Coach’s Chair: Kamie Ethridge, University of Northern Colorado

Fourth-year Northern Colorado coach Kamie Ethridge is leading the Bears to another winning season this year. Photo courtesy of USA Basketball.
Fourth-year Northern Colorado coach Kamie Ethridge is leading the Bears to another winning season this year. Photo courtesy of USA Basketball.

Kamie Ethridge is in the midst of her fourth season as head coach at the University of Northern Colorado. In two of her last three years, the team has posted 22 wins. This season the Bears have defeated DePaul, LSU and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Ethridge was a two-time Kodak All-American and one-time Wade Trophy winner at the University of Texas at Austin, where she played for legendary coach Jody Conradt. As a senior in 1985-1986, Ethridge helped guide the Longhorns to the first perfect season in NCAA Division I history: 34-0. Texas won the National Championship that year, and she was named MVP of the game. In 1988 she helped the United States win a gold medal under coach Kay Yow.

After a one-year stint as assistant coach at Northern Illinois, Ethridge filled the same position at Vanderbilt from 1991-1996. She then served as associate head coach to Deb Patterson at Kansas State for the next 18 years. Patterson is now Ethridge’s director of basketball operations at Northern Colorado.

Ethridge served four years on the USA Basketball Women’s Player Selection Committee, responsible for choosing members of numerous USA Basketball national teams.

You ended your college career on the ultimate high note, winning a national championship after an undefeated season and being named MVP of the game. How did that event and those college years shape your life?

It was everything about getting to play at a high-quality high school and then taking it to the next level. Then, to be surrounded by those kinds of leaders at Texas. I lost nine games my entire college career. It was everything I wanted because I wanted to win so badly. That experience gave me a chance to play internationally and take my game to the big stage. It was amazing; I couldn’t dream of picking another (college). It was a perfect fit for me and my life.

I wonder which comes first, especially since I’ve coached all these years. I know being around those who had high standards and expectations definitely shaped me, but I also know I was like that from the beginning, and I very much wanted to success because I had high expectations and high demands for myself. My opportunities brought out the best in me.

What did you learn playing for the great Jody Conradt that you took forth into life and your career?

First off, I think coach Conradt is an incredibly gifted and kind person. She treated everybody the same, whether it was the millionaire that came to practice or the person who was serving you. She was sincere and genuine, and that was neat to be around.

The thing I loved about playing for her is that she wanted to win, had high expectations and put demands on you as a player. There was not anyone more competitive. If were at UT and around her, you had to strive for the best and pursue excellence. You felt that, and you felt like you had a great environment that was challenging, but very much one that brought out the best in you.

What was your 1988 Olympics experience like?

For me it was the culmination, the hardest thing that I did in that I had always been the starting point guard. But I got hurt the year before the Olympics and was lucky to be on the team. Coach Yow was loyal to me and put me on the term after what we’d done (win the World Championship) in 1986. When I look at it, it was such a good experience to not be the best player or the starter, and get minutes when I could, having that role. And at the same time, knowing it wasn’t a one tournament experience. When you finally get an Olympic gold medal and you’re standing on the podium watching the flag go up, hearing the anthem playing, it’s one of the most special and one of the greatest accomplishments as an individual. For to be an Olympian, I feel very fortunate. I felt such gratitude. I thought of all that my family had sacrificed for me.

You were an assistant coach for a long time. Was it always your intent to become a head coach?

I always wanted to be a head coach and in some ways, I stayed too long as an assistant, but I’ve always been like that – whatever I’m doing, I’m all in. I got to do almost everything at K State all those years; I was in charge of so much. I was in charge of player development; I was so hands on. Everything except making calls on game days.

What were the biggest adjustments you had to make when you switched titles from associate head to head coach?

I got to do so much as an assistant and had so much say in the things what were going on. The only difference for me now is that I have to make final decisions, it’s my call on recruits, I decide how we travel – all those details of the day to day. I talk that through with staff and players; I don’t hoard over all those decisions. They are team-driven decisions. I dictate practice, that’s the bottom line. I have to handle players and issues with players, and decide how the environment is going to be and what will be the culture and the recruiting. And clearly on game day, I’m the person in charge of decisions. But I love the X’s and O’s, and the game situations are the things I cherish.

You and Deb Patterson used to have opposite roles at Kansas State. How is it working with her again?

Deb let me do so much as an assistant coach, not many get that kind of opportunity to get involved. She’s the director of basketball operations, and that was her choice because she didn’t want to do the recruiting. In her I have someone I can bounce off anything that comes across my desk, because she has the wisdom and the insight to know how to handle it.

