On Mentorship

An athlete asked me the other day where I got my coaching philosophy from.  Hmmm, that’s a broad question with plenty of different facets.  I didn’t have a quick answer other than it came from my experiences, research, and patterning what was effective over the years.  I realized later that night lying in bed that in my haste to answer quickly I left out one of the primary factors in building my overall philosophy and approach to coaching, and that is the people I’ve been fortunate to work with along the way….my mentors.  I’m not the sharpest fork in the drawer, but I’m smart enough to take the time to learn from those around me.  So, in chronological order, here we go.

Jimmy Driscoll, Passion + Discipline

Legendary coach of all things for decades at Bishop Kelly High School, his name still hangs and echoes in the hallways.  Jimmy was his own man to say the least.  A man of simplicity but a man of intense passion for what he did.  He dressed in second-hand clothes, wearing garments from the 50s and 60s well into the 90s and 2000s. Appearances meant less than zero to Jimmy.  He would not be bothered with such trivial things he was too focused on his life’s mission of teaching young people.  He did teach in the classroom, but his real arena was the court, field, or track.  A Marine of World War II and former captain of the boxing team at Notre Dame, I literally felt like he was made of leather.  He ran and lifted weights well, well into advanced age.  When our family first started attending Bishop Kelly, my mom picked up my sister one day and saw Jimmy jogging down Franklin Blvd.  She followed him for a mile because she thought surely this old man was about to have a heart attack.  He only ran for about another twenty years after that!  Jimmy would sit in the end zone during football games, back against the goal post, smoking his pipe.  As the action got close he would casually get up and move out of the way at his own pace.  Jimmy was my sophomore PE teacher, and one of my track coaches for three years.  I’ll never forget that PE class.  We lined up and ‘covered down’ for roll call at the start of every class as in the military.  To say Jimmy valued routine and discipline would be the understatement of history.  We played creative, fast paced, physical games that Jimmy created.  Kids who never explored their physicality in athletics certainly had to in Jimmy’s class.  As a track coach in my era, his roll was really strength and speed for the distance runners. 

Looking back now, the stuff he had us do was actually quite sound physiologically and mechanically.  He demanded meticulous attention to detail in everything though.  You did every rep of every exercise correctly, and the emphasis was always on that rather than how fast you ran or how much weight you pushed.  I remember thinking even in those days that I just really wanted to find something I could care about as much as Jimmy cared about coaching & teaching.

You did every rep of every exercise correctly, and the emphasis was always on that rather than how fast you ran or how much weight you pushed.

Tim Brennan, Value the Process

Coach Brennan was my high school football coach.  Yes, to the chagrin of many I played football in high school rather than running cross country in the fall.  This certainly set me back from a training and health perspective moving into collegiate running, but I know value of what I experienced in high school football ended up bringing more to my life and certainly career.  I wasn’t very good at football, but the team environment we had was just so incredible.  I worked hard though and had myself in a solid position heading into my senior year when I broke my foot in practice.  Then it really seemed maybe I should have run cross country!  However, Coach Brennan and the other coaches were adamant I remain as involved as possible.  I got to sit in the press box with another great teacher/coach John Bieter and work on identifying defensive coverages during games.  I was expected to be at every meeting, practice, meal, Mass, all of it.  Coach Brennan was the first coach I had who truly evaluated his teams on the process of what they did.  I’ll never forget that he would put up offensive and defensive objectives before games and win or lose we would go through them afterwards.  He stuck true to pointing out the things we did well even if we lost, and he would let us have it after wins if we made mistakes.  This shaped me massively.  My whole athletic journey up to that point could have been summed up with win = happy, lose = sad/mad.  That was it.  The process was never broken down, was never valued until I played for Coach Brennan.  That focus on the process has remained as central to my philosophy as anything else through my career.

Brian Janssen, Get Outside the Box

After high school I went to Idaho State University to run for Coach Brian Janssen.  Not only did I not run cross country in high school but I was a 400m-800m athlete on the track so suffice it to say the first day of cross country practice was eye opening.  I was in WAY over my head.  Coach Janssen knew it too.  He knew I had some ability and just told me I needed to hang in there and be consistent and worry about getting ready for track season that spring.  I got my butt kicked daily, and that had never happened to me.  I was humbled, which is a great place to start learning.

I was humbled, which is a great place to start learning. 

 I started to listen intently when Coach Janssen spoke.  It didn’t matter if he was talking about the workout, a race, motivation, leadership, whatever the subject it seemed like he was presenting angles of thought I’d never heard before.  This guy had clearly read and thought deeply about all aspects of what he did and had developed his own specific vision and approach.  I was captivated by all this.  Unfortunately, the rest of life for me that year was not great.  I had a friend die in an accident that fall, I had no direction or motivation academically, and was lost socially.  I loved running for Coach Janssen, but I decided I needed to look for another home for my collegiate years and transferred away from Idaho State.  I stayed in touch with Coach Janssen though and a few years after the fact when I got into coaching myself really sought him out.  He was always willing to share his thoughts on training and I learned a ton from him.  The greatest thing he pointed out to me that has really stuck is to ‘train the athlete, not the event.’  I know he’s not the only coach to use that phrase but I learned it from him so to me that is Coach Janssen.  I also learned more about coaching 800m athletes specifically from him than any other coach.  Notice I said coaching 800m athletes not coaching the 800m 😊.  He was a genius in working with such athletes.  His grasp of that great nuance where speed and endurance met was unparalleled.  He did things his own way, and I found it to be a damn effective way.

