TLL Interview: Coach Steve Gomez, Lubbock Christian WBB

Coach Steve Gomez, Lubbock Christian University. Joe Auletta/The Lobo Lair

Joe Auletta

About a month ago I started looking at the Lobo’s early opponents, starting with the two exhibition games. I went to those schools’ web sites to see their rosters, their 2017-18 records, etc. When I went to the Lubbock Christian site it took very little time to be very impressed. This is not the typical D-2 exhibition game opponent by any means.
The first ten seasons Coach Steve Gomez was there, they were in the NAIA instead of the NCAA, and went to the NAIA Div 1 tournament every year, winning an average of 23+ games a season including 31 wins in 2013-14.
In 2013-14 they moved to the NCAA Div-2 and went 25-1 but were not eligible for the NCAA tournament as a first season NCAA team. The 2015-16 started with an exhibition loss at UCONN—and then rode an 82 ppg offence and a 27 ppg scoring margin to win 35 straight victories ending in a D-2 championship.
Reading those things, I sent an e-mail to Coach Gomez asking if he would do a phone interview. He agreed, but invited me to come to Lubbuck if I preferred, see a practice and do the interview there. I took him up on his gracious offer and drove down this past Tuesday—my first ever drive to Lubbock.
When I arrived the entire staff met me in Steve’s office, treated me as if I was someone important, and we went off to practice. The team does not look like the “typical” D-2 team. The most obvious difference is their height—significantly taller than an ENMU or NNMU team. When drills and scrimmage started there was another visible difference: the style. The LC team didn’t constantly look to fast-break. They would run at times, but never seemed to be running out of control, and if the break wasn’t there they would pull back and set up their offence.
And then I started to hear phrase after phrase, concept after concert that I have heard in the last two years of Mike Bradbury’s practices. The accent was different, the tone of voice more level, but the ideas expressed were the same:
–Have the hands and feet in the right position
–Know where you are supposed to be on the court, and be there
–Read what the other team is doing, and know what your options are
–Know what is a good shot for you, and don’t be afraid to take it
–Hands up, don’t foul
In a lot of ways—other than the more comfortably albeit fewer spectator seats—it reminded me a lot of practices in the Pit.
After practice I was given a guided tour of the facility—training room, locker room, and their ramp heading down to the gym floor. The ramp was lined with a lot of photos of former Chaps players in game situations. Steve stopped and talked about one of them—only one. Not one of the many, many wins, but a 50 point loss. “That was at UCONN. We scored first and were up 3-2, and blocked their first shot.” The photo was of the block. It seemed to epitomize what he had told me about playing UNM as one of their exhibition games this year—wanting to play tough opponents to measure themselves and always get better. Measuring games and life one play at a time, not just the final score.
Joe: Thank you for taking time to do this interview and show me around, I know demands on your time are high. I was looking through UNM’s first opponents, and the more I read your bio and the team’s history, the more impressive it became. The first question is, what led you to be coaching here?
Steve: It’s really been a long journey. I had the opportunity to play basketball here [at Lubbock Christian] in the 80s and it was a great experience. I loved the school, got a degree in teaching, and ended up coaching at a boy’s high school in the area as an assistant coach for eight years, and seven more as the head coach at another school. So it was boy’s basketball for fifteen years. At that time I could see myself continuing on in men’s basketball in high school or college, but never considered women’s basketball. It was not ever a thought—and I would still say it to this day that to coach high school women’s basketball would be really a big challenge.
But a friend of mine was the women’s coach and he was going to transition to be AD. He asked me if I was interested in the job. I told him that I had never even considered that possibility but I thought I’ll go watch some games in the spring before he was going to retire. Boy, I was really impressed with their toughness. Just the level of play was obviously higher than high school girls, but it was similar to what our high school boys were doing—so it wasn’t going to cause a lot of change to my strategy as how the game if played. So I thought that would be awesome and I took that chance. It’s been a great blessing of an opportunity that has worked out. I don’t see myself wanting to do anything different.
Joe: Besides skill level, what’s the biggest difference coaching women vs. men?
Steve: I guess the tag line is: Boys have to play good to feel good, and females have to feel good to play good. There is more of an emotional aspect to the game with the women, and once they buy into the team and what’s going on, they will do anything. Physically, they are tougher. Emotionally, they may not be tougher but they are more into the team and less into themselves. That’s been a joyful experience.
