Q&A with Kevin McCarthy

SUNY Cobleskill

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.3, March 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1303/qamccarthy.htm

Some might say that Kevin McCarthy’s business card from SUNY Cobleskill is too crowded. Along with being Head Men’s Basketball Coach, he serves as Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical Education and Sports Science, and Athletic Director. But McCarthy says he really has only one profession: teaching.

McCarthy’s success on the court speaks for itself, with 10 straight 20-win seasons and a 292-97 record in 13 years at the upstate New York two-year school. His off-the-court successes include a 2004 NACDA/GeneralSports Turf Systems Athletic Director of the Year award.

McCarthy’s passion for teaching was recognized by the National Association of Basketball Coaches last year when he received a Guardians of the Game award for education. The award is designed to focus attention on the positive role coaches play in the lives of student-athletes and the contributions they make to their communities.

Before joining SUNY Cobleskill in 1992, McCarthy spent six years as Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Carthage College. He also served as an Assistant Coach at Central Michigan University and the University of Chicago. In this interview he talks about combining education and athletics, filling three different roles, and the relationship between coaches and administrators.

CM: What did the Guardians of the Game award mean to you?

McCarthy: When I was first contacted, I was overwhelmed that such a prestigious organization would present an award to, quite frankly, a small-time junior college basketball coach. I was also very honored to receive an award that had been given to John Wooden. But most of all, I appreciate the NABC recognizing not only big-time college coaches but also the little guy in the trenches. I felt the award was not just the success I’ve had, but for all junior college coaches—who often don’t get the attention that Division I coaches do, yet are doing really good jobs of educating young men and providing solid coaching.

What do ethics mean to you, and how do you teach them?

I think ethics have to do with one’s own core values as they relate to life’s rules of behavior. It can be something as simple as sleeping in and then making an excuse for not being on time, or it can be something as dramatic as using illegal substances to enhance performance.

What we do is set a standard and educate our student-athletes about what is right and wrong. Then we reinforce and model ethical behavior. That includes relating real-life experiences to our players to make them very aware of values, and continually reinforcing appropriate behavior, self-discipline, sportsmanship, and integrity, both on the court and in the classroom.

How difficult is it to teach those values when your athletes see some NBA players acting without regard to sportsmanship?

Professional sports are a very strong influence, and they can create conflict in the minds of student-athletes. So it’s critical to show them positive examples of behavior and for them to have good role models who exhibit those values on a daily basis. I think that if you show them people from their own lives who they can emulate, whether it’s a professor, a coach, or even a fellow athlete, then at some point it becomes real to them and personal to them. Eventually, it can overtake the other type of role modeling that may be more distant.

I also talk a great deal to our student-athletes about some of our former students who had success here and continue to be successful in the next chapter of their lives. Maybe they moved to a four-year institution, or they’re out in the world as a business owner, teacher, or police officer. This shows our players the parallels between athletic success and academic success.

What is your basic coaching philosophy?

From a technical standpoint, I believe that you have to play good defense. We believe it all starts on the defensive end of the floor, so we spend an awful lot of time in practice on pressure defense and team defense.

But the more years I spend in the business, the more I think the real key is getting a group of young men together who like each other, want to play together and will share the ball. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to run the flex. the swing, or the motion offense. You need a team of young men who are very unselfish and want to play the game as a team rather than as individuals.

What is the appeal of being a self-described "small-time college basketball coach?"

When I was a young coach, I had aspirations of being at the Division I level, but that just wasn’t in the cards for me. However, I have found as I’ve gotten older that I continue to need additional challenges, which I’ve gotten from my other roles. It has been very gratifying to be involved in classroom experiences and touch the lives of the general student population. I’ve also gotten a great deal of satisfaction out of building a small college athletic program that has been sensitive to the needs of female athletes and athletes in individual sports. I have been given a great opportunity to broaden my focus and be more than just a basketball coach. Now, I also think of myself as a coach of coaches and a coach of students.

How does coaching at the junior college level differ from coaching at the four-year level?

The perception is that it’s markedly different, but the reality is that we continue to do the same things here that we did at the four-year level. We do a great deal of work on teaching fundamentals, team skills, and sharing the basketball. And we still spend a great deal of time working on the psychological issues related to team success, such as motivation, defining expectations, asking for commitment, and setting personal goals. The one negative associated with coaching at a junior college is that the student-athletes pass through our lives quickly because they’re with us for only two years.

What do you think are common misconceptions about junior college basketball?

There is a perception that many junior college programs have issues regarding academic credibility and the character of some of our student-athletes. But if you look at the landscape of two-year programs and the number of student-athletes who participate in strong, academically credible programs, you’ll find that those perceptions are not true.

Are you concerned about how the new academic progress rules in NCAA Division I affect junior college transfers?

Yes. The biggest challenge right now for our high quality student-athletes is the 40-60 percent rule that the NCAA has enacted. We are working hard to make sure that when the student-athletes are here, they’re on an academic rack to be able to transfer into a four-year school and have eligibility at the college level. But the new NCAA rules make it increasingly difficult for student-athletes at two-year colleges to move along and successfully participate at the scholarship level.

How do you balance of your different roles?

For one thing, I am a workaholic, and my wife constantly reminds me that I spend 10, 12, or even 16 hours a day here, seven days a week. But the other imperatives are the tremendous resources and support I receive. I have a very comprehensive athletic department staff with an Associate Director and an Assistant Director. I have two assistant coaches in basketball who do the yeoman’s tasks in recruiting, and we have some excellent full-time sport coaches who manage and administer their own sports. So really, a lot of what I do is facilitate things. It does require energy and time, but if you have a good staff and good support, you can still fill more than one duty—even in this day and age.

How does being an administrator and a faculty member help you as a coach?

I think coaches, especially at the non-scholarship level, need to focus on the primary role of athletics, which I believe is to support the academic mission. As a faculty member, I’m always very aware of integrity issues, ethics issues, and the place of academics in our institution.

What should coaches know about working with their athletic directors?

I think that young coaches need to really be cognizant that the world of sports extends beyond their own individual program. They need to understand that administrators have to take a global look at all the programs in a school, even if that sometimes disappoints coaches who are working hard to establish their own program.

One of your assistant coaches is your brother, Joseph. What are the ups and downs of this arrangement?

He is the life blood of our program because he handles almost all the recruiting. In this day and age for someone to make the personal sacrifice for 18 years and not strike out on his own and look for a head coaching job is a story in itself.

We not only spend 40, 50, sometimes 60 hours a week together on the court and riding busses, we also spend much of our personal time together. As we’ve grown as professionals and coaches, I think we have learned to respect each other and each other’s differences of opinions. We know that once we leave the building, we have to set those differences aside so that we can still have harmony in the family.