Coach’s Chair: Suzy Merchant, Michigan State University

Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant has amassed a 204-96 record in her first nine seasons with the Spartans. Photo by Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletics/
Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant has amassed a 204-96 record in her first nine seasons with the Spartans. Photo by Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletics.

Since being hired in the spring of 2007, Suzy Merchant has guided Michigan State to 20 wins and a Big Ten finish of third or better in eight of her nine seasons. The Spartans won the conference title in 2011. In her first nine years as coach, Merchant has led 31 players to All-Big Ten honors, and 46 have attained Big Ten academic recognition.

Merchant was a starter at Central Michigan, and graduated in 1991. She was an assistant coach at Oakland University from 1992-1995; head coach at Saginaw Valley State from 1995-1998; and head coach at Eastern Michigan University from 1998-2007. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in health and fitness from Central Michigan and a Master’s degree in educational leadership from Saginaw Valley State.

Since coming to East Lansing, Merchant has been extensively involved in performing community service. She and her husband are the parents of two sons.

You’ve had ups and downs throughout your time at Michigan State, and throughout your coaching career. How do you approach each season?

You try to adhere to the same goals: winning league championships and also national championships. The biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is never to be too high or too low. Keep a steady course and an understanding of your team. Know what to work on next. You start with a plan, but kids are so unique with their skill sets these days. When you recruit them you have a good idea of what they can do, but often they surprise you with other skills when they arrive.

The way I came up in coaching, I feel blessed because I had to find unique ways to get the job done on offense, and how to get stops on defense, because often I didn’t have the personnel. For many coaches when they get a job, they say, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.” Yes, but what are you going to do right now?

What is the goal-setting process like for you?

We’ve been able to incorporate things every day: practice goals, game goals, individual goals, and goals as a team. That has been really helpful. I took an idea from football, with th stickers on helmets reward system, and I put stickers on our player’s lockers. We have segments that they can earn a sticker for. It keeps them motivated, as the short-term piece sets them up for the long-term piece. Goals have to be measurable, and players are held accountable.

You seem like such a nice person off court. How would one of your players describe your practices?

Competitive, intense, a little fiesty, and aggressive. When they walk off the court they know there’s a standard they have to meet. I’m extremely competitive, and that’s how our practices are run.

You’ve had only one losing season in your years of coaching. What are your keys to success?

It starts with the hiring of good staff. I really do think you have to have a good staff, and the number one trait they should bring is loyalty. Even when I was coaching at small colleges, I had a loyal staff. It’s knowing what your core values are, what your identity is and holding kids accountable. Every player wants to be pushed deep down; they want to be good. When you’re in a situation to lead people, they respond to that if it’s consistent.

If you don’t have what everybody else has on the court, you have to find unique ways to get the job done. I have done all kinds of things. I used to to play jump defenses, I used to walk ball down the floor. You have to know your kids well and put them in positions to win games.

Do you have to change your game plan every year depending on your personnel?

Yes, especially when you’re a new coach. Kids now want instant results. They’ve got to feel like the coach is doing everything she can. Whatever you have to do, do it. Kids need to buy in, and have the belief that winning matters.

What is the most fun aspect of your job?

The relationships you build with the kids and being able to compete. I love to compete – it’s how I’m built. Putting those two things together for me is key, and it doesn’t matter if I’m an assistant coach or a head coach.

What do you want to make sure players get from your program by the time they leave?

There’s so much. Number one: When they walk away from here, that they feel like this is their family. This place is unique and like no other place; we take care of our people out here, and maintain that connection for life. I also hope they’d leave here as positive role models that are strong confident and well-spoken. And I hope those traits would translate into wonderful careers and families sometime in the future.

What’s it like watching Aerial Powers play in the WNBA?

I have the biggest smile on my face ever. Since she graduated, she’s come back here more than anybody. She was just here on the 26th. I adore Aerial, and I’m so proud of her. There are not many kids built like her anymore; she studies her craft and works on her craft. She’s one of the most humble, kind, funny, engaging and passionate people. Her success is earned. I’m so proud of her and who she is as a person.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the game since you first began coaching?

The days of the self-made player are somewhat gone. The skill development piece has changed a lot in that it has been replaced by travel ball. So on the one hand, kids are getting great competition and are challenging themselves at a high level. On other hand, basic skills are sometimes missing from their game.

These are kids we as coaches have to adapt to. A lot of coaches think the old school is the right school, and it is to an extent. But it’s not what inspires your people. I took a lot of time to look at myself because these kids are very different. If i want to move up and move on, I have to change sometimes. The more you can do to self reflect and evaluate psychologically, emotionally and physically, the better off you will be.

Basketball used to be something players did. Now it’s who they are. That, to me, is sometimes where a major problem lies. That’s where kids struggle with adversity. They don’t know what to do when adversity arises, and it wrecks them to their core, really shakes them and shakes their confidence.

How do you balance family and other responsibilities with a challenging job?

I really don’t think you do. I think women say “find a way,” but I don’t know if there is a way. In my first year at MSU I had a three-month old child, and I was overwhelmed and exhausted. Then I saw this little boy and I missed him so much. I had an Oprah Winfrey moment watching him sleep through my own tears at 3 a.m. I decided when I was home I would be the best mom I could be, and when I’m at the office I will be best coach I can be. Early on I was talking to a recruit while trying to change a diaper, and I realized that nobody wins in that scenario. I made some choices that when walked in the door, at least for one hour I would be a mom with undivided attention. Since then I’ve tried to keep those two worlds separate.

it’s special to be raising two little boys, and the number one team they cheer for is full of girls. They will grow up to treat women with as much respect as they do the guys. They see in practices the sacrifices players make.

What is your own workout like?

I have a personal trainer and I do HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). I used to run, but I found this to be challenging, and it got me in better shape in a shorter period of time. In an hour I feel better and stronger and I’m addicted to it now.