Los Angeles Daily News – Jon Gold – March 14, 2009 – In a parallel universe, Keith Higgins would beckon Randall Harris to the Reseda bench, put his arm around Harris’s slight shoulders, apologize for disturbing him and politely ask if he could dole out some advice. “Now, Randall,” Higgins would say ever-so-gently, “next time you drive, look for Ryan Watkins crashing down toward the basket, and if you don’t mind – and, now, this is just a suggestion – perhaps you could pass Watkins the ball.” And Harris would say, “Gee, coach, I didn’t see it like that. Thanks for the tip. Gosh, you’re swell.” And they would both smile, go on their merry ways.
But this is not the Brady Bunch, Higgins is not Greg Brady and Harris is not the youngest one in curls.
This is Los Angeles City Section basketball and Higgins is screaming his head off. He tears into Harris with the wrath of a thousand wronged prison wardens. The veins popping out of his forehead have veins popping out of their foreheads. He is trying to prove a point and he is doing so by giving Harris a first hand look at his tonsils.
Another coach might simply calmly explain himself go over XS, reiterate us. Out of ten college pro or college games this weekend, ten different coaches will coach ten different ways. Some will yell. Some will whisper. Harvard Westlake of North Hollywood boys coach Greg Hilliard is a whisperer, living proof that yelling is not the only way.
Just when a game was getting a little close for comfort Thurday, Hilliard was relaxing. If Higgins storms the sidelines like in battle, Hilliard might as well be lounging in a recliner in Brookstown. Don’t confuse calm for disinterest though. Hilliard is just as passionate as Higgins. He just channels it differently. “I have a hard time reaching a boiling point when it comes to a kids game,” said Hilliard, who has led Harvard Westlake to nine CFS championships. I understand how the frustration builds. There are skills you develop to keep some of those things inside.
When I was younger and more frustrated, I’d go out for a three mile run after a game. Higgins doesn’t run. He yells. His style is to scream. And as he let’s Harris have it for not giving the hot handed watkins the ball on the previous play, Harris lets it all soak in. On the next trip down the court, Harris passes off to Watkins who sinks the bucket. Point taken. State bucking the trend. on that play Harris responded. It doesn’t always work so well. In a recent game, Higgins summoned Harris to the sideline and shouted at his point guard to get the defense into a two minus two minus one zone. Harris felt the team should instead shift to the one minus three minus one. Higgins insisted on the two minus two minus one. Harris reiterated his preference for the one minus three minus one. Back and forth they went.
“For me, it’s not hard to stick up for myself,” Harris said. “I go ahead and say it. Sometimes we go back and forth, but never in a negative way. We’ve never argued on something negative. Most of the time when he’s yelling at me it’s something I really need to hear. Harris can handle it. Some kids cannot. But that makes no difference to Higgins. This is his style, his way. He knows no other. With kids, it’s about survival. “They can pick up on vibes,” Higgins said. “They have a sense. They know if you’re real or fake. Their only sense it to figure out when you’re real or faking it. They know that when I’m on the court I’m real. I’m Coach Higgins. I only know one style and that’s my style.”
At Lock High School, he played for Coach Michael Jackson, the exact opposite, a pacifist, not in your face, but gentle. To Higgins it didn’t work. It did, however, lay the foundation for Higgins’ style. “My high school coach was more reserved and when you’re playing at Lock against Westchester and Crenshaw it doesn’t work,” Higgins said. “I wish someone pushed us a little harder. Back in those days, teams scored one hundred points in a game against us because we didn’t get after it, didn’t have the passion, the fire.” Higgins does not have a problem with passion. If anything, he has too much. His own high school coach was quite the opposite.
“We’ve learned to associate success with certain mannerisms,” said John F. Murray, a noted sports psychologist based in Florida. “If (Coach Higgins) associated failure with being mellow, then he’ll react differently. He was a smart kid and he learned to make those adjustments as a coach, and he did.
