By: Travis Gorsch, @tgorsch3
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Chris Croft, Director of Men’s Basketball Operations for Southern Mississippi. Chris was generous enough to have offered up his time and insight into the importance of relationship building in the people business of coaching. He discussed the importance of accumulating trust, working hard and making everyone’s job around you easier. Take initiative by seeking out opportunities and having a plan about what level you want to coach. Chris has made stops in every time zone from the West Coast to the East Coast during his college basketball career as an administrator and coach.
You graduated from Southern Miss with a Bachelor’s Degree in Coaching and Sports Administration. You went on to get your Master’s in Human Performance at Southern Miss followed by your Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from UTEP. How have your degrees helped prepare you for your career in college basketball?
I went to East Central Community College first in Mississippi and was a student assistant. From there, I went to the University of Southern Mississippi where I was a student manager for Coach M.K. Turk. I was fortunate enough to get elevated to a graduate assistant while getting my Masters.
The degrees are imperative to have so people are able to hire you. Equally important is gaining experience within the programs at the same time. I went to Junior College majoring in physical education. When I came to Southern Miss I was able to learn stuff in my coaching classes and see some of those things each day in practice and games. That’s invaluable experience because you get to start forming your own philosophy. Some things you like and some things you don’t like. You can only get so much from the textbook. I was able to get more involved in the coaching meetings as a GA. Doing both of those together (class and coaching) was really beneficial and is good for a young person. It provides networking through interacting with coaches and forming your philosophy as you ascend into your professional career.
As an undergraduate student you got your first experience with coaching during an assistantship at East Central Community College. How were you able to separate yourself for this position over other students that applied?
They didn’t have a full time assistant so I had a chance to do stuff in the office, help on the floor and help with recruitment. It was an unbelievable experience. I had a chance to meet a lot of people. We won twenty-eight games and all five starters signed Division 1. A lot of coaches were coming through to see our players. I created some great relationships with coaches.
In Mississippi, Junior Colleges were divided into districts. The local Coach Jay Bowen came by to see my high school coach and asked if they had anyone interested in helping in a non-playing position. My high school coach recommended me to him. I had played basketball in high school. I visited with Coach Bowen and he had a great personality and charisma that gave me the opportunity to get exposed to it. He actually left for another coaching opportunity before the season, but the new coach, Marty Cooper, kept me on board, and I had a great experience.
Using your experience from East Central CC, you landed another undergraduate assistant position this time at Southern Miss, which ultimately led to a graduate assistantship afterwards. What were your keys for success at a young age?
The number one key to success is you have to work really hard, know your role, and “drive your bus in your lane.” If someone asks you to do something, have passion and energy and accomplish it. You get to do a lot of things. You get to pass basketballs, help in the office, wash cars, and take care of the coaches’ kids. The biggest thing is accumulating trust. It’s kind of like Legos. You want to build your trust up. Whatever they ask you to do, do it. You’re there to make their job easier.
Your next move led you to a brief stint at Oklahoma State before moving on to explore the coaching. Was there anything in particular that influenced you to pursue a career in coaching?
One of my big breaks was going to Oklahoma State. I always wanted to get into coaching. I was a graduate assistant and then got my break with Coach Eddie Sutton. Like I said, as a young person, you get close to the assistant coaches. Those are the guys that are going to become head coaches someday. We had success and went to the NIT and NCAA tournaments there. It was hard to leave but I had the chance to get on the road recruiting and on the floor coaching.
It took you only eight years as an assistant coach at the Division I level before landing your first head coaching position at the NAIA level with Martin Methodist College in Tennessee. You were only thirty years old, which made you the youngest coach in the league to win the championship. What advice do you have for those who desire to coach college basketball? What should students be doing to prepare themselves while still in school?
I had left Oklahoma State to go to Maryland Eastern Shore to get to recruit and coach. The next year I went to Washington State. Paul Graham, one of the assistant coaches at Oklahoma State, got the head job at Washington State. It was a great opportunity to work in the Pac 10. It didn’t work out for us unfortunately. I wanted to head back to the South. I got involved with Martin Methodist in Tennessee because they were looking for someone with Division I experience. It allowed me to move closer to my family. I inherited a great group of players and brought some more in. We won twenty-two games and won the first championship since moving from a Junior College to a four-year institution while advancing to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City.
