Thursday, May 16, 2013

A chat with a former Richmond star and ex-ODU assistant about her new head coaching job

If you've never had an Ivy League team to cheer for, there's reason to put on your green for the Big Green of Dartmouth. Former University of Richmond point guard Belle Koclanes -- also an assistant to Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry -- has landed her first head coaching job at Dartmouth.

Koclanes replaces Chris Wielgus, at the helm of Dartmouth for the last 28 years and behind 17 Ivy titles, the last in 2009. The highly energetic Koclanes, who promises to buy some warm clothing (she owns neither boots nor a warm jacket) for her new Hanover, N.H., home, comes in after two years as an assistant at American University and three years with ODU. She's also an Ivy veteran; Koclanes was director of operations at Columbia in 2003-04 prior to being hired as an assistant to Pat Knapp at Penn.
We thank Belle for chatting with LadySwish.

From the nation's capitol to New Hampshire. Wow! Talk about the transition.

It's definitely a change, but a positive change. Hanover, New Hampshire is a small town, which I feel really excited about. The entire community reached out to me and is so warm and welcoming. Everyone is supportive of Dartmouth athletics. It really is a close knit community that I'm looking forward to being a part of. It's very different from Washington, D.C., from Philadelphia, Pa. I think the closest I came to it is down in Norfolk just because of the community support. Now, obviously, Norfolk is a lot bigger. ...

Spiders all-time assist leader
As for that New Hampshire rush hour ...

I was driving from Hanover to Manchester, which is the closest airport. I called my family when I was
flying back to D.C., and I'm looking in my rearview mirror and there's not a car in sight! It was just really a nice peaceful drive. I get in a plane, get to D.C., hop in a cab and it's bumper to bumper with the cabdriver hitting the brake every two minutes. I'm not going to miss that so much.

Talk about the philosophy you want to implement in your first head coaching job.

The first thing that has always been so important to me is creating the culture I envision. As an assistant, you definitely play a role in that, but only to a certain extent, because at the end of the day, it's the head coach's vision that you're on board with.

I want to create my own culture. It's not just my own; it's in accordance with the Dartmouth Athletic Department and also the players and the people I get to work with. Because every team, every player, every year is going to be different. There will always be fundamental values that are the same, but the culture itself is always going to be different because people make culture.

Really what I love about teaching and coaching is building relationships with people. That's what it's about for me. With that said, this is really exciting and I've been able to start building this culture. It started during the interview process when I got to meet them -- an hour with the team.

In that time, I talked to them about culture, and one of the first questions I asked them was, "What are your core values as a group?" There were 10 players in the room -- currently there's 13 -- and I had two phone in from Washington, D.C. where they have internships (the other is in Spain). They couldn't answer my question. Your core values are the oxygen of your program; that's what keeps the blood flowing. That's where we need to start.

If I'm going to be able to inspire you in any way, I need to know you as people. (Koclanes brought crayons and index cards into the interview and inspired players to create their personal "flags.") There's was a white board in the room and I asked, "Who's the artist in the group?" and they all pointed at one of our players who is from Serbia. So Misty gets up to the board, and I ask her to draw three doors for me and she draws three rectangles with little knobs. I joked with her, "Anybody could have done that. The reason I asked for an artist....."

So she got creative with each door. Above each door, I had her write culture, leadership and the third door was hoops. I told them these were three really important topics that I wanted to discuss with them, but I wanted it to be an open dialogue, and I let them pick where they wanted to begin. The first question was, "What is this culture all about?"

I'm glad they started there because that's where you have to start. That's where we got into a conversation about core values. I told them we're going to establish core values right off the bat: respect, attitude and preparation have always been at the core of my being.

A culture has to breathe -- that's core values. And a culture has to speak. So we talked about creating one language for each other, how we're all from different places and we all have different lingos. We talked about how important it is for a culture to build one common language. A culture also acts. We talked about how everything has to tie back to our core values.

