WASHINGTON — Jim Boeheim has witnessed various types of leadership develop over the past four decades.
As coach of the Syracuse men’s basketball team since 1976 and assistant coach of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team since 2010, Boeheim has seen first-hand where players take the initiative to lead, especially after on-court adversity hits.
Boeheim was one of seven NCAA basketball coaches at the Hoops for Troops “Commitment to Service” event at the Pentagon Auditorium Wednesday, sharing his experiences alongside a panel about what leadership means to him.
“It’s amazing; you really have good leadership when you’re winning,” said Boeheim, the NCAA’s second-winningest coach, who along with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, helped guide Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in 2012 and will stay with the program through the 2016 Games.
“When you lose a game or two, you come to find out who the guys are that are going to step up now. Every year is different. We have a different group every year, different kinds of leaders. At the end of the day, it’s those guys that can do it when things are not going well. It’s amazing how real leaders step up when things look pretty bad, pretty dim.”
Boeheim, along with USA Basketball Women’s National Team and Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma, and men’s NCAA men’s basketball coaches Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Kevin Ollie (Connecticut), Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh), Jay Wright (Villanova) and Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) spent the day in the nation’s capital meeting with military officials and personnel in a trip hosted by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. The coaches also took a tour of the White House and met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
The purpose of the trip was to discuss the roles of leadership in college basketball and how they translate and equate to that in the military field. The 75-minute discussion, which was broadcast worldwide on The Pentagon Channel, was moderated by ESPN analyst and former Duke basketball player Jay Bilas.
Auriemma said that in the past five years, he’s learned to take more of a hands-off approach to his team’s leaders, specifically at Connecticut. Whereas early in his career, he’d try to put his stamp on every detail in practice, he’s learned it’s better to train his players and leaders appropriately for those big moments in games.
“There are things I can spend a lot of time on, that I can prepare my players,” said Auriemma, who led the U.S. women to their fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal in London and will coach through 2016. “We can work as hard as we can to be ready to do certain things. But when it’s time to perform, I really can’t control the outcome.
“When I first started coaching, I thought I could control all the actions of all the players to get the desired result,” Auriemma said. “I realized now you can’t really do that. The only thing you can control is how you handle that moment and trust they can perform under that kind of pressure.”
The coaches gave specific examples of molding leadership. Ollie, whose seventh-seeded Huskies made a surprise run to the NCAA title earlier this spring, said that after practice, his players will meet at mid-court and participate in a “challenge circle.” Whichever player Ollie passes a basketball to has to challenge a teammate to improve in a specific area.
“It could be on the numbers stage, that they’re not rebounding enough or you have to box out a little better, run the court a little better,” said Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran. “We have to create that environment where we’re challenging each other to get better.”
With the college basketball landscape changing due to more players transferring or leaving for the NBA early, Boeheim noted that teams are leaning on freshmen more than ever. This past season at Syracuse, Boeheim relied upon freshman point guard Tyler Ennis to carry his team.
“(Before) you had seniors and juniors who you worked with and they got to understand the system and what needs to be done, and they can teach the sophomores and freshmen,” Boeheim said. “I think that still happens a little bit but certainly not as much. But now, in many cases, we depend on freshmen.”
Izzo stressed the importance of spending more time with players to help determine whether or not they can become team leaders.
“I don’t think you can make a leader out of a guy who doesn’t want to communicate,” Izzo said. “I think there are a lot of guys that want to be leaders but don’t know how. Our society is a little softer, if you ask me. We don’t demand it out of them.”
Dempsey kicked off the discussion stating his hope to relay the common bond the coaches and military personnel have in fostering better lives for the men and women that either play or serve under them.
“These are the best coaches in the land, and they coach the most elite basketball players in the land at the college level,” Dempsey said. “We want to connect with that with the best soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen on the planet.”