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Clayton Bates is in his second season as the Men’s Head Basketball Coach at Western Michigan.
Bates has spent a considerable portion of his coaching career as an assistant with the Broncos. He was hired at Western Michigan in 2000 by former head coach Robert McCullum and later served on former head coach Steve Hawkins’ staff. Clayton stepped away from coaching for the 2008-09 season before returning to the WMU bench for the 2009-10 season. He stepped aside after that campaign, served as an assistant coach to Billy Donlon at Wright State from 2010-12 and then rejoined Hawkins’ staff once again as an assistant coach in 2012. He was later elevated to associate head coach prior to being named head coach in 2020.
Bates played his college basketball at the University of Florida under Lon Kruger where he played for Gator teams that made four postseason appearances including the 1994 Final Four. Following his playing career Clayton served as an administrative assistant with Kruger at the University of Illinois in 1997. After one year at Illinois, Bates returned to his native Florida as an assistant coach at Jacksonville University for the next three years under hall of fame coach Hugh Durham.
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Take some notes as you listen to this episode with Clayton Bates, Men’s Basketball Head Coach at Western Michigan University.
What We Discuss with Clayton Bates
- Growing up in Gainesville, the son of a University of Florida professor, and always wanting to be a Gator
- Why he chose to play at University of Florida rather than pursuing other school
- His memories from the 94 Final Four
- The Gator Basketball Reunion organized by Billy Donovan following the Gators’ First National Championship
- Majoring in Physical Therapy, but eventually deciding to pursue coaching
- Landing a position with his college coach Lon Kruger who had left Florida to go to Illinois
- Being part of a team is special
- You can never replicate the first five minutes after a game, win or lose
- Getting an opportunity to work for Hugh Durham at Jacksonville University
- The question about Lon Kruger that Hugh Durham asked him in his interview
- Getting to do everything at Jacksonville because the other two assistants were charged with recruiting
- The coaching connections that originally led him to Western Michigan
- Raising his family in Kalamazoo, Michigan
- The importance of relationships in setting your program apart
- It has to be the people that make the difference
- Why he asks players to stop by the office every day and how that builds connections
- Opportunities as opposed to challenges
- Getting the Western Michigan job in the spring of 2020, right as the pandemic was starting
- Not being able to get recruits or players on campus during the summer of 2020
- “We have to be able to change, not just from year to year, but your team changes during the year and you have to be able to adapt.”
- Being flexible with your style of play and systems
- Play harder than your opponent and don’t beat yourself
- “Team First Forever”
- “Our thoughts always have to be for the team and what it takes for us collectively to have success.”
- Recruit guys who play hard and get them to play hard for their teammates because they don’t want to let them down
- Why he wants practice to be the best hours of his players’ day
- It’s being out there on the court with the guys that drives you as a coach
- Inviting coaches and fans to stop by and watch practice
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THANKS, CLAYTON BATES
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TRANSCRIPT FOR CLAYTON BATES – WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY MEN’S BASKETBALL HEAD COACH – EPISODE 567
[00:00:00] Mike Klinzing: Hello and welcome to the Hoop Heads Podcast. It’s Mike Klinzing here without my co-host Jason Sunkle this morning, but I am pleased to be joined by the Head Coach at Western Michigan University Clayton Bates, Clayton. Welcome to the Hoop Heads Pod.
[00:00:11] Clayton Bates: Thank you very much for having me. Good morning!
[00:00:13] Mike Klinzing: Excited to have you on wanting to get a chance to talk to you about all the things that you’ve been able to do in your playing and coaching career.
Let’s start by going back to yourself as a player you played at the University of Florida. Tell us a little bit about your experiences as a collegiate player, and then we can get into how that led you into the coaching.
[00:00:34] Clayton Bates: Sure. Absolutely. So I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. Obviously the University of Florida is my dad was a professor on campus.
There that’s the only job he ever had. And so I didn’t know anything different than being a Florida Gator growing up. And I grew up about four miles away from the campus. Spent a lot of time on the campus, obviously going to games, growing up football games, basketball games, different events.
Things my dad was involved in. And so then when I started the recruiting process and had some opportunities to do some different things was obviously my heart was always set on being a Florida Gator and coach Kruger came to a couple of my games asked me to be asked me to be a walk-on for the team.