Joe: Two years ago you won the D2 national title, I imagine, in a season like that those feelings build upon themselves. Did you find that the players wound up playing above and beyond where they thought they could get–and maybe where you thought they could get?
Steve: Looking at that year we knew we were going to have the opportunity to be good, and, we thought we could be great. But that it was going to be a slow incremental process of day to day. That year we didn’t go 35 and 0, we went 1 and 0, 35 times. We repetitively did little–we were competitive, we had a focus. That team had a hunger and a vision to be great. Some teams are satisfied with being pretty good, but there was something about that make-up, that they had a vision for that year and so it sort of snowballed. The confidence just kept growing and growing. There was just something about the make-up, the leadership, and the diversity on that team that somebody always stepped up at the right moment.
Joe: You still have some of those players now. Just watching practice before this interview, you clearly have some players who take “ownership” over the younger players out there. How do you get that to carry over so when they graduate you still have some of that mindset imbedded in the culture of the team?
Steve: Those words that you just used: mindset and culture. We really look to recruit to a culture and not to a system of play. We don’t want to recruit someone who is a post player, or a point guard—we want someone who is going to fit in and take ownership. It has been fascinating to see the buy-in of players and as they get older, they love more and more the concept in life of being sacrificial and thinking about others before yourself. That’s not a norm in society for us to live outside of ourselves. Most of us are trying to get for ourselves so for the maturity of those girls to love the team and for our older girls to realize, “I’m going to get the best out of this when I help to get the best out of someone else”, as opposed to wanting the younger ones to do for the older ones. That’s sort of countercultural, but in terms of life in general, that’s going to be the best thing for them. When they are mothers, wives, employees they have to learn to do for others first. So we like to start that as soon as possible.
Joe: You said you recruit players and not the systems, but I assume you also have a style of basketball that you want them to play. How would you describe it?
Steve: Obviously, we are even now trying to get kids to commit as early as juniors as point guards. But we can see what we need so we are not going to have a team of all post players. The versatility is definitely a major part of that. We are trying to find players that can always think the game. There are a lot of kids that have some talent, but their minds may limit their ability to help a team. We want kids that can help a team get better by setting a screen, by knowing where the next pass should be, by thinking ahead as opposed to being someone who can make a shot with a one dimensional part of the game.
We want a team that can think quicker, because usually we are not going to be physically quicker. We are not always going to be a team who is the fastest team. If we are, great, but even then, if you’re physically faster and mentally faster, then you know it will be a lot easier. So we want our kids have the mental part of basketball and decision making, passing the ball as opposed to people who can only play with the ball. That’s the higher level of the game, I think: teaching those high school kids to go into the college game where everyone can play. So how to make your team better?
Joe: You said that you are not always the fastest team, but it certainly looks like you push them to run, at least in those situations when they get that opportunity. Do you prefer to play at a faster pace?
Steve: We love to be opportunistic. It’s important for us to recognize when is the chance. Three years ago, we led the nation in scoring, about 83 points a game. Last year’s team we led the NCAA D2 in defense, and scored only 52 points a game. We don’t want to be so situational that we don’t have an identity. We want to be opportunistic—we always want to push the ball and see if someone on defense is going to make a mistake and catch a team in being lazy in a certain moment of possession. We want to be a team that’s ready to take advantage of that mistake and capitalize on it, and at the same time not be so fast that you are losing the flow of your team. We don’t want one person down court, everybody else is at half court, yet we’re still shooting it. It’s a balance. Some years we’re a little faster than others, we still want to be aggressive.
Joe: Who are the people who influence that philosophical idea of how you want to play?
Steve: My current assistant coach, Vic Self, hired me for my first high school job. Then he retired from high school coaching and asked if he could come and help here. It was awesome to have that opportunity. He’s someone who is really thoughtful about the game and not just go out and play and run around crazy. So he was a big influence. My high school coach was very much a defensive thinking coach, and really about hard work and grit. He still has a big influence on me. And my college coach here, Coach Copeland who retired a few years ago. There are so many. You look at the Brad Stevens, or the Tony Bennets at Virginia, or Coach K or Coach Knights. There are so many people around it. I’m always trying to figure out what they do and what makes it good. There’s not just one way to do it. There are so many ways, you just have to find out what works for your team. Sometimes the biggest influence on our team is the players. I learn a lot from my own players as far as what can work. That is an evolving process.
