Steve Pikiell talks reviving Rutgers, March Madness 2021

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Rutgers hoops coach Steve Pikiell takes a timeout before Selection Sunday for some March Madness Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: What would you say will make this Rutgers team dangerous in the NCAA Tournament?

A: We play a fun style, first and foremost. Look, this group has been through a lot. So we’re hardened. I think we do as good a job of preparing for games as a staff and as a program. And we have a center in Myles Johnson who can block shots and play anywhere. … Jacob Young’s as good a defender, Geo Baker can score and assist with anybody. … Paul Mulcahy is the guy that does a little bit of everything. … Ron Harper has the ability to score 25 points and grab 10 rebounds … and we have Montez Mathis, who’s gonna be a 1,000-point scorer coming off the bench … Caleb McConnell, who’s a versatile guy … Cliff Omoruyi, who’s a really talented freshman big guy. … We could be a problem in this tournament. We defend, we do a good job preparing, and I’ve got a bunch of guys that have been through a lot, like Geo. We were in last place his freshman year. You have to fight through a lot to get to where we are now, and there’s no challenge that these guys haven’t faced. The competition in our league is elite, so they’ve faced the best.

Q: Is Sweet 16 a realistic goal?

A: When we are locked in and we are together, we can play. We’re gonna be an interesting team in this tournament. Looking forward to having that opportunity to play someone else, too, from another league.

Q: What do you think your emotions will be on Selection Sunday as the coach of the Rutgers team that is about to go dancing for the first time since 1991?

A: I’m gonna be really excited about our players having this opportunity, and I’m also gonna be very thankful to the players that came before. … Corey Sanders and the Deshawn Freemans and the Mike Williamses of the world … C.J. Gettys … guys that believed in us first when we were building it. Look, I’m gonna be most excited for Rutgers University. It’s a great university with great people — my son is a sophomore at Rutgers. It’ll be fun for our great alums and our following to share in some excitement.

Q: What will you tell your team before that historic first game, the school’s first tournament appearance in 30 years?

A: Let’s go out and have fun and play Rutgers basketball. We have some great kids. I want their personalities to show on television.

Q: Can you describe what this basketball team means to Rutgers University?

A: I tell the guys this too: Our guys weren’t even born the last time [Rutgers] went [in 1991]. Do this for yourselves is the first thing, but we have a 3.5 grade point average as a team, we have 16 players with 3.0s or better last semester. We have three kids in graduate school as we speak. We have two kids that started foundations to help the youth in America. Miles Johnson started a STEM foundation raising money for STEM students to apply to engineering. Paul Mulcahy started the Grateful Four Foundation, which is making people understand being grateful for all the things that they do have. So they really are just an unbelievably mature and unique group that thinks about other people, that wants to graduate and represent the school the right way. So they’re not just a basketball team, I think they’re representative of great things that are happening at Rutgers University, and that alums can be proud of.

Rutgers
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell talks with Jacob Young
AP

Q: So this sounds like an easy team to root for.

A: Every day’s a learning experience for me. I learn stuff from them every day, they keep me young, I really do appreciate that.

Q: Describe senior guard Geo Baker.

A: Geo took the challenge. When I took the job, I sat down with Geo Baker and I said, “Geo, we haven’t been to an NCAA Tournament, we haven’t had a lot of success here. We’re in the best league in the country. You gotta want to take on this challenge with me. You gotta look down the road, you gotta see the vision of what we can do in this league and where we can be.” I challenged a lot of kids to take that same challenge. I admire that he took on a challenge, and he faced it head on and has done an unbelievable job. A lot of people shy away from challenges; he never did, he accepted ’em and made Rutgers basketball better.

Q: Junior guard Ron Harper Jr., from Franklin Lakes, N.J.?

A: Wanted him to stay home, he had a lot of choices where he could go. Again, the vision of staying home and doing something for your state university and the great state of New Jersey. He accepted that challenge too.

Q: Senior guard Jacob Young?

A: He’s one of those kids [who is] high-energy all the time. A terrific young man, a terrific talent too. He’s one of the best defenders in the country. He has a passion for basketball and he’s ultra-competitive.

Q: Describe the traits of a Steve Pikiell basketball player.

A: First of all, I recruit great people. It’s about families, too — great people from great families. I love kids that are determined and have a little chip on their shoulder, but are driven. I want toughness. … I think that Coach [Jim] Calhoun always says: “You can’t lose with toughness.” But I want ’em to love and have a passion for basketball, really. When no one’s watching, I want ’em to want to be good.