I thought I wanted to do that. I had some other opportunities, but there was a lifelong goal of mine to do it and really want to see if I could play and compete at that level. Had a great I read started my first year then coach for some reason saw enough in me and it put me on scholarship.
But had an unbelievable experience, unbelievable career, obviously highlighted by going to the final four in 94. But you know, I maybe one of the things I share with our team and, and, and talk about a little bit to maybe help our guys is I didn’t have the greatest stats.
I didn’t put up these gaudy numbers or all this or all that. But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. There’s the best. I’ve seen five years of college. But I made some lifelong friends. I had some unbelievable on the court experiences had some unbelievable off the court experiences and it was, it was just a, it was a great, it turned out great.
I thought it was the right decision. You never know. But then when it was all said and done, it was obviously the best decision for me. And I was, I was just thrilled to have a great experience.
[00:02:14] Mike Klinzing: What’s your best memory from that final four? What sticks?
[00:02:18] Clayton Bates: I don’t know if I can stay, it’s just, Hey, this or that.
I’m obviously winning to go to the final four, but when we made the NCAA tournament you know, we were the three seat and just the whole three weeks of it we went to long, we would have played up in long island. And the first two rounds really had to fight and scratch our way to win the three 14 game against James Madison.
And then we went down and for the, for the elite eight and the sweet 16 games we played in Miami which is basically like a home games for us. You know, we played Yukon in Boston college down there in front of 15, 16,000 Gators. And they had nobody there, and then to do that, and then be the first team to go to the final four and the University of Florida’s history and go to.
And do that the whole three weeks was a blur and incredible experience. You know, the whole thing obviously is something that we all as players and obviously coaches everyone involved with that group still, still talk about. And, and remember fondly
[00:03:15] Mike Klinzing: Do you guys ever get together as a group?
I mean, obviously you can’t get every single person together, but how much are you in touch with those teams?
[00:03:22] Clayton Bates: Yeah, I’d like to say that all, obviously all of us are in touch all the time. Obviously some it’s obviously, as you got as your, as you know time kind of changes some things, but you know, there’s been a few reunions that we’ve been able to have.
Quite honestly, I haven’t been able to go to any of them because they’ve whether it’s a 10 year or a 15 year, whatever it’s during, during basketball season and I’m a little busy during basketball season and not able to get there, I will tell you the one thing that was really cool when Donovan coached the Gators to their first national championship.
He had a reunion in September, actually the whole football team. I mean, the basketball team was being honored at a football game, but by coach Donovan invited every former Gator basketball player not just the guys that were on the team, but he had not had. That had ever been a, that had ever played.
And I was able to go down there for that. And that was a really cool experience to see Gators from all generations come down and celebrate it. And coach was awesome about it. You know, it was, it was obviously this team that won the championship, but it was all the work that everybody had done and the sacrifice that done before.
So that was a really cool experience for me.
[00:04:28] Mike Klinzing: When does coaching get on your radar? Is that something that you had been thinking about as a kid growing up, thinking that, Hey, when my playing career is over, I’m going to go into coaching or was that a case where your playing career ends? You start looking around going, man, I still want to be involved in the game.
Let me take a look at coaching, which one of those better describes you or maybe there was another path to it.
[00:04:49] Clayton Bates: Yeah, I think it’s something that I really wanted to do. I got my undergraduate degree in exercise science. I was accepted to physical therapy school. I thought that was the route I was going to go in.
But as a player over the summer, I was the guy bugging coach Kruger and the rest of staff. No, how do I do this? How do I get my foot in the door? And I went and worked camps whether it’s Clemson or Duke or South Carolina or wherever, I could go just to try to meet people, network, things like that.
And I was always doing that during my college career. But Coach Kruger and the rest of the guys on staff were always like, Hey, it’s really, really difficult to break in. It’s really, really hard. You gotta find someone to give you a chance. And so when my playing career was over, actually coach Krugerleft, he left after my senior year and went to the University of Illinois.
And so I had actually taken another job, not even coaching. I was still trying to figure out whether it’s help out at a junior college or a high school or something. And I’m playing pickup basketball at my, at my high school with my buddies. And I had talked to Coach Kruger and I knew there was an opportunity maybe, I don’t know.