We’re all a little different, which gives us balance on staff. To have someone with that kind of experience on my staff, it makes the staff work. You don’t want to be too old of a staff but don’t want to be too young either. You need a balance.

What’s hard is hiring and getting great people, and ultimately, that’s recruiting too. You’ve got to have loyalty, buy-in, a competitive spirit, and people who are about your program and don’t have a different agenda. It’s the hardest thing to hire that.

How is the game different than when you played it?

Everything is different. The shorts are going back to being short again (laughs). I think the biggest thing clearly is that right after I finished, the three-point line came into the game. We played with the men’s basketball, and that changed. International players had already been using a small ball and a three-point line.

Now you have better quality athletes, and there’s much more depth in the game because you’ve got a lot of talent. But the best players back then could definitely play and would still be some of the best in the game today.

Today, young people play a million games and don’t practice as much as they play. In April, May and June they play too many games. So many that they don’t even care if they win. As a result, we don’t have kids that are as competitive as they used to be. It’s hard to find competitive kids that really want it when they step on the court, because it comes too easy for them now.

We used to feel lucky to get in and play our tails off. At the end of game when they should be fouling, they just let the clock run because they know they have another game later that night. They have too many games and too many personal trainers. A lot of micromanaging.

How have you adjusted your coaching style to fit the needs of today’s athletes?

I don’t think I’ve changed. I’m still a little old school, so it’s important to have good people on my staff with good perspective and who are young enough to communicate with young people in this day and age. But no matter what your style you have to recruit the kind of players who want to play for you. The recruiting piece has to be in finding players who really love the game and who are willing to work at it. I’m too old and too young to convince athletes to play hard and practice with energy. That may be prevalent in today’s society; there are a lot of kids who don’t have energy. I feel like we do a really good job of getting energy players into our program. If you’re honest and you’re forward with them, and tell them what you expect, you’ll get the right people. I want them to know what they’re getting.

What are the foundations of a successful program?

I spent a lot of time coming up with the things that are important to our program, and we have defined six pillars for our success that define our culture and what we’re about. These are like my team rules. One pillar is respect. We lay out the (expected) behaviors are on all these pillars, so what does respect look like? It means you respect the game, that you will work at the game. It means you’ll respect opponents, academics, and prepare for practice. It’s a big word and a big concept. We put behaviors into what they look like so that players know what to expect when they walk into practice. This is part of respecting the game.

Hunger is another one, we want kids who are hungry and don’t want to be satisfied. Then there’s grit. It doesn’t matter the talent, but the grit and heart and desire. There is competitiveness and there is passion, which again, is to be putting your heart and your soul into what you do. Giving to teammates and community is the last pillar.

What you see in those pillars – I want be around people like that both on and off the court. People that bring out the best in you and for whom you can bring the best in them. Our kids buy in and hold each other accountable for these pillars, which are things we want program to stand for.

What are your goals for Northern Colorado and its players?

I don’t look at winning a championship. I know it’s cliché, but I’m much more process-driven. We’re maybe not the most talented team, but we’re trying to grow as a team and get better with every team we play. Every single day we commit to getting them better on the court and in the classroom, in the community, as teammates, as people. We hold everyone accountable, we teach them, support them, love them and challenge them to grow into the best person they can be. That goes for us coaches, too. All of us need to be trying to be better every single day. Then wins will take care of themselves.

What is a Coach Ethridge practice like?

It’s a lot of skill work. We meet before practice and keep something simple in mind for our focus for the day so we all start on the same page. Even during season we are doing individual work every day. We’re doing a lot of shooting at this point in the season. It’s mainly about keeping your kids fresh and competitive and finding ways to get better in January and February. The best teams are still getting better right now to play in March.

Overall, it’s an energetic, hardworking gym – a fast-paced, high-expectation gym. You don’t get to come in and not be there emotionally, communication-wise, or just go through the motions, You have to be all-in.

What is one thing about you that many would be surprised to learn?

The bottom line in so much of who I am has to do with my Christian faith and my belief in being my best and striving to be better. There is so much in life we need to be giving to, and we need to understand that we’re such a small part of what’s around us. Being part of a team and a program, you learn that it’s not about you. In this world, it’s supposed to be about ‘us.’ When I’m growing in one area, it effects all areas. Ultimately, that’s what gives me the most joy in this profession. I want to do well because of my faith.