Jim Flanery enters his 18th season as Creighton’s head coach as the program’s all-time wins leader, with 327. He has guided the Bluejays to nine 20-win seasons, 14 postseason appearances and four NCAA Tournaments. Flanery’s teams like to shoot three-pointers, and always have a high RPI because of their willingness to play numerous ranked opponents.
A 1987 Creighton graduate with a major in philosophy, Flanery played both basketball and golf. He became a graduate assistant for women’s basketball, then worked for coach Connie Yori at Loras College in Iowa for two seasons before she was tabbed as the Bluejays coach. Flanery was her longtime assistant coach there before taking the reins in 2002.
He and his wife have a son and a daughter.
In 2018, Creighton’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Pauley Pavilion, with a loss to UCLA. Your energy in the post-game press conference was positive and lighthearted, while at the same time honoring the feelings of the players who were with you. What does this approach say about you, and where did it come from?
I was a philosophy major, so I didn’t think I’d end up coaching basketball. I can put things in perspective. I’m competitive, and my demeanor isn’t always as good as I want it to be, but I can also decompress well. You have to move on. I’m late to the parenting game – I’m 54 and I have a 10-year-old and a six-year-old – and that’s been good for me because it enables me to get over losing quicker, and I have a bigger perspective. We had a longtime softball coach who got out into administration, and I asked her what she’d have done differently. She wished she would have been a parent sooner. It helps you realize that when you’re yelling at someone, that’s someone else’s kid.
When we were in the Missouri Valley Conference, we lost three championship games by a total of four points. I realized, wow, it’s hard to get to the Tournament.
What are the tools and steps in creating consistency year after year?
The people around me have made it that way. We have a really successful volleyball team and men’s soccer team, and we have a lot of coaches who have been (at Creighton) for a long time. We have a really good administration. Athletic director Bruce Rasmussen has been a coach and a women’s basketball coach; he’s been in my shoes. He doesn’t overreact to anything. You hear some people complain about their ADs – and I’m not saying I agree with him 100 percent of the time. But he’s a (good) manager.
My mom is in Omaha and my wife’s family is 60 miles away, so there’s a comfort level there. I went to Creighton, and other than the weather, I like Omaha, and I have enough family around where it all fits together.
Coaching is hard, and I think when you get stressed and take out the other parts of your life, that’s the wrong approach. You have to leave the other parts in to be successful. Of course you have to work hard, but you have to have a life outside of basketball, too.
I’m in my mid-50’s and I still play basketball – not very well, but I love it. When you play, there are things you see that you don’t from just putting it on paper.
What is your coaching philosophy?
I try to recruit the right kids and empower them. I don’t micromanage. I try to keep kids here for a shorter time in the summer; I only have them for a month. Everyone says family, but I feel like we walk the walk and talk the talk. You can’t recruit lazy kids and do that. We’re a little slower in the recruiting process because of that – we don’t offer as early. But when they get here, we just trust them. I’m not a rule-setter. We have expectations and standards, but I don’t have a rule book. I try to be honest with them, and I tell them if I don’t think I did a good job. We try to build trust, so I ask them, what do you guys see? What do you want to run here? What do you want to run on the screen? Sometimes I have to be the hammer and sometimes they do know best.
One of the things we’re the most proud of is that we haven’t had a kid transfer since 2008.
What do you look for when you recruit players?
We like to pick kids who are enthusiastic, competitive people who play with a certain joy. We’ve stayed true to our geography. (Becoming part of) the Big East has allowed us to get further East, but we’ve stayed true to our geographic footprint: six or seven hours in. If you get too far out of that, homesickness becomes a factor for some players.
In what ways have young people changed over the last 20 years? In what ways are they the same?
I definitely think the biggest thing for someone like me is I wish they would communicate with each other differently. We don’t have a lot of social media rules, but when it gets to a certain point we’ll say, ‘you’re not taking your phone to dinner tonight.’ Sometimes they’re missing out on the authentic experience, spending two thirds of the time looking at their phones.
In some ways they’re more mature because their experiences are more diverse than ours were. But that can also make them also less resilient. That’s what makes athletics great is that it’s also a resilience-builder.
What do you love most about your job?
I love my staff. I’m an older male who has three younger females on my staff as coaches. It’s good, they’re fun, and they’re able to connect with young women. Out of our staff, five are Creighton grads, including myself. That’s been fun for me. When you’re around young people it’s easier to remain younger. It keeps you fresher.
When did you know you wanted to coach?
I stumbled into it. I had a journalism major at one point and wanted to be a sports writer, and coaching wasn’t necessarily the thing I thought of. I ended up majoring in philosophy and I thought about law school. But I kept dragging my feet and after a while I thought, I can’t commit to it, so I guess that’s not what I really want to do. When Connie Yori hired me at Loras College, I made $3,500 a year. We were there a couple years and then I went with her to Creighton. At that point I knew I wanted to coach.
What does it mean to you to coach at your alma mater?
My answer has changed. I don’t know if when I first got here as an assistant or as a head coach that it maybe meant as much as it does to me now. You get older and you’re more reflective about why you are where you are. I don’t know how I ended up at Creighton, but I’m glad I stayed at Creighton. I think sometimes you see other coaches hop around and you talk to them, and sometimes they have some buyers remorse when they’re truly honest with you. I don’t know anything different than Creighton, but I do probably feel luckier and more fortunate the longer I’ve been here.
How are you different as a coach now than you were when you first started?
The thing I’d say is you’re more equipped to handle plan B’s and contingencies. You’ve had more experiences, so you have to have a plan for injuries. If your best player gets hurt, you won’t be as good. You have to have a plan for kids who don’t play as well as you thought they would (in recruiting them). Then you have to have plan B’s for games, too.
I’m better at managing my staff. I’m not hard to work with or for, but that’s the one thing I underestimated as a head coach is that I didn’t necessarily know how to manage a staff.
What is the top item on your bucket list?
I have never jumped out of an airplane; I think I’d like to do that. I’m afraid of heights, but I think part of life is that you have to overcome your fears.