Coach Brian Katz keeps the Sacramento State University men's basketball team above the rim
Sac State's team may not boast a winning record, but head Katz still makes sure his players got game
To outsiders, it may not seem that Sacramento State University's head basketball coach Brian Katz has much to offer when it comes to recruiting blue-chip players or peddling the luster of a Division I sports team to wide-eyed high-school athletes.
For local hoops followers, however, there's a bit of lore surrounding Katz. Basketball enthusiasts speak of a man who's more focused on building a family than selling recruits on the promise of something bigger, the promise of something difficult to deliver.
Katz, after all, can’t be that coach as the head of a program that’s boasted no winning seasons since it entered Division I athletics way back in 1991. As such, he doesn’t fall into the prestigious ranking of a legacy team coach, nor can he offer a recruit the opportunity to put up the kind of big statistics that catch the NBA’s attention. He doesn’t even have the goods needed to lure in a player on the idea of playing in a first-class facility.
Rather, Katz can offer future Hornets a modest 1,200-seat gymnasium known as The Nest, the university’s solid curriculum and an invitation to join a family. And for Katz, only two of the three factor into his beliefs on how an athlete should select a college.
“There [are] four reasons to choose a school, and I’ll defy anybody to argue with me,” Katz says.
Ultimately, he says, those factors come down to major, the university and its surrounding community, the head coach, and, finally, a player’s teammates.
“The rest is all immaterial, it’s all fluff and it erodes away after a month,” Katz says.
Those features regularly attract players to the Hornets. In 2012, for example, then-recruit Cody Demps—now a sophomore starting forward for the Hornets—turned down Columbia University to play for Katz and enroll in Sac State’s mechanical engineering program.
Likewise, Nick Hornsby, an all-state player from Irvine; Eric Stuteville, a center from Casa Roble High School; and Trevis Jackson, a point guard from Santa Monica who played in the MaxPreps 2013 California Division I All-State championship game, also joined the team for similar reasons on signing day in April.
Sure, these aren’t acquisitions on the level of Nick Nolte bringing in Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal, agrave; la the 1994 film Blue Chips, but that’s because Katz’s philosophy is plausible, modest and geared toward teaching young men how to be leaders on and off the court. While the NCAA’s bigger programs draw criticisms for their alleged exploitation of players and recruitment scandals, for players at this smaller level, the essence of being a college athlete—of majoring in something other than a smooth jump shot—can still ring true.
Still, even with seemingly less to offer, Katz has managed to improve his recruiting talent. And in 38 years of coaching (the last six of those spent with the Hornets), he’s recorded three significant improvements in every program he commands: emphasize defense, steadily improve program and graduate players.
When it comes to speaking with outsiders, however, there’s only so much Katz is willing to offer up, but the insights he does share suggest his program is run on the basis of simple, easy-to-remember mantras for the players.
“Get better every day,” he says, by way of example.
Also: “Win the next game,” and “Have more fun than any other team in the country.”
Or, as a gold-lettered sign above the locker-room exit reads: “Everything you do and don’t do affects your teammates.”The hive mind
It’s a Thursday-afternoon practice; just three days earlier the Hornets lost to UC Los Angeles by 36 points. Now, Katz pauses a drill that’s designed to better the team’s transition defense—a problem he saw in the team’s play against the Bruins. During an inner-squad scrimmage, he notices that one team is taking it easy on the other team.
He stops to ask the collective group a question: “Is it better to be harder on ourselves or easier to help out our teammates?”
The players respond in choir: “Harder.”
The UCLA players, Katz tells his players, offered no favors. There is no opposing team offering to fix their defensive holes. He ends his speech with the mantra from that locker-room sign: “Everything you do and don’t do affects your teammates.”
The drill resumes and the results Katz has demanded are finally met. Defensive positions are sound, proper assists and rotations are made. There are even a few forced turnovers.
In short, everything you do and don’t do affects your teammates.
