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Mike Hopkins on The Campbell Conversations

  The Syracuse University Men's Basketball Team is off to a good start this season, in its first season in the ACC.  The team is 9-0 and ranked 4th in the nation after defeating Binghamton University on Saturday.  On this week's edition of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher talks with Mike Hopkins, SU associate head coach.  Hopkins discusses how athletics and academics mix in big-time college sports, the recipes for success as a player and a coach, and how some aspects of the system might be improved. 

Full transcript of the interview:

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. My guest today is Mike Hopkins, an Associate Head Coach for Syracuse University’s Men’s Basketball Program. He is in his eighteenth season as a Coach with the Orange. He played on the team from 1989 to 1993. He has also been involved as a Coach in International and Olympic efforts. Mike, welcome to the program.

Mike Hopkins (MH): Thank you for having me.

GR: For you and for our listeners, let me just start first by saying what I am not going to ask you about and then we’ll go from there. I’m not going to ask you about what it’s like to be waiting to be the Head Coach, and I’m not going to ask you about Bernie Fine. I think those topics have been covered by other media sources extensively. So I had some other things I want to get into with you about basketball and about collegiate sports.

And the first one is, the place of high profile college sports in our society – the effects that it has on high school kids and the players in college, other kinds of topics. These things get debated a lot. And so this might be an impossibly broad question, but how well do you think the system of big time college sports works overall?

MH: I think it works really well. We are in debate all the time – should athletes get paid? Going back and forth. I thought Coach Boeheim had some amazing comments recently when he talked about what colleges do for prospective professionals. So they are saying they come and they are making millions of dollars. We say we are giving them the platform; we are giving them the stage. We are giving them a fifty five thousand dollar a year education, we are giving them the exposure. So, I think I am with that. I am not for paying athletes.

I think student athletes come to get a great education. If they make it, that’s great. If they don’t, I mean you have the rest of your life to get a good job, get exposure to boosters and alumni and opportunities that normal students wouldn’t get.

GR: I wanted to ask you about that question of paying the players. In particular, one might say, “Well, you give them the platform but also they are waiting for this big payoff down the road and while they are playing in college they are exposing themselves to the risk of injury” - you get all that going on.

So, wouldn’t it be a little fairer and sort of more honest for the schools to go ahead and say, “Look, we are going to treat this like the NBA (and) give you your NBA player cut kind of thing.”

MH: I don’t think so. I think the kids that are coming, for instance, we are recruiting a lot of kids that have big dreams and aspirations. And you’ll be sitting there, we’ll be at a recruiting dinner and you’ll look on the television that we’ll have on the ticker under ESPN “So and so just signed 27 million dollars four-year guaranteed contract.” And the first would say,”Oh, he’s not that good. He got 27 million dollars? He’s not that good.”

So even understanding the education of what these kids – if they get a four-year degree and they become an educator, they become a school teacher and their first starting salary is $37,000. I don’t think they have the gauge in their brain to say this is a heck of a job, this is a great opportunity to grow and get here when you are sitting there going, “This kid is horrible and he’s getting 27 million dollars guaranteed for four years.” Do they think they are a failure? How does their mindset make up? And I think that’s where the culture of basketball gets a little bit distorted, especially at the AAU (high school) level.

GR: And you said at the beginning that you thought overall that the system works pretty well. Is there one aspect about it though that you think does not work? Is there one worst aspect?

MH: Okay, they talk about paying efforts. I don’t think that you should pay a kid ten thousand dollars to go to college. But a lot of the kids that have need get Pell Grants. So a lot of these kids are getting forty to – if you are a full Pell Grant guy you are getting $40,000 a semester. So now you are getting $8,000 a year. That’s over $1,000 a month that you are in school, as well as, your scholarship.

Now, the one thing that I would suggest is, for the kid that may be – combined mom and dad, if they make sixty thousand dollars a year – you’re not eligible for Pell Grant but they might have five or six children in their family. So maybe they expand for a student athlete what you are eligible for a Pell Grant from Federal Aid for some student athletes. So, it’s to be able to have some spending money, it’s to be able to have a coat and to have boots. And they have programs now; they have the Big East Fund where if you were eligible for a Pell Grant that would allow you to have $500 to go buy some boots and a jacket and stuff like that. So you’re not asking for a lot, you are asking for a little but I think that the way that they do the Pell Grant would be another creative way those student athletes to have a little bit more money.

