Q&A with Lady Tigers head coach Donnie RobertsPublished 8:52pm Monday, February 24, 2014
By Bart Moss
For the FCT
Editor’s note: Freelance writer Bart Moss sat down with Red Bay High School girls’ basketball coach Donnie Roberts this past week to discuss his coaching career and his recent successes on and off the court.
Earlier this season, Roberts became the first girls’ basketball coach in the state of Alabama to surpass the 800-win mark. He was won state championships at Red Bay in 1987, 1993, and 2001. Recently, the Tigers reached the state finals in 2012. Roberts has been named 2A Coach of the Year four times, in 1987, 1993, 2000 and 2001. He will be inducted in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2014.
Bart Moss: Why did you get into coaching?
Donnie Roberts: Basically, my love for the game of basketball. That is the main reason. I loved it as a player and as a coach. As a player and a coach my dream and goal is always to get to the state championship. I was able to go in the ninth grade at Tremont, Miss. I’ve been able to do it as a coach. It never gets old. Every experience is new and unique. It’s why I coach.
Bart Moss: What led you to coaching girls basketball?
Donnie Roberts: When I got into coaching I never dreamed I would be coaching girls and that girls’ basketball would be my passion. That was never on the agenda at all. When I first got into coaching at Tremont I was given a choice to coach varsity boys or varsity girls. My sister, Robin, was in the ninth grade and I chose to coach the girls. And, you know what, it was probably the best career decision I made in my life.
Bart Moss: What is your philosophy when it comes to scheduling and competition?
Donnie Roberts: If you are going to try to play for a state championship you have to beef your schedule up. We do that every year playing in the Lauderdale County Tournament. It’s the best tournament in Alabama for girls’ basketball. If you want to find out how good you are or where you are at as a program, you go play in that tournament and you will find out quickly. We play some Mississippi teams that are sometimes just on another level. We played New Site this year and they compete for the Mississippi state championship every year. We played Ponotac, Miss. Wow! That may have been one of the best teams I have ever seen. We’ve been successful but that didn’t turn out well. We played Briarcrest out of Memphis. They were undefeated and still undefeated but we almost beat them. You play differently when you play top-level competition. You can’t get better playing weaker competition. What does your record really matter? Not much if you get beat when it counts. What are the most important games of the year? There are only about seven or eight game that really matter – the area tournament, sub-region, region and state. If you lose you go home. If you win, you keep playing. That is what we play for in October, November, December and January. That’s my thinking when I schedule games and tournaments.
Bart Moss: What is the difference in coaching girls from coaching boys?
Donnie Roberts: A lot of people say you have to coach girls differently. I coach them just like boys. What is special about girls? If you give them your all, they will work for you. I coach them like athletes.
Bart Moss: How do you build a consistent winning program over time?
Donnie Roberts: I had good high school coaches that taught me a lot about the game. I still use what I was taught by them. We do have dry spells at Red Bay. There was about a ten-year time period where we couldn’t get back to the regional. You are going to have a change in material and it goes in cycles. When I came here from Mississippi, my record was 142-127. Women’s basketball in Mississippi in the 1970s was tough and Alabama wasn’t even playing. Women didn’t start back playing in Alabama until 1975 or 76, so after I came here it was not that hard to win because girls were simply not used to playing. During my first six or seven years here you see some other schools start taking the game seriously and start getting better. In Mississippi it was a dogfight every night. You might have a couple of easy ones but not many.
Bart Moss: What are the biggest changes you seen in the game?
Donnie Roberts: I’ve seen it all. We can go back a few years. You used to have an offense on one end and a defense on the other end. You had some rovers who could play on both ends of the court. It was confusing and hard to follow. Offensive players couldn’t cross their end of the court, defensive players couldn’t cross their end of the court. If there was a jump ball situation, you jumped. We didn’t have alternating possessions. You had a lot of jump balls; I mean a lot. I hated it. We went from three-on-three to four-on-four to five-on-five. Of course, in the 90s we went to the three-point shot. The game is always evolving. I fear we are headed for the shot clock at some point soon. I don’t like it. You have to coach without a shot clock. I’ve been able to stay in games with teams that were a lot better than us because we didn’t have a shot clock and we had people that were smart, could handle the ball and make good passes. The shot clock came into the game in 80s because Dean Smith and North Carolina beat a heavily favored Virginia team with Ralph Samson in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Smith ran the four corners offense all night and wore Virginia out and beat them. If they would have gotten into a running game with Virginia they couldn’t have beat them. The next year the shot clock came in. If you have a high talent level, you can run up and down the court all night long. But, when you don’t have that athleticism and talent level, you can neutralize them with offense designed to run the clock like the four corners. I think, as a coach, we can play slow or we can play fast. My job as a coach is to know the difference and not let ego get in the way.
Bart Moss: What are the biggest changes you have seen in kids?
Donnie Roberts: When I first started coaching, kids were so team oriented. Kids used to take a great deal of pride in just being part of the team. They didn’t have to start. In my early days at Red Bay, I might dress out 25 girls on the junior high team. Only five can play. Now, we struggle county-wide to have teams. In the 70s, if you didn’t play basketball you didn’t have anything to do. It’s all they had to focus on. They took a great deal of pride in it. Same way in the 80s. I believe the increase in mobility and modern technology just gives kids more distractions and more things to do and the hard work of sports and training takes a back seat. Used to, you went outside, picked up a ball and played. They played all the time. Now they are always on their phones, video games and computers.
Bart Moss: What has been you biggest challenge as a coach?
Donnie Roberts: You have to be able to motivate players. I’ve been lucky here at Red Bay. When you talk state championships, these girls respond to that. They step up to the challenge. They are not afraid to play really good competition and challenge themselves. I don’t care about AAU and things like that. I coach to play for state championships. That is our main goal every year. We may or may not win eight or 10 games, but my goal is a state championship and that is the way I’m going to coach.
Bart Moss: Would you still coach if you had it to do all over again?
Donnie Roberts: No doubt about it. As far as I know, I think that’s what God called me to do. I hope I’ve been a positive influence on my players. It goes back to relationships. It’s not about money. You can’t get into coaching because of money. One of my great joys is to hear other coaches and other people compliment our teams and the way they play. I teach them to be competitive and have sportsmanship at all times. We are going to play hard but we are going to play with class. It is satisfying to me to hear people talk about the team’s good character. It’s always great to see these girls go on to successful lives. I’ve had players who have become doctors, teachers, coaches, and have successful businesses. You can learn a lot from these games – being disciplined, being on time, how to win, how to lose, how to set goals.
Bart Moss: What would you tell a young person wanting to get into coaching?
Donnie Roberts: I would not start off at the varsity level. I would start off at the junior high level. I would find a good varsity coach and sit with them and learn.
Bart Moss: What would you tell young players just getting started about being successful at sports?
Donnie Roberts: You have to love the game. You have to have a passion to play the game. It can’t be your parents pushing you to play the game. You have to want to. If you don’t, you will never be successful. Next, you have to work hard on the fundamentals. Master the basics. Challenge yourself constantly.