SACRAMENTO, Calf. - Starting just a month prior to the commencement of the Sacramento State women's basketball season, head coach Bunky Harkleroad and his staff worked tirelessly to rebuild and adjust to an unfamiliar staff, program, and team. Despite the limited time given, the new additions to the staff have proven to be a perfect fit at Sacramento State as the team ended the non-conference portion of the schedule on Saturday with an 8-1 record.
Harkleroad, Kim Stephens, and Derrick Florence joined third year assistant coach Bill Baxter to collaborate on how to approach a team that needed to adapt to a coaching style they were unaccustomed to. Baxter said although it hasn't been the simplest transition, the chemistry between the four of them has made it easy in the midst of what could've been a challenging start to the year.
"Considering we've known each other for about two to three months, it's like we've been friends for life. Somehow we connected and landed up in the same place," Baxter said. "They're very organized, yet very easygoing and accepting of input; it's made it easy for me to feel comfortable in the somewhat different role that I am playing."
The up-tempo, aggressive coaching style of Harkleroad has been different than what the team was used to after four seasons under former head coach Jamie Craighead, using the similar frenetic pace employed by Craighead but pushing it to a new level. As the season has progressed, the successful results of all their hard work has improved communication amongst the team and the coaches.
Harkleroad, who was a finalist last season for NCAA Div. II Coach of the Year in his fourth term at Glenville State College, was contacted mid-September and jumped at the offer to be the head coach despite the short time he had to make the move.
"It was a no brainer. It turned out to be a great opportunity to coach at the Division I level and a great fit in the campus community," Harkleroad said. "It all happened really quickly and it's crazy with how the timing was – it might've been perfect."
In an immediate move to Sacramento from Glenville, W. Va., Harkleroad dived into his role with as much grace as possible. Harkleroad said the transition has been smooth given the assistance of Coach Baxter as a resource in all aspects of the position.
Harkleroad also had former assistant and player Kim Stephens join him at Sacramento State just nine days after his announcement as head coach. Stephens was his only assistant coach last season and played under him for three seasons, which has been beneficial for both Harkleroad and the team.
"We had to simplify and modify things because we had four weeks until our first game. When we were in Glenville we were working with a veteran team, so we kind of had to start over," Stephens said. "It reminded me of when he took over when I played for him my senior year. I've had to dial back to when he was first putting his system in and remember how hard it is for some players to make the adjustment of playing his style."
With a former player who has been in their shoes before, Harkleroad said that he is fortunate to work with someone who is familiar with his system, his demeanor, and his temperament to help bridge the understanding between coaches and the team.
Coach Florence is working to help establish that trust and respect bond as well, though he just joined the program on Nov. 25. As a former assistant coach at Cal State L.A., six-season head coach at Centennial High School in Compton, and holding inner city coaching roles at various organizations, Florence is adjusting and learning from the new coaching style as well.
"It's new for me and different than anything I've used in Southern California, so it has allowed me to learn more about the game of basketball," Florence said. "To see someone else's style and watch it be successful has been a really good experience, especially with the support it's warranting and the response it's getting from the kids and the school community."
Although the four coaches all come from different backgrounds and experiences, they all have the same focus of being openly available the team and helping them grow as individuals on and off the court.
The diversity of the group has helped create networking opportunities in different channels as everyone brings what they have to the table. Harkleroad is using each of the coaches' connections to branch out and cover as much ground as possible in preparation for recruitment in the coming seasons, especially in-state with Baxter's immense connections in northern California and Florence's in the southern part of the state.
"Everybody is involved and it doesn't fall on one person's shoulders. I love the fact that our staff all has master's degrees with some background in education. That really excites me for our program and for our ability to teach and relate to different demographics," Harkleroad said.
While Baxter already has a good understanding of the players and their tendencies, the other three are still working through the process of getting to know each individual. Harkleroad said that his method is to be honest and give them constant feedback for open communication with the players.
"He demands the most of you. He will set the bar high for each individual player that he coaches. He has high expectations of his players," Stephens said. "Because I've been there before, when they don't understand something I pull them aside and try to explain it a different way. It took a while for them to warm up but I try my best to let them know that we're on their side."
Harkleroad is well aware that trust is not earned overnight. He said he looks forward to progressing in the season with his coaching staff and team. With the successful start they've had thus far, the mentality is to play hard and approach every game as an opportunity for another win.
"You have to earn trust and respect both ways and you can't fake that. You have to go through a lot together and experience a lot together as coaches and teams do," Harkleroad said. "You can't rush the process of earning trust and respect with each other. We have to let our players know that we're here to serve them and help them get to a place that they can't get to on their own."
After equaling the program record for the best start to a season at 8-1, the Big Sky portion of the schedule kicks off on Thursday with a home game against Montana State before the squad hosts defending conference champion Montana on Saturday.
"It's not easy to win games, especially in conference," Baxter said. "I see continued success but at the same token none of that will come easily. It's through hard work; you have to be fortunate, you have to have a little luck. With all those things combined, it could be a fantastic year."