GR: And you were talking just a minute ago about the kids seeing these big contracts, so let’s set aside for a moment the kids who do go on to get the NBA contracts. It does seem like the athletic scholarship process does work out very well for some kids but then not so much for others. We can think of examples where there had been problems. What do you think, in your experience, are the most important factors that make for the difference between the kids who really sort of this works out for, they go get a teaching job and that is all great. They wouldn’t have had that opportunity before.  And those who crash on the rocks along the way.

MH: I think of the value of education, we were talking about it earlier when we were coming down the stairs. And I had mentioned to you, I went to my father, he was a successful entrepreneur, had a family-owned business. I went to the best high school in the States, Southern California. It’s the modern day; great education - parents stressed that, how important it was. My first three years in Syracuse, you know I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I was getting hammered by my mom and dad all the time and I had all the resources to do exceptional things academically. It wasn’t my focus. It took me – I was a redshirt – it took me my fourth year, I was here for five years. It took me that fourth year to really understand the value, my grades really shot up. I became more mature. And I think that’s part of it.

I also think it’s part of having great coaches, great mentors. The one thing I love about coaching is having that impact to be able to tell them, “Even though you think you are going to make it, there are possibilities that you might not. What can you do now?” and I was very lucky at Syracuse to have Coach Boeheim and Timmy O’Toole who were great role models for me. Teaching me what athletics could do to help me be successful in life, as well as, showing me that “You know what Mike, you might not make it.” (Laughs) That’s when the emergency button was pushed; I said I just have to start studying more. But the value was, I think, the maturity that I went through in having great coaches.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with Mike Hopkins, Associate Head Coach for the Syracuse University Mens Basketball program. You were talking about your own experience there and where the light for you went on and education toward the end of your undergraduate time. I was curious to know whether just from the stand point of the different time demands that it was hard for you to get a quality education and also do the basketball, because it just seems like it’s a very long day.

MH: Well, if you think about this, most student athletes - I’m talking about Men’s basketball across the board - don’t have or if it was based on my grades in high school as well as my SAT I wouldn’t have been accepted to Syracuse University. And I would have to say that is eighty percent to ninety percent if you went nationwide in terms of the schools that these kids go to. And then on top of that, now you are taking a twenty, thirty hour a week job per se. And then you have the stresses of family, maybe you are not up to par academically with your peers. Your struggle, you’re doing study table, hours that demand travel. So the student athlete has a lot of demands like you are saying. But I think most student athletes are very, very competitive, so whatever you focus on, I think you can be successful on.

So my focus as a student athlete was basketball. Being a pro was my dream. So every day that I got up I wasn’t thinking about, “Jeez, I have this history test today.” I was thinking about how do I get to the starting line-up?” (laughs) So running at night or getting an extra lift, you know I was a skinny kid so I was constantly eating – making milkshakes at night and protein powder. I did everything possible to make that dream come true. And that’s where I thought when the light turned on academically and I realized how important it was, that maturity, that coaching; now I was able to turn a focus. I became competitive academically, and I saw myself just rise successfully because that’s what I wanted to do. And I think a lot of kids feel that way, especially student athletes.

GR: Now, you stayed here for the whole time.

MH: Yeah.

GR: Not everybody does. That is one of the reasons why, at least in my reading, in my understanding that this idea of paying players gets put forward because this is going to be a way to keep the kids at the school for the whole time. You are not in favor of that but are you in favor of any other kind of proposals? Maybe changing the NBA draft eligibility requirements (you know) to raise those?

MH: I think the idea if a player would like to go to the pros out of high school and he doesn’t have his mind on going to college, why are we making them go to college? You know we have 18 year olds that are going off to the military; they are fighting for our country. Allow them the opportunity, okay? I also think something for a student athlete because everybody matures at a different time and everybody is different. You see a lot of athletes fall on hard times, you say wow geez. If you look back you had the opportunity, you were in college. By going back to the time demands, their focus, being below the bar in terms of what the rest of the student body is. If you are going to make this money for the university or college conferences, give them an opportunity. If they sign a letter of intent, a document, let them have a lifetime to get their education. It’s also when you see a player that made 100 million dollars and then fifteen years later lost 100 million dollars, you know. Like if they went two years or three, let them go back and finish their degree. Make it a forever piece for student athletes.

