John Thurston: Head Coach at St. Francis Brooklyn

“We have one goal for our program:

have the top team GPA in the nation.”

Coach Thurston is currently in his 43rd season of coaching. As a coach who has invested so much into the game, we sought out his secret to keeping his spark and love of basketball. What we learned is that there is much more to it than a simple answer. Rather, it is a philosophy that involves using basketball as a tool for preparing players for success long after their playing days are over. For him, his career highlights are when the people surrounding him, both players and his staff members, have succeeded.

The Entire Team Working Towards One Goal

At St. Francis Brooklyn, the Women’s Basketball Team walks into the gym every day with one goal in mind: Win the National Championship. However, it’s not the one you’re probably thinking of. The Terriers only have one objective in their program: Win the highest GPA of any team in the nation. That is the title they are primarily working towards. With this rule in place, they’ve subsequently set just about every record in St. Francis Basketball history. When we asked Coach Thurston to elaborate on this strategy, here’s some of what he had to say:

  1. It is a goal that involves everybody. Playing time may vary from player to player, but every single person can contribute equally towards a team GPA. Number 13 or 14 on the bench is equally as important as number 1.
  2. To win the “GPA National Championship” you need every player to show up every day and give their all in the classroom. Coach Thurston reiterates this to his players every single day.
  3.  To keep constant communication between himself and his players he has a “hello” rule where he has a discussion every day with each of his players. They are expected to stop by his office or see him somewhere on campus everyday and have a conversation outside of basketball. This way, nothing slips and he’s aware of what’s going on in the classroom and in his player’s lives.

Because of this academic-oriented goal, it plays a large part into recruiting. His staff limits who they look at; they only take players that can help them win the GPA award. Potential recruits must have that academic potential. Part of playing for his program is the guarantee that you will be surrounded by people who have the same academic goals as you do. To achieve a 4.0 student-athletes must “go beyond what is already good to become great.” This willingness to compete has helped the Terriers both on and off of the court.

A Changing Philosophy

Beginning his first head coaching job at the age of 24, Coach Thurston found himself in a position where not only was he too young to rent a car, but one of his players was older than he was. In his 20s, his coaching philosophy was not what it is today. Starting a coaching career so close to his playing days, he initially empathized with the role of a student-athlete, using what he learned from his playing days to shape his coaching. Ten years later, married with children, his philosophy shifted to a bigger emphasis on taking care of his players, helping them succeed. Today, his goals are much more geared towards preparing his players for life outside of basketball. “As you’re in it longer and longer, you see that your true value with your players is how you can help prepare them for the rest of their lives.” When you stay in coaching, you have evidence of your work. Coach Thurston stated that when you start to hit that twenty year mark, some of your players are out and thriving in their chosen fields. It gives you a different perspective on the game. You don’t see it when you first start out, but when you look at your whole body of work as a coach, “most of that isn’t basketball. It’s off the court.”

To Coach Thurston, coaching is preparing players for a more holistic journey, one that involves developing a sense of discipline, a sense of work ethic, a sense of community, and an education. Playing time may matter to the players now, but all of the other opportunities that happen after they graduate are what really matters. 

Tips for a Coaching Career

  1. The most important thing is to try and accumulate knowledge every day. There are so many areas you have to be knowledgeable in. Whether you talk to an administrator, learn more about the rules, read an article on recruiting, or watch film, do not leave the office having not learned something new. The psychological development of players and mental training are huge topics today!
  2. Ask questions! Be a pain in the neck. Go to each assistant each day and ask them something. Make sure the head coach knows that you are actively involved and engaged by asking them about something basketball related every single day. What’s the toughest thing for you to teach? To defend? “Hint: head coaches love to talk about basketball and what they do. Give them a chance to talk about themselves and what they enjoy. They’ll tell you stories…it’s fascinating stuff that is knowledge for you.”
  3. Look at it as a profession, not just a job. “If you were a lawyer or a doctor think of all of the research you would have to do. Think of all of the history you’d need to know about each profession. You have to look at it that way as a coach.”
  4. Learn about different styles of play. Watch teams play and try to pinpoint their system and different subtleties of their offenses.

Lasting Impressions

When we asked Coach Thurston about his greatest success, he first explained his greatest successes for his players. Going to a national tournament (three NCAA appearances as a men’s assistant, one NIT appearance as a head coach, an NAIA National Championship on the women’s side, and an NCAA appearance on the women’s side as a head coach), are all memorable because the kids remember it. Some of his teams still meet up every year to get together. Those tournament trips he stated, are for the kids. He couldn’t tell you the score from an important game twenty years ago because his sights are always set on the future. He’s always thinking about how he can help his team get better.

For him, those greatest moments are seeing his players grow up. Seeing a former player with his or her family brings it back to the fact that there’s so much more to coaching than just winning games. When he sees a player come in as a shy first year and then graduate a much more communicative senior who has broadened their interests and experiences, that’s more important that seeing that player improve on the court.

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