When Higgins took over at Receda three years ago he was confrontational from the get go. A new coach might take a different approach, might try to make nice with parents and players and faculty. He immediately made his personality known for better or worse. You go to English class, Math class it’s straightforward. On the court it’s emotions, Higgins said. At times you have to be that father figure. But there’s that fine line, father figure and coach, and the best coaches know how to juggle
Not the only way, like Higgins, Hilliard was affected by his own coaches who came from an earlier generation than Higgins. Back then coaches were drill seargents and drill seargents begat softer coaches just as the next generation of softer coaches begat the Higgins of the world. “Our experiences make us who we are,” Hilliard said. “Without ado, the experiences I had as a kid made me who I am. I felt there was an absense of coaches who do it the way I do. You have the John Wooden model, my personal model, who thinks of himself as a teacher first. You have the drill seargent approach and they get great results in the heat of battle. Overall, for the success of the team, which is reaching fifteen players at a time, I’ve never wished I had a different style. Like Higgins, he knew from his start as well. “I realized very early that wasn’t going to be my style,” Hilliard said. “I started
as a head coach 35 years ago by myself, no assistants. Now, I don’t believe in going after a kid or going off but I always have a coach who can step in and be that for a kid.”
So it seems, Hilliard might not be the one to yell, but he knows the kids sometimes need to be yelled at, setting a tone. It is the second quarter against Liberty and Receda has started to showboat. Four of the first drives have resulted in lone layups. A would be game changing dunk carems off the back of the rim. Higgins is livid. He calls a timeout. His face is contorted in a way that would scard Lucifer. His eyebrows are furled in a way that displays pure, absolute disgust. His head shakes slowly, yet he says nothing, almost as if he is ready to unleash fiery hell, but is just now forming the words. His lip snarls. His eyes burn. This is not a happy Higgins. “You guys are playing the crowd. Stop looking East/West. Look North/South. He will later said he had to lay into them. Another coach might have drawn a diagram or simply called the offending player over for a quick lesson. Higgins ignores the clipboard and screams at all. It is not without consideration.
“This sounds crazy, but I try to really coach them for life,” said Higgins, whose own playing career was derailed by a car accident in 2000. “When I talk to a kid I always think about how it will affect their lives. I know this will help them be men or help them be stronger. I know these kids look at me as the coach, some as a father. I won’t have regrets because I know it will help them, and Murray says it will. Murray has worked with athletes in all sports from preps to pros. His clientel listings include some of the world’s top performers. “While every athlete reacts differently to a coaches words they all seem to respond to yelling by at least paying attention. There’s no quicker way to get attention, to have immediate behavior shift with a young person than with a slight form of punishment, Murray said, and yelling is a slight form of punishment. At the younger levels it can leave scars, psychopathology, boyish behavior, but in a structured setting it may be a good facilitator to get people to act. It might mirror the quickness with which a coach needs to respond in a basketball game. There’s no better way to wake somebody up.”
Randall Harris played basketball for years under the same coach, his father, who coached in a similar manner to Higgins. When Harris transfered to Receda from TAP and began playing for his Higgins for his last season he immediately reacted to the rants and raves of a fiery coach. “I’m pretty used to it,” Harris said. “I know where he’s coming from. I don’t take it as he’s screaming at me. He’s giving me instruction. I listen to what he’s saying, not the tone of how he’s saying it. But really, that’s exactly what he’s listening to.
“When you’re in somebody’s face and giving immediate feedback that’s often what kids are looking for,” Murray said. But there’s a lot more that goes into it than yelling. Yelling itself is not what gains respect. Being real. Higgins will approach you with his hand extended from a mile away, a smile swept across his face. Off the court after the game has ended he’s a prince. His handshakes last for minutes, his other hand draped across the shoulder as if to say “you’re my brother.”
Hilliard, whose Wolverines play Oceanview at noon, is like a kind uncle, the successful uncle who passes out words of wisdom and whose words of wisdom are to never be questioned because, why would you question them. The common link between the two besides success (both are section champions this season) is that they are both completely honest in the delivery of their respective styles. Higgins is a yeller and a screamer and he gets close enough in his kid’s faces that they could taste the same piece of gum. Hilliard is the quiet one who will sit in his chair on the sidelines and save his words for when it matters most, barely rising above a peep. “I got started in coaching because I wanted to be the kind of coach I didn’t play for growing up,” Hilliard said. That’s a coach who sets an example and became a mentor. “I don’t judge what another coach does in any way. I imagine that some of my kids would benefit by that kick in the butt. Hopefully you reach people by your style. Some of my good friends in the coaching business are wild men on the sidelines. You have to be who you are as a coach.
Hilliard is a whisperer. Higgins is a yeller. Both are winners.