GR: I’m Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with Mike Hopkins, Associate Head Coach for the Syracuse University Mens Basketball program. Some people in the sports media have called you a statistics junkie, I’ve read that phrase. How much of good Coaching in your view is analytical and in the head and how much of it is in the gut?

MH: Well I think that you know my boss in general; he’s the best gut guy on the planet.  You know I watch him and everything is through experience and having so much experience, you know if you could see in his mind. You see the neurons; everything is just clicking in times just figuring things out. But in a strange sense, he has his own analytics.

And I was reading an article yesterday and Eric Spoelstra, the coach of the Miami Heat said, “You call it analytics, you know back in the day we call it statistics.” (Laughs) Just different ways that you look at it. I like it to be able to sell your players on getting better.

For instance, I had a friend, we were doing some statistical analysis and he said to me, “Mike, do you know Baye Moussa Keita - our center at Syracuse - is one of the top offense rebounders of the country per forty minutes of play, whatever his numbers. But on the flipside he’s one of the worse defensive rebounders in terms of minutes played. So, ding ding ding I walked right up to Baye. I’m like, “Baye, come here.” So you know, we’ve been talking about offense rebounding, you play with such a great motor, you have been going really hard but  you  know what you really have to work hard on the defense and the rebounding. Do you see the numbers? The numbers don’t lie, they may not tell the whole truth but they don’t lie.” So, I like the combination of views and analytics as well as gut, I think I’m 50:50, I like the balance of it. I think it’s also another way to sell your players on something that you are trying to get across.

For instance, a great story, my friend coaches at the University of Miami. Two years ago they were rated 118th in the country in field goal percentage defense at 41.5.  The most definable or the most synonymous statistic for final four teams in the last two years is being in the top ten in the country in defense and field goal percentage. So he said, if you get one more stop per half and retain possession, which means, if the other team shoots you get the rebound, they don’t score that basket and we retain possession. That they would have gone down from 41.5 – and I might get these numbers mixed up - to 37.5, which would be 7th in the country. So you would go from 118th to 7th in the country if you just got one more stop. Now, it’s like the one commercial that you see – just one more. Just one more!

So, that’s an easy thing to sell to your team at a time out. “Guys, one more stop. This is our stop – we need to get this stop, we need to retain this rebound.” And you can see, it’s like compound interest. When the kids look at it, “Jeez, one more stop if we do that we could be at the top 10?” It shows you the fine line but it also sells your team on what you are trying to accomplish.

GR: And I interview many politicians on this program and I’ve heard many of them say that for them the low of losing is bigger than the high from winning.  I wanted to know if that is true for coaches too.

MH: Well, I think that’s very true. Uh, I’m probably a little bit more optimistic. My boss said last night at dinner, he said, “If I can give anybody some advice in this room tonight, it’s losing is not good.” (Laughs) and he said; ”Do you all know Chutes and Ladders? Did any of you kids play Chutes and Ladders?”

And a lot of kids raised their hands and he said, “I hate to lose at shoots and Chutes and Ladders? and I’m probably known to cheat a little bit to make sure I don’t.” (Laughs) Which wasn’t the greatest message but the idea of it is that’s how much he hates to lose. So, for me, I’m more of the process and I don’t know if it’s my detriment but I focus on how do I get better for tomorrow? Or excuse me, how do I get better today?

GR: Speaking of the losses though, what would you consider to be your most difficult loss as a coach?

MH: I think the most difficult thing for a coach is when you lose to a team that you know you can beat. I think that is a tough thing.  So much in basketball is timing, so much of it is luck. You know we lose four or five and at the end of the year and all of a sudden we get on a run. In the Big East Tournament; we get  to the Final Four. And we beat some teams that were probably what we felt we over-achieved. I think Indiana was a great team our defense was great. And then we played Michigan and we didn’t play our best game. And I think the hardest thing for a coach when you get to that level is not playing your best game on that moment. You know, you get that moment. I was watching The Voice last night, you know you get that moment for the knock out round. The hardest thing just going through them was, “Wow, why didn’t you play your best?” You go back and then you self evaluate. I think that would be the hardest thing for me.

GR: In case you’ve just joined us, you’re listening to the Campbell Converstations and I’m talking with Mike Hopkins, Associate Head Coach for the Syracuse University Mens Basketball team. A pool of Head Coaches ranked you the second most feared recruiter in College Basketball. That’s high praise. So do you have one particularly memorable recruiting experience that you can relate to me?

