NBC Sports Washington brought together local coaches Ron Rivera (Washington football), Todd Reirden (Capitals), Scott Brooks (Wizards) and Mike Thibault (Mystics) to discuss the intricacies of their craft in a free-wheeling discussion hosted by Julie Donaldson. We present six days highlighting different themes of their conversation - experiences, stories and lessons shared from careers in coaching. To watch the full roundtable, click here.
It is the first task for any coach who takes a new job.
In most cases, the reason they are there in the first place is because the culture of that new home went bad in some way. Identifying the issues and fixing them as quickly as possible takes precedence over everything else.
Some of Washington’s best coaches know that daunting feeling all too well. Mike Thibault was one of the WNBA’s most successful coaches with one losing seasons in 10 years with the Connecticut Sun and two appearances in the WNBA Finals.
Thibault arrived in town in 2013 and found a team in disarray after a 5-29 record the year before. How do you fix that when you know a talent infusion is years away? Start chipping away at the mental attitude of the players.
“What we did is we spent the first year just figuring out who bought in,” Thibault said. “I didn’t have any other way to go about it other than here’s what we’re going to do. Are you or are you off the train? So we spent the first year evaluating, teaching what we were going to do, see who was going to buy in. And it got us to the playoffs.”
That Mystics team indeed finished 17-17 and even won a playoff game. It was a modest improvement for one of the worst teams in the WNBA ever. But it also started a path to the 2019 championship team.
COACHES' ROUNDTABLE: WATCH THE FULL DISCUSSION WITH COACH BROOKS, REIRDEN, RIVERA AND THIBAULT
Some coaches face the opposite situation. Todd Reirden didn’t have to change too much. He took over a Capitals team that had just won a Stanley Cup and was stocked with players who had been in the organization for years. Standards were already high, the pressure always intense under former coach Barry Trotz.
“I wanted to create an environment where people enjoy coming to work because they know they have the opportunity to get better,” Reirden said. “And in the same breath, they’re held accountable to a certain standard of performance.”
Scott Brooks spent seven years coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder after working his way up the ladder after six years as an NBA assistant. His teams played in the NBA Finals in 2012, won 50 games four different times. He left after a 45-37 season in the brutal Western Conference wasn’t good enough for a playoff spot.
Brooks took over a Wizards team that had missed the playoffs the year before with a .500 record. There was talent and the team had made the second round in 2014 and 2015. But something was missing.
“One of the constants that we had, that we talked about as coaches was just playing hard,” Brooks said. “Who’s in the lineup, who’s not playing – you can’t worry about that. You’ve got to go out there and compete every day. You do it in practice and transfer it over to the game.”
It worked. The Wizards took the Celtics to Game 7 of the second round in a classic series his first season in 2016-17. They made the playoffs again last year before injuries crippled this year’s group.
Now, Rivera faces the same task. Washington’s football team is in total disarray. It hasn’t won a playoff game in 15 years. It finished 3-13 last year. There is so much work to do. And he had to impart it right away. In his last job with the Carolina Panthers, Rivera inherited a team that had gone 2-14. Three years later the Panthers won the NFC South at 12-4 and two years after that played in the Super Bowl.
It doesn’t have to take years to instill a new culture with a team. But it starts at the beginning. Rivera has already imparted that message to his new team in Washington.
“I talked about what my vision was, what my goals are, what my expectations were going to be and what they could expect from us,” Rivera said. “[Former Raiders coach] John Madden told me the toughest thing you’ll ever do is tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. If you can do that and do that consistently, they’ll buy in.”
To watch the full Coaches' Roundtable with Coach Brooks, Coach Reirden, Coach Rivera and Coach Thibault, click here.
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