And you know, this is back in the day when there were pagers. Yeah, so I’m playing and my pager goes off. And so I go over there and check in as coach and he’s back in town from champagne and it’s like 11 at night or whatever, and sends me a text. And that was, excuse me, sends me a page. I call him and he says, Hey, why don’t you stop on over to the house?
So I drive out to his house at like midnight and sit down and he’s decked out and all this Illinois gear and I’m hurt because I’m a Gator. Right. And but he asked me if I have an interest in coming to Champagne and helping out and getting my feet wet. And at that time I’d been accepted also to get my MBA at Florida.
I’d won a scholarship to do that. I just went home and told my mom and dad, this is what I want to do, I want to give it a shot. I want to do this. And so he gave me an opportunity to put my, to get my foot in the door and obviously forever thankful for that,
[00:06:40] Mike Klinzing: What did that look like and feel like going from having him as your coach to now, he’s your colleagues? So you kind of step behind that curtain to see what goes on behind the scenes. And that relationship obviously changes when you’re a colleague, as opposed to a coach player relationship. So what did that look like? What do you remember about that first experience with Coach Kruger?
[00:07:01] Clayton Bates: Well, coach has been such a huge influence in my life.
And maybe one of the reasons it really restrengthened my feelings that I wanted to be a coach was Lon Kruger. I always tell people this, I mean, I think Coach Kroger without question is one of the best basketball coaches we’ve had. You know, over the last 20, 25, 30 years. And, and maybe he doesn’t get all the accolades that, that some coaches get and he hasn’t won the national title and things like that.
But universally, everybody respects the coach that Lon Kruger is and how good a coach he is, I think is like I said, understanding. How good a man, he is incredible. He’s a better person than he is a coach and he’s a hell of a coach. And so to play for him and kind of try to be like him as a player and then to go and work for him and try to mimic the things he does as a coach.
You know, it’s really humbling. And so to see what he does and see how we worked with the players on a day-to-day basis and the staff and manages so many things that came across his desk certainly was very, very eye opening and helpful for me.
[00:08:02] Mike Klinzing: When you think about that first experience and getting into coaching.
What was something that you immediately took to that you’re like, oh, I love this part of coaching that really got your juices flowing that you said, man, this is what I can do for the rest of my life.
[00:08:17] Clayton Bates: No, I think probably all of us just want to be on a team I say to people not in athletics and not in coaching or I, you can never replicate the five minutes after a game win or lose.
You know, the, the, the joy of doing it together and getting a win and the work it takes to put in and the celebration afterwards, you just can’t. You can tell people about what you have to experience it. And you know, when you lose the same way, the, the hurt, the heartache, the disappointment, that same thing you invested in, put, put everything in and then you don’t get it done.
It is. And I think that’s why people always talk about, why did this coach come back to coaching? And he’s got plenty of money or he doesn’t need a job or things like that. I think it’s truly because you can’t replicate that five to 10 minutes after the game and the celebration of the work or the disappointment and the work and the hunger to get back to work.
[00:09:13] Mike Klinzing: Yeah, I think that competitiveness when you’re a player, especially as you grow up and it’s really difficult. To replicate that in any area of your life, when you think about how much time and effort you put in during your playing career and how competitive you have to be to be able to get to a certain level.
And then suddenly when that goes away, it’s interesting. And it’s, it’s challenging. And I think people are always people. Athletic and our competitive, we’re always looking for that way to continue to compete. And I think coaching is a way that you can continue to have that. And also, like you said, the comradery of being with teammates or as a coach, being with your players, being with your staff, there’s nothing that can replicate that.
So you get that start with coach. At Illinois and then eventually get an opportunity to head back to Florida to go to Jacksonville. Talk a little bit about how that experience played out for you and how you got that opportunity.
[00:10:03] Clayton Bates: Sure. Yeah. So Coach Durham was the coach at Georgia when I played at Florida.
I think he politely said he remembered me. He couldn’t remember me much as a player. But you know, he was out of coaching. He had been let go by Georgia. His wife was originally from Jacksonville. The J U job came available and you know, my brother and sister both lived in Jacksonville at the time.
And you know, obviously it was a natural draw for me. You know, coach, coach Durham is the absolute bass coaches, one of those guys that he, he can’t tell a lie. It is what it is. And so I reached out to him and tried to put my name and my name in the hat and Coach Kruger obviously did as well.