Ben Welch, Be Authentic

After a semester at home for a little reflection to figure out my next move, I ended up in the lovely little Northeast Oregon town of LaGrande at Eastern Oregon University.  Everything just felt right there when I visited, the blue-collar nature of the town, the size of the school, the fact that was at the base of the Blue Mountains, and the Alaskan lumberjack who would be my coach there.  On my recruiting trip, the first time I sat down with Ben in his office, it took him about 4 seconds to have his shoes off and feet up on the desk.  He reclined back in his chair and started talking……the ‘conversation’ began on training middle distance athletes and ended up on some old car Ben and his brothers would ramble around the backwoods of Alaska in.  I was mesmerized.  This guy was awesome.  Most coaches try to impress you on recruiting trips, they want to show you something shiny that will draw you in.  Ben just kicked off his shoes and showed me who he was and what the school and program were. 

Real people allow for real connection, which can be a massive driver of motivation and resilience.

In short, Ben is as authentic as they come. He’s never lost sight of this and now after over three decades at EOU he has a program that mirrors his authenticity.  A lot of kids have walked into Ben’s office over those years looking for a home just like I was and found an honest guy that made them realize they’d found it.  Real people allow for real connection, which can be a massive driver of motivation and resilience.

Mike Johnson, Think Holistically

Near the end of my time at EOU, I met Mike Johnson.  Mike was coaching at Boise State and my girlfriend at the time ran for him.  I was figuring out at that point I wanted to go into coaching and after one conversation with Mike I knew I needed to spend a lot more time listening to him.  I badgered him into coaching me for a bit after college, and in those years I soaked up everything I could from Mike.  He talked about training, about coaching, about sport in a completely different manner than anyone I had been around.  It took me a long time to put my finger on what was so different about Mike’s approach, other than a formidable vocabulary, but eventually I realized that it was how holistically he saw everything.  He looked at athletes this way, always stepping back and taking the wide view of what was going on with someone physically, mentally, emotionally.  Narrowing things just to training you could look at any single week or micro-cycle and see how he had something in there to address everything the athlete needed to work on.  Like Brian Janssen Mike has excelled over his career coaching middle distance athletes.  Just as Brian’s willingness to get outside the box lent itself to these nuanced athletes, Mike’s holistic approach was equally as valuable.  Mike always listens first, he takes things in, takes his time, and takes the macro view to make sure he has everything accounted for in his approach.  Mike taught me, and is still teaching me, to sit back and account for things on the periphery that might be much more crucial than at first glance.

Marty Holly, People First + No BS

Marty hired me as a head coach at The College of Idaho when I was twenty-six years old.  My first phone conversation with Marty was telling.  I was sitting in the office at EOU talking with Ben Welch (yes, I’m sure his feet were on the desk), when our athletic director Rob Cashell came in and handed me his phone.  He said ‘Marty Holly wants to talk with you.’  I said ‘hello, his is Pat.’ 

‘Pat, this is Marty Holly.  We are starting a cross country and track program here and I want to hire you as our head coach.  I’ve done my research, you’re our guy.  Can you come down here tomorrow so we can do an interview to make HR happy?’

Looking over at Ben he nodded that yes, I could go.  ‘Sure, I can do that.’

‘Great, be here at 10am.  We’ll wrap up in the evening.  Oh, and don’t dress up, you’ve got the job.  See you tomorrow.’  Click.

Uh…….my mind was spinning.  Within a few hours I was back at my parent’s house in Boise frantically putting together a program vision to present to Marty, and yes, figuring out what to wear.  Surely, I should actually dress up.  That had to be a test.  The next morning when I walked into Marty’s office his first words were ‘why the hell did you dress up, I told you that you had the job.’  And that started the greatest relationship with a supervisor I’ll ever have.  Marty hired me because he knew I was the person for the job, and he continued to operate with that philosophy the entire time I worked for him.  Marty was a tough, old school coach who always shot you straight even if the truth wasn’t pretty and it came across gruff.  However, he is the most loyal people-first leaders I have ever been around.  He saw everyone in the department as a person first and hence valued them that way.  Marty is the only supervisor I’ve ever called ‘Boss’, and I always will.

