Preps Lab podcast with TJ Cotterill: Lessons learned in coaching with hall of famer Gary Wusterbarth

One of his Steilacoom High School boys basketball players once approached Gary Wusterbarth, asking what he could possibly do to earn a spot in the starting five. 

Say no more. Wusterbarth was more than happy to oblige and offer him a place in the next game’s opening lineup, much to the excitement of this player. 

And that shall-not-be-embarrassed player certainly did start the next game. The opening tip went up, the ball shortly after went out of bounds, and Wusterbarth immediately subbed him and sat him the remainder of the game. 

Nobody ever asked Wusterbarth if they could be in the starting lineup ever again. 

The Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association hall of fame coach retired in 2019 after 34 seasons and a 567-268 career record (ninth-most wins of any coach in state history), but he appeared on SBLive’s The Prep’s Lab podcast with TJ Cotterill to discuss lessons learned over the years and how vastly different the game is today compared to his first few seasons, including his state-title season in 1984-85 (Wusterbarth’s first year at Steilacoom). 

Wusterbarth, 66, addressed how coaches ought to cope with the burnout that comes today with the seemingly mounting challenges and expectations on high school coaches, the qualities necessary to be a successful coach today and best practices for navigating relationships with players, parents and school administrators. 

Listen to the episode here, and subscribe below:

(Full archive of the Preps Lab podcast)

About The Preps Lab

The Preps Lab with TJ Cotterill is a podcast where you will hear authentic conversations about how things get done in high school athletics. Whether it’s a coach, athlete, athletic director of other contributor in the world of improving high school athletes’ experiences, we’ll hear from them and their practical ideas and philosophies on what they do to create successful environments in the ever-evolving world of prep sports. Episodes publish every other Tuesday.

About the host

Cotterill has been covering high school sports for more than a decade. He’s a former sportswriter at The Bellingham Herald and The Tacoma News Tribune, where he spent more than three years as their high school sports coordinator and a year covering the Seattle Mariners. He is a substitute teacher in the Puyallup School District and assistant coach with the Puyallup boys basketball program. Reach TJ on Twitter @TJCotterill.

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Episode Breakdown

2:10 minute mark: How did Wusterbarth believe players felt about him and what motivated him to coach? 

5:25: How responsibilities and expectations have changed for coaches over the years

8:10: Parent expectations in the program and philosophy on player discipline

14:40: How frequency of player transfers over the years impacted coaching

16:50: Reflections on first year coaching, winning the state title and how that shaped the rest of Wusterbarth’s coaching career and philosophies 

26:55: The importance of connecting, while also not trying to be the players’ friend

29:40: How have the qualities needed to be a successful coach changed over the years? What does it take today compared to decades past? 

34:20: Philosophies on player development and what skills it took to be successful for players in his program

38:00: What it takes to develop good, working relationships with school administrators

39:30: Recommendations for coaches today on setting themselves up for a lasting career that makes an impact on students, the school and community

Notable quotes

Gary Wusterbarth: “You got to find ways to be yourself. You can’t try to be someone you’re not. I could not be a Frosty (Westering). I could not be that positive. There were times I needed to be able to lower the boom and let people know they are not doing their job. Being yourself, finding yourself and finding out what kind of coach you want to be is very important.” 

“We always had a locked door policy so no one could come into the gym while we were coaching so that we had the kids’ attention, and we could work for them for an hour without dad telling them what to do. When we had parents there, they are calling them over to talk to them and it just wasn’t a good atmosphere.” 

“With this pay to play there is an expectation that if they pay then they better get to play. Those are difficult factors that are there today that we didn’t really deal with much when I first started.” 

I had a parent who was vocal about what should be going on in the game. I took his kid out and told him to sit with his dad to find out what he wanted. The kid said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So in his uniform the kid went and walked up about four rows and sat next to his dad and said, ‘What do you want? Coach says you’re yelling at me on the floor and that I can’t go back in until I find out what you want so you’ll quit yelling.’” 

“You have to be careful with parents because if you try to be their friend then there’s an expectation that they’re getting something in return. You need to let them know right away that I’m coaching your son because I love the game of basketball. And I have 36 other sons out there.” 

“For the first two games he (Rod Whatley) didn’t even play, the MVP of the state tournament. People were about ready to go through the roof on me discipline-wise. But I said to them, ‘so you’re saying you want a kid to fail his English class so he can’t go to college?’ I was very, very consistent and very goal-oriented as a team on all the discipline I tried to do.” 

“If you commit to that (transfers) and that’s your sole reason for how you get players, then it’s going to end up hurting you really bad in the end because they will go away and they won’t buy into your program. We wanted kids who wanted to buy into the Steilacoom program, be excited and do the things Steilacoom people do.” 

“It was weird holding that gold ball after one year and looking at my high school coach, Bob Ross, who never had a chance to do that. He got third a couple times. But it was like, ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’” 

“I always believed any rule I made I should be able to follow myself. I thought that was very important – I ought to be the example for them, maybe even to the extreme.” 

I lived in the John Wooden era, Mike Krzyzewski, Marv Harshman – you watch those guys coach and I went to their camps. That’s what you wanted to be was one of them. I always tried to emulate what I learned from them. I always dressed professionally to represent the community, the kids were presentable when they took the floor representing their school, community and their families. It was a lot more than just playing basketball, bouncing the ball on the floor and putting points on the scoreboard … I was always more consumed with those things as a coach than the Xs and Os and winning the games.”

“We went to elementary schools and talked to elementary school kids about good habits, about staying in school. I told our guys , though, that you can’t step in front of a bunch of 6 year olds and tell them to study and do their homework when you don’t. They’ll smell it and they’ll be able to tell from a mile away. So I always just tried to be that example. 

Sometimes I didn’t get to laugh at all the jokes, sometimes I didn’t get to do all the funny things with the team. It comes with the territory. It’s part of being a head coach. It’s what has to happen.” 

“We always talked about how you should never ask to start. If you want to start then all you care about is that. You don’t care about the team or anything else.” 

A big difference today is you have to explain more why you are telling them to do what you want them to do than you used to have to. You used to tell them that you need to go here and they say, ‘Yes, coach.’ You have to sell them today on the fact that what we’re asking them to do is best for the team and for themselves.” 

“Now it’s just a simple screen, penetrate, kick or hit the guy rolling to the basket and that’s it. When you watch all these teams that’s it. Call the guy up, he sets a screen, come off the screen, look for the 3, look for the drop pass to the guy rolling to the hoop or you look for the kick out to the corner. That said, it has gotten more complicated now because players have gotten better at it.”

“Players coming back and coaching with you is really a fun experience to have. Any coach if they have the chance should do it. It’s awesome.” 

“We were walking off the floor at halftime and I was yelling at (Bob Ross) and I said, ‘Geez, we’ve been practicing this all week and they can’t do it in the game?’ He goes, ‘Isn’t it amazing that you put your career in the hands of a 16-year-old kid? I don’t know what you were thinking.”

“I used to go scout every game I could because I wanted to see teams in person. But I would leave at halftime because my daughters were going to bed and I wanted to get home to say goodnight to them. Those are things you have to be aware of – keep it in perspective. On the weekends I tried to just stay focused on the things I needed to do as a dad, as a husband and as a person just to keep my sanity. It seemed to work pretty well for me. I know some people just get too absorbed and can’t do that, but it seemed to work for me. I saw a lot of coaches getting divorces when I first started and I said, ‘I don’t want to do that, I can’t do that.’ So I always made sure I was communicating with my wife.”

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