In his sixth year as Ball State’s head coach, Brady Sallee’s team won 11 straight games this season before taking a loss. The Cardinals won the Mid-American Conference West Division regular-season title in 2014-2015, and for the last two years have posted 20-plus wins. They have played in the WNIT each year he has been there.
A Thomas More College graduate, Sallee was an assistant coach at Idaho State, Kent State and East Carolina before being named head coach at Eastern Illinois, where he coached for eight years before coming to Ball State.
Sallee and his wife Mandy have three children.
You guys are off to a great start this season. Did you see that going into the year?
I did think we had the pieces. It’s interesting because last year we graduated three seniors who played lot of minutes for us. Replacing those pieces gave a lot of people some questions, but the good news internally is that we knew what he had (still) sitting here. We’re a little bit of a different team than we have been, as we were big and pounded it inside, and now we’re six feet spread out across the line. Tempo is the big story, as it has picked up. We’re averaging 83 points per game, which had been 71 in past years. Our point guard is really good in the open floor. For the first time in my time here, we can always put five players on the floor who can score double figures. All of our players have scored at least double figures this season. We are hard to guard.
What position did you play in college? What kind of player were you?
I actually played baseball in college. Mine is maybe an abnormal story. Coming out of high school, there wasn’t much of a market for a slow point guard who was as smart as I was. So I was lucky enough to have played on a state championship baseball team, through which I got a chance to go pitch in college. Morehead State is a small NAIA school, and they needed guys to practice against the women’s basketball team. So a lot of us baseball players were jocks in high school and played basketball, so we volunteered. Through practicing with them I got to know the coach, and when my time was done as a baseball player I still had nine credit hours to finish, so I stayed on to help the women’s basketball team. Coach didn’t treat me like student. I was on the road doing recruiting and scouting. During that time I started wondering if I could do this as a living. I started developing relationships and working camps in the summer. That parlayed into my first job at Idaho State.
What have you learned at each school where you’ve worked that has enabled you to be the coach you are today?
I look back at my journey as assistant at Idaho State. I was only there a couple years, but I came into a struggling program and hit the ground running. I figured out really quickly that you better have good players, because you can have all the coaching in the world, but you need execution. I went on to Kent State, and I would call (former Kent State women’s head coach) Bob Lindsay my mentor in this profession. He was good enough to let me in and show me what it was like to sit in that seat. He played a system that to this day, there are still markings in that system in what we do. We took a lot of pride back then to be the hardest-working team ever. If your kids believe it, that becomes their reality. Our kids believed we worked harder than anybody. Bob was a tireless recruiter. Then I was lucky enough to work for Sharon Baldwin at East Carolina. She is from the Andy Landers coaching tree, and the recruiting, the tactics and the way we went about our business taught me things that were invaluable. When I got to Eastern Illinois, like everyone, I thought I was going to be the next John Calipari. But it took until year four to really get rolling. I was humbled.
Often coaches go from a mid-major program to a larger program. What was it about Ball State that made you want to coach there?
I was at Eastern Illinois for eight years. The year I left, I had a great team returning, and it was a tough, tough decision because those kids were like family to me. The first thing I was drawn to at Ball State was new athletic director, Bill Scholl. He had just been hired from Notre Dame, 10 days before me. He had been a part of what Muffet McGraw had done, so I knew how important women’s basketball was to him. I didn’t want to go to a place where women’s basketball wasn’t important, no matter what name is on the jersey. Indiana was my territory, and I knew the right people and could hit the ground running. If you don’t want to coach in Indiana, you don’t want to coach basketball.
When you recruit players, what do you look for?
We have a unique way: we try to figure out how serious a kid is about being successful. We listen for buzz phrases like, “I want to be happy.” That’s a red flag for me, because we’re about success. Happy comes later in life. You’ve got to be uncomfortable and get out of your comfort zone in going for success. We look for players who are versatile and have length, and the more versatility we have the better our defense is going to be. We start by looking for a kid’s motor – how they compete. We run a versatile offense, so lot of different skill sets can fit into what we do. You have to be long, athletic, and have a strong motor and a willingness to compete. We take a lot of pride in the fact that isn’t for everybody. I’m not Mr. Rogers. I coach them tough and pretty blunt, so you’ve got to be able to handle that. Once the make it through their freshman year and trust develops, players figure out “ah this is what that crazy guy was talking to me about.”
How are student-athletes different today than they were when you first began coaching? How have you adjusted?
It’s not just women, but student-athletes across the board. Athletes used to be willing to do what the coach wants because they’re the coach and they didn’t need to know why, they just needed to know how. Now they need to know the why, the how and the where. If you don’t adjust as a coach – and there’s a difference between adjusting and giving in – if you don’t there’s a price to pay. I have seen coaches lose their jobs because of this stuff. I’ve gone from a kind of a “crazy man,” kicking and screaming with balls flying to trying to teach at a volume three, trying to make a point at a volume six and trying to draw the line at a volume 10. I spend a lot more time on volume three now than ever. It’s the only way you’re going to get through to these kids.
I have always prided self in being a teacher, but the way I do it now is quite different. One thing that has stayed the same is that in women’s basketball it starts with the relationships you have with your players, and they have to know you care about them They don’t have to like you, but they have to be willing to play for you. One thing that’s different about our sport is it stars with relationships. You’ve got to show them you love them.
I also put together a staff that can meet everyone’s needs. Anything my players need, they can find on our great staff.
What are your goals for the program?
It’s real simple. We’ve had a vision to be a top 50 program year in and year out, and we want to do it with class, and in a professional manner. We don’t set goals like wining X amount of games – that’s what every team is trying to do. When your program has a vision and you’re doing the right things, all the winning takes care of itself. We try to get better every single day. We have a collection of players who have bought in from day one, and to see it all come together this year is gratifying. With how important our sport is at our school, the sky is the limit.
What it is important to impart to student-athletes both on and off the court?
The key to having a good run is to focus on your success, and not on being happy. This time in every kid’s life is tough. On the academic side it’s tough, athletically it’s tough, socially it’s tough. If your goal is to be happy, you’ll be miserable. Happy is when you’re retired. I really try to preach success and to push these kids to that, and probably there are times they want to knock me out. The one thing we try to get across is how to be successful in whatever they do. Almost to a T, I’ve heard from those kids who get it now.
You have three younger children. How do you balance the demands of your job with the needs of your family?
Firstly, my wife is a rock star! Secondly, when I’m home, I try to be home. What I mean is, I wait to watch film until they all go to bed. My son is an early riser like me, so he and I have our time in the mornings. All three of my kids play sports and I try to get to all of their contests that I can. But truth be told, without my wife and kid’s understanding, I couldn’t do this job.
Who is your favorite sports star of all time, and why?
Kyle Macy. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and went to every UK game from about the age of six until I left for college. Kyle was the first player I tried to emulate and pretended to be in when I played in the driveway as a kid. When I first became the head coach at Eastern Illinois, Kyle was the head coach at Morehead State, which is also in the Ohio Valley Conference. I remember being outside of the visitor’s locker room getting ready to speak to my team before a game, and Kyle Macy walked by, shook my hand and wished us luck. I felt like I was eight years old! I still have a signed picture of him in my office at home.