Q&A with Danny Holzer

Upper St. Clair (Pa.) High School

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.3, March 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1403/qaholzer.htm

With four players who have since risen to the college ranks, it isn’t surprising that Danny Holzer was able to lead Upper St. Clair (Pa.) High School to a regional title in 2005. But would you be surprised to learn that those four athletes are playing football or soccer, not basketball, in college? And that none of his players were taller than 6-foot-3?

While the circumstances may sound unusual, the Panthers championship season could hardly be called a fluke. Since Holzer took over the program in 1995, Upper St. Clair has won two Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) Class AAAA titles along with one runner-up finish, often welcoming multi-sport athletes on the squad. Prior to Holzer’s arrival, Upper St. Clair had made only one, unsuccessful, trip to the WPIAL title game.

Also the Director of Student Activities and a social studies teacher at Upper St. Clair, Holzer is the boys’ basketball program’s all-time wins leader with a 182-84 record headed into the 2005-06 season. He was previously an assistant coach at Duquesne University, a graduate assistant at California University of Pennsylvania, and an assistant coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Pittsburgh. In this interview, he talks about coaching multi-sport athletes, college recruiting, and dealing with parents and administrators.

CM: What’s been the key to your success at Upper St. Clair?

Holzer: Without question, it’s the relationships I’ve developed with our kids. As a teacher, I get to see my student-athletes every day, and I touch base with them as often as I can. But I rarely talk about our basketball team during the school day. I tell the kids that no matter what happens at practice, when they see me in the hall during the school day, I’m a teacher. And I think that’s played a big part in developing a sense of family on our team.

In addition to that, as Director of Student Activities I’ve been able to interact with our entire student body. Our school spirit is terrific. When we won the WPIAL championship in 2005, we sold over 800 student tickets and our enrollment was only 1,350. When the players have that kind of support from their peers, it really helps the bonding of the team.

How do you build that sense of family?

During the season, I might bring breakfast before Saturday practice, and we watch parts of a college game or a highlight tape of one of our games. Sometimes, I bring my three-year-old son, and the team plays with him. Other times, we have coaches take on the players in practice. In the summer, we go away to a team camp. We also get together informally during the year for pizza parties to build camaraderie. The main thing is for me to be visible to them throughout the school day and for all of us to have fun together.

You’ve had great success with multi-sport athletes. What do you think about the increase in specialization?

Kids should play as many sports as they want to, because the more they compete, the better competitors they’ll become. Last year, when we won our district championship, all five of our starters played multiple sports, and none of them considered basketball their number-one sport. We had two kids who played football and basketball, and both are now playing college football. Two kids who played soccer and basketball are now playing Division I soccer, and our fifth starter was an all-conference volleyball player.

I learned a valuable lesson from that: Let kids play the sports they want to play. As coaches, we have a responsibility to encourage them to experience as much as they can.

How does your team succeed without a lot of height?

The most important thing is sharing the ball. We’ve really been fortunate to have unselfish kids, and our best players are all about winning. Our offensive system is a fast-break style where everybody gets involved. Defensively, we play man-to-man, but we teach the importance of team defense and ball containment. We tell our kids, “Whether you’re guarding a 7-foot-1 or a 5-foot-3 kid, keep him in front of you and make him shoot a contested shot.” That sounds simple, but it works.

What do you do when you’re overmatched by bigger teams?

We press and trap a lot. We don’t want the post to just catch the ball and make a play. We want two guys picking at him. But if the system is going to work, all the kids have to believe in it. If you’re a smaller team and you have three kids who are going hard and two who aren’t, you’re in trouble.

How do you handle kids who don’t buy into that philosophy?

It’s rare, but when it happens we can usually correct it by sitting them on the bench. Everybody has to believe in the “we” theory and if they don’t, the best way to learn is to sit them down for a while.

How do you prepare your players for postseason play?

One of the keys is keeping the same routine through the entire season. If you change something you’ve been doing—whether it’s the time you practice or where you pick up the bus or how you warm up—it’s going to put the idea in the kids’ heads that this next game is different, and those thoughts can hurt your team. So we watch a lot of film during the season, and we scout teams a lot. Then, when the playoffs start, we just keep going like it’s simply another week.

When I set our routine for the season, I’ll be looking ahead to the playoffs. For example, our games are usually on Tuesdays and Fridays, but in the playoffs they can be on any day. So this year, we’ll practice on Wednesday evenings. That way a game on another night won’t feel completely different from the routine.

The other key is to make the postseason fun. I always tell the players there’s nothing to get uptight about. Although we keep the routine the same, we do some special things that are fun for the kids, like shooting games, to keep the edge off.

Kids follow their coach’s personality. If they see you’re uptight then they’re going to be uptight. I’m a positive, loose kind of guy, and I stay the same way in the playoffs.

What did you learn as a college assistant coach that’s helped you at Upper St. Clair?

Some high school coaches don’t worry much about what other teams do—they focus on preparing their team. But, to be successful, a coach has to be himself, and I’m a big believer in understanding your opponent. So I spend more time on scouting that many high school coaches do. As a college coach, I’d watch hours of film on upcoming opponents and I loved it. And I continue to watch a lot of film.

What have you learned as a high school coach that you didn’t know when you were recruiting?

The most important thing that college coaches should do is make sure they’re up-front with high school coaches. I want to do what’s best for our players. If a college coach tells me, “We want to recruit your player,” then I tell the parents. So if they call that school and are told, “Well, you’re on our list but we’re not sure,” it sends a mixed message that can cause problems for everyone.

I know recruiting is hard. As a college coach, you may think one kid can play for you, and then three weeks later you see another kid you think is better. But college coaches need to be honest with us, so we can send the proper message to our players and their parents.

What should high school coaches know about recruiting?

The biggest thing high school coaches have to understand is to not send college coaches highlight tapes. I know a lot of people do it, but when I was a college coach I very rarely watched highlight tapes. College coaches want to watch the game flow. They want to see the kid make good plays, but they also want to see him make mistakes.

High school coaches need to be involved in the recruiting process. If a player wants to be recruited or try out at a certain college, I will personally call that coach. If I think he can’t play at that level, I’ll let the player know that, but I’ll still call that school. I’ll give him that opportunity, because you never know what will happen. If you’ve done everything you can and that school says no, both the player and his parents know it’s time to look at other opportunities.

There can be a lot of outside influence on a program, coming from parents, administrators, and community members. How do you handle that?

This is a terrific community. Almost all the people I have come across have been great. But when there has been a disagreement, I have always tried to sit down and talk about finding the best solution for everyone involved, with the student-athletes being the top priority. As a coach, there will always be situations where people won’t agree with what you do, but I try to stay positive and always do what’s best for the entire team.

I also try to remember that we have such a huge impression on kids. They’re going to remember their high school coaches forever, so we have to be good role models. As long as you treat your kids well, everything will work out in the end.