One of the coolest spoils of winning a basketball championship — in high school or college — is the tradition of cutting down the net. Players and coaches, usually capped by the head coach, take turns on a ladder, scissors in hand, cutting of one 12 loops.
Lakewood Ranch High School Boys Basketball Coach Jeremy Schiller wanted that experience so bad for his players he executed a shrewd leadership technique: he had the team practice cutting down the nets, a real life feel-it experience. “We wanted them to get a piece of it,” Schiller says, “so they knew exactly what it would feel like.”
Schiller coached the Lakewood Ranch High Mustangs for a decade, from 2011 to 2021, leaving last August to take a coaching job with IMG Academy in Bradenton. His tenure was noted in Florida high school athletics for a massive culture shift off the court and a worst-to-first shift on it. Schiller’s teams won four district titles on the way to three regional finals, two final fours and a State Championship runner-up season. Lakewood Ranch High never had a 20-win season prior to Schiller’s arrival.
An assistant at Brandon High School and head coach at Osceola High in Pinellas County prior to the Mustangs, Schiller was the keynote speaker at a recent Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance event. Held May 18 at the Carlisle Inn in Sarasota, the event was entitled the Breakfast of Champions: Building a Winning Culture. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the Business Alliance, and co-chair the programming committee that puts on events like this.)
Stats aside, Schiller, the 2019 National Federation of High School Associations Boys Basketball Coach of the Year, brought his can-do, positive-mindset coaching and leadership philosophy to the event. “The biggest mark of success is consistency,” Schiller says. “When you are building a culture for 30 years, you can’t (only) focus on the game that’s right in front of you.”
Pick and roll
Schiller’s key points to building and maintain a winning culture include:
Flex move: Being nimble and flexible can manifest itself in different ways, Schiller says, but the main point is to not hesitate to shift strategy to meet new circumstances. That happened once between seasons, when he went from a 7-player rotation that played mostly a slow-paced format to a deeper 10-player set that could play more up-tempo. In the competitive high school athletics environment, moving quickly to meet the talent matters — much like it does in business. “That shift allowed us to keep talented kids in our program,” Schiller says.
More flexibility? A conscientious planner, Schiller maps out practices to the minute, so players know from, say 2:05 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., they will be shooting free throws, and after that dribbling drills. The precision in times isn’t meant to be strict, he says, but to provide a base for being flexible when needed. “You can adjust from there,” he says, “but you have to have a plan to start with.”
Enjoy the ride: An admitted hyper-competitive person, Schiller says the year the Mustangs went to a regional championship he made a conscious effort to enjoy it more. “My guys told me I was a lot more fun than I’d ever been before,” he says. “We didn’t skip any steps. We focused on the journey.”
Lay it out: One of Schiller’s key principles is internal communication, not just with players, but also with players’ parents, his coaches, the school and the community. He speaks like a culture-first executive when he talks to parents about playing time and other concerns, always looking out four years, not just four quarters. “The reason most people leave or transfer,” Schiller says, “is because they don’t see a vision.”
Bend, don’t break: Schiller says it’s essential to recognize the difference between negotiables and non-negotiables and rules vs. standards. He prefers standards to rules in many cases, because with standards players “don’t have control over the consequences.” With rules, he says, a player can take the approach that if all he has to do is run a mile, then maybe he will blow off practice. Standards allows Schiller to utilize his flexibility when dealing with the travails of players who are also teenagers. “I’m very black and white, but we still need to have gray areas.”
That said, Schiller remains steadfast that sometimes hard decisions have to be made. For that, he approaches the conversation with candor. “If you can’t look someone in the eye and explain it, it’s probably not the right time to bend a little.”
Follow through: Schiller says he practices servant leadership, down to sweeping the floor of the gym. He says hello to everyone he sees, and preaches the same approach to his players. “It’s important for me to communicate to the team that no one is above doing anything,” he says.
Culture of trust: Schiller says he’s learned to tweak how he starts sentences of feedback, a subtle yet significant modification that takes out ‘if’ and replaces it with ‘because.’ For example, if he sees a player not boxing out for a rebound, he won’t say “’if you want to win, you have to box out.’” He will instead say “‘because you want to win, you have to box out.’” Schiller says doing it that way is an acknowledgement of what both he and the players already know: they want to win.
Open court: A core theme of Schiller’s approach is when communicating with players, coaches and others — and he stresses communication early and often — be transparent, candid and forthright. “I have an open door policy,” he says. “Players know they can talk to me anytime. You can tell me you hate me. Just tell me why so we can get better.”
Set the screen: Related to an open communication style of feedback, Schiller says, is to do it in a non-adversarial way that puts the onus on the player to account for his behavior. Instead of old-school, calling out a player with a scream session, Schiller will say something like, “‘I’ve been seeing you do this and that’s selfish. Am I wrong?’”
Buckets ahead: Schiller says a key to a winning culture is to have a “growth mindset.” He will constantly look for ways to better, in setting plays, utilizing talent and more. “I’m not afraid to call up people, other coaches, and say, ‘can you help me?”
Know your why: An assistant coach at Eckerd College and a graduate assistant at the University of South Florida, before he took the Lakewood Ranch job, Schiller says his motivation is team-focused. “I get a lot of joy by helping others reach their maximum potential,” he says. “I enjoy bringing a group together who can do more together than they can individually.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.