You know, coach was like I know we’ve just taken this over. I’m hiring my son. I’m hiring Charlton Young. Who’s now at Florida State has made a bunch of stops and is an outstanding coach. He says I’m trying to get someone who can bring me some players in here with from where they’re at now and that doesn’t work out, let’s talk.
And so he was really honest with me about it. And you know, it just kind of the cards kind of fell in my favor. You know, we kind of stayed in touch. He asked me to send him some information and things like that, and some different videos and stuff that I was doing for the team at Illinois.
And you know, literally called me up and said, Hey, I’d like to talk to you. And I said, coach, I’ll fly there. I’ll fly there. I’ll get there as soon as I can, I’ll get on a plane. You don’t have to fly me. I’ll fly there. And I flew down there and visited with them. And long story short, obviously he gave me an opportunity when.
No again, someone’s just taking a chance on you. I had no experience other than my one season at Illinois, I’d never coached before. And for him to take a chance on me and to do that with me was incredibly humbling, for here’s a guy that’s the all-time winningest coach at Florida State.
He’s the all time winningest coach at Georgia. And then to take a chance on a guy that’s 23 years old with no experience, certainly was very, very humbling.
[00:11:55] Mike Klinzing: What advice could you give from that experience that you had in those first two jobs to somebody who’s a young coach trying to break into the business of some of the things that maybe you did well, or maybe something that if you had it to do over again, you might do differently for somebody who’s just starting out their career as a college coach?
[00:12:12] Clayton Bates: Well, I would say two things, first of all I went into interview with coach Durham and he kind of asked me. Kind of a critical question of coach Kruger. I’m going to ask me why does coach do this? You know, I didn’t understand this or that. And you know, I can’t why would he do something like that?
And I didn’t know it at the time, but he told me when he got the job, that when he asked me that question, he was trying to set me up and he was trying to see if I would be critical of coach Kruger to try to impress. Hugh Durham to get the job. And I, I didn’t know it at the time. I just, my initial reaction was, my loyalty is to Coach Kruger.
You know, I played for him. He’s given me an opportunity maybe I don’t agree with everything Coach Kruger does. But if he wants to do it and that’s the decision and I’m all in for it. And he told me that Among some other things that probably was the big reason that I got the job, that loyalty was with that.
And was that important? And so I really taught me a real valuable lesson as I’ve continued my coaching career that you know, it’s, it doesn’t do any good to tell people you agree or don’t agree with something that’s going on. Hey man, we’re all on the same team. And, and you know, let’s, let’s all jump in with that.
So I think that was a big, big learning lesson for me. And then maybe the best thing that helped me is back then, at the time when I got the job, I wasn’t allowed to recruit only two assistants were off, were allowed off campus to recruit. So we have a, a meeting and Doug and Charlton and I are sitting in the room and coach Durham’s like, okay, let’s talk about some staff responsibilities.
Okay. Doug, Charleton. We need players. We’ve got to rebuild this program, recruit Clayton, everything else. So our office is Jacksonville or in a double-wide trailer. You know, we’re in this tiny space, I’m doing laundry, I’m breaking down film. I’m doing all the individual workouts. I mean, it’s 6:00 AM.
To 8:00 PM every night. But it really helped me because when I asked I’ve gone through my coaching career, just that experience, then as I’ve moved along, I’ve been able to touch really every part of the program and have an, and have have some knowledge of that. That’s really, really helped me, helped me as a, as, as I’ve kind of grown here.
[00:14:19] Mike Klinzing: I can imagine that having all those responsibilities, we’ve talked to a lot of D three coaches who have had, I guess, sort of a similar experience in that when you’re the only, when you’re the lead assistant at a division three school, you’re basically having to do everything. We’ve heard that same sentiment from a lot of coaches that.
Early in your career, the more things you can put your hands in and get experienced with the better off you’re going to be, as you move up the ladder, not everybody gets an opportunity to start on a division one staff where you have 8, 9, 10 guys. Now, especially when you think about all the specialties and even when you go to the mental performance coaches and the nutrition and all the things that you think back to when you were playing, or I’m a little bit older than you.
I played from 88 to 92 and you know, none of that stuff, none of that stuff. You know, we had our strength and conditioning guy was just the football strength and conditioning coach. You think about just the advancement and how much further we are along in terms of understanding what impacts performance, but definitely getting that opportunity to do all those things benefit you as you go over the course of your career.
