Petersen's Aim: "Build Something Sustainable"
North Texas head coach Mike Petersen, in the first year of building the women's basketball program into a consistently winning program, will play at the Sun Belt Tournament this weekend.
Much has been made of the fact that Mike Petersen, the first-year head coach of the North Texas women's basketball team, bucks the policy of a significant portion of the coaching profession and chooses not to work in profanity. But not as much attention has been given as to why he doesn't coach blue.
True, Petersen's style is, in part, a reflection of a man who has a degree in Biblical Studies. But his coaching demeanor is much more thoughtful, a conscious decision as much as an unconscious, heat-of-the-moment choice.
"I'm a really demanding guy," said Petersen, who is preparing his team for this weekend's Sun Belt Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. "I have high expectations for the level of focus we have and the level of effort and unselfishness we have. But I think if you're going to build something sustainable, that it has to be built on something other than just me yelling and screaming."
That's not to say Petersen never snaps at players. While practices are usually conducted in civil but serious, classroom-like tones, Petersen is not averse to raising his voice, especially when his high standards for competing are not met.
"We all do it," he said. "I do it. We all slip up and use words we don't want to use. But I'm part of an academic institution. I ought to act like it. Now, sports are different. It's much more emotional than the classroom. But it shouldn't be so different that we lose our minds."
That's appreciated by his players, especially those away from home for the first time and coming to grips with college life, never mind college basketball. On this year's team, Petersen has five freshmen, two of whom are starting.
"It took a while to adapt to his coaching style," said Loryn Goodwin, a freshman from Houston who was originally recruited by Petersen's predecessor, Karen Aston, before she left North Texas after one season to take the job at Texas. "But coach Petersen came to Houston and met me before I signed or committed to him, to talk to me and make sure I still wanted to come here. I thought he was a good guy and a good coach. There were a lot of things I liked about him. I like a calm coach. I don't always need someone in my ear."
"It's going to be hard to have a really good relationship with your players if you're abusive," he said. "I'm not here to be their friend. I'm a 54-year-old, they're 18- to 20-year-olds. I don't have many 18- to 20-year-old friends. But, that doesn't mean I can't have a great relationship with them. Those relationships are important to me."
"I think he respects us as players, but he demands respect from us," junior guard Laura McCoy said. "People want to play hard for him."
Playing hard is at the core of Petersen's philosophy. He demands it, preaches it, and accepts nothing less. Much of his in-game banter is focused on playing hard, on driving his players, pushing them to push themselves.
"I'm going to show you want playing hard looks like, and I'm going to ask you to do certain things," Petersen said. "My expectation is, you want to win games, so you'll do that."
But this season has required a heavy dose of patience and versatility on the coach's part. Not only is Petersen trying to communicate with and teach to a new group of players, as the third coach in three years at North Texas he's working with his own recruits and two other coaches' personnel.
"You've got to make sure the players understand who you are as a coach, and this is how we're going to do things. But you've got to have some degree of flexibility. We have three sets of players recruited by three different coaching staffs to play in three very different styles. Now the question is, what do we do to get that all to work together and find a way of playing that is best for that patchwork quilt of personnel. We're doing things this year basketball-wise that are not the norm for me. We're playing more zone than I've ever played in my life. But that's what has evolved during the course of the season and what was best for this group. That's my job, to try to win games with this group, and so we adjusted. And the players have done a great job."
The constantly transitional nature of the past three years in this program have been particularly challenging to McCoy, who is working with her third coach and third different system in her three years at North Texas. The prospect of entering the second year of a program is enticing.
"That's a foreign thing for me," McCoy said. "It's going to be great. We'll already know what's going on, what he expects. It will put us ahead of where we've been in the past."
Moving ahead is exactly where Petersen is trying to steer a program that has been stuck in neutral. North Texas has had four different coaches in six years and hasn't had a winning record in February - when league champions are usually determined - since 2006.
"I think the players now have the expectation that they can compete with everybody," Petersen said. "The next step is step is going out there and beating everybody. But if you don't have the first one then the second one with never happen.
"The win-loss record is not what I want it to be, but I think anyone who looks at this program would say we've made really good strides this year, and the path we're on is really positive and something that is sustainable."