Covering the Coach: On and off the record with Steve Schmidt, Mr. 700

Posted: January 22, 2018 by Jared Field in Mott

schmidt 700By Jared Field 

Just nine years before my first day on the job as a reporter at the Flint Journal, I was a paperboy working the streets of Bradley Hills in west Flint. I was obsessed with sports, especially basketball, and an avid reader. I was fascinated by newspapers, whole books authored and published seven days a week.

While I was in college, I started a website devoted to high school basketball in Mid-Michigan, mainly covering Flint, Lansing and the tri-cities. Even though it was about as sophisticated as the Drudge Report, to my surprise it was quite popular. I was able to parlay that experience into my first real job as a reporter in the sports department at the Flint Journal.

The first order of business for me was to wrestle away the best beat in the building from a blue blood reporter named Dan Nilsen. He knew I was passionate about basketball and, to his credit, he didn’t hesitate to pass the torch.

“You’ll love Coach Schmidt,” he assured me.

The Mott Beat

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Steve Schmidt’s office at Ballenger Field House for a post-game interview. For a fleeting second, I felt like I had stumbled behind the customer returns desk at a sporting goods store. There were stacks of programs and college letters addressed to recruits piled high; there were basketballs, uniforms, and old trophies sitting on boxes of old trophies.

(Oh, and t-shirts. I’m convinced that Schmidt alone kept the screen printing business from following GM into bankruptcy during the Great Recession.)

This was 2006, and by that time Coach Schmidt was already a legend in Flint. One that, I quickly found out, was one of the funniest and most down to earth people I’d ever met – someone who didn’t think a national championship trophy made him too good to collect the team laundry, prep food for the hospitality room or drive the team bus.

Some reporters, and certainly many players over the years, have been intimidated by him. Understandable, based on the deadly serious and sometimes off-color manner in which he coaches. At times, he runs hotter than the special sauce in his warning-label chili. Fortunately, after the game he’s about as affable and approachable as you could imagine. And funny. Damn funny.

Coach Schmidt was typically more animated after a loss than a win since, like many great coaches, he hated to lose even more than he loved to win.

That night, though, there wasn’t much to say. His team, with five future professionals in the starting lineup (and a few more on the bench), won by 83 points. It was the first of 69 wins in 74 games over two seasons, and two national championships.

For a basketball junkie, I was in the right place at the right time.

Covering the Coach

It takes about a month before you can accurately predict what Coach Schmidt will say on the record about any given situation – ask anyone who has covered Mott basketball. After a win he’ll say, “we’re still a work in progress.” After a loss he’ll say, “we’ve got a lot of work to do” with a sprinkled-in reference to a lack of “buy in.”

If there’s an issue with a player’s behavior, he’ll say some iteration of “no player is bigger than the program,” with a dash of “it’s a privilege to wear that Mott uniform,” topped off with an accountability cherry.

Set your watch by it.

There’s nothing new under the sun for a coach who has been the CEO of basketball at Mott for 27 years. The program is his life and his players are family.

schmidt-600

One might assume that it would take a perfectionist to play nearly perfect basketball like I witnessed for two years. In Schmidt’s case, it’s true.

The cuts are never hard enough; the recoveries from hedges are never fast enough; and, frankly, the coaching is never good quite enough. That’s just how he operates. And because he’s proven time after time that he will go to war for his players, he can be as tough on them as he is on himself.

Over the years he has produced better players, better men and, at times, better reporters.

Eric Woodyard, former Flint Journal and Mlive reporter who now covers the Utah Jazz for Deseret News in Salt Lake City, recalls a time when Coach Schmidt “let him have it” for failing to adequately describe how crappy his team played in a story. He laughs about it now, but Woodyard said that experience helped him become a better reporter as much as Schmidt’s basketball camp helped him become a better player.