Q: What is your motivational style?

A: Each kid is different, too. I coach with a little bit of a chip, we have stuff to prove … and I try to motivate guys differently ’cause every kid is motivated in a different way. But I’m motivated to build programs and have student-athletes enjoy the success that comes with building programs. I’m motivated by giving student-athletes that experience of winning, and cutting down the nets and those kind of things that I was able to do as a student-athlete. Being in the locker room when you celebrate, and doing things for the first time.

Q: Do you ever get angry?

A: (Laugh) Only at the referees.

Q: Some coaches motivate by fear …

A: I have my moments when I’m angry, when I think we’re underachieving. But I just try to teach lessons. … I don’t think you have to rule by that anymore. I think the bench solves that — you don’t want to play today, just sit on the bench, you know? I’m a player coach, and I let ’em play on game day. But I can get angry at times like anyone else.

Q: What won’t you tolerate?

A: I’m a huge effort guy. I try to make sure guys are playing hard. I don’t worry about mistakes with players — play hard. If you don’t play hard, you’re gonna have a problem.

Q: Bill Parcells was a master at resurrecting NFL franchises. What is the key to resurrecting a program and changing a culture?

Q: Bill Parcells was a master at resurrecting NFL franchises. What is the key to resurrecting a program and changing a culture?

A: There’s a couple of things. One is commitment. You have to have a commitment from the people above you, a huge part of it. They have to be aligned, your vision and their vision. And then you have to surround yourself with people different from you that add to your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of a lot of builds as an assistant coach and as a head coach. The leaders above you sharing the same visions, having a realistic approach to how to get those, and surrounding yourself with people that strengthen your weaknesses and enhance your strengths. Then, after you put those two things in place, you gotta find student-athletes that share your same vision, what you’re trying to accomplish.

Q: When you were a freshman point guard at UConn in 1986-87, your team finished 9-19. What did you learn about how Coach Calhoun handled that and turned it around?

A: That was his only losing season, and that was my first year there. The first thing: He doesn’t accept losing. That’s one thing I learned at an early age. He’s not gonna accept mediocre, and he doesn’t make excuses. “You get what you work for” was a thing he would often say. Learned a lot of lessons about building programs from Coach Calhoun and was fortunate enough to then go and do it at a few different other places and learn from other different coaches. But you don’t get what you don’t work for.

Gio Baker
Rutgers’ Geo Baker
Getty Images

Q: Describe your first NCAA Tournament game as a player.

A: My senior year, we were the 1 seed and we were based out of Hartford, Connecticut. We won the Big East, we had a player named Nadav Henefeld and Scott Burrell and Chris Smith. Our first game was against Boston University. We were the talk of Connecticut. There was just a tremendous excitement. The whole state was jumping.

Q: You lost to Duke in the Elite Eight.

A: We lost to Duke in overtime, Christian Laettner. Christian Laettner, it seems he does that to everyone (chuckle). It was at the buzzer, bank shot. It was a tough one, but Coach Calhoun, unbelievably resilient, pledged to get back, and he ended up getting back and actually winning three national championships.

Q: When you took Stony Brook to the Dance in 2016, what did you tell your players before the first-round tip-off in what ended up an 85-57 loss to Kentucky?

A: I think my line to ’em was, “I wouldn’t want to play anybody else.” Now, that wasn’t true (laugh). Like any good coach, you tell your team, “Hey, I have all the confidence in the world. If I could pick a bracket, I would’ve picked Kentucky. We have 40 minutes to shock the world.” We went out there and tried our hardest, but Kentucky was really good (laugh).

Q: Why is Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano successful?

A: First of all, [he’s] extremely bright, knowledgeable, but I think he’s a terrific communicator. I love Rutgers, I think he has that same passion for Rutgers. And, I think that’s what makes him special. We have the right guy.

Q: Why has Steve Pikiell been successful?

A: I love Rutgers, I believe in it. The people, I believe in their mission. I’m a worker, and my confidence in my ability to build programs, especially at a great institution like Rutgers.

Q: You were successful at Stony Brook, too.

