Coach’s Chair: Jason Flowers, Cal State University, Northridge

Jason Flowers enters  his ninth season as CSUN's head coach this year. Photo courtesy of CSUN Athletics.
Jason Flowers enters his ninth season as CSUN’s head coach this year. Photo courtesy of CSUN Athletics.

Since taking the reins of CSUN basketball in 2010, Jason Flowers has reshaped the culture and identity of the program. En route to becoming the most winning coach in school history, Flowers has guided the Matadors to three Big West Tournament championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, and set the single-season record for most wins in 2015. Flowers is a three-time conference coach of the year, and has helped numerous players achieve conference and tournament honors.

Flowers is a master at fostering good team culture, while pushing individual players to greater heights. He hired the program’s all-time leading scorer, Ashlee Guay (class of 2015) as an assistant coach last year.

A Bellflower native, Flowers played two years for UC Irvine and two years for UCLA, where he served as academic coordinator and volunteer assistant coach for two seasons after graduation. He began his coaching career at Long Beach State, where he was an assistant for four years. Flowers was an assistant coach at UC Riverside for two seasons before coming to Northridge. He and his wife – the Matador softball coach – have three children.

How did you know when you were ready for a head coaching job?

To be honest, I’ve always been someone who thought they could win, but I probably wasn’t ready to do it. There was a difference between when I was ready and when I thought I’d be able to get a shot at it. I thought I was ready as soon as I decided to go into coaching, but God knows much better than I do. I was put into situations where I learned a lot: at Long Beach State with Mary Hegarty and at Riverside with John (Margaritis), seeing different sides of things and having different experiences. Then when some assistant coaches who I had started with began being hired as head coaches, I thought it was time to begin looking.

I remember your first official practice. When you came into the program with the task of rebuilding, what were the first steps you took towards that?

We just wanted to establish how we were going to do things. We were looking for a certain kind of work ethic and a certain kind of toughness, and we wanted to establish that kind of mentality. We worked on how we were going to be a group and come together, and what that looked like and sounded like. We were about addressing the culture and how we wanted to do things. When you come into new situation, it’s about changing the mentality. Handling the mentality of 12-13 people you’re coming across for first time, some of it may be similar to what they’ve had in the past and some may be the same. It’s a challenge every single year. Hopefully the kids you’ve had will help you, but when you walk in you have to prove yourself and know what you’re talking about

When did you know that a culture was beginning to build?

I don’t know if there was a time; I just knew we were making progress, even that first year. We lost our first 11 games that year, but we’d show glimpses of potential here and there. Our first win was at Pacific, who had been picked to be one of the top teams in the league that year. We won on the road, and for our kids, that helped them understand that if we continued to do some things, that we’d make progress and get better. Progress was the goal that year. The next year the freshmen came in and exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Going back to the 2013-2014 season, which was your first time taking the Matadors to the NCAA Tournament: did you see that coming, or was it a surprise?

We thought we had the pieces. We thought we were pretty good the year before, and we were challenged. Things didn’t play out that way, but that outstanding freshman class – it was their junior year in 2014. We started off that year rough, going 4-12, and then we went on a run. They started doing the things they needed to on a daily basis, and gained momentum as it went on. That was the year we added (transfer guard) Cinnamon Lister. That was a good year.

What keeps you going every day, even during the tougher seasons?

The process. Regardless of a year like this year, where people have high expectations of our group, or year in the past where they thought we wouldn’t be that good. Seeing the growth and development of the athletes is tremendous. It never stops, no matter where you are on that pendulum, whether it’s a lot of improvement or small nuances. It’s all about seeing growth and development.

You seemed to have a lot of alumni support from the beginning, which has continued. Is that where the program’s slogan, “always family” came from?

That came as part of changing the mindset. (Coach and former UCLA Bruin) Cameron Dollar, the year I tried to walk on at UCLA, he kicked my butt for a week. Then he took me under his wing and asked me what I wanted to do. When I told him I wanted to coach, he laid out a blueprint for thinking like a coach, even when I was still in college. I had tinkered with some ideas around what I wanted my mantra to be. I liked Dean Smith’s “play hard, play smart, play together.” I wanted something like that, so over the years I played around with different things and the mantra I settled on was “always family.”

One thing I wanted it to mean is that everyone who has worn the uniform here should feel like they’re a par of what’s going on. They can feel the success, they can feel the struggle. I wanted our women to have a feeling of their own sorority, their own group of women who understand that if they played here, there are certain characteristics that they have in common. It is not uncommon for former players to be in our locker room before and after games.

What’s it been like to have Ashlee Guay back, as an assistant coach?

Having her back has been good. She has certain characteristics that you’d have to be around her to understand. They jump out, and you have to be here on a daily basis to see how having her back is big time, for what she brings to a group. It’s not a proud moment for me personally, but a proud moment for our program to see her working with our kids, trying to get them to understand things she’s learned along the way. The great things about her are that she’s competitive, strong-willed and hard-working. We butt heads at times and disagree, but we do it respectfully. She asks intelligent questions, and all of that has been good for us.

When she first got here I asked her about coaching because I could see it in her. At first she said no, but as she got older she warmed up to the idea.

Do you and your wife have similar coaching philosophies? What have you learned from one another about coaching?

At the core we have similar philosophies, but our personalities are different. That comes across in how we deal with situations. From her there’s a lot I’ve picked up over the years, even before she was a coach, because of the athlete that she was. She has been on winning teams her whole life. And it’s good to get a different perspective. I may come home and say this this and this, and she’ll say, “have you ever thought about this?”

What got you from UC Irvine to UCLA?

I graduated from high school when I was 16, and I tried to walk on at UCLA in the 1996-1997 season. They were one year removed from the national championship, and every guy had been on that team, so there was no way I was going to get on. My high school coach suggested I try to walk on at UC Irvine, the worst team in America at the time, and that’s where I ended up. In the midst of this they hired a new coach in Pat Douglas, and over two years I went from a walk on to a scholarship athlete to becoming a starter.

In my first year, Cameron Dollar was an assistant coach, and that was my guy. Then he leaves for the Vanguard University job. Without him in my second year, communication between me and the head coach wasn’t good. So I decided to leave Irvine and the plan was to play for Dollar at Vanguard. In the springtime he calls me and says hey, it’s all set, you can go back – you can go back to UCLA. I was still in their system, so we talked on Monday and on Tuesday, I was on campus at UCLA.

What do you like about coaching women?

I don’t approach it differently; I coach young people. Naturally the dynamics of relationships with women are going to be different. But at the end of the day, I think the one thing that makes the biggest difference is that on the men’s side you can get away with not necessarily caring, because other factors are involved. On the women’s side, if you don’t care about the kids, they aren’t going to give you a whole lot,. If they know you care, they’ll give you everything they’ve got. Relationships pay dividends, maybe more overtly on the women’s side.

What are your goals for the CSUN program? What are your goals for your career?

To be the best program we can possibly be, and there’s no ceiling. We’re not putting a ceiling on that, and other people might and might think we’re crazy, but if we’re not trying to get better we’re not doing anything.

Personally, God will put me exactly where He wants me. I don’t know how many wins we will have. I’m not chasing money. It’s really about the fit, about having the opportunity to have an impact. And as long as that’s the case, then I’m going to be happy whenever I am.

If you could tell your younger self one thing, knowing what you do now, what would it be?

The same thing we tell our freshmen when walk through the door: God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. You should listen twice as much as you talk.