I want them to make mistakes. It's the only way they're going to get better. Failure is awesome. We're going to get worse before we get better.

I talked about how a culture has to rest. I understand the academic rigor they're under. Five out of my 10 years coaching I was in the Ivy League, so I have an understanding of what it's like for student-athletes at a high academic level.

On being a team player and her Ivy League experience ....

 I come from a big family. I've always been on a team. That's all I know -- how to sacrifice for others and how to share. I never had my own room until I played professional basketball in Greece.

I've been blessed starting off with Pat Knapp at Penn. When he hired me in 2004, I didn't have any experience coaching. He really did take a chance on me. In the Ivy League, you only have two assistant coaches under you, so those hires are really important. He gave me an opportunity. He taught me all about managing and how to be fair in not only our team but among our staff. He was always trying to get better. Even at his age, he was still learning. He was constantly pushing me to grow in my skills. My first two years I coached the guards, but after a couple years of doing that, he came to me and said, "Belle, it's time for you to coach the post players."

On Wendy Larry and Allison Greene (1990 Dartmouth grad Greene was part of the Search Advisory Committee that picked Koclanes) 

Wendy was my next mentor. It's interesting how people come into your life. I say that about Coach Larry and Allison Greene. Because Allison Greene really played a role in Dartmouth. As a college player at Richmond in the CAA, Old Dominion was dominating. We would try to get close. The closest we came to them was my freshman year. We played them pretty tight. Wendy and Allison always, after every game against Old Dominion, always took an extra minute with me going through the line. Coach Larry always had inspiring words to say to me going through the line. She didn't have to do that. She didn't recruit me. I was a little bitty from New York. I was an opponent. But there was always this mutual respect of player-coach. That's so vivid in my memories.

When Wendy offered me the position, Bob Foley my college coach said, "Belle, you know when you got this job? You got this job when you were a college player. Wendy always respected you and how you carried yourself and how you competed. She remembered that."

I always felt connected to Coach Larry. Coming to Old Dominion, that was my favorite place to play -- the Field House, the environment, plus my older sister played soccer at Old Dominon. So I felt a bond to the place.

When Wendy hired me, that connection was still there. When Wendy called to talk with me about the position, my grandma was very sick. My grandma was my best friend growing up. She had cancer. When Wendy called, it was during my grandma's last days. The very first time she called for my very first official phone interview. It was a Saturday morning and I had driven from Philly to New York the night before to go see Grandma. Wendy and I were supposed to talk at 10 am. I got the call at 4 or 5 in the morning that Grandma had passed. I was with my family, and my whole family knew Wendy was going to call. The very first question Wendy asked was, "How's Grandma?" Of course. Because this is Coach Larry. I told her, and she was wonderful. We had such an incredible conversation that morning unrelated to basketball because Wendy always sees the bigger picture about life, and that's family and that's friends.

I didn't want to leave Old Dominion. I wanted to be with Coach until she retired. I was learning so much from her; she was learning from me. We were doing some phenomenal work as a staff.

From a basketball perspective, Wendy was at her best on the practice court. That was my favorite time. She was in her element teaching. ... I learned so much because I ran some practices at Old Dominion. I did a ton of coaching, and that's with a legend at the helm.

On replacing Wielgus, a fixture at Dartmouth

Being with Wendy when everything happened clearly taught me a lot. I was by Wendy's side when it all happened. It's a different situation here, and I don't know Chris half as well as I know Wendy. I remember talking to Chris after everything happened with Wendy. I have the utmost respect for her and what she's done. For me, coming into this role, it's an opportunity for me to be a part of that tradition. It's not about my coming in and taking over. I'm going to bring a new energy and a new culture and a change, but that's who I am.

I want to bring championships back to the Big Green. I want to be a part of that. It really is about adding to a culture. I have so much respect for Chris and the people and the players and the staffs who came before us.

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