Assistant at Mercer University
Coach Ben Wierzba grew up in the gym, always knowing he would want to become a coach. His dad coached at the high school level and truly impacted the person he is today. After concluding his senior season of collegiate basketball, Coach Wierzba knew that was the level he wanted to coach at. Staying on staff at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as a student assistant and then moving to University of North Dakota as a graduate assistant, he joined the coaching ranks at a young age. Mercer is his first experience in coaching the women’s side of the game, however he brings extensive knowledge from his time spent with the men’s teams at experiences the University of Illinois at Springfield, the University of Evansville, Lewis University, the United States Military Academy, and St. Joseph’s College.
Serving as a student assistant his fifth year at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, he was put in a position to coach his former teammates. Come game time, he remembers wanting to be out there on the court with the guys he played with. He had to remind himself that his impact on the team was no longer with the ball in his hands, but rather instructing from the sidelines. When it came to teaching skills, he often thought back to how his dad handled situations. From working camps and teaching players alongside his dad while growing up, it made the transition to becoming a coach more smooth.
“You have to assume that your players don’t know anything about what you’re trying to teach…and then you can start to fast forward.”
Head Coaching Tips
His time as a head coach taught Coach Wierzba all about delegating. When he just started off, he had a strong sense of responsibility to the program and although he trusted those working with him, he wanted to have a hand in everything. Coach advises to others to try not to do too much as a head coach and to have confidence in the people you have hired to successfully complete their responsibilities. His other advice in terms of those that work for you is to give them responsibilities that align with their strengths.
Growing up, Coach Wierzba always had his eyes set on becoming a head coach. Surrounded by positive role models, he had plenty of people to learn from, but says that some of the stuff you simply cannot prepare for as an assistant coach. Because of this, there’s such an importance on having mentors and others that you can call with questions. In working with players and staff, Coach Wierzba highlighted being “who you are.” Everyone has his or her own view on things, so just be genuine. Try to avoid being some type of way with one person and different with another.
How He Prepared
In his director of operations position, he was limited in his actual coaching abilities. However, he took advantage of that position by taking everything in. Coach Crews had just taken over the program at West Point and he was able to witness the progression from ground zero to having a successful program. Coach Crews allowed him to be a part of every meeting, event, recruiting visit, etc. that he could and it allowed him to and soak up incredible knowledge of the game and how to run a program.
Additionally, the director of operations position helped him gain exposure to the organizational behind-the-scenes side of coaching, whether it was travel itineraries, budgeting, or creating schedules. In an effort to grow and improve what he was doing Coach Wierzba also stepped outside of the basketball offices and met with other programs’ directors of operations, trying to learn from others how he could do his job better.
“I missed coaching, but I would not trade that experience for anything. I am where I am at today because of Coach Crews and those two years.”
The Importance of the Locker Room
When reflecting on his playing days, Coach Wierzba iterated how there is nothing like being a part of a team. The locker room culture to him is the culmination of the team. The locker room is where moments are celebrated, issues are sounded and worked through, and where team bonding happens. He is sure to let his players know that once you graduate, you can never get that “locker room” time back. As a coach, there is a fine line between helping them create that feeling and being too involved in their business. Ideally, you want to have the right leaders on your team that are an extension of the coaching staff and help to promote a positive locker room culture.
Even though coaches grow older, the players on the team will always be between the ages of 18-23. As a coach keep in mind that they are going to make mistakes but you need to give them time and room to grow up while guiding them through that time. Part of them growing up is allowing them to learn how to come together and ultimately how to succeed together. When players aren’t getting along, Coach Wierzba promotes the open door policy, hoping that the players trust the coaches enough to come and talk if issues are unable to be resolved. “You have to listen to them. Part of communicating is listening. You have to listen to their needs or wants.”
Recruiting Tips to Keep in Mind
In the world of recruiting, assistant coaches must always look to recruit the needs of the team. Coach Wierzba suggests some questions to ask when looking at potential players:
- What are your team’s immediate needs?
- What are the team dynamics like?
- Can your head coach coach that player?
- Will she fit in well with the school?
- Am I caught up in recruiting her just because another school is looking at her too? Don’t offer someone or go after them just because another coach or program is.
If you are down to recruiting two players for the same position and one might run through a wall for you but will most likely struggle with the head coach’s coaching style, it would be wise to go with the other player. Some coaches are laid back and cannot adapt to a demanding coach’s style in college. Some coaches are loud and demanding and players need that style in order to be motivated in college.
When you find a player you like, fight for her. If you like her, don’t worry about what other programs or coaches think. She may be exactly what your program needs and that need is different among every team. The actual act of recruiting, Coach Wierzba highlights, is just about building relationships. You want to build relationships with that player and build relationships with others who know that player. He has recruited junior college players while on the men’s side and he would call the women’s coach at the junior college to find out her impressions of the player. Finding out about players and getting character references are extremely important in recruiting. Today, you can also simply look on Facebook and Twitter and find out about the kids rather quickly, which is sometimes scary. The players’ online presence and relationships with coaches, faculty, etc., all play a hand in the recruiting experience. Sometimes Coach Wierzba will talk to the coach about a player before even speaking to the player herself. Other times he will go directly to the source to begin the recruiting process.
Do’s and Don’ts for New Coaches
- Don’t go into a situation thinking you know everything
- Be humble, accept doing the little things. Whatever needs to be done, just do it.
- No job is beneath you.
- Build connections with the people around you.
“I think you have to enjoy everything that you do because sometimes it does turn into a grind…Don’t get disappointed by every little thing, just enjoy what you are doing. It’s almost like being a freshman again. You will have good days and bad days. Stay as even keeled as possible.”