Katz’s players hear this in practice when the coach wants to emphasize a teaching point or criticism. It is echoed by teammates when more effort is needed. When the players finish warm-ups and stretches, they gather beneath a basketball hoop and chant, on three, “Together.”
Stuteville, the team center, says he keeps the phrase close.
“That runs off everything,” he says. “It relates to study hall, even. If someone is late, it affects our teammates because we’ll all have to run. It’s a system you have to buy into, but you realize in time that it is beneficial and not just words being put out there softly.”
Earlier that day, in his office, Katz elaborated on his philosophy. The mantra, he says, is applicable in any team-oriented setting: on the court, in the office, at home with family.
“Everyone talks about the things you do,” he says. “But how about the things you don’t do?”
He gives a few examples of such: “Are you eating properly? Are you in good enough shape? Did you do your homework in advance so that you’re not up until 2 or 3 in the morning the night before a game?”
All factor into the responsibility he demands.
“The only thing you are accountable to is the guys in the locker room and your coach,” Katz says. “We can’t be interested in how it turns out for any one individual, it’s about the team.”
In a sense, he’s wants his players to maintain a hive mentality. To Katz, the tendency to separate a player from the team to be responsible for success or failure runs counter to the inherent nature of the sport.
It even applies to incoming recruits. Katz’s philosophy on such dates back to his graduate assistant work under Carroll Williams and Dick Davey at UC Santa Clara 25 years ago. Ultimately, he aims to “get the kids that want to be coached, want to be at the school and be a part of the community.”
The decision of who is welcomed into the hive does not rest entirely on Katz’s opinion. It’s earned through the respect of the entire program, from the coaches to the players. Prior to committing to Sac State, Stuteville recalls feeling welcomed by the team in biweekly open gym meets and hanging out with the players. Junior guard Dylan Garrity says when he was a freshman, the upperclassmen did the same for him. Now, he follows their example of helping incoming students assimilate into university life.
And when the players don’t respond well to a recruit, the coaches notice.
On November 1, in an exhibition game against Menlo College, one particular sharpshooter came off the bench immediately firing from beyond the arc to keep the game close in the first half. The player was a former Hornets recruit, who stepped into The Nest with a chip on his shoulder and a message to send: “You passed on my game.”
What that athlete will never understand is that it had little to do with his shooting ability and a lot to do with his character.
His attitude rubbed the Hornet players the wrong way and, in the end, factored into his future. The players found him to be too bossy, a “know-it-all”—both undesirable traits for a recruit.
Brandon Laird, associate head coach and recruiting coordinator for the Hornets, sees it this way: “I’m not dealing with the problems and issues that player brings to the table. You have to believe your value system. We believe we’re building a brotherhood.”
“A kid has to be good enough, that’s the cut line,” says Katz. “[A player who is] good enough, does he want to be part of a team or a family?
“A lot of times the mid-major schools [such as Sac State] are viewed as a place where a guy can go and put up numbers,” he says. “If that’s why a guy is here, we probably don’t want him. A guy can come put up numbers, but it has to happen within the framework of the team.”
Katz says this year’s roster has a want-to mentality as opposed to a have-to one.
Junior guard Garrity agrees. The teams boasts a definite sense of camaraderie, he says, regularly organizing post-practice hangouts and tailgates for Hornets football games.
And while outsiders might consider the team’s 2-3 start to be a slow one, Katz views it as not much different than the 3-0 start last year.
The players don’t have the same confidence, he says, but they are still figuring out the team and working to better their execution.
In the locker room after that particularly disastrous game against the Bruins, Katz posed a question to his players: “Do you want me to lower the bar? Do you want me to tell you we can’t beat them?”
For the coach, that’s not even an option.
“Losing’s not OK, and I’m not lowering the bar,” he says. “There’s not one game on our schedule that we can’t win. I’m not saying we’re going to win, but there’s a way if you’re willing to search hard and find it.”