MH: Well, yeah Gerry McNamara, little kid from Scranton Pennsylvania and everybody talked about Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Irish Town, Irish Catholic and he had Notre Dame pillows, Notre Dame bedspread. (Laughs)

Going down there his Uncle was Mayor of Scranton and my goal at that time was I was going to become part of the family. And I always thought that if he was going to say “No” it would have hurt him more to say “No” to me more than anybody else. And so, my first son, my oldest son Griff; my wife was pregnant. She would go down to the games with me and you know in Syracuse we sell the family. I tried to get in with the family, we recruited him like he was family, we recruited his entire family from the Mayor to his mom to his uncle to the local bartender to the so and so. I would always make a comment like you know, if Coach K or any of these guys come in here, the Syracuse Mafia--you need to call me. We sold Tipperary Hill, we sold everything. I think the greatest thing about people from Scranton, especially the McNamaras, it’s very similar community as Syracuse. Very hard working, blue collar good people and I think that is the one thing that we sell here. But it’s authentic, it’s not like I would say “sell” but it is who we are and I thought that was a great match. But that is how I recruited him, it was funny because I knew Gerry’s girlfriend to his best friend, Chrys Flynn and I would talk to Flynnie all the time and I would recruit every different angle. And when my wife would get in there and – he would get forty points – her being pregnant, I think that was when we closed the deal.

GR: And what are you going to miss most about leaving the Big East?

MH: You know just the memories of the great coaches, the great players, the great competition, the great rivalries, the great arenas. Playing in Providence, I thought is an amazing place, being in Eastern cities I loved going. I loved going to play Connecticut. The relationships, even how Coach Thompson, Coach Boeheim and Coach Senior – John Thompson Senior, they were so competitive but it was so cool for me to see. It was kind of like Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader and then when John Thompson retired and you saw him in different events you saw the mutual respect. Even like Coach Calhoun and Coach Boeheim they had so many just unbelievable battles but there is so much respect and that’s where I thought what the Big East was about. It’s about respect, the great programs, and great traditions. And it was something that when it was built it built this school, it built College Basketball.

When you think about Syracuse you have got ten thousand; eleven thousand undergrads, six thousand graduate students whatever that may be and we get thirty thousand people come over for games. ESPN, The league, look at Providence College, little Colleges became names, brands. The coaching industry was born. From making thirty five thousand dollars a year, wearing Pro Keds, to getting million dollar Nike deals. I mean, that was the explosion; that was the tipping point.

GR: Is there something about the ACC that most appeals to you? Is there one thing you are looking forward to the most?

MH: I think the greatest thing is the competition; it could be the greatest league of all times. You have got Coach Williams who’s a hall of fame Coach, Rick Pitino hall of fame Coach, Coach Boeheim hall of fame Coach, Mike Krzyzewski. You’ve got two of the all-time winning Coaches in the history of basketball traditions. The only difference is, geographically, the plane goes a little bit different area and you go end up playing in college, more environment than when we played these big NBA Arenas and these big East Coast cities. Now we are going to be going to college towns and college environments but all of this is just a different navigational instrument used for a plane.

GR: Will you play the same game [in the new conference]?

MH: No question, no question.  It’s going to be interesting, a lot of the coaches we have played against. We have played against Coach Williams. We played against them when we won the National Championship. We have played against Coach K three or four times. Coach Boeheim has worked with Coach K for probably fifteen to twenty years, I have had the opportunity for the last eight with the World Championships and the Olympics. So we know them pretty good. You know you still have Pittsburgh, you still have Notre Dame. We played against Leonard Hamilton when he was the head coach at Miami. There is a lot a familiarity and we have competed against these guys and they are amazing programs, amazing competitors and that’s what makes a great league.

GR: Let me get to the three questions at the end. First, what’s the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?

MH: Patience.

GR: Second, what’s your worst trait?

MH: I can’t say no.

GR: And finally, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

MH:  Where I am today. You know I never thought that I would be coaching. I was going to go work for my dad in business but he couldn’t hire me, and I ended up working with kids I love. I loved helping people get better. Loved it!

GR: That was Mike Hopkins. Mike, thanks so much for talking with me.

MH: Thank you very much.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.