HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Every coach considers himself or herself a teacher. The high school coach? There’s no doubt there. For, beyond the Xs and Os, the high school coach has to worry about the As, Bs and Cs, too.
Before his tour of duty as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, new Marshall men’s basketball coach Dan D’Antoni spent 30 years as the head boys basketball coach at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
He also spent those three decades teaching special education, physical education, speech, psychology and sociology, among other roles. His days were spent interacting with far more students than just those who wore basketball jerseys.
When your responsibilities reach beyond a couple dozen ball players and to students who couldn’t find the gymnasium with a map, a GPS and a Sherpa, it molds how you approach your coaching life, D’Antoni said. You want the drama student or the science lover to succeed as much as you do the student-athlete, and you want them all to learn how to navigate adulthood.
“As a teacher, you want to improve the entire person,” he said. “What I found out was, the more I improved the entire person, teaching responsibility and discipline, how to live life, how to carry themselves, I got a better student in the classroom and got a better basketball player. My emphasis isn’t totally on dribbling or shooting or passing.”
D’Antoni coaches with a teacher’s touch. He used that philosophy in the NBA, when he was given the younger players and the ones without the jaw-dropping athleticism of the league’s elite. The players he now leads in Huntington are closer in age to the ones he guided in South Carolina.
Yet a teacher’s touch doesn’t always mean a feather-soft one. As it sometimes goes in the classroom, tough love might be necessary. In his introductory press conference, D’Antoni told a story about a conversation he had with Robert Sacre, a former Gonzaga star who was a second-round pick of the Lakers.
D’Antoni offered Sacre a frank assessment, but it came with ways to improve.
“I said, ‘Robert, you play like a slug. That’s all I can tell you. You play like a big slug,’” D’Antoni said. “‘And slugs don’t get paid in the NBA. You’ve got to change. You’ve got to go into the weight room and change this body. Your body’s not right. Your feet aren’t right. I can show you a lot of basketball, but I cannot help you unless you decide to do that.’”
Sacre more than doubled his games played between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, playing in 65 games this past season after playing in just 32 the season before.
Beyond what Marshall players will experience on the court, D’Antoni wants to broaden their horizons throughout their lives. When they walk into the basketball offices, they might be welcomed not just by D’Antoni, but by the sounds of current country music, Janis Joplin or even Whitney Houston. And when those players move past their comfort zones, they might find some things they like that they didn’t know they liked before.
“I am who I am, and they may not want to adopt everything that I do, but they’re going to experience everything I do,” he said. “And what they choose to take with them is fine, but they’re going to be exposed to more than how they’ve learned to live.”
This holistic approach to coaching, seasoned with his decades in high school classrooms and locker rooms, is something D’Antoni hopes will help his Thundering Herd grow as people as well as athletes. And he feels that growing as a person and a player are intertwined.
“I want to give them a broad experience,” he said. “To me, the most mature teams that I had in high school, and even in the pros, the more mature the person, the better the player.”