Each year prior to the opening of the men’s and women’s basketball season, donors to the athletic program are invited to an exclusive breakfast with Steve Pikiell and the student-athletes of the men’s program, as well as C. Vivian Stringer and the women’s program. Following the breakfast, the donors are invited to join the season ticket holders and view a two-hour practice.
As a donor, this past Saturday I was invited to join them. I thought I could use the opportunity to bring our readers a picture of these type of events. I would like to thank Rutgers Athletics for giving us permission to share this with you.
The morning kicked off by a “continental breakfast” of bagels, cream cheese, coffee cake, fresh fruit, juice and coffee with Coach Pikiell and the team. Please don’t see this as a fancy affair, as it wasn’t. It was a buffet line and merely a “thank you” to those donors who came out early on a Saturday morning to see the team in action prior to the season. It was served just off courtside.
The team had obviously been briefed about how to interact, as they broke up into groups of 2-3 and chose different tables to join the donors/fans. All of the players with whom I interacted were friendly, open, and personable. They all represented themselves as positive ambassadors of the program. I actually was very impressed, as there was none of the “entitled” attitude you often hear about with regard to athletes at this level.
While they did that, Coach Pikiell went from table to table, having casual conversations with everyone. It was easy conversation, clearly not a situation where the coach was being challenged, and he responded in kind. It was interesting to see how personable Coach Pikiell is, and how comfortable he is interacting with the fans. If you’ve never had the opportunity, he is a truly friendly, easy to speak to individual. He spoke about connections with the team, his career, and the importance of the fans.
After speaking individually with the group, he spoke for about ten minutes about how much he loves being at Rutgers, how he does his recruiting, and how it has changed since he arrived. Upon his arrival as head coach, when he recruited he tried to see anyone who had any type of connection with a recruit. He soon realized he could never accomplish that, as he was seeing 5-7 people for each recruit, and he was contacting up to 70 recruits a season. At this point, he speaks to the recruit’s current coach, and most importantly, their parents. Mom and Dad are his most critical connection, and he wants to answer any questions they have.
He knows that recruiting for Rutgers means he needs to get players who want to build a program, rather than those who want to come to a program already seeing success. As a result, he knows that every player isn’t going to want to come to Rutgers, but those that do, are here because they want to be Scarlet Knights.
This was a low-key conversation, and truly sounded off-the-cuff. It seemed obvious it was information he has built into his DNA at this point. It was a feeling of comfort he obviously feels speaking to small groups about his program and how he operates.
Finally, the head coach was given the “high sign” from his assistants that it was time for practice to get underway. Coach Pikiell seemed sorry to have to end the conversation, but at the same time excited to get going with practice. It is very apparent the coach was a gym rat as a player, and that is the type of player he seeks for the program as well.
The participants at breakfast were then joined in the stands with season ticket holders and “fan ambassadors” who braved a chilly rainy Saturday morning, and approximately 200 people moved into the stands to watch.
Coach Pikiell’s practices are very methodic, with little to no down time. It is very clear that every minute is accounted for, and in fact the drills are timed using the scoreboard clock to ensure things ran on schedule. Both ends of the court were utilized for separate activities, and foul shooting practice took place on one side where the bleachers were not opened.
While practice took place, Coach Pikiell continued to speak with the fans in the bleachers, explaining as it went along what was being done, why it was done, and his expectations from both the players individually as well as as a group. Even when players lined up for sprints, he explained that the winner got to choose the music at the next practice as incentive. Rather wistfully, he said none of the players chose what he preferred, mentioning James Taylor to a laugh from the crowd.
Practice was focused and intense. Coaches were always on the court, demonstrating what was expected, stopping play when it didn’t go as expected, and continuing to teach throughout. Regular hydration breaks were also scheduled, but they were brief, and players were hustled to and from the court during these breaks.
The players were very friendly after practice and Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss even went around the stands saying hello to practically every person there, thanking them for their support of the program. Peter had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, so it was great to meet a player about whom we had heard a lot about but not seen up to this point.
A visit by recent graduate Mike Williams was a nice moment this rainy morning. Coach Pikiell mentioned how happy he is to see the players want to return, and he wants them all to feel welcome at Rutgers. Coach also mentioned that Corey Sanders had been working out every day up before signing with the NBA G-League, and had left the previous day.
A couple of players mentioned at the end how happy they were that practice was only two hours long this day. The main reason for the “short” practice was the MidKnight Madness event the previous evening. Since that went so late the following day’s practice was an abbreviated one.
This was a great morning. Getting an early view of the team was exciting, and they look strong and ready. Although they continued to struggle against the Big Ten in Coach Pikiell’s first two seasons at Rutgers, it is clear he has a vision and absolutely has the expectation of growing and succeeding with this team. With only one senior on the squad, big things lie ahead for this team.