Going through a coaching change

With the conclusion of the third round of March Madness this past weekend, the remaining teams get the next few days to concentrate on surviving the Sweet 16 and moving one step closer to playing in Atlanta come April 6. The losing teams, however, will head back to the drawing board and spend the offseason formulating a plan to go deeper in next year’s tournament, part of which may include the firing of a head coach.

UCLA and the University of Minnesota opted for this path, notifying their respective coaches, Ben Howland and Tubby Smith, after their teams failed to advance. I imagine the Bruin and Gopher teams are currently engulfed in a sea of emotions, feeling more lost than Pi and his tiger — or at least I was when I learned of my own coach’s departure here on the University’s track team.

If I can compare my experience to what either one of these teams will feel in the coming weeks, it is probably closest to the Bruins’ — because, like they undoubtedly were, I was completely shocked by my coach’s departure. UCLA landed the No. 1 recruiting class leading up to this season and they arguably secured the best high school baller in Shabazz Muhammad. The future of UCLA basketball was looking bright, regardless of their postseason performance, and I’m certain it surprised the team to receive the troubling news.

While I’m not Shabazz Muhammad nor part of a top-ranked recruiting class — we were actually No. 5 — I was nonetheless completely stunned when I got the phone call telling me I no longer had a head coach. As far as I, and the rest of my recruiting class, were concerned, the University’s track team was headed in the right direction. We had one of the more respected track coaches in the country.

The first thing that I really thought about was how such a great portion of my commitment to the University was a result of the coach I no longer had. It was hard to comprehend that the primary reason I committed to Virginia would now no longer be a part of my career. I couldn’t believe what was happening and didn’t really know how to approach the situation.

I was lost, just like my teammates were and the UCLA basketball program is right now. It was strange, at first, because I had no idea how to keep going. Was I supposed to just not worry about it, keep training and wait for the next guy to come in? Was I supposed to be angry at the athletics department? I chose the former — deciding not to dwell on decisions already made and wait to see what happens.

Not all of my teammates did the same. When going through a coaching change you’ll have some teammates bring up the option of transferring. I could never see myself at another school, but I understood why some of my teammates might have wanted to leave. After all, the man who trained us to elite shape and knew how to win championship-caliber meets was gone. Even as a first-year without the time to develop a strong relationship with my coach as the fourth-years had already done, I understood their frustrations.

It is only natural for athletes to consider the prospect of transferring when a coaching change occurs at the collegiate level. I will be shocked if no one from the UCLA basketball team transfers or turns pro early as a result of Howland’s dismissal.

But despite the mixed emotions and the anxious uncertainty of the team’s future, some good can come out of a coach’s dismissal. Many of the guys on my team got together to talk about how the team, as a family, would keep training and use our coach’s firing to motivate us. And we did exactly that.

Out of my coach’s firing came a better understanding of what type of organization I am a part of. I am on a great team that didn’t need a coach to bind us all together.

I can’t guarantee the same thing is happening at UCLA right now. Those athletes might not have the same unity my team had, and they could very well be falling apart — especially because they have some of the best freshmen in the country who could play anywhere they desired, with some talented enough to jump straight to the NBA.

And still, there is no guarantee they will be as lucky as I was in getting a new coach.

My team prepared itself for the worst before our new coach was announced – we didn’t want to get our hopes up. The new coach, however, certainly exceeded our expectations.

I hope the guys at UCLA will be as fortunate as we were, because we have done nothing but improve since our coaching shakeup.

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