Since graduating Princeton in 2008, Matt Sargeant's life was satisfying but not personally fulfilling. Sargeant found working in web development for a successful company lacking, so in the past two years he returned to basketball - first as a trainer at Open Gym in Anaheim and more recently as a coach.
In June, Sargeant was named the head coach of the girls basketball team at Los Alamitos High School, about 15 miles from where he grew up in Huntington Beach, CA.
Tipped by a site member to this career shift, I reached out to Sargeant for an interview. Earlier today we had a chance to discuss the path that took him to his new position leading the Griffins, his unique vision melding two famous basketball styles and how a coaching legend has impacted his life. You can read a transcript combining a pair of phone conversations after the jump.
Can you get people up to speed on your life since most saw you last on Senior Night in 2008?
In October after I graduated I helped my cousin start a company that made an iPhone app called iSports. It was a free app and it got over 750,000 downloads. That company was then bought out by a company called Buzztime. I worked with them until June 2012, around three years. I was writing trivia and then got moved to social media and the marketing department.
About a year and a half ago I started to train some basketball players individually and help this guy start his own club organization that was operating out of my old high school, which I was living about a block away from, getting back into the game a little bit.
I decided that I wanted to figure out a way to make basketball all I was doing. I didn’t want to sit in a cube anymore and I loved being in the gym. I really got the coaching bug and I came across an organization called Open Gym which operates out of the American Sports Center in Anaheim. It is the largest indoor athletic facility in the world, I think. They have 40 full basketball courts and Open Gym rents for half of them. They have club teams, skill academies and strength and conditioning programs.
As I was working for both of them, one of the girls who trains at Open Gym, she is going to be a freshman in high school. I got pretty close to her family and they told me that Los Alamitos was looking for a girls coach and said that I should apply. I had no high school coaching experience but I thought it would be good to gets the reps of applying for a job, not expecting to get it. My resume? There was nothing there.
I interviewed, they loved me and I got hired this past June. I’ve just been setting the program in motion, building my vision and still working for Open Gym.
I know a lot of people who coach high school, they have to teach classes as well. Is this something that you also are required to do?
I’m what they call a "Walk-On Coach." I’m going to get my master's degree next year because I want to be able to teach and I don’t have my credential yet. Because it is a public school you need it.
This summer, I didn’t have a coaching staff because it is hard to get lower level coaches, especially for girls basketball, so I was coaching varsity, JV and frosh/soph and still working at Open Gym. It was consistent 14 hour days and I was in heaven! I didn’t have to look at a computer for an entire month. It was awesome.
In the time since you’ve started coaching, have you noticed the high school coaching landscape has changed at all in the area since you were a student?
Not really. In Orange County, where I am from, there are a lot of coaches who have been there for a long, long time. Most of the coaches who were coaching when I was playing in high school are still there.
What’s the biggest surprise been for you about coaching girls basketball?
Not necessarily in the physical sense but they really don’t complain at all. Ever. I have some theories about why this is. Basically, they just go really hard and they do what you tell them to do. I have yet to have a girl complain about anything at all. Some girls play through some injuries that I know some guys would try and sit out practice for. That’s been the biggest shock. With the exception of one very, very talented freshman I haven’t had any issues at all.
Are you at the point where practices are underway for a season that will start next month?
Yeah. There was a 21 day period in August where I wasn’t allowed to do anything with them. The way the rules work, after that you can kind of do whatever you want. We’ve been practicing five days a week - sometimes six - since the last week of August.
What sort of style are you hoping to run offensively and defensively? What do you think suits your team?
I have a pretty versatile team. There are three freshmen that will play a lot, one, maybe two of whom are definitely starting and then I have three seniors and two juniors that are very good. Height and speed. There’s a lot of experience and inexperience. The only constant – and it is funny saying this – is we are going to play extremely fast.
Very, very fast.
People probably don’t know this about me, but my youth coach from the age of seven to 14 and kind of my mentor my whole life was John Wooden’s grandson-in-law and my best friend growing up was John Wooden’s great grandson. We would run John Wooden UCLA practices when we were young. It was a neat thing he did – he did it as an experiment to see if you could do it with kids that young and what those kids would end up looking like.
From a small suburb outside of Pasadena, of those nine kids that were on that team, five ended up playing college ball.
As soon as I got this job I immediately went to him and he put me in touch with a guy named Bob Webb who played for Wooden and has coached girls basketball for Montclair Prep in California – they’ve had a couple of WNBA players. Bob said that especially in girls basketball – the team that can pick up full court man-to-man and can never get tired is the team that usually wins.
As it happened, the two guys I met at Open Gym that were trainers – one of them has trained Derek Williams of the Timberwolves since he was 14 and the other trained Landry Fields this summer – they both coached at La Mirada High School. Until I got the job we had been experimenting with ways to get kids to play faster, quicker and get better doing it.
I talked to Bob Webb who reaffirmed what I believed that we needed to play fast. I reached out to my mentor who gave me his full year practice plans that he had at Weber State and Pepperdine which are based off of John Wooden’s full year practice plans because Wooden disciples just try and do what Wooden did. Then there were the other things I had learned and theorized with my buddies at Open Gym. I put them all into place.
It is working out kind of beautifully. The girls are getting so much better. They were initially curious as to why I was having them do certain things. For example, to get them to see the floor and make decisions faster I had them play five-on-five, full court but they’re not allowed to dribble and there’s a 12 second shot clock.