And you’ve spent a lot of that. As an assistant coach at Western Michigan. So tell us a little bit about how you get to Western and then what obviously has made it such a special place that you’ve now been there as your, I guess, third stint, when you think about two stints as an assistant and now as the head coach.
So first of all, talk about how you got there and then just what makes it a special place. And then we’ll dive into what you’re trying to do there as a head coach.
[00:15:47] Clayton Bates: Sure. So as obviously as I played at Florida, one of the assistants that was that was there was Robert McCullum. Ironically Ron Stewart, who I’m gonna get to in a second was an assistant here at Florida as well.
So Coach McCollum followed Coach Kruger to Illinois. So obviously I worked with Coach Mac and was it Illinois with coach Mac? And after my third year at Jacksonville Coach Mac got the job here at Western. Ironically Ron Stewart, who was on staff at Florida was the women’s basketball coach now at Western Michigan.
And so Coach Mac calls me up and again, the same thing even though I played for him for five years and worked together with him, he came to Indianapolis Clayton, I’m going to interview you just like everybody else. It wasn’t just, Hey, here’s a phone call. Again, got the opportunity to come here.
I drove from Jacksonville to Kalamazoo, Michigan all in one day 17 and a half hours out of my green Honda civic and loaded up basically everything and then showed up and was here. And it’s been a great experience. Coach was here for three years and then took the south Florida job.
I actually went to south Florida for two weeks. Coach Hawkins got the job. And I came back and you know, this is just really become my, my hometown, I mean, I moved here. I was single and I met my wife. My wife was a volleyball coach. When we met I had to recruit her to begin with but was somehow able to get that done.
[00:17:11] Mike Klinzing: That’s the best recruiting job there is.
[00:17:12] Clayton Bates: I mean, it was great for me. I think she’s looking at, I think she’s looked at the transfer portal several times here during our, during our marriage here, but you know, we’ve, we obviously we’ve got married and started our family and as you know, and that, and the coaching profession, you can be very transient.
You can be moving around a lot. You know, and when we really liked it here, she’s from here, her family’s here. Our kids were born here. We moved down to Wright state for a couple of years. And quite honestly, it’s a great program down there. And sometimes you wonder if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
And really had a great experience in my time at Wright State. And we’ve met some great friends and that we’re still very, very close with. But we wanted to get back here. And when Hawk offered up, offered us the opportunity we came back here. Yeah, it’s been a great run. Our kids lived in Ohio for two years, but their whole life, one’s a senior now in high school and one’s a freshman in high school.
And what they really know is Kalamazoo and to do that as a family and do that together, it’s been really neat.
[00:18:09] Mike Klinzing: Yeah. It’s rare in the coaching profession to be able to stay pretty much in one spot and be able to raise your family. It’s challenging enough to raise your family. When you’re a coach, no matter what the situation is, just because of the time demands and obviously what you have to do as a head coach, even as an assistant coach at the college level, especially being on the road and all the things that go in and all the challenges.
So to be able to do that in the one spot, I’m sure has been invaluable to you and your wife and your kids makes a huge difference. When you think about what you learned over the course of your career, as an assistant coach that have led you now as a head coach, things that you think are. I’ve really helped you in terms of how you want to organize your program.
Things that you’ve seen from the head coaches that you’ve worked for. Are there one or two things that stand out to you that you can point to as an assistant coach that you’re like, yeah, this is something that I need to make sure when I get the opportunity to run my own program, that this is part of what I do.
[00:19:05] Clayton Bates: Yeah, absolutely. You know, obviously playing for Coach and working for Coach Kruger and then with Coach Durham and coach McCollum and Billy Donlin and Steve Hawkins, all of those guys have had such an impact on me. And you try to take a little bit from everybody. And then I was able to do that with some really, really good coaches.
I think a lot, I think maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned in my time as an assistant coach, that’s helped me in this position that I’m in now. It’s like everything else. Coaching, leading a team. This is a relationship business. And if you want to be good at anything, whether it’s coaching or selling insurance or being a teacher in relating to your tier two, your students you have to have a connection.
