Coaching Management, 12.6, August 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1206/qamack.htm
After working for 25 years as a high school basketball coach, Floyd Mack, Sr., won his first state championship this winter, when the Raiders of Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, Ga., defeated Butler, 59-53, by sinking nine out of 10 free throws in overtime. For Mack, it was the vindication of years of coaching his players to concentrate on the fundamentals, improve their knowledge of the game, and keep themselves disciplined on and off the court.
A 1975 graduate of LaGrange College, where he set game, season, and career rebounding records, Mack began his head coaching career at Pike County (Ga.) High School, his alma mater. He coached at Pike for five years, then moved to Jean Childs Young Middle School in west Atlanta, where he coached for 10 years before arriving at Mays in 1994.
Currently serving as Athletic Director and Head Coach of the boys’ basketball team, Mack talks in this interview about emphasizing academics, teaching fundamentals, and winning a state title for the first time.
When did you first think your team had a chance to win the state title?
We started thinking about it last year, when we finished in the Sweet 16 and knew we were going to have a great nucleus of players coming back. With our athletes’ commitment to individual training, our team work ethic, and our morning practice sessions, I felt we had a really good shot at it. This is a very special group of kids who have a good camaraderie on and off the court, and they did a great job training during the off-season, which is the key to playing well. Athletes don’t get better playing in summer leagues—they get better through individual workouts.
How do you motivate them during the off-season?
To play at this level and to be able to move on to the next level, they need a lot of self-discipline. They have to understand preparation and time management, so we teach them to be punctual, get things done in a timely manner, and emphasize their academics. This past season, the overall grade point average for the team was about 3.2.
We expect them to be focused, attend all their classes, and stay on task. And we expect that to carry over to practices, too.
How do you get your athletes to maintain a 3.2 average?
We just demand it. I won’t take anyone onto the team who doesn’t have good character or anyone who will settle for just getting by academically, because I believe that attitude will carry over to the basketball court. Academics have to come first, so if an athlete is not going to do his schoolwork, he can’t be a part of our team, regardless of his athletic abilities.
We waste no time: After school, our athletes have 15 minutes to get their belongings, pick up a snack, and come to study hall by 3:45. That gives them two hours until practice starts at 5:45, and they can use that time to go to the auditorium, go to the computer labs, or just sit in the study hall and do their work.
We have a good relationship with our teachers, who come by the study hall to help the students with their work. Our coaches write bi-weekly reports to make sure that each athlete is staying on task, and every two weeks their teachers have to sign off on their progress, saying whether or not their work is satisfactory. If they’ve got a problem in the classroom, we can’t let that carry over onto the court, so we deal with it right away.
Do your students think you’re tough?
Yes, they really do. But once they find out that I’m also fair, it’s okay. I always tell kids, "People are going to be hard on you, but as long as they’re fair, they’re trying to help you. Those are the people you want to be around, not the kind of people who tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Those people are conning you, trying to use you like a piece of meat—they don’t care about you at all. But we do. We want you to be the best person you can possibly be, on and off the court, because that’s the type of person we’re going to win with."
How do you drill your players?
After the first couple weeks of school, once they’ve gotten settled into their classes, we start practices at 7 in the morning, mostly shooting free throws, doing dribbling drills, and watching films. The key is preparation, and our main goal is to increase the kids’ knowledge of basketball. So we define every player’s role, and we tell them to look for tendencies on the opposing team: How do their players move? Because most teams are not going to change a lot—they’re basically going be the same from one week to the next. So we believe in being able to make adjustments during the course of a game, and I think that gives us the edge.
In the afternoons, we concentrate on agility and footwork. Every day, each coach has a particular job we want to accomplish, and our athletes begin by alternating stations, and then in the last 30 or 40 minutes we all come together. It’s all about repetition. The fundamentals are basically the same as when I was a player, and we have to go over and over and over them until our kids understand.
Execution is the key. With all the hype, so many of the kids are trying to emulate the pros, but we tell them to stay within themselves and develop their basketball IQ. That’s what’s going to make them effective.
How do you keep your practices lively?
I’m not concerned about whether they’re lively or not—I’m concerned about making sure my kids are working hard. My kids are not allowed to dunk during practice, because if they already know how to dunk, they need to work on something else. They need to master one skill before they move on to the next, and they need to be completely focused when they hit the court.
In the championship game, your players hit nine out of 10 free throws in overtime. How did they do that?
They were focused. We spend time every morning and every afternoon on free-throw shooting, and for most of the season we were shooting about 65 percent as a team. But in the finals, they didn’t let any distractions get in the way. Despite being fatigued, they made the free throws, and that’s what won it for us. You could just see in their eyes that they were not going to be denied.
How do you describe your style of play?
I don’t. We can play slow or we can play fast, we can go all-out or we can stall. We like to take advantage of situations. If we can run, we’ll run. If we’ve got a mismatch, we’ll go into a half-court game. It depends on what the other team presents to us and how we want to respond. Our philosophy is to keep making adjustments and do whatever it takes to win.
Three of the four teams in the state finals came from your region. Did being in the toughest region help or hurt your team?
Without a doubt, it helped a lot. For the kids, it was a matter of building mental toughness and exposing them to top talent, wherever that would take us. We went to South Carolina, where we were runners-up in the Chick-fil-A Classic, and we went to the Peach State Classic, where we played against some top-notch schools and won the tournament. I told the team we weren’t going to play anyone tougher than those schools, and if we could keep up a consistent level of play, we’d be successful. And we were able to do that.
A couple of your best players are currently being recruited. How will you help them make their decisions?
I tell them that deciding what school to go to is one of the most important decisions they’ll make in their lives. I tell them to ask questions. If the school is in a neighboring state, I tell them to make unofficial visits, to go to a game and talk to the players. Then, I tell them to walk around on campus and ask questions of everyone they meet, rather than relying on coaches or players who might just be telling them what they want to hear. We don’t dwell on whether they’re thinking of going to some big-time Division I school—we dwell on the importance of getting an education and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them.
How do you balance work as an athletic director and a basketball coach?
It’s hard. My hours go from 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, and there are a lot of things I have to do, especially with a program like Mays, where we have so many sports doing well. The only way I can manage it is by having a good staff, with veteran coaches who really want the best for their programs and our school.
What was the toughest part of this season for you?
When I was ejected at the Peach State Classic. It was the first time I’d been ejected in my career. I had three guys in foul trouble in the first half, I felt my guys were getting pounded, and I questioned a call. But it was the wrong thing to do, and I would definitely do it differently the next time. I apologized to the team and to the association, but we lost the next two games after that, and having to sit out those two was really tough on me.
How do you evaluate your performance as a coach this past season?
I think we did a pretty good job, but there are a lot of things I still need to learn. I still study the game, still want to pass on some knowledge to younger coaches. It’s important to go to clinics, to have dialog with other coaches and see what they are doing. I’ve been in this game a long time, and after another year or two, I’m planning to retire. But no matter how old you are, the only way to get better is to have that thirst for knowledge.