Q&A with Bob Sheldon

Tufts University

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.6, August 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1406/qasheldon.htm

In an era of coaching merry-go-rounds, Bob Sheldon has stayed at one school for 18 years. Inspired in part by his father, a longtime coach and athletic director at St. Lawrence University, Sheldon has chosen to remain at NCAA Division III Tufts University, where he’s taken the Jumbos to three NCAA Tournaments, including a 2006 trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

With 273 career victories, making him the winningest coach in Tufts’ 102-year basketball history, Sheldon led the 2005-06 team to a school record 23-win season and was named Northeast Coach of the Year by D3hoops.com. In this interview, Sheldon discusses the challenges of coaching at a highly selective private university, the pros and cons of working in Division III, and the importance of balancing family, basketball, and his other job as head coach of Tufts’ co-ed golf team.

CM: Why were you so successful in 2005-06?

Sheldon: We had great chemistry. Everybody accepted their role. We had guys who were starters, guys who knew they were practice players, and guys in the middle. Not everybody was overjoyed with their role, but they accepted it and played as a team. We had some talent, some experience, and some lucky breaks. It just clicked.

What do you say to athletes who don’t play much?

We try to meet with everyone three or four times a year and explain their role. Last year, except for the top five guys, everybody was working hard to move up. We didn’t change starters, but we had guys who played a lot more as the season went on. We had good captains who let the bench players know that everything they did in practice was making the team better. And to be honest, success and winning covers a lot of those problems.

How do you develop leaders?

When we recruit, we look at talent and make sure recruits have the grades to be in our academic pool. Then we try to look at character. I want guys who fit in. Everybody we recruit spends a night or two on campus, and we value the feedback we get from our players. No matter how good a recruit is, if the players come back and say, “Coach, that guy was a jerk,” we’ll stop recruiting him.

We elect captains at the end of the season, and I meet with those players every week for lunch and talk about how things are going. I try to build relationships with them before the season starts so they can be my guys on and off the court. I tell them that if anybody says anything negative about our program, they have a responsibility to back us up.

If a player says, “Coach should have called a time-out in the last two minutes,” we’ve asked them to say, “No, he was right. He lets us play through it.” Later, they can come into my office and ask, “Coach, why didn’t you call a timeout?” I’m okay with that. But if they’re at a party and the 14th guy on the squad says, “We should have done this, we should have done that,” it can spread. So the captains nip it in the bud. Then, they can come and talk to me about it. I’ve learned to listen.

Shouldn’t a coach be talking, not listening?

In the old days, I think that was okay. I think the nature of the beast has changed. Coaches who communicate and know their athletes can get more out of them by listening to their concerns and not just saying, “My way or the highway.”

Has it always worked this well?

Three years ago, we won eight games. It was the worst team chemistry and the worst season we’d had. I did a bad job. The next year we won 16, and this past year we won 23. After the season where we won eight games, I sat down with my captains and devised a plan to have more open communication. We sat down with everybody and said we weren’t going to go 8-17 again. We had a couple of pretty intense team meetings where there was some yelling—me at them and them at me. As a coaching staff, we emphasized the fact that we were not going to win unless we played like a team.

What did you and the players learn from that experience?

I learned that even though guys are 18, 19, and 20 years old, they’re still kids. They wanted to know that I really cared. They wanted me to make sure they were working hard. I think they learned they’ve got to push each other, and in the final result, they’re accountable, too. A lot of young kids don’t really have that sense of accountability. They want to play and not work that hard. So it was a good life lesson for them and me.

What’s good and bad about coaching in Division III?

My family is very important, so I’ve stayed at Division III to be with them and have a career at the same time. Most coaches who’ve been in Division III for a long time would agree. We like the student-athletes. I’m not saying all Division I or Division II schools are like this, but I don’t have to get guys out of jail. Every single person I’ve coached has graduated. And I’m not chasing them around to make sure they go to class. It costs $45,000 a year to go to Tufts, so their parents are helping me make them go to class. I get to be a coach and a mentor, and I don’t have to worry about that other side of things.

Drawbacks? In our league, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, we can’t start practice until Nov. 1, and then we play only 24 games, including scrimmages. I cannot go off-campus to recruit. I can go off-campus to evaluate recruits, but I can’t do in-home visits. Fortunately, Tufts is such a good draw that things even out. In our conference we’ve had schools go to the Final Four the last couple of years, and Williams won the national championship in 2003. So it can be done.

How do you deal with the high cost of tuition?

We have more trouble with the financials than we do with finding students who are acceptable academically. We had a young man this year, he’s 6-foot-7 and is going to be a great player. He loved Tufts and applied early-decision, but when his parents got the financial aid package, they said, “We can’t do it.” He had to back out. That’s the toughest part of the job: I call parents up and say, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is your son’s been accepted to Tufts. The bad news is you’ve got to remortgage your house.” We have players from families who can afford it, and we have players whose families qualify for a lot of financial aid, but people in the middle class get squeezed.

Is there a culture clash?

Yes and no. I like the diversity. The common denominator of basketball does away with the clash. After practice, some guys are getting in their BMWs, and the other guys are riding with them. But when we go on the road, everybody gets their $14 for expenses, so it equals out.

What does it mean to put academics first?

We practice three days a week at 4 o’clock and two days a week at 6:30. That allows guys to take labs in the afternoon. I’ve had kids go take a test in their uniforms and then play a game that night because they couldn’t get out of a test. If they come to me and say, “Coach, I have a test to take” or “I have a paper to write,” I tell them academics come first every time. It’s funny, though: The really good players never seem to have that conflict. My leading scorers have never come to me and said, “Coach, I need to miss a game because of class.”

We have former players who give back to the program. We try to take a trip every year—we’ve been out to California, Colorado, Washington University in St. Louis, and down to Washington, D.C. The alums donate a little money so we can fly, because that’s not in our budget. I’ve had former players call me with job openings they want to fill with basketball players, because they know athletes can make the commitment and have the time management skills to succeed. We recently had a Tufts alumnus offer a summer internship at Morgan Stanley to one of our juniors who will probably have a job after graduation and be set for life.

How do you also manage to coach golf?

The golf does get in the way a little bit in the fall because it’s when we start recruiting. But I have good basketball assistants, and I’m in control of the golf schedule. Most golf programs play every single weekend in the fall, but I leave one or two free when we have big basketball recruiting weekends. Golf is a whole different type of student and sport. You’re not yelling at some guy to make a putt. I enjoy it.