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Opinion: St. Thomas coach dares players to be great

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Interview with University of St. Thomas basketball coach John Tauer, 2013 Division III, National Coach of the Year

By Jeff Prouty, chairman and founder of the Prouty Project

I recently caught up with Coach Tauer. His team just completed a 30-2 season, and went to the Final Four in Division III. This is Coach Tauer’s second full year as head coach.

Coach, how did you decide to get into coaching?

I played basketball for St. Thomas, and then went on to get my PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I have always wanted a job where I could make a positive influence on others in my career, and I was fortunate to play for many outstanding coaches when I was young. I was honored to become the head coach at St. Thomas in 2011.

You played baseball and basketball growing up. What did you learn from your coaches?

Yes, I played baseball and basketball for Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul. My baseball coach, Dennis Denning, always said, “Dare to be great.” That has stuck with me. My basketball coach and mentor at St. Thomas, Steve Fritz, emphasized values and being true to one’s self.

I always ask everyone I interview, “What did you learn from your Mom and Dad?”

From Mom, who is one of the kindest people, with a big heart. She always asked me, after every game, “What lessons did you learn?”

From Dad, who is a very intelligent guy, who makes good decisions. He taught me that “excellence is a habit.” Aristotle said it well, “Excellence is not an act, but a habit”.

Your program is one of 407 Division III basketball programs. By getting to the Final Four, you are among the top 1 percent of the programs in the country. What kind of kids are you looking for in the recruiting process?

Five qualities that our recruits need to exhibit:
•Great person.
•Great student.
•Great talent.
•Motivation and passion.
•Comes from a winning program.

Number 5 is really important, as we’d rather have the kid that is the third-leading scorer from a winning program, versus the top scorer from a losing program. I want kids who know what it takes — the work ethic, the humility, the willingness to sacrifice individual accolades — to be a part of a winning program.

It is a huge honor for you to be selected as the National Coach of 2013.

We had a great season, and the honor really reflects on the quality of our kids and our program. Our goal was to win the National Championship, and we came close.

You played in the Final Four as a player (1994), won a national championship as an assistant coach (2011), and competed in the Final Four as a head coach (2013). For the student who thinks he/she wants to be a coach someday, are there a couple books you recommend as must reads?

First of all, make sure you’re passionate about coaching and in it for the right reason.

I’d recommend David Halberstam’s book on Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach.

I also like to read books that focus on social psychology, so I’d recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.

I’m assuming you’re the only, or one of few, Head Basketball Coaches with a PhD in Psychology?

There are about 1,000 college basketball programs, and I only know of one other Head Basketball Coach with a PhD in psychology. I’ve always been curious about human beings and seek to provide the academic/athletic balance in my own life that we preach to our players.

What are the biggest challenges you face coaching 18- to 22-year-old men?

I’ve been a college basketball coach for 13 years. There are three big challenges that come to mind:

•Helping kids through the transition process, going from the “big fish in a small pond” to playing on a national scale. I want to keep the kids focused on developing their talents, continually.
•Helping kids learn how to manage their time.
•Getting the kids to buy into the “we” is more important than “me.”

Are there student-athletes you have coached where you still can’t figure them out, even with a PhD in Psychology?

Absolutely. Everyone is a case-by-case basis. They are all wired differently. In some cases, it takes years for a teaching point to sink in.

And I remind myself constantly that “players don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Teaching is coaching and coaching is teaching, and both involve cognitive, emotional, and motivation factors.

What about “red flags” that you see in the recruiting process?

There are three big red flags:
•How does a player treat his parents after a game?
•How frequently does he talk about his points per game?
•How much does he ask about “playing time” as a freshman?

We want guys who are eager to be put on a successful team where everyone plays a valuable role, and that these roles are earned through hard work and teamwork.

I’ve heard lots of viewpoints about selecting “captains” for a team. Your thoughts?

On our team, every player and every coach gets to vote for a captain or captains. Last year, we had four captains. We tell all of our players that we expect and want them to be leaders, regardless of whether they are formally recognized as a captain.

There are vocal leaders, social leaders, and those who lead by example. If your most talented player is coachable, that’s contagious!

Is there anything that keeps you awake at night?

I encourage our kids to “play hard, play together, play smart, and have fun.” If we do those four things, I sleep very well.

National Coach of the Year, 30-2 season, made it to the Final Four. What are the prospects for next season?

We always want to win the conference title. We always want to win the national title. Our goal is to build a program that is sustainable and excellent.

We will lose five seniors to graduation, so we know it’s a challenge to get back to the top 1 percent again. And, we will “dare to be great.”

I read about coaches “losing the locker room.” How does that concept apply to the business world and what might the CEOS reading this article consider?

In the work I do speaking, whether it be to companies or youth sports organizations, I am always cognizant that think every group of people needs to be thinking about three concepts:

•What are the super-ordinate goals? Bigger than us?
•Are we mutually interdependent? How do we win together?
•Do we know each other as people? How do we build our relationships?

Coach, I look forwarding to watching you in action. I’ve never seen a St. Thomas basketball game, and I know you just recruited one of Eden Prairie’s stars, Grant Shaeffer, to join your team. I look forward to seeing both of you in action soon. Thank you for the inspiring conversation.

Thank you, Jeff It’s been a pleasure talking with you. We appreciate your support of UST Basketball.

Jeff Prouty founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after seven years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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