Adams Biggers, who covered Mott for the Flint Journal as well as his own publications, credits Schmidt for showing him the ropes, for teaching him about the relationship between reporter and subject. “Because of (Schmidt), I’m not intimidated by any coach,” he said.

The program was a great proving ground for many reporters.

My approach to Mott basketball wasn’t simply about describing game flow, keys plays and carving out a box score. I wanted to do justice to what I saw as the best thing going in Flint, a once-proud basketball hotbed that had fallen on hard times. Schmidt’s program was something everyone could take pride in. As Flint’s high schools were being hollowed out and shuttered, Schmidt was packing gyms and winning championships like in the glory days of Flint hoops.

His imprint was on every square inch of the Mott program, and only a truly great opportunity could convince him to let go.

On two separate occasions Schmidt was a finalist for the head coaching position at his alma mater, Central Michigan University. Both times he was passed over in favor of coaches who did less with more. When I asked him years ago about why he decided not to take any one of several assistant coaching opportunities at higher levels, his response was succinct: “I’m a head coach.”

Winning Every Which Way

Schmidt has won 700 games in 700 different ways, with players from all walks of life. Local kids from Flint like Kevin Tiggs, a playground baller spending his nights loading semis at a trucking company in Flint Township. A year later, Tiggs had a national championship ring, the National Player of the Year award and a college scholarship.

Coach Schmidt has a preternatural ability to coax greatness out of unlikely heroes like Tiggs, Alvin Pegues or DeAndre Nealy. He has a knack for getting the best effort out of the people in his orbit, and not just players.

Woodyard remembers questioning Schmidt’s instincts when he told the young writer about his next star – a Chicago kid cast off from another JUCO in Florida who didn’t even average double figures in scoring as a freshman. Woodyard took one look at the skinny kid, barely 6-foot tall, and thought, “sure.”

That kid, John Taylor, became the National Player of the Year, led Mott to its fourth national championship and earned a scholarship.

“(Taylor) is still the best JUCO player I’ve ever witnessed … so I learned to never question his basketball judgment,” Woodyard said.

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There are many more stories like that one, of kids plucked out of desperate circumstances, in need of structure and a support system centered on a game – a family by proxy they found at Mott.

Funny. Damn Funny.

Everything you need to know about Coach Schmidt’s personality, for me, was encapsulated in a response by Bill Schnorenberg of MRSN Radio when I asked him about some of his favorite “off the record” moments with Coach Schmidt.

“How far off the record?” he asked.

The truth is, there are plenty enough safe-for-work stories about Schmidt’s antics that have exceeded the statute of limitations, but just trust me on the other stuff – it’s gold.

Patrick Hayes, who covered Mott for Mlive, recalls a time on the road at St. Clair when Mott’s high-flying forward Doug Anderson got technical foul for hanging on the rim after a dunk. Schmidt was not pleased.

“After the game … Coach Schmidt, still visibly irritated about it, said ‘that bald ref’ about four different times when talking about it. I had to stop and say, ‘… do you really want me to quote you calling that referee bald in the paper?’ He thought about it for a second, then said, ‘I think that bald ref is just jealous because he can’t jump like Doug can.’ Then the interview was over.”

Ironically, that story conforms seamlessly with another incident, this time at Mott, when Schmidt said an official called a charge on a monster dunk out of spite because “he was never able to touch the net.”

Schmidt’s interactions with officials are legendary. I can say with certainty no one got away with more than Schmidt, but the same deference didn’t always follow him out-of-state.

Back in 2008, I received a call from Schmidt at a strange hour. I was accustomed to receiving late-evening phone calls from him after out-of-state road games, but this time he was calling during the game.

As it turned out, Schmidt had been ejected from the gym in the first half and was calling from the team bus. Schmidt went on to explain to me that he had fallen victim to the infamous officiating crew headlined by the King brothers, Ron and Don, the quickest whistles in Central Illinois, who had given a quick hook to his friend and fellow coach, Mike Ingram, a year prior.

