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INDIANAPOLIS – Successful recruiting is all about the building of a positive relationship. Nearly two decades of doing just that has taught Jon Coffman how valuable friendships can be in the coaching business.
Successful coaching is also about continuously learning. Never stop educating yourself on the nuances of the profession or your competition will pass you by. Nearly two decades of doing that has taught the first-year IPFW men's basketball coach how valuable listening to other viewpoints on all topics within the profession can be.
Coffman spent over 14 hours Friday at the adidas Invitational, one of the nation's premier prep basketball tournaments on the summer circuit, and while he most certainly searched for athletic talent, he never stopped for a moment in enhancing professional relationships and his coaching acumen. And you can credit a seemingly endless stream of Diet Coke and an unrivaled passion for his occupation for that.
“We're fishing,” Coffman said as he started the day with two eggs over easy and a large coffee from Starbucks to fuel his energy.
It was barely past 8 a.m. and there were hundreds of “fish” to watch compete, and just as many coaching peers to talk hoops – and expand his knowledge base with – throughout the day.
IPFW assistant coaches Ben Botts, Ryan Sims and Ben Betts had previously each laid out a detailed schedule of which games and which names and at what times players were to be seen Wednesday and Thursday, the first two days of this particular recruiting period (there are three 5-day periods this month). Everything that the Mastodon coaches need to know about the tournaments and players (the amount of detail kept on recruits is stunning), was laid out in 67-page ringed binders that each coach carried everywhere.
“I don't like this guy's Twitter,” Botts said regarding one prospect.
The IPFW coaches proved cognizant of details on the court, in the classroom, and within the personal lives of recruits.
The day started with breakfast, but it was a working meal. Coffman had a thick manual filled with every game and name at this event, but “it's tournament time, so we're in scramble mode.” That was due to following the opening rounds of play, the event gets into the tournament, so the schedule fluctuates. A coach can't plan his schedule far in advance; he has to “scramble” from game to game.
Coffman took only a few moments to look up at the waitress as he ordered, what would prove to be, his only real meal of the day, while he furiously scribbled information and got organized for the day.
Betts spent the day in Atlanta looking at prospects in the South. The Mastodons had five players from the state of Florida on their 25-win roster this past season. That philosophy won't change under Coffman; in fact, he was the primary reason that was implemented within the previous recruiting classes. Heading south wasn't a working vacation for Betts, who has over two decades of experience in recruiting that region, it's imperative for the future success of the program and Coffman knew that.
While Betts was in the South, Botts and Sims were at the adidas event with their boss, and the three were in constant communication as they spread out to see as many recruits as possible throughout the day.
The day started in one of a multitude of Carmel High School gymnasiums and the players were young. Very young. But Coffman wanted to see this particular squad play because it is from a Midwest region that the Mastodons haven't recruited thoroughly over the recent past.
Coffman quickly noticed that the roster of the team wasn't close to matching the actual players competing. That wasn't rare on the summer circuit, as the names and jersey numbers often failed to match up.
To alleviate that problem, at virtually every game throughout the day there would be just one coach walk over to the scorer's table and take a photo of the scorebook with his cell phone during an early timeout. It was always Coffman.
He watched the young team play, rarely taking his eyes off the action while sipping his Starbucks. But he didn't get so consumed that he failed to start up a conversation with an eastern Division I assistant sitting next to him.
Many traits of Coffman's behavior become noticeable early, but his people skills are the most predominant among those. Whether it is a Division III assistant or a Division I head coach – and Coffman has been both - Coffman purposefully took the time to get to know his peers. By the end of the day, he had seen players from all over. But he had also had eye-to-eye conversations with coaches from every region of the country.
It was a new gym, but Coffman had the same mission. He watched a game involving players from an area that IPFW has tapped into rarely, but might do so more often in the future.
Coffman saw a peer that he knew well, an Ivy League assistant. Coffman has coached in the South, the East, and the Midwest and lived on the West Coast. Through the years he's sat next to a lot of people from a lot of regions, and that too becomes obvious quickly.