You have to have the personal investment from each of your guys. And so to be able to do that is something that’s really, really important for myself, but our staff here. One of the things we can only talk about in the recruiting process, and we talk about a lot amongst the staff is there’s differences.
Let’s just take the Mid-American conference. There’s differences amongst all 12 schools in our league. They’re all very good schools. They’re all. Maybe they’re there in this state or that state, but there’s a lot of similarities. There are some differences, but there’s more similarities than there are differences.
And then you throw in the Horizon League and the Missouri Valley the Summit League, there’s so many schools here in the Colonial or the A-10. There’s so many schools here in the Midwest. And how do you differentiate yourself? And maybe someone has a wrinkle or a locker room or something that’s different, but for the most part.
Again, there’s more similarities and differences and what’s going to be our difference. And we feel like it’s gotta be us as people. It’s gotta be us as how we do things as a coaching staff. Our honesty or integrity the way we the way we treat our players, the personal connection that we have off the basketball court is, is a big, big thing.
And I think that’s something I’ve learned from, like I said, the guys I’ve been fortunate to work for.
[00:21:04] Mike Klinzing: How do you go about building those relationships? What does that look like? For you both on the floor and off the court. What are some things that you think that you’re able to do to build those relationships?
I mean, obviously it comes down to your personality and making an investment in time and those things, but is there, is there anything that you can point to. You know, Hey, we we go to, I go to breakfast with my guys once a week, or we have this kind of meeting or we talk this or on the practice for, I’m trying to incorporate that.
Is there anything that you can point to, that you really try to do intentionally to build relationships with your players?
[00:21:39] Clayton Bates: Yeah. I mean it’s one of those things, that’s probably none of us coaches feel like we do enough of right. You always are trying to find some different things, but I think if your relationship with your players is just from, for example, three to five, you’re not going to get as much out of them as you hope.
One of the, and just a simple thing, one of the things that we do is we ask all of our players to come by the office every day. Not to watch films. Or not to, Hey, you didn’t play well, or you did play well or all like that, but just to build up a connection, just to have a conversation like how are things going?
How are things home? How are things going home? What movie did you see last night? You know, what’d, you. And we and we have a fun staff, no fun group of guys. It turns into arguing about something or making fun of each other about something. But trying to build more of that. And then certainly some of the things you talk about, whether they’re team meals or individual meals or, or things like that, we’re always trying to push buttons and see waht helps here and all like that. And I would say probably most coaches probably say they want to do all those things and you become a kind of a victim of your own calendar and don’t do enough of that. And certainly I’m guilty of that at times, for sure.
[00:22:47] Mike Klinzing: Yeah. That intentionality piece it’s really easy for that stuff to get away from you, especially.
During the day to day grind of the season, and you’re trying to prepare for your next opponent and get your team ready. And you’re focusing on those X’s and O’s and the basketball piece of it. And it’s easy sometimes if you’re not super intentional about what you’re trying to do on the relationship side, it’s easy for that to slip away.
I know, obviously not on the same level as a coach, as yourself, but I know with teams, even when I’m coaching, whether it’s my own kids or back when I was a high school coach, so it gets really easy for that. To get away from you and you can, you can very easily spend too much time focusing on the non-human side of it and focus on the X’s and O’s and that kind of thing.
And the human side of it can get away from you when you start looking at where you are right now as a program and where you’d like to get to, what do you see as your biggest challenge? Moving forward to take Western Michigan to where you want them to go.
[00:23:45] Clayton Bates: Yeah. You know, I think I like, I like what you’re talking about with challenge or and I, we like to use the word opportunity.
I think candidly, the when we took over, I think the biggest area that, that, that is going to take some time with us. You know, when we got hired, we got hired in the in the, in the, in the height of the pandemic and. We took over a team and we didn’t even meet the new guys on our team until they showed up to campus.
In September. We weren’t allowed to have our kids here last summer in the summer of 2020 at all. And so we added four new players to our team and none of them ever been to campus, like we’re literally meet them, meeting them in the parking lot of the dorm. Or, or their apartment complex, they’re moving in.
So it was like, Hey, you really are six, seven. How about, how about that? And there really, and then you go through the year that everyone had last year where you’re staying in your dorm, stay away from one another and no one get near each other grab and go meals. You know, things like that. And Michigan, not a criticism.