At first it is awkward because everyone is used to dribbling the ball, they don’t move without the ball that well and they think 12 seconds is a not a lot of time.
Now they get shots off - layups - in six, seven seconds. The ball movement is crazy.
Doing that combined with John Wooden three lane drills, which are the greatest fast break drills - I’ve done them since I was a little kid – in terms of getting them to understand where to move on the floor, how to pass to keep each other on balance, how to shoot off the catch in transition, they’re just wonderful.
Often times I’ll find myself in a game going “oh, that’s a three lane shot.”
There’s a book that I read as soon as I got to Open Gym called "The Talent Code," written by a guy named Danny Coyle. The book talks about how geniuses are made, they’re not born. It takes 10,000 hours of deep practice to become an expert in a skill. Once of the things that he does for this book is he visits all these talent hotbeds across the world to see why and how they produce the players they produce.
He goes to Sao Paolo, Brazil to look at the soccer players, he goes to this Russian tennis academy that’s been producing Top 10 tennis players for the past 20 years – studying them to see what similarities they have and how they coach and teach, what their players are doing.
Based off of that book, my buddy Shea and I have been trying to figure out how to make basketball players better, quicker and faster.
One of the things Coyle found out when he went to Sao Paolo is that they don’t play soccer there. They play a completely different game called Futsal.
Futsal is not played on grass. It is played on almost like a concrete court. It is significantly shorter than a soccer field. They play six-on-six with a very heavy ball that when you kick it, it rolls a lot faster. They have to make quicker decisions in tight spaces and that’s why they have the best foot skills in the whole world and they move faster, make faster decisions and are better than everyone else.
Shea and I read that and we tried to think of how we could make what was essentially "Futsal Basketball." That’s how we came up with the five-on-five, no dribble with a 12 second shot clock.
It started off as three-on-three and you couldn’t go above the free throw line but you could use the whole half court. We tried to figure out ways to get players to make decisions faster, move quicker and make better moves.
As I was reading the book and they were talking about coaches and their styles – how they got their players to get better quicker – I thought it sounded a lot like practices I had when I was a little kid doing John Wooden practices. Sure enough, in chapter seven of the book there’s a whole section on John Wooden talking about how his practices were set up perfectly for this.
Is Los Alamitos at a fairly high level? How competitive is the Sunset League?
Los Alamitos is a high school that has about four thousand kids. To win our division we would have to beat two or three teams that are usually ranked the Top 15 in the country – Mater Dei, Brea Olinda or Long Beach Poly. Historically speaking, Los Alamitos is usually middle of the pack in their own league. If we won the league this year it would be shocking to other people. Not to me, but to other people in the Orange County girls basketball landscape.
Going into this season, what sort of expectations do you have for the team and for yourself?
Before I answer that…
We are going to run, but if we don’t have anything I put in Princeton sets because to me the perfect basketball team is a team that can UCLA fast break and then come and run Princeton half court offense. Those are the two best styles and I’m trying to find some combination of the two. I think that would be completely un-guardable.
Wooden’s teams averaged over 80 points in the 1960s with no a three point line and with other teams without a shot clock trying to slow them down and we don’t need to talk about how the Princeton Offense and how brilliant it is.
As soon as I got this job I was thinking – is there any way I can get these girls to play that kind of fast and that kind of on balance in transition and when we don’t have anything be that patient and move that well without the ball and make those kinds of reads that we can run Princeton stuff.
That’s my coaching vision. That’s what I’d like to see if I can accomplish.
My expectations for the girls are first and foremost that they have as much fun as possible and that they get better and come together as a team every single day. If they work hard, come together, play the way we want to play and they have fun then as a byproduct we will do very well.
My expectation for myself is that I get better as a coach every day because I am young and I am going to work as hard as I can and probably make a lot of mistakes. When I make those mistakes I will learn from them. I don’t want to come into this with any lack of self-confidence or hesitancy. I just want to learn as I go and be completely open to what happens the whole time.
Before I let you go, are there certain phrases or drills you find yourself running that you realize after the fact came through osmosis from one of your two Princeton coaches?
It is tough, because I have heard Woodenisms for the first 13 years of my basketball career so I find myself saying a lot of Woodenisms. They’re ingrained in me.
In fact, during my sophomore year at Princeton when we had just scored 21 points in a game – it was a rough patch and I was hurt, I called Coach Wooden for advice. He still had an active role in my life.
What did Coach Wooden say?
I remember it like it was yesterday. He asked me "Are you a basketball player? Do you love to play?" I said "Yes, Coach."
"Then just play," he responded. "Basketball players play and that is what you should do. Play and have fun."
It was simple and poignant. I was worried about what the coaches thought and what was or was not happening..He reminded of the simplest truth: basketball players play and they do it because it's fun.
What I took a lot from Princeton was the value of being extremely patient as a player and as a coach. They way we would go about practice and the way I saw our coaches coach us was with an extreme amount of patience.
Each day I am not expecting to accomplish the whole world. How I am trying to develop the players is more of what I am taking from Princeton.
In terms of things that I say it is honestly just a lot of "be quick but don’t hurry," "it is amazing what can be accomplished when no one is concerned with who gets the credit," "don’t mistake activity for achievement," "failure to prepare is preparing to fail..."
A lot more Woodenisms than Carrilisms as it were.
Yes! All great coaches, it is kind of like "all great religions say essentially the same thing," the message is going to be similar.
Thanks so much, Matt. Please keep us all updated on how this season goes!