The eastern coach had known Coffman for a long time and Coffman knew him as a high school player. The two coaches began talking about basketball in Canada, where the Mastodons will be taking a tour next month.
This was Coffman's professional curiosity coming out. He asked about basketball up north, the geography, and even about social activities for his team to embark on while they are not playing games near Toronto.
Coffman also dispersed some knowledge. He had recruited several players from the Montreal area earlier in his career and later spun to his left and struck up a conversation with a high-major assistant from out West, whose program has extensive recruiting ties throughout Canada.
The coaches spoke about the regions of talent, as well as off-season player development.
Upon leaving the gym, Coffman muttered “Well, it's been a relatively unsuccessful fishing trip so far.” Not from an information gathered standpoint, it hadn't.
Coffman drove back to North Central High School, the main hub of activity for the event, and remained in one of five gyms on the campus for the remainder of the day.
He watched a player that was “intriguing,” which became the code word for “probably not quite what we want right now, but we might be interested in him later.”
What prep players, their coaches, and parents often (i.e. never) quite comprehend is that a lot of players could go to a program and “play.” They have the ability to compete in a practice and hold their own. But could they actually help that program be among the best teams in their respective league? Can they guard – or score against - the players that the league champion rolls out on the court? The answer is often “no.”
IPFW was in search of players that can help a team beat the best in the Summit League, not just “play.”
The Mastodons were seconds from advancing to the NCAA Tournament this past March. Which players have the ability to push the Mastodons over that edge? That is what is driving this coaching staff this month.
While watching the third game of the day (and it isn't even lunch time yet, but there would be no lunch anyway, so why keep track of time?), Coffman began to discuss scheduling, among other things, with a fellow head coach within the Summit League. It was interesting to watch the two competitors interact, knowing that they both seek desperately to beat each other all winter, but in a small middle school gym in July, they were as sociable as could be.
Coffman hit a game involving teams from a very productive region for the Mastodon program and it actually featured some players with the ability to help IPFW win games in the Summit League.
Coffman sat between two courts, each with a game being played, in order to scan back-and-forth and watch 20 players compete at once. While doing so, he first conversed with a Division III assistant from one of the nation's elite academic institutions, before bumping back into his friend from out East for the second time.
Coffman has not only coached at various levels, he's worked at an assortment of institutions ranging from the small and select to the large and public. There was virtually no educational or basketball situation that he couldn't relate to based on previous experiences and that became obvious throughout the day.
Maybe for the rest of the working world, but it wasn't for Coffman.
He settled in for the second game in a row involving a strong level of talent. The day was finally starting to be productive, as he continued to keep casting until he caught a “fish.” If this job were easily done, anyone could do it. And it became readily apparent that it wasn't.
Coffman finally relented and got a bite (virtually singular) to eat. He grabbed a quick piece of cold pizza in the coaches' hospitality room while laughing at stories with a man who once sat in his seat (Michigan State assistant Dane Fife) and Wright State head coach Billy Donlan.
The break lasted all of 15 minutes before he was back out to another gym.
Not only was Coffman reaffirming relationships with many that he hadn't seen since last summer, but also with those he saw all of the time.
He saddled up with Indiana Tech head coach John Peckinpaugh (a former IPFW player and assistant coach) and Warrior assistant Jared Rhodes (a former IPFW manager). The three swapped information, as guys like Peckinpaugh and Rhodes – who aren't competing with IPFW – can be an invaluable resource and an extra set of eyes for the Dons.
Coffman exited after the game (number eight for those scoring at home) and as he was leaving the gym, he bumped into “my idol growing up,” former Duke great Bobby Hurley, who now coaches at Buffalo.
Coffman went out of his way to introduce himself to Hurley, not because of any teenage fanaticism, but because Hurley had reached out to Coffman earlier this spring about a job opening for a peer.
When Coffman was hired, he literally received hundreds of phone calls, some congratulatory, many, many others wanting something – like a job. Coffman made a point to return “as many calls as I possibly could.”