Liz Mendiola, The Art of Peaking

Liz was the volleyball coach in my time at The College of Idaho.  She had already built a phenomenally consistent program at that time and it rolls on today.  What caught my attention about Liz’s teams was that they were always at their best down the stretch of the regular season and at championship time.  It seemed like they would routinely have a loss or close win against a team early in the year and then just destroy that team by the time it really mattered.  In cross country and track & field ‘peaking’ at the right time is everything, so I was intrigued by her ability to always have her team peaked correctly.  I started dropping in on some of her practices and watching her coach during matches.  What I noticed was that early in the season she would take the time to address everything she could.  If a player was not in the right defensive position in time, even if they weren’t involved in the play, she would stop practice and address it.  She was meticulous about teaching early on.  As the season progressed I saw her emphasis gradually shift to less of that and more to putting her focus on her team’s energy and confidence.  She would intervene less and let them play more.  She knew when to take the time to teach, to be patient with that process, and then when to back off that a bit and let them go be present.  Obviously, volleyball is a very different sport without much cross over in training or technique but I learned a lot from Liz about the art of having athletes at their best when it mattered most.

Reagan Rossi, Professionalism & Intensity

Reagan was the women’s basketball coach at The College of Idaho, and then the Associate Athletic Director when I was there.  She was eventually promoted to the head AD position when Marty moved on, but I resigned on her first day (certainly nothing to due with her!) to accept a position at Boise State.  We always joke about how I created a headache for her on her very first day.  As with Liz, I knew early on in my time at C of I that Reagan was a coach I should spend some time learning from.  The first thing that struck me about Reagan was just her professionalism.  She had high expectations of her players, staff, and everyone that she worked with but even higher expectations of herself.  Even before she moved into an administrative role, she always showed a great understanding of what was going on in the department and institution as a whole.  This was a great lesson for me as a young coach, if you want to excel within your program you better understand how admissions, development, alumni relations, etc. work as they will all impact what you are doing.  The other trait that I really took note of in Reagan when I got to watch her coach more and interact with her players around the office was the intensity she brought daily.  This sounds simple but those who have coached for a profession understand what a challenge it can be to bring that high level of intensity day in and day out over a season, a year, a career.  Reagan always brought it, and shocker of shockers here, her players consistently brought it too.

Travis Hartke, Work Ethic

  He brought that Midwest farmer mentality to his job every day, get up early, get to it, work until its done or you fall asleep. 

My time at Boise State was really refreshing after so many years as a head coach.  Coach Ihmels told me when he hired me he wanted me to be free to primarily just coach and recruit my group.  That sounded amazing, but also foreign after being a head coach at the smaller college level where I was responsible for nearly all program operations.  Once I started up there though I quickly saw why Coach Ihmels felt that was possible, because we had this one-man whirlwind of all things operations on our staff, Travis Hartke.  Travis did coach too, but somehow he handled 90%+ of all other operations…..travel, recruiting visits, equipment, budget, meet management, etc.  Like the other coaches, I made my efforts to chip in and every now and then he’d even let me help with something.  Travis is a really smart dude, who figures out systems quickly and that is definitely part of his aptitude for handling large operational loads.  The bigger factor than that though is his pure work ethic.  It is something to behold.  He brought that Midwest farmer mentality to his job every day, get up early, get to it, work until its done or you fall asleep.  One of the reasons I think this struck me so strongly was that I had always felt like I outworked my peers.  There are plenty of things I have accomplished in my career that when I think back on it is clear I achieved simply because I worked harder than everyone else.  Travis Hartke was the first person I ever worked with who outworked me.  It was a great reminder at that point in my career.  It is easy to rest solely on what you’ve learned, systems you’ve developed, your reputation, etc. as your career goes on.  Travis reminded me that it still often comes down to who is willing to work harder.  Every time I think I’m grinding about as hard as I can, I think of Travis and swallow some humble pie before getting back to work.

Tim Riley, Patience

Back as a head coach at the University of San Francisco, I was incredibly fortunate to work with one of my best friends, Tim Riley.  I actually worked with Tim briefly very early on at The College of Idaho too as he was my first assistant there right after he got out of college.  At USF we came back together much further into our careers though, and after having spent twelve years apart.  Working with a close friend can certainly bring its challenges but Tim and I were well- aware of that going in and we handled that aspect quite well.  One thing we quickly realized as we got to it at USF was that though we shared similar philosophies, our personalities came through quite differently as coaches.  I am just about the most impatient person in the world.  Definitely a weakness of mine.  I am aggressive, I make decisions or feel my instinct and usually go forward right away.  This often works well, but at times is certainly problematic.  Tim brought great balance to that tendency of mine.  Tim is incredibly cerebral, and really likes to take time to think things through.  More than once at USF, I pressed pause on my initial reaction to listen to Tim, and usually chose a better course afterwards.  Tim definitely has some of Mike Johnson’s ability to think holistically about situations and coupled with his patience that makes him a tremendous coach.  I don’t have Tim around daily to help me press that pause button now, but I still manage to do it from time to time and always with him in mind.

Though I’m pretty much a one-man band in my latest coaching endeavor, I still think of all these folks often as I’m working through situations.  I call on my education, research, and experiences but just as often on what I remember from working under or with all these incredible people.