In this week’s edition of Coaches Corner, Championship Productions’ editor Adam Warner sits down with 2010 USA Today National Coach of the Year Vance Downs. Downs, who led his Ames High School (IA) team to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2009-10 behind standouts Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott, looks back on those whirlwind championship seasons, dishes out advice to rising players, and even talks about a favorite drill among his players over the years.
Can you talk about your background and how you eventually came to be head coach at Ames?
“My history has always been right here in Ames. I began student teaching in the school district and coached the ninth grade basketball team and haven’t left Ames since. I moved up to JV coach and now I’m the head varsity coach.”
The 2010 season is a few months in the rearview mirror now. Talk about your offseason schedule a bit and what’s exactly involved?
“We try to break it down into spring, summer and fall seasons so it’s just not one big offseason. For the spring, we try to follow up with player meetings and then team meetings. The kids are also working out in the weight room three days a week at this time. Most kids are either in AAU basketball programs or playing other spring sports, too. Because of rules, we can’t do a lot, meaning there’s no on-court instruction. We are also dedicating our time for preparing for the summer and working with our youth basketball program.”
Can you provide some insights into your coaching philosophy and how you incorporate the key components with your team?
“We try to keep things as simple as possible. It’s about guarding, rebounding and playing as a team. Those three areas define our program and we place a particular emphasis on those for how we practice, the offseason and how we plan our summer camp.”
Talk about your offensive and defensive philosophies and an overview of the systems used within those. Do you use the same systems each year, or change things up a bit based on personnel and team strengths?
“We try to be as adaptive as we can with the talent we have each season. We always have a different group or shape of athletes from year to year. We really try to adapt to the talent that we have.”
Talk about those individuals who’ve had the biggest influence on you as a head coach and how they’ve had an impact on you.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of great coaches within the district, like Wayne Clinton. He taught me to treat kids with respect and give them the opportunity to be successful. There’s also Bud Legg, who’s now with the IHSAA. He taught me that you have to communicate well with people and be the best communicator you can be. And then there’s George Duvall, who won a number of titles in the 1970s. He really taught me about how you need to have your own system, but must make it adaptive for your personnel.”
Do you have any particular coaching habits or superstitions?
“We have pregame ritual that we’ve been doing forever. It’s a meeting thing where we list the top areas of game management for both offense and defense. We’ll have ten bullet points under each and go over each one in pregame before every single game. As a player, you have those points memorized. The kids can even recite them better then myself now.”
What do you look for in the prototypical Ames basketball player?
“We always look at how skilled they are; how good they handle the ball, pass and shoot. We also look at how basketball smart they are – their basketball IQ. And after that, we look at their overall athleticism.”
Can you identify any particular bad habits in the high school game today that you try to emphasize with your team?
“It changes over time. There was a time period where players didn’t shoot the ball very well, but I think shooting is getting better over the last 15 years. I think one area is the inability to be efficient from the free throw line. Meanwhile, passing has become a lost art. However, I must say that athletes today can do a lot more with the ball as far as ball handling than they could ever before.”
Talk about a favorite drill of yours that you feel is very effective.
“We go through a myriad of passing drills every day. I think passing is becoming a lost art. We work on stationary running positions, footwork as you catch the ball, and hand placement when you catch it. One drill that is unique to us is called Easy Runners. It’s a drill that you can do at your feet or perform on the move, and it’s something we have stuck with over time.”
Is there a favorite drill of your players that you can recall?
“One of the best drills is a defensive drill called 3 and Out. We put four defenders on defense and everyone else at half court. The guys end up playing 4-on-4 until you get three defensive stops in a row. It’s always been somewhat of a player favorite. Other guys want to keep you in the drill so they don’t have to. They have fun with it and it’s great competition.”
What’s some of the best advice you can give to a rising player?
“Be humble. Also, continue to work on your skill development every day. I can’t stress this enough. Today, kids play a lot of basketball games, but it’s hard to make sure you are putting in the necessary skill development time. There wasn’t anyone more dedicated to skill development than Harrison Barnes. He was always up early shooting and doing simple shooting drills. It’s about always being meticulous and improving that. If you want to be really good, you have to work on it every day.”
What’s the best advice you can give for a rising coach?
“Be yourself. It’s not a new concept, but don’t be someone you’re not. Also, write everything down. Take notes. Whether you go through a good or bad experience, write it down. You will find yourself going back and using that bit of knowledge and experience at some point later in your coaching career.”
Talk about those back-to-back championship seasons a little bit and the whirlwind those years must have been — particularly having top players like Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott on the roster.
“It was an exceptional experience for the community, school and kids. We had some talented teams, but the amount of attention and excitement we got on a nightly basis was an experience of a lifetime. And it wasn’t just exciting for our community, but also the state of Iowa. Having a team come through and go for back-to-back state titles and finish No. 3 in the nation was just terrific for the team and for the state. It also builds some awareness that there are some great players here in Iowa. Sometimes the state is overlooked because of its small population, but people miss the fact that there is some great basketball going on here.”
After back-to-back Class 4A undefeated seasons, the squad struggled in 2010-11. Was this one of your toughest years coaching-wise after a number of years achieving great success?
“That’s a great question, but actually it wasn’t. It was a very enjoyable year, believe it or not. We had some seniors that did a great job. We simply weren’t nearly as talented as we had been in the past. It was also a tough duty with lots of teams looking for payback and waiting on us. I can’t tell you how many times we had great practices. It was a great effort but it’s a process and we have to go through it to build for next year and the years to come. It was still enjoyable and will only serve as a positive thing way down the road.”
What’s the outlook for next season?
“We will be very competitive next year and return a talented core of players, with seven coming back who saw significant playing time last season. I think we can sneak up on people and take another step closer towards building a championship contender.”