Hurley had called to recommend a guy for an assistant position that ultimately went to Botts, a former Mastodon player. But Coffman was heartfelt as he explained to Hurley that his candidate “would've been really, really good for us.”
Coffman entered game nine for the day, which would've been exhaustive for most, but he had two things going in his favor: another Diet Coke and Steve Payne.
Coffman and Payne were both low-major assistants who scoured the state of Florida together years ago and struck up a friendship, which once you meet Payne, became obvious that not doing so was an impossibility.
“This guy,” Coffman said while pointing to the Tennessee Tech head coach, “is an (expletive)!”
Payne laughed heartily and began to unleash an endless stream of rebuttals and stories that could make anyone forget a back ache and hunger.
Midway through the game, Coffman took a break from laughing at (and with) Payne to discuss scheduling a future scrimmage with a Division II coach.
Another game, another gym. They were all running together at this point.
Botts and Sims joined Coffman at yet another game and gym, and the three gathered to discuss progress made throughout the day and plans for the remaining games.
The IPFW coaches left after awhile and headed en masse to a game of more significance than most. It turned out, that not only was it important to “see” a particular game, but to “be seen” at a particular game.
While watching the game, the parent of a prospect texted Coffman inquiring as to whether or not he was watching their mutual interest.
A very high-level game – both in talent and IPFW interest – was ensuing and all three Mastodon coaches were prominent in their view (and being viewed) points. While watching the game, one of Coffman's connections (they were everywhere) sat beside him.
Army head coach Zach Spiker has been a close friend to Coffman since his days at Colgate and Spiker's Black Knight staff helped IPFW land current wing Joe Edwards late in the recruiting period a few summers ago. So the seemingly innocuous chats during summer games can indeed be fruitful on the basketball court years later..
Coffman and Botts walked into yet another very significant game, while Sims headed out for a different – though may end up being more productive in the long run – game.
Coach Payne was there just when you needed him the most.
While listening and laughing, yet still evaluating, Coffman and Botts made sure that they were indeed seen by the right people.
The game finally ended, and seemingly so did the day, but Coffman and Botts checked with Sims to see if any more time was left in the other game nearby. It turned out there was, so off they went. But before they did, Coffman had more relationship building to do.
He chatted up new IUPUI head coach Jason Gardner and the two talked league matters for a few minutes as the two future rivals got to know each other better.
Botts went onto sit with Sims for a game of significance, while Coffman stopped in just to get a quick look at a different game. As he sat on the top row of the bleachers, a fellow coach wearing a “Colgate basketball” shirt walked in and sat nearby, which sent Coffman down Melancholy Lane.
Coffman was the lead assistant at Colgate, serving under the program's most successful coach ever, when the staff was fired three years ago. This is the un-sexy part of coaching that writers, fans, and alumni rarely give much thought to before calling for the termination of someone's employment.
“I lived in a beautiful Sears and Roebuck home on a Robert Trent Jones Golf Course,” Coffman recalled. “I cross country skied (on the course) all winter. My wife coached (softball at Hamilton College) and she had to quit her job. We could've stayed there our entire careers.”
The Coffman's moved out of that home and their beloved life, while simultaneously, the new coach was moving in “four houses down,” Coffman said. “That was tough.”
The game ceased, but Coffman didn't. He spoke with Ball State head coach James Whitford about a possible future scrimmage, and then shared a laugh with an official about a humorous situation occurring in a recent season.
There was still time left in the final game (the 15th of the day) when Coffman met up with Botts and Sims. Over the final minutes, the three watched a really good player that fit what the Mastodons were in search of in a particular position, as well as mapped out the next day's agenda.
Betts would remain in the South, while Sims and Botts stayed in Indy.
At 10:26 p.m., the three coaches lumbered into the dark parking lot ready to rest. But for Coffman there were still ticks on the Friday clock, so he wasn't quite ready to stop. He got into his car, punched in the coordinates for St. Louis into his GPS and took off toward the West.
There was a junior college event filled with prospects and it started in just over nine hours. More recruits – and relationships – awaited.