Joe: I one of the saddest things I see is when a team has a lot of skill, but a coach is forcing them into an incompatible system. In the last few years you led the nation in scoring one year and defense a different year, that’s a lot of flexibility. There are not a lot of coaches that I have seen that have the ability to say to themselves “That’s not the kind of players I have this year–these are the kind of players I have”.
Steve: We want to empower kids to do what they do well. Some people look at it as, we know what our strengths are, let’s work on improving our weaknesses. I think when you focus so much on your weaknesses, it almost deadens your strengths. Then nothing is great. We try to look at our strengths and strengthen them, and be aware of our weaknesses and avoid them—try to avoid putting ourselves in positions where the weaknesses are exposed. That’s hard to do, the best teams are going to try to find those weaknesses. Sometimes you can be as good as you could be with your team and still not be the best, and that’s alright. Last year we went 31 and 2 and made the Elite Eight. After that loss, it wasn’t a disappointment like, “I can’t believe we didn’t win a national championship again”. Instead, it was, “Man, I love this team and I’m thankful for what they did”. The end result doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Joe: It is way too early to ask where this team is going to be come March, but where is this team going to be come October 30th?
Steve: (laughter) Oh, in a terrible bind. This exhibition schedule, playing SMU on Sunday on the 28th and then playing in The Pit on Tuesday night the 30th, is a good way to test your team. How mature are we going to be to handle when it goes well on a possession and then when it doesn’t go well on a possession? Can we handle that, or are we going to be so unable to focus that we look at too big of a picture? We just have to play a possession and see what happens. I hope for those games in Dallas and in Albuquerque we just compete each possession and see how many we can win. See how many they win at the end of the day. Then we’ll know what we can get better on.
I think strategically, I think we’ll be farther ahead than some years. Last year we had seven new players. This year we have two new players. We are not having to totally reinvent the wheel for the whole team. It’s a matter of picking up where we left off and adding a few things so the new kids can get involved. But at the same time, we can’t rely on thinking we have a lot of experience so we are going to be okay. It’s a new year, it’s a new team. I’m so thankful that we get to experience that as opposed to thinking that we are better than we are and going into the regular season feeling like we are great when we have a lot of things to work on. To me, it’s a win-win for us. If we play well and have relative success that will bolster us. If we don’t, we’ll have a lot of things to work on to get better. It’s a good situation.
Joe: You mentioned earlier today that your conference, the Heartland Conference, will be merging with the Lone Star Conference in 2019. Is that something you spend any amount of time looking ahead towards, or is it too far away and you will worry about when it happens?
Steve: That’s sort of a change like going from NAIA to NCAA was sort of a change, but that one was sort of inevitable. You prepare and do what you do, and count on that to prepare you enough for what we thought was ahead. We felt very good about that transition.
This transition will go from a smaller conference to a mega conference [19 schools] with some really strong regional opponents. But it’s the same opponents that we either play in the regional tournaments or sometimes we play in the regular season as well. So it creates a stronger big conference but it doesn’t change who we recruit or how we play the game. The positive change is how many non-conference games we have to schedule—we will only need six. Right now we have to schedule about twelve. It helps scheduling with 21 conference games as opposed to 14, so there are some definite positives. But we are going to play whoever is here. We all just want to play good opponents and if that is what the merger allows more to happen, then awesome. We’ll do what we do. If that is good enough, great. If not, we’ve got to get better.
Joe: Is there anything you want to say to the people who read this?
Steve: Obviously there are a lot of New Mexico basketball fans for the women’s team, what a great environment. We hear so much about The Pit and about that environment and it is encouraging to see high quality women’s basketball be promoted so well. It was hidden for so long, but now people are learning that the women are so fun to watch. Hopefully, they will continue to support that program and any good basketball that happens. We were watching some video earlier. There are some crazy things that happen in a game. We just don’t want to participate in that. We just want to do as well as possible and that’s what’s happening with the team that you are covering. That’s just exciting and it’s neat to see interest in their program. Hopefully, that night will be a game that will be valuable for them as well and it won’t be a waste of their time; and that Coach Bradbury will think that at the end of the night we were able to get better through this experience as opposed to putting it on something different.
Joe: Thank you again.