Michigan was very rigid in what they were wanting to do as a state and to keep everybody healthy. And so we went through a season where it was really a unit. Thing. And so then this year, again, we’re trying to add people to our team and it wasn’t until June. And so you’re allowed to have people on campus again.
So we’ve been here for almost 18 months now and we haven’t brought anyone that we’ve brought one young man on campus on an official visit. That’s not. Committed here that everyone else just came sight on thing. And we didn’t go visit with them and their parents and things like that.
It’s, it’s been a really unique way to build a team and to build a, build a, build an organization we’re thrilled with what was with the results that we’ve been able to make in terms of building a roster. But it’s been so nontraditional on how to build this. And again, with our previous conversation about.
The personal relationships. It hasn’t like we haven’t, we’ve known this young man since he’s a sophomore in high school or a junior in high school and we’ve built our way up. It hasn’t been that way. And so not that last year didn’t count. Cause it does count but almost last year was like a survival year and this year is kind of like our first year in the program and is we’re trying to build, build things and get back out on the road recruiting and things like that.
So. Yeah, it’s been a, it’s been a unique experience to say the least. But I’m not complaining. I think a lot of people are in some similar situations. We took over in the middle of all of this and maybe some people had their program established already.
[00:26:20] Mike Klinzing: Yeah. I can only imagine as a brand new staff trying to navigate that for the first time, because again, under normal circumstances, right.
You could have picked up the phone and called any number of your previous head coaches, your mentors and said, Hey, here’s the situation I’m facing. How did you handle that? And look for advice from them, but this was such a unique. For everybody, nobody had gone through it. Let alone nobody going through it as somebody who is, as you said, hired right into the height of that pandemic, where everybody’s just kind of looking around and going, well, I don’t really know how to navigate this because obviously none of us have ever had to do it.
So I’m sure the challenge there was huge. When you talk about building relationships, how about on the basketball side of it in terms of building your philosophy and figuring out how you want it to play and getting to know your kids and making sure. What you want it to do X and O wise on the floor, offensively defensively, the type of style you wanted to play meshed with a group of kids.
That, again, you may not have had as much experience with them as you would have normally coming in as a new coach.
[00:27:27] Clayton Bates: Yeah. I think one of the things that we’ve tried to do as a staff, I think Coach Kruger used to always talk about this. It’s our job as coaches to put our players and obviously our team collectively in a position to be successful.
And you’ve got. We one thing we don’t do is we don’t say, Hey, this is what we do offensively. This is what we do defensively. And you know, if you can’t do it, it doesn’t work. Obviously we’ve got some, some, some core values that we have. But we have to be able to change you know, not just from year to year, but your team changes during the year and you have to be able to adapt.
So what our guys do, what we really talk about, forget like this play or who’s going to be our leading score and things like that. One of the things we talk about is our biggest thing is that our effort, our goal is to walk in there every night and play harder than the other team.
And that’s a big thing, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Certainly in this league, there’s a lot of teams to play very, very hard, but the effort that you have to play with is kind of is a non-negotiable for us. The other thing we talk about is we don’t want to beat ourselves whether that’s by turnovers or by an unnecessary Fouling, shot selection, things like that.
And that’s never going to be something that’s a hundred percent perfect. But it’s gotta be something that we strive to get to. And then the other thing we talk about, we use a phrase called team first forever. And what’s best for the team. What’s best for the group. No matter who you are, whether that’s me or a player or a student manager, or the guy that does video for us our thoughts always have to be have to be for the team and what it takes for us collectively to have success.
And we didn’t really use those things as a backbone of how we then build on what we do offensively and defensively and, and, and, and, and, and those areas. But I think you have to have. Some core values are what we call non-negotiables to be able to build on with whatever you decide to do system wise.
[00:29:12] Mike Klinzing: When you think about that play hard piece, I’ll ask you this question, then one more to be respectful of your time.
But when you think about that playing hard piece, what does that look like for you in terms of the demands that you put on your players on the practice floor and conversations that you’re having with them, whether that’s team meetings, whether you’re just talking to them individually, how do you make sure.
That your guys are going to compete to the level that you want them to compete to. Are there anything that you, is there anything that you do competitively in your practices? Just how do you stoke those fires to make sure your kids are going to play hard all the time?
