In the afternoon session of Big Ten Media Day, I was able to sit with Rutgers men’s basketball head coach Steve Pikiell and ask him in depth about the challenges ahead in rebuilding the program. He was candid in what needs to happen and showed great enthusiasm for the work ahead of him. Pikiell is not phased one bit in what needs to be done to build this program from the ground floor up. He has jumped into this with both eyes wide open and is definitely someone who is motivated by the many doubters the program has. Here are his unfiltered comments on how he is approaching things now and in the future, as well what needs to happen from others, including the fans and the community, in order to embrace this rebuild and make it a true team effort.
One thing that is motivating coach Pikiell is the unanimous thought that Rutgers will finish in last place yet again in the Big Ten this season. He harped on his experience in dealing with this type of pessimism in the past, as well as why a lack of facilities is not a valid excuse in a program’s ability to compete and win:
I went to UConn, when we were picked last in the Big East the first time I went to media day (as a player), with a new coach Jim Calhoun. People were critical of the facilities at UConn back in those days. We were playing in the 8/9 game of the Big East Tournament and then I saw how he attacked it. Four years laters they won the Big East.
A lot of the same things you go through when your building a program, you’ve got to change the culture, you’ve got to change the mindset, you have to get everyone involved. We need the students to come out, we need the band, the dance team, we need everyone to help and if everyone pitches in great things can happen down the other end.
We were picked last (Rutgers). I’ve been there at George Washington University, we were picked the bottom of the league when Karl (Hobbs) took over. All the different issues that you hear about like you haven’t won in awhile, or maybe the facilities need to be updated. I love the RAC, think it’s a great facility. Do we have the shiny toys that some of these other programs have? No, but we are working on that. Pat Hobbs has done a good job addressing those issues. But we can still win. We can still win and we can still put a great basketball team on the floor and I’m looking forward to attacking those challenges. There are challenges all over the place, our defense is a challenge, defending the three is a challenge, getting guys to block out is a challenge, getting the best facilities in the league is a challenge, getting more people to games is a challenge. You tackle them one at a time and you embrace the challenges and good things happen over the period of time.
Pikiell went on to counter all the excuses that have been made or doubts that have been asserted towards Rutgers basketball:
At Stony Brook we won three championships in the smallest gym in America.
I will tell you all the positive things, People will tell you the negatives. There are negatives in every place that I’ve coached. There are always different challenges. You embrace them, you try and change what you can change, get your guys to play hard and represent the school the right way. We have a lot of great things to sell, Rutgers is a great school, has great people, a great institution, play in the best league in the country. So whenever you hit me with one of those, I’ll hit you with ten things why you should think about Rutgers.
Coach Pikiell has done a tremendous job of getting elite local recruits on campus multiple times, including last weekend with the largest and most skilled group Rutgers has hosted probably ever. I asked coach how important helping a local player on his roster like freshman Matt Bullock is in setting the tone for future recruiting efforts:
The great part of Matt Bullock is he believed in Coach Pikiell and our vision. He is from a great program up the road (Roselle Catholic). I want kids that believe in me too. I want them to believe in Rutgers and the great place that it is. And the good people and the program that we are going to be. I’ve got to get people who can look down the road a little bit too. Everyone can look right now and tell you where we are, but I can also tell you Jim Calhoun, they (UConn) were in the 8/9 game every year, so we needed guys that appreciated his vision of where the program could be. I think its a great place for local players and hopefully they’ll come and see, which they’ve done. They’re taking a look now at the place, and then I’ll get some of them to buy in and believe in my vision and they’ll want to come play for me. If they want to come play for me, I’m going to do a great job by them. They’re going to develop, they're going to graduate, they're going to have a great opportunity to play on national TV and play in front of the most fans of any league in the country, that’s the Big Ten. And all the exciting things that can happen if they stay in New Jersey, their home state and play for the state university of New Jersey. I’m excited about that.
I’m also excited about this league, it gives you a footprint everywhere, we can go out to different states and people know what a great league this is. If I can get them on campus, then they’ll know what a great university we have. I’m excited about local players, I’m excited about players that have heard of our league and the great tradition. Those players that want to play on TV and want to play at a top 25 state academic institution. Whether they are close or far away, we want to educate them on the great situation that we are building.
On the importance of relationships:
Basketball is about relationships and I think my whole staff brings a lot of good relationships and a background of developing players and doing things the right way. I think that helps get you in the door sometimes. Now you have to beat out a lot of really good options, which people don’t realize sometimes. In this league, if a kid is being recruiting by Rutgers, the other schools are very good too.