A: Really learned a lot there, too, but always I really believed in that institution, and I believed in the people there. The administration and I had a great vision. The coach, you get credit for some of the stuff that happens on a campus — I’ve never been one of those coaches. You need everything to align at a university, and at Stony Brook, we never had a winning season, and then we had a lot of ’em after a while, but it takes housing, it takes admissions, it takes the weight room, it takes the doctors. … There’s so many things that go into building programs. I’m very fortunate we have those things at Rutgers. We have a great doctor, we have great medical facilities, we have great housing, we have all those things. No one ever factors that into your record or anything. We have those ingredients, and we had ’em at Stony Brook University, too. I can’t take any credit for that, those were the people higher up than me.

Q: If you could coach against any college basketball coach in history, who would it be?

A: I’ve read every Bobby Knight book. When I grew up, Steve Alford was there [at Indiana]. I guess if I had to pick a coach, it would be an honor to coach against him. I’m lucky, I’m blessed ’cause I get to coach against Tom Izzo. I think he’s just a special coach and a special person. He mostly beats up on me too, so (laugh) …

Q: If you could coach against one college basketball team in history, which one would it be?

A: When I was growing up, it was St. John’s with Chris Mullin, and all those guys that went to the [1985] Final Four with Coach [Lou] Carnesecca, who I admire greatly. I think that would be a team I would be excited about coaching against.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Jim Calhoun … I owe him a lot of dinners, Bill Belichick, Bobby Knight.

Q: Who are other coaches outside of basketball you admire?

A: I always loved Joe Girardi. … I always loved listening to the press conferences of Coach [Mike] Tomlin from the Steelers. … I read every book I can of Coach [Bill] Walsh from San Francisco 49ers.

Q: What is it about Belichick?

A: I’ve just been intrigued by how he handles his players, how he handles the media, how he’s built an organization, how he always finds players that other people don’t see the value in. And how no matter what his roster looks like, he always figures out a way to win. I know this year was a little bit difficult for him, but I think COVID had a lot to do with that, too. As a coach, all the jobs that I’ve always taken, I’ve always had to figure out a way to win. I didn’t always have the tallest players, I didn’t always have the highest-rated guys. Any of those coaches that have done that, and especially him, just really intrigued me.

Q: Who are NBA coaches you admire?

A: Watching Brad Stevens a lot, I’m a Celtic fan, always admired what he has done and his work. … Obviously Pat Riley, his imprint that he’s had on basketball. I’m intrigued with all of ’em. I try to read everything about any coach that I can. I enjoy learning from others, and I will tell you, two people that I love — Greg Schiano’s been unbelievable, his NFL time, his help for me, and then I have Coach [C. Vivian] Stringer who’s a Hall of Fame coach on the women’s side, she’s been unbelievable, so I’ve learned a ton from those two, and they love Rutgers.

Q: Who are leaders you admire?

A: We have a great leader at Rutgers, [athletic director] Pat Hobbs. He has an unbelievable style, he’s very bright, he’s got vision. Greg Brown is the CEO of Motorola, he’s a big Rutgers guy and I’ve gotten to really know him over the last five years, he’s an unbelievable leader. A mentor of mine.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: I’m a hands-on, roll-up-the-sleeves, get-in-with-everybody kind of leadership style. I’m in the middle of everything. I’m very involved would be my leadership style (chuckle).

Q: Favorite movie?

A: “Hoosiers.”

Q: Favorite actors?

A: George Clooney, Matt Damon.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Meryl Streep.

Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?

A: Bruce Springsteen.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Grew up with nine brothers and sisters, so whatever was on the table (laugh). And I hoped that there was some left.

Q: No favorite meal today?

A: Seafood.

Q: What was it like growing up with nine brothers and sisters?

A: Grew up in a small house. It was always interesting, it was always challenging, very competitive household. When we needed something, we all had jobs, we worked, and we wanted a pair of sneakers, we got the money, we gave it to my dad, then we got the sneakers. I had two great parents, just unbelievable examples of hard work and education first and all those things. At holiday time we always had a packed house. It was always fun.

Q: What job did you have?

A: I worked everywhere. I was a waiter in a restaurant, I worked at the old A&P supermarkets, I was a clerk, I would mow lawns, I worked for a trucking company that delivered hay all over New York from Connecticut. … I would stack the hay bales and take ’em off and deliver ’em … delivered newspapers.

Q: Which was the best-paying job?

A: (Laugh) None of ’em. None of ’em paid very well. That’s why I had a bunch of ’em.

Q: What drives you now?

A: I love the feeling of celebrating in the locker room when you accomplish something special. Winning drives me, but doing it the right way with the right kind of kids drives me, too.

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