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Playing from ahead

Coaches find different ways to improve during the offseason

Posted: July 30, 2009 9:53 p.m.
Updated: July 31, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Saugus football head coach Jason Bornn diagrams a play at Saugus High School. Bornn, like some other coaches, spends part of his offseason with programs that employ strategy similar to the Centurions. Saugus football head coach Jason Bornn diagrams a play at Saugus High School. Bornn, like some other coaches, spends part of his offseason with programs that employ strategy similar to the Centurions.
Saugus football head coach Jason Bornn diagrams a play at Saugus High School. Bornn, like some other coaches, spends part of his offseason with programs that employ strategy similar to the Centurions.
Adaptability is an important ingredient to coaching success.

There's an adage in the NBA that if you don't add an extra wrinkle to your game every offseason, you're not going to last.

The same principle applies to coaches.

"If you want to get better, you've got to try to find different ways," says Vance Walberg, an assistant men's basketball coach at the University of Massachusetts. "The hard thing in sports is to think outside the box. Most people tend to go with what's status quo."

In 1997, Walberg formulated arguably the biggest strategic development in amateur basketball over the last two decades.

He called it the "Attack-attack-skip-attack-attack" (or AASAA) offense, which utilized four wing players and a single post man in a system that was less about rigid sets and more about the improvisation of the athletes.

The system catered to his two best players at Clovis West High School, guards Chris Hernandez and Tyrone Jackson, and in many respects, it was the culmination of a decade's worth of offseason study.

"I like to go watch other college coaches in the first week every year," he says. "I started doing it in 1987. I just tried to find new strategy and make it fit my team."

Walberg's habit of observing other programs is common among more experienced coaches, who have had time to develop a philosophy and stick to it.

"The last three years, what we've done is look at colleges that do things similar to us to pick up nuances," says Saugus football head coach Jason Bornn. "We're confident we know who we are and what we're doing. It wouldn't be productive for us to talk to someone who does something differently from a schematic standpoint."

Bornn and his staff have visited a wealth of colleges since taking over at Saugus in 2003, including College of the Canyons, Texas A&M, Air Force Academy, Wofford College (South Carolina), the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The staff has also visited other high school programs, and the research led to new wrinkles in Saugus' formations.

The Centurions ran the option out of a two-back formation early in Bornn's tenure, but they flexed it and now operate with one back and four receivers, which allows the quarterback more options through the air.

In Saugus' 3-4 defense, blitzes were rare early in Bornn's tenure.

Now, he estimates that the Centurions blitz on 60 or 70 percent of their plays.

"The best way I can say it is when we first moved in, we had a three-bed, two-bath house," he says. "It's still that, but we've done some remodeling."

There are other ways for coaches to remodel their philosophies.

Across the country, clinics are available that offer coaches the chance to learn new strategies and instruction tactics.

"There are always other ways you can learn, but by the same token, you try to pick up new ideas," says Bob Murrey, president of USA Coaches Clinics, a company that runs several national clinics every year and sells coaching materials for 15 different sports. "Coaches will run a drill that doesn't amount to a hill of beans. If you come to a clinic, they might show you a drill that will help more."

Some coaches don't like the regimented curriculum that camps generally offer.

"A lot of times at clinics, the coach talks for an hour," Walberg says. "Fifteen minutes about himself, 15 minutes about his influences, about a half hour about what they used to run a few years ago."

Still, Murrey believes that individual instruction is the best teaching method.

Before declining sponsorships cut back USA Coaches Clinics' resources, Murrey says that basketball Hall-of-Famers Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski would conduct clinics for the company.

"I've always thought that if you want to learn something, learn it in-depth from one coach," Murrey says. "The best way to learn is if you go to coaching academies in the summer time. To me, that was the best way to learn."

Other coaches agree - or at least they did early in their careers.

Greg Hayes served as an assistant at UCLA and worked camps under former Bruins coaches John Wooden and Larry Brown.

Now the co-head coach of Valencia's boys varsity basketball team, Hayes fondly remembers his experiences.

"When I was younger, I went all the time," he says. "I took notes galore. I just soaked it all up. That was very valuable as a young coach."

Hayes is also the freshman girls soccer head coach at Valencia, and unlike basketball, he learned the sport on the fly.

Local soccer coaches like Brian Hicks and Jim Niner taught him the game.

Hayes credits the local American Youth Soccer Organization for helping him reach the high school level.

Now that he has a family, Hayes rarely attends coaching clinics.

"You tailor your own coaching experience as much as possible to put your family first," he says. "Coaching Valencia at basketball and soccer is the perfect situation for me. I don't have the time or focus to do all that other stuff."

Bornn attended clinics early in his career with one eye toward learning and the other toward his own future as a head coach.

"I went to clinics because I didn't know anything," he says. "I gradually became more aware of specifics and focused in on what I would do as a head coach, as well as at my current job."

Bornn has parlayed that knowledge into his own clinic, where he chooses which coaches will be invited.

It's a chance for the staff to learn what it wants to learn, without the extra nonsense.

"I focus on inviting high school guys," he says. "A lot of times when you hear college coaches at clinics, you hear stuff that's pretty basic. What they're saying is something we all could do if we had the type of athletes they do."

Other coaches prefer staying within their own circle - including Walberg.

He regularly attends the Nike Championship Basketball Coaches Clinic in Las Vegas, which takes place around Mother's Day every year.

Among the instructors at the clinic is Kentucky head coach John Calipari, who adopted Walberg's AASAA offense while at Memphis.

"I really think that's one of the big things nowadays," Walberg says. "Some coaches will get together and have their own family clinic, like coach Cal in Kentucky. If I was a young coach, I'd be looking into getting into one of those or starting one of those with my friends."

If a young coach were to do that, it would prove his adaptability.

That means it's necessary.

"One of the motivators for us every year that goes by, you realize the game is so big and there's so much to learn," Bornn says. "If you want to be good and you want to stay on top of things, you almost have to have an addiction and a passion to get better, and do things better than you've done them in the past.

"It's not to say we won't go back and revisit things in the past, but I don't think it happens very often."


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