Pikiell spoke about the importance of player evaluation and development, especially in the rebuilding phase for a program:
I try to predict down the road on some guys. I try to believe in some guys that believe in me. If a kid believes in me and I believe in him, we can do some incredible things I think down the road. But I try and predict does the kid have better basketball ahead of him and at this level you really do, its easy to walk in a gym and see a player who is a first team McDonald’s All-American. I think it’s hard to see Steph Curry and say you know he’s too small, he’s too weak, he’s too this and too that. Now look at him, he is the MVP of the NBA.
I like to think those are the guys that I have to find now, the guys that are a little bit more under the radar screen. A little bit more like I say boy if he comes to my program and I know what I can do and I know what our strength coach can do, we are going to make him bigger and make him stronger. Right now, Some of those things that they are holding against them, some of the higher level programs who aren't recruiting them and I can say okay, I can help him with those areas. I think you'll see guys that I recruit two years from now, boy, maybe they weren't as big a name, but now he is pretty good. Maybe we have to be better evaluators and see a little bit more in a kid, but that belief, if a kid believes in you, is a strong characteristic that I believe.
Jameel Warney could have went anywhere. He believed in us and we believed in him and he just kept growing and growing and then end of his career he could play anywhere and now is in the NBA. Part of that is he believed in us and when kids believe in you and your program already, and say yes to you when they have other choices, that’s humbling and a responsibility on my part that I give that kid all that I can give and my staff too gives all that they can give, so I'm excited about this challenge.
On the challenges that exist and how he approaches player development:
I know exactly who we were when I took the job. I knew the roster, I recruited and saw a lot of these kids play and I’ve also gotten them to a place where they need to embrace this. Like Mike Williams, your a good shooter, the numbers don't say that, how can we change that. Good shooters shoot in the high 30’s and low 40’s from 3-point land. You are capable of doing that, now why haven't you done that? Let’s watch film let's break it down, maybe your taking shots at the wrong time, sometimes you need to be in mechanic mode, sometimes you have to love them a bit more, sometime you have to give them more freedom.
On the challenges that exist with Rutgers Basketball:
I look forward to those kind of challenges and figuring out a way to win here early in my career. Figure out a way to get a recruit to believe in me and figure out a way to make that recruit better than people think and those are the things I like to do. I’ve had to do those things at all the stops I’ve been at too. No one was waking up and saying they wanted to go to Stony Brook. No one was waking up when I was at GW. No one was waking up in the early days of UConn. They used to ask if UConn was in Alaska. No one was getting out of bed and saying I want to go to UConn. So I’ve been a part of those things and I am encompassing those same kind of issues here and that’s fine. I embrace those issues. Give me a couple guys that believe in me, we are going to play hard and we are going to be well prepared and we will see what happens. If things can keep progressing that way, then good things are going to happen at Rutgers basketball.
I asked coach Pikiell his message for the fan base, aside from the typical tag line of patience. Pikiell also went into detail about all the difficult changes that the players have endured the past few years:
People don’t want to hear that and I understand that. They (fans) are very important. People that come to games are very important. The atmosphere in the arena helps recruiting. If the students are involved, it helps with recruiting.
I’m also very protective of my players, as this has been three conference changes in four years. If we were an established program, one conference change is a hard thing. Two is wow. Three in four years is a hard thing and by the way, we’ve gone to a better conference each time and now in the best conference in the country. People can talk about all those other conferences, the best conference year in and year out is here (Big Ten). The best coaches, Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, John Beilein, are all Final Four coaches. This league is tremendous. So you have to be patient when you make as many changes as Rutgers basketball has gone through.
I’m the 5th coach in 11 years. Thats a lot of changes. During this 11 year period, I was the only coach at Stony Brook in an 11 year period. They had 5 coaches. That’s hard. One coaching change is hard, so we changed leagues to better our program and to better our institution and play in the best league in the country. It’s always the company that you keep. Look around, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, we are in a prestigious academic league, we are in the best athletic league, so you want to change and get into these leagues, but with change comes some lumps. We have taken a few and if you stay with us and stay the course, great things are going to happen here in the future. We have a great fan base and they’re knowledgeable and I know they know we are working hard to change what has been Rutgers basketball. I love the challenge ahead. It’s not going to be easy, I’m going to need them to be a part of the challenge and embrace it too. It’s going to be fun. I’ve been there, it’s going to be fun.
You can watch the full interview below. Also note, Scout’s Sam Hellman asked a couple of questions during the video interview as well. I was very impressed with coach Pikiell’s honesty, enthusiasm and preparedness. I already felt he was the right coach to take Rutgers basketball to new heights. After meeting and speaking with him today, I’m convinced he will get this program back on track and there will be tangible progress on the court this season.
If you missed coach Pikiell’s formal media address at Big Ten Media Day from this morning, click here. I have a lot more quotes and tidbits coming the next few days, including a one on one interview with star guard Corey Sanders. For now, In Pikiell We Trust!
Coach Pikiell B1G Media DayPosted by On the Banks on Thursday, October 13, 2016