Western Illinois Head Coach, JD Gravina, has taken the Leathernecks to new heights in his seven years at the helm. They have reached 20 wins for two consecutive seasons and are known for their high-scoring offense. The 2016-2017 season recorded a long list of awards including the program’s first Summit League Regular Season Championship in 11 years, the first Summit League Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament berth since 1995, and a program-best record of 26-7. The Leathernecks had three All-League selections this season and are 22-9. Prior to his arrival at Western Illinois, Gravina posted an overall record of 93-28 at Quincy University and spent two years at McPherson College.
Freedom & Respect
To Gravina, laying a solid foundation for his team started with him learning about himself and letting go of certain things. He had to learn to give the players more control. “Don’t micromanage,” he stated. He had to give them more freedom and become more of a confidence coach than anything else. Rather than implementing an intricate x’s and o’s system on offense, he focused on motion principles, encouraging his players to do what they do best within that.
“I’m a big believer in when you take a job, you need to use whatever players and resources you have in place and make the most of them. Many new coaches are taking over unsuccessful programs and try to just start over. I think that’s a mistake. You need to find a way to gain some momentum in that first year or two. Those are the kids who are talking to recruits, they’re the ones who are acting as examples of how your team is going to play. You have to respect them.”
In his first season with the Leathernecks, they tallied 12 wins and beat the #2 seed as the #7 seed. That first season helped spark the successes that would follow.
“Ignore the Whole Idea of Captains”
When the Leathernecks take the court for their first game, the coaching staff has to remind themselves to tell which player to go meet the refs at half court. Gravina takes a non-traditional approach to the “captain” situation by simply not naming any. In his coaching tenure, he has seen a lot of problems with the concept. Whether it’s the issue of putting people artificially in leadership positions, dilemmas that arise with coaches picking or just giving it to the seniors, Gravina has seen it create more problems than it solves.
Instead, Gravina and his staff diligently put an emphasis on the fact that every one of their players can lead in her own way. “I don’t want to make our players be the ones addressing issues all the time…I don’t like them being too critical of each other. When you have a captain trying to criticize someone, now as soon as they have a bad day, it causes problems.” Gravina firmly believes in deescalating problems.
“The second a captain calls a team meeting, it escalates the issues. I always tell them, ‘Is this petty, or is this not petty? Can we let each person do their own thing and respect their differences?’”
The Leathernecks let leadership arise naturally and ensure that leadership conversations are taking place. They talk about how to address issues, the importance of not being passive aggressive, putting effort into the relationships with their teammates, and they fight for how important it is to get along. They don’t have study hall, they don’t do class checks, and they are lucky they’ve had players with really high-character in their program in recent years. “We share the ball and our assist to turnover ratio is really high. The way we play also helps lead us to getting good teammates.”
Tennis, Math, Computer Science, Economics…Coaching.
We all know that each coach has his or her own path into coaching. Gravina’s path is certainly a more unique one! Gravina grew up in the gym, as his father was a high school girls’ basketball coach. He was a team manager in elementary school and always loved the game. He then went to William Jewell College where his main sport was Tennis. Upon graduation, the math and computer science double major worked as an insurance actuary for about nine months before he decided to go to graduate school at UMKC, where he earned his Master’s in Economics. It’s no surprise that Gravina is now known as a “numbers-guy” in the basketball world!
While at UMKC he served as a Graduate Assistant for the tennis program. His tennis and basketball world collided when he later found himself at a small NAIA Division II college where they needed a women’s basketball coach as well as someone to start the men’s and women’s tennis programs. He later helped coached Quincy to record years before taking over at Western Illinois.
A 180 on Film
Inherently, Gravina is a big believer in film. Throughout his career he always felt that showing would be better than saying. However, as of late he has started to show less and less.
“The main reason is that I believe that most kids overthink when they’re playing and a lot of us coaches make them overthink. Two to five years ago I was doing a lot of individual film and it probably made them worse. We’ve started to only use film for very seldom things. We’ll show an effort situation or a show a couple clips to make a specific point. In general, our players have probably seen maybe 2-3 clips of themselves this season.”
Final Four Learning Lab
At the 2018 Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, be sure to stop by Gravina’s Learning Lab on March 31st at 1:00pm! Without giving too much away, his presentation “Advanced Analytics: Seeing Through the Numbers” will be focusing on some must-knows for using Synergy analytics. Topics will include a tutorial on some key statistics to look for, playing players in foul trouble, and court-spacing analytics.
If you stopped by his roundtable last year, you probably remember him stating how the numbers can lie. For example, in rebounding margin, it doesn’t tell you much. If the other team shoots well, less defensive rebounds are available. Each turnover you create also is one less opportunity at a defensive rebound. Intrigued? Head over to his Learning Lab to find out more!
“A lot of coaches will put themselves on a pedestal. One of my favorite quotes is ‘Millions of people in China didn’t even know we had a game tonight!’ We throw a leather ball through a metal hoop.”
“This is a really important time to be there for your players. Focus on that.”
“I never set out to be a Division I coach. I just wanted to coach. If you told me when I was younger that I’d end up as a decent Division II coach, I would’ve been thrilled.”
Follow Coach Gravina on Twitter @JDGravina !