The biggest thing is you have to have a great desire to accomplish things. You have to network. Coaching is a people business. It’s not about who you know, it’s who knows you. Get in with a program as soon as you can. Your role may put you in the office more at Division I, but it’s prestigious. Whatever level you can get in you have to work hard. Constantly work hard and network with people. At smaller level schools you may get to recruit and work basketball camps. I made a lot of contacts early getting to work basketball camps. They aren’t in season so the coaches are a little more laid back. Getting a chance to get close to them through camp was a great opportunity to form good relationships.
Previous stops include Nebraska and UTEP. At UTEP you were the program specialist overseeing numerous administrative areas. Then at Nebraska your duties expanded even more with responsibilities such as handling the budget, clinics, camps, daily office operations, community involvement, scheduling and team travel. How did your previous positions prepare you for Nebraska? Were there any growing pains with your advancement?
Moving up through the coaching ranks, I learned to do things with assistant coaches with scheduling and such. It’s always easier to be the assistant before you’re the primary person in charge. When I was in Martin Methodist, I wanted to get back in the D1 level so I took a GA position. I took a financial plunge to get back there. UTEP was the first year in C-USA, and coached by Doc Sadler, a former Eddie Sutton assistant. I was basically another office person behind the scenes. Coach Sadler eventually moved on to Nebraska and I was able to move with him. You’re never doing anything by yourself. Have a plan on how you want to approach things but also being ready and able to adjust. You have to be able to adjust in coaching. The same blueprint doesn’t work everywhere.
When you were ascending through the ranks of college basketball was there someone that you looked to for advice? If so, what advice did they give you that really resonates with you?
There’s a couple. My high school coach at Winston was Farrell Rigby. I worked for Jay Bowen and Marty Cooper at East Central. I was fortunate to catch two big breaks. First, was going to Southern Miss with Coach M.K. Turk for three years. He was an outstanding coach and great person. He was like a second dad to me. After he retired, he helped me get to Oklahoma State. Obviously Coach Eddie Sutton was a huge mentor at well. He hired me at age twenty-three to be on his staff. I learned an awful lot from the both of them on how to run a basketball program. More importantly how to deal with both players and people. Treating them right and building relationships.
You have been a part of three different staffs at UTEP, Nebraska, and now Southern Miss with Doc Sadler. Can you talk about the importance of relationships and networking in the sports industry?
As a young coach you have to understand people on your staff. They have different personalities and dynamics. Bring a good work ethic and stay positive. Be ready to help every day. Make the head coach’s job easier and allow him to concentrate on coaching and recruiting. If the student manager can help the GA, then the GA can help the next person above them, all the way up the line. It helps things run more smoothly. You can’t ever be too big for a job. You have to be able to do things to make people above you better. Take care of it if someone’s not around to do it because it still has to get done. Obviously, I have been very fortunate to work with Coach Sadler at three stops. Knowing how a coach wants things done and taking care of things makes their job easier. You need to know the question before they ask it and be ready to give them suggestions on options.
You’re now the Director of Men’s Basketball Operations at Southern Miss, your alma mater. Of course it is a very special place for you since it’s essentially where it all started. What enticed you to return to Southern Miss?
It was a great opportunity to come back to my alma mater as well as work for Coach Sadler again. People that you know are going to be the one to hire you. Obviously with my previous association here and knowing people has helped us in the transition. The only sad part about the return was unfortunately Coach Turk passed away in December of 2013. It would have been unbelievable opportunity to be back here with him around.
If you want to go in to coaching, you have to decide what level you want to go into and if you are willing to go wherever the job is. I’ve made nine stops and worked in every time zone including both coasts and borders. As you start off you’re going to have to make some moves. Get to that level and do everything you can to stay at that level. Coach Turk told me one time that you want to swim with the sharks that you want to play with. I have never forgotten that advice. Your goals may change as you get older, get married, and have kids. Make sure you’re prepared. Have a Masters so you can coach and teach at a small college. Be able to coach high school basketball if you want to be around your family more. Need to make sure you have your teaching certification. Cover your bases so you have flexibility down the road for you and your family’s best interests. And remember that the people that you are working with now may be future ADs or head coaches.
We would like to thank Chris for his time and insight and we wish him the best in his future endeavors.