level but my career was cut short due to injuries. At 18 years old, I went back to my old high school and became the head coach there. From there I coached for Sun Youth and then with the Division 2 team at Vanier, where I coached for 12 years. I’ve been with the D1 team ever since.
Along the way, when I was deciding what career to pursue, I had to choose between being a high school teacher or a lawyer. I ended up going to law school and I now operate a successful practice but I still coach full-time because I love teaching kids. I get great satisfaction from seeing them develop and do great things with their lives. It’s very rewarding for me.
Let’s face it; As a coach, you can reach kids and influence their lives a lot more than you can as a teacher because you’re with them so much more. I get to do all of that so I’m pretty fortunate.
One thing I like about this age group is they can tell real quick if you’re full of it. They know if you’re in it for them or not and if you show them that you have their best interest at heart, they’re going to respond very well.
Our kids are like family. Kids that I’ve coached twenty years ago still come to me for help or advice because they know I’m always there for them. We do more for our kids but because we do more, we can expect more. And that’s not a problem because they know that they’re very well taken care of and we’re there to help them any way we can. I think that’s very important; That you don’t BS the kids.
As a coach, I’ve developed a philosophy over the years. For one, I focus on the process and not the results. I believe in doing things the right way and that will lead to success, however you define the word. A lot of young coaches are skittish and impatient; they don’t see the forest for the trees. They’re more focused on having to win a particular game than what the long-term goals are.
For example, a young player might be struggling so the mentality is that ‘he’s killing us so let’s take him out of the game’. You do that too often and you wreck the kid’s confidence and he’s not going to become what he can become. It’s trying to take a long-term approach.
It’s also important that the players represent us well on and off the court. We’re trying to make sure they’re not just good basketball players but good people. How do I do that? If a kid asks me something and he doesn’t say the word please, he doesn’t get it. Every year I get a rookie coming into my office before practice asking ‘Coach, can I have a ball to shoot around? And I pretend I don’t even hear him. The same thing happens again. And then he thinks, ‘Ah he’s old he doesn’t hear so well’, so he yells it once more. At that point, a veteran will pass by and tell him to say please. Then I’ll answer, ‘O why didn’t you say so in the first place’. They also better be respectful to people.
If I hear them curse, it’s ten push-ups wherever we are. If we go out to eat as a team, table manners are important. You don’t begin eating until everybody else is served and you don’t disturb other people. Things like that.
Another example is one year I sent a kid to a specialized camp in New England and the owner was supposed to pick him up at the bus station and he forgot. He finally got there two hours late and he said ‘I was there two hours late and all your kid does is thank me for coming to get him. If I had done that to a kid from New York, I would be afraid he’d pull a knife on me’. That’s the type of thing we try to instill in people. Of course, a lot comes from their parents but it’s something we try to reinforce when it’s not there.
What advice would I like to pass on to other young coaches? Number one – the most underappreciated characteristic of any athlete is competitiveness. You have to see a kid play a lot of times to judge that. That’s very important to us when recruiting kids; how passionate they are about the game of basketball because that will affect how much they put into it. However, it’s about competitiveness to make the team better, not just themselves.
For years, we’ve had kids express interest in coming to Vanier from all over Canada and other places. I was taking very talented players from other provinces who wanted to come because they know we send a lot of kids to the NCAA. What I found in the great majority of cases is that they were selfish and didn’t care about the team, the program, or their teammates. They were just there to get themselves a scholarship.
I almost quit coaching at one point because I thought I’m getting older and I can’t reach kids like I used to. I got rid of my whole team except for two kids and I recruited nine local kids who I knew I would want to coach and it worked great. Two years later we were National champions and it’s been fun every day since. That’s why I say I recruit three things now; character, character, and character.
Coaches, remember to do it for the right reasons and be yourself. Don’t try to coach like anybody else. A lot of coaches coach for their egos and they use kids to win games to help them feel better about themselves. It’s not about you, it’s about the kids. Try to remember that. Nobody’s perfect; you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Everybody does but if you make them from good intentions and try to do your best, everything will be fine.