Coaching staff plays special role in men’s team success

Alonso Tacanga

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Northridge guard Josh Jenkins saw himself as the rebel teenager in the men’s basketball team family. He saw head coach Bobby Braswell as the fatherly figure he disagreed with occasionally.

Luckily, Braswell had three assistant coaches to help him take care of family business, allowing him to keep Jenkins and his locker room brothers from running away from home. Louis Wilson, Stan Johnson and James Blake – Braswell’s top three men – have lent a hand to the 12th-year coach in leading the Matador household back to the top of the Big West Conference. The four fatherly figures, along with director of basketball operations Ryan Dodd, together provide more than just basketball knowledge.

“Our team is a big family. My teammates are my brothers and our coaching staff is like our parents,” Jenkins said. “They’re always there for us if we need anything.”

Braswell replaced former Northridge coach Pete Cassidy, who had spent 25 years at the Matadors’ helm, following the 1995-96 season. Since, he’s brought “consistency” to the program, played in the postseason every year, and achieved Northridge’s greatest accomplishment in its 49-year history, a 2001 qualification to the Division I NCAA tournament.

This season, thus far, the Matadors are on pace to repeating the feat of seven years ago. Players’ efforts obviously have accounted for the success, but the coaches are the unsung heroes.

“Coaches don’t sleep a lot during the season,” Braswell said while trying to shake off a fatigued-look after a Tuesday team practice. “It’s the life of a coach: long days, long nights and early mornings. You’re (always) stressing about something, writing down notes. I keep a notepad by my night stand, just to remember about the things we have to do.”

Braswell is not only concerned about basketball, but also about the well-being of his players, just like in a family. Described as “loving, caring, and always there” by Jenkins himself, Braswell wants his pupils to do the best they can academically and earn a degree. He also asks that they handle themselves in a way that brings pride to the Northridge basketball program. Overall, he just wants them to be “men of good character.”

Braswell has plenty of help when it comes to looking after the Matador players. If the men’s team is a family, then Louis, Johnson and Blake are adoptive fathers. All three moved recently into the Northridge home and they share Braswell’s mentality and help transmit it to the players. The latter two – Johnson and Blake – are both young, first-year assistants that have earned the team’s respect and brought in a new vibe.

“Coach Johnson and coach Blake are really young, but real experienced in their knowledge of the game,” said Matador starting guard Rob Haynes. “That’s (something) I’m surprised at. I’m always willing to open up and listen to them.”

Johnson, 28 and Blake, 31, don’t want any share of the credit for the team’s remarkable season, however. The two former college players say it’s all due to the “kids.” Nevertheless, their coaching impact can be seen on offense, where the Matadors rank second in the conference, and in special in-game situations. They also bring in many intangibles that don’t show up in statistics.

“You can relate to them. You know exactly what they’re thinking at certain times,” said Blake, talking about how his recent-playing background helps him understand and put himself in the players’ skins during games. “When you’re saying things to them, it’s stuff that you would like to hear as a player and sometimes it’s stuff you don’t want to hear, but you do take the information in the end (and apply it on the court).”

These coaches’ toughest challenge, however, comes from within, when they have to keep themselves from suiting up and jumping onto the court to play.

“Physically, you can’t do anything and that’s pretty challenging,” said Johnson, who along with Blake can be seen on the Matador bench bouncing off his seat and screaming “key phrases” at players to help them focus. “That’s why sometimes you’ll see us (assistant coaches) jump around like a bunch of (kids). It’s a way to calm our nerves. For me it’s one of the toughest things (to not be able to play).”

Having finished their college playing careers so recently – Johnson played until 2002 while Blake finished in 2000 – explains why they still get the jitters once the game starts. Wilson, however, has been away from the courts for a while longer. The second-year assistant has had the chance to see the family’s growth from last season into this one.

Wilson, who coordinates the Matadors’ defense, credits the program’s consistency, his colleagues’ work ethic and the players’ willingness to respond to their demands for the success.

“Our (players) are really good kids that really love the game and really play hard,” said Wilson, directing all praise for the accomplishments to the players. “We’ve been blessed to have that.”

While the coaches aren’t the ones out on the court scoring the points and playing that Big West Conference top-ranked defense that has put the Matadors in position to have a special run, it’s undeniable that they’ve been instrumental in this surprising surge. Jenkins, who’s from New Mexico, thinks the family approach is the reason why he came along and accepted to submit to “the parents'” authority. Unity in a family is what makes it work.

“I know I’m not out here in California alone,” said Jenkins, the Big West Conference’s leading assist man. “We get that sense that we can ask our coaches for anything. We can go to them for anything that we need, like we would go to our parents. They’re always there to support us. We’re all in this together.”

Whatever happens from now on, whether they go on to lose every game from this moment on or whether they advance all the way into the Final Four, the Matadors will deal with it together as a family.

Northridge can thank Braswell and his coaching staff for that.