[00:29:46] Clayton Bates: Yeah. Obviously, you know that again, that’s not something that’s a, Hey snap, your fingers, or this is the answer or look up in this file and this is what you do.
I think it, a lot of it comes down to recruiting. Again, what kind of young men are you trying to bring into your program? But I also think there’s, I think. They’re going to play hard. Our guys are going to play hard. All guys are going to play hard if it’s something that they believe in. And I think without that, buy-in, without that belief, without that connection to your teammate the guy that’s sitting in the locker rooms you’re right and to your left or across the way. I think when there’s buy-in to one another there’s a real I joke about this I’m 49 years old and I’m afraid to death to let Coach Kruger down today. You know, I really am, and he’s such a good person. That’s such a good coach that you know, if he called me right now, if we got off this and he called me and asked me something, I wouldn’t want to, I don’t want to let him down.
And I think that went along the way for us at the University of Florida, we weren’t the most talented team. We weren’t one of the four most talented teams. We went to the final four. But we may, we probably were one of the four most connected teams. And wanting to find a way collectively to get a win for one another.
And that’s obviously what all coaches are trying to do. And we’re certainly trying to do here at Western Michigan.
[00:31:04] Mike Klinzing: All right. Final question. What brings you the most joy? When you think about getting up in the morning, get into your car, rolling into the office. What brings you the most joy of what you get to do day in and day out as the head basketball coach at Western Michigan?
[00:31:18] Clayton Bates: Well I think obviously when I wake up in the morning walking downstairs and seeing my girls and my wife and seeing those guys, I mean, that, that obviously gives you, it gives me a real purpose and a real excitement about the sacrifices that you make. When you do this but I think this I mean this, I tell our guys this, I want them to believe this we practice at three o’clock every day.
I want this to be the best two hours of their day. I really do. I’ve been a part of teams. I’ve seen guys and they dread coming to practice and what’s the mood going to be like, what’s the atmosphere going to be like I just read that and walking out on the court and seeing our guys and we have some, some time we spend before practice and we’re just before we get going and the interaction and the joy of it all.
And then obviously as you go through it I think that’s the best thing for me is those two hours when we get to work together and be together and you know, it’s not the phone calls or the long drives or the late nights are sitting there watching a video and trying to think you’ve got some way to win a game.
It’s not those things that drive you as a coach. It’s being out there on the court with the guys.
[00:32:28] Mike Klinzing: Absolutely. I think the people, part of it, obviously winning and losing and the X’s and O’s, and the basketball side of it are definitely things that we have. As basketball guys that we love.
And yet, ultimately it still comes down to, as you said, your family, your relationships that you build with your players, so that whether it’s you at the university of Florida, at Florida having a reunion and getting to hook back up with your teammates, or whether it’s you as a coach getting a call from one of your players that you had 20 years ago to tell you about something that’s going on in your life.
Really, again, That’s what coaching ultimately ends up being about is using the game of basketball to be able to have an impact on the people that you interact with on a daily basis. Coach, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time out of your schedule today, before we wrap up, if you want to just share where people can reach out to you, what’s the best way to find out more about you and your program.
And then I’ll jump back in and wrap it up.
[00:33:15] Clayton Bates: Yeah, sure. Obviously our website or our university WMUBroncos.com all the social media channels where we’re on this. No, you can certainly follow us on Instagram and Twitter and all like that. One thing I noticed is how broad your listening base is this, hopefully this spreads throughout the Midwest, but we always say this.
Anybody that wants to be involved with it. You can always come to practice if you’re in town and you’re a basketball coach at any level and you want to come to practice or bring your team, you’re always welcome to. Fans, we tell all of our season ticket holders, our fans, if you’re in town, you’ve got a meeting with someone else in the department, come watch, practice, come be involved. And we just think it’s a great way. I think it’s great for our guys and it’s great to have people be involved. The thing I always tell people. If you’re going to come, come watch practice, but I’m going to ask you afterwards what you think.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all that. I like feedback. I like that. So yeah, I think any, I think obviously all of us want more attention and more interest in our program and, and certainly people to follow us online or if you’re in Kalamazoo, stop by.
[00:34:23] Mike Klinzing: Awesome. Absolutely.
I cannot thank you enough for taking the time out of your schedule today to join us. Really appreciate it. And it’s everyone out there. Thanks for listening. And we will catch you on our next episode. Thanks!