Schmidt vowed to never return to Peoria.

Or there was a time when Schmidt spotted one of his players on TV in the stands at a high school game wearing a hat indoors. The next morning that player, who naively thought that rule only applied to Ballenger Field House, paid for his mistake in sprints.

Then there’s his longstanding hatred of social media (especially Twitter) and his cell phone holding cell on overnight trips. One time he actually compelled one of his players to cut off his braids as penance for inappropriate use of social media. That same year Schmidt banned Twitter.

Schmidt likes to joke from time to time that he has gotten a little soft over the years, when compared to his younger, more disciplined days. On one occasion, he sent a seldom-used player into the game and, as the kid headed to check in, he mumbled “about time” under his breath.

“Steve stopped him and asked, ‘Did you just say something?’” Nilsen recalled. “The kid was back on the bench. Not sure if he ever played again.”

His interactions with parents who complain about playing time are similarly candid and tough. Schmidt always says that he “coaches players, not parents.” One time he told the father of a reserve player that his son wasn’t getting playing time because “he’s not any good.” Or how certain players didn’t see the floor because they “couldn’t guard Ron Meeker.” That’s the type of unvarnished honesty everyone comes to expect from him – off the record, of course.

Schnorenberg recalls a time when his pre-game coaches show went off the rails, as Schmidt spent 20 minutes talking about the only thing he’s better at than coaching basketball: grilling. And, for the record, charcoal still reigns supreme.

Nilsen tells another great story about how former Flint Journal columnist Dean Howe once wrote a column about how incredibly focused Schmidt was on his job. In it, he suggested that Schmidt might want to get out once in a while, maybe go on a blind date. A couple of days later Schmidt told Nilsen that he had, indeed, gone on three dates recently. “And two of them were blind,” he joked.

My personal favorite memory of Coach Schmidt came in 2009, after Mott fell to Henry Ford in a shocking upset in the state championship game. Schmidt’s second-leading scorer at the time, a guard with aspirations of playing at the highest level, had a smattering of offers from lower-level colleges at the time including one in Fairbanks, Alaska. He needed a good run in the national tournament to prove he could play at the highest level.

Unfortunately, he had one of the worst games of his career at the worst possible time as the Bears failed to quality for the national tournament. After the game, Coach Schmidt summed it up better than anyone else could: “He probably just played his way into an igloo for the next two years.”

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Part of the Program

Many years ago, I was courtside after a road game against Lansing when I was approached by Mike Ingram, the aforementioned coach who first drew the ire of the King Twins in Peoria.

Ingram, a highly successful coach in his own right (now a hall of famer), shook his head at me.

“We can’t even get our reporters to come to home games,” he said.

He was right. I could probably count on one hand the number of reporters I’d encountered over the years that offered anything close to significant coverage of JUCO basketball. It was always different in Flint, though, not only because of its basketball tradition; not only because of the championships, the crowds and the athletes. It’s mostly because of the relationship that each and every one of us had with Coach Schmidt. From day one he made me feel like I was part of the program, even on those mornings after I’d written something critical of it.

Kindness, charisma and candor go a long way in this business, and Coach Schmidt has an abundance of all three.

After his 700th win earlier this month, Schmidt stood in front of camera crews from ABC 12 and WNEM 5 in Flint in the gym at Schoolcraft College. His first instinct wasn’t to talk about the milestone, but about the reporters who traveled to the Detroit area twice in one week in order to be there for his big moment.

“I’m humbled that you guys would come to Detroit again, two games in a row,” he said. “I’m absolutely humbled by that, but it’s really not about me. It’s about the Mott program and all the kids that bought in and let me coach them.”

And yeah, I knew he would say that.

 

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Comments
  1. Chris Matheson says:

    Jared, you have done an amazing job of covering basketball in mid-Michigan, especially Mott CC and Coach Schmidt. I have no doubt he appreciates your coverage as much as you have appreciated watching him.

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