Coach’s Chair: Natasha Adair, University of Delaware

Delaware Athletics photo.

Reigning CAA coach of the year Natasha Adair is in her fifth season as head coach at the University of Delaware, coming off of a year in which she guided the Fighting Blue Hens to the the WNIT semifinals with a 24-5 overall and 16-2 conference record. Since arriving in Newark, Adair has taken her team to two postseason appearances, and she has fostered award-winning athletes.

A Maryland native, Adair starred at Pensacola Junior College before going to do the same at the University of South Florida. She was an assistant coach at Georgetown University before moving on to Wake Forest, where she spent 13 seasons, first as an assistant and then as associate head coach. She was head coach at the College of Charleston for two years, and then head coach at Georgetown University for three.

For USA Basketball, Adair was a trials court coach in 2017, and an assistant coach for the U18 team in 2018 and the U19 team in 2019. Both teams won World Cup gold medals.

You came into a Delaware program that was pretty well-established. What steps did you take to make the program yours?

The first thing when I got here – I had two stops before I got here, so I’d had little bit of experience with this – the first thing you do is you come in and you listen. I didn’t have to talk about the winning ways here at Delaware, or reinvent the wheel. But they hadn’t been at the top of the CAA, so it was literally just about the players currently here, and listening to what they wanted. I started with the seniors, asking them, “what does your senior year look like?” Remember why you came to Delaware, and aside from it being an academically strong institution, you came here because it was a winning program. So where did we lose that, and how do we get it back? One thing I made sure to do was to give coach Martin her respect in the sense of what she built here. I did know Delaware women’s basketball was a household name, and it does have a winning tradition. Then it became about putting my stamp on it with my style of play, but the cupboard wasn’t bare. I was just really excited to be part of this program, because women’s basketball here at the University of Delaware is important. You have to go where women’s basketball and women’s basketball is important. Talking with Chrissi Rawak, our AD, and Dennis Assanis, our president, I knew they would see us as women’s basketball players, as athletes, and as people who were important. And that mattered to me.

We have great camaraderie between sports; we get excited for each other. We’re a mid-major with a Power 5 feel to it.

What are the tenants of a great team?

For us, we talk about our sisters; we don’t talk about ourselves. Our motto this year will be a staple of our program from here on out, and that is: action over words. We’re a program of action in the community, and action on the court. The more you can involve your players in being servants and being givers takes the onus off of “me” and “my.” We celebrate assists just as much as we celebrate knocking down the shot. We celebrate (winning) the 50/50 ball because it gives us an extra chance to execute. We celebrate those players who will take a charge and change the play. We have created a culture of unity, of team, and of selflessness and that is intentional. We have the leading scorer in the country in Jasmine Dickey, but when you have your best player cheering the loudest for the 12th or 13th player, that’s when you know that the culture is healthy.

You mentioned over the summer that your players came fired up and ready to go. How do you motivate young athletes?

You listen to them. As coaches we know what we want, we can articulate it in our sleep. I’ve learned over the years that to be an effective coach, a player’s coach, that you listen to them, and you’re not afraid to give them ownership. Sometimes people feel that once they relinquish that and let players talk that you lose respect, and you don’t. We have a level of respect that is among the non-negotiables for our team, but the fact we’re player-lead and coach-supported empowers them, and then they have stake in what they take ownership in. They have to earn that, obviously, and you’ll see it in the older players, but now and then you’ll get that freshman or sophomore who has it from a leadership standpoint. I teach them to be leaders, because at end of day they are not just basketball players. And I don’t want them to go out into this real world and be eaten alive. So we have tough conversations. COVID in itself, and throw social injustice in there, it makes it more vivid. We don’t shy away from these conversations. The more they know about each other the more they realize they’re more alike than different, and that empowers them.

We’re navigating waters we’ve never walked through before, so you have to lean in with your heart. I’m a mom and a coach with love, and it’s burned me sometimes over the years, because my heart is on the outside. But I wouldn’t have it any other way because I want them to know I care about them as people. You have expectations as a coach, but if you miss a it doesn’t mean I’m mad at you – it means you missed a shot. We spend a lot of time getting to know the person. Every day before practice I read some kind of quote that touches on real life issues, not just about basketball. Then I’ll ask them how can they apply it to us as a team. We go through those kinds of things before we even start, and it brings them back to the center of where we need to be before we even start. I have to give a shoutout to Debbie Antonelli, who met with our team two years ago, and she talked about the four beams of communication, and one bragging on a teammate. We have stuck with that ever since, every game, every practice, win or lose, we brag on a teammate. And sometimes it’s not easy! Last year’s loss in the semifinals of the WNIT, there were a lot of tears, but we gathered ourselves and said something nice.

Delaware Athletics photo.

How do you approach goal-setting, both with the entire team and with individuals?

With the team we talk about it, and we talk realistically. Let’s be realistic, but let’s also challenge ourselves. Who are we? And I let them tell me. A lot of it is question and answer, instead of just hearing coach talk, because I want to know what they know and know what they’re thinking. So we break down yes, we want to win a championship; that’s never not going to be our goal here. But let’s look at our team from last year to this year. Where do we need to get better? The biggest thing (this year) was getting our field goal percentage up. We chart everything, we chart every chart in practice. I’ve learned that this generation is so big on goals, so we’ll do it by quarter. You need to have so many rebounds, or paint points, and it shortens it for them. We do it in practice, we scrimmage in practice and say, this is the first 10 minutes of the game. So by the first media (timeout) I need you to have two points, I need you to have two steals, I need you to have two rebounds, and it really breaks the game up. We’ll have one-on-one conversations as to where I see you, where you see yourself, where do I want you go to and where do you want to go. I like to meet them where they are and bring them along. I try to bring it back to what they do well. One of my coaches, coach Mosley, said it’s like coming to the cookout: we can’t have everybody bringing the side dishes, because what else are we eating on? And that analogy really resonated with them. We are honest, fair and transparent; we want them to hone in on their skill sets. I am big on fundamentals and development; you will get better here.

It’s fascinating that you were CAA coach of the year during a pandemic. What were some of the greatest lessons that year taught you?

Resiliency. It taught me to be in the fire with them and not be on the outside trying to manage it. I jumped in it with them. There was a pandemic and there was unrest, and our kids were hurting. They were hurting for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and their only outlet was basketball, and that was taken away. There were moments when I was vulnerable, and I told them, I don’t have the answers for you, but I do know that we’re going to do this together. And I do know that you won’t ever feel alone in this, and it is scary and uncertain, and we are going to figure this out together. I told them, this is hard, and I shared that I have a 6-8 son that I worry about who lives in Charlotte, and my daughter, who is 16 comes home and asks me questions about our country, and I can’t answer them.

It taught me how tough we can be and how disciplined we can be, and to live in the moment. We didn’t know what would happen – we just talked about today. We don’t know if tomorrow is going to be interrupted, we didn’t know if we’d be on pause. Everything was light. There was music at practice, we found ways on Zoom to have a scavenger hunt, an Easter egg hunt, we played Pictionary. The communication was through the roof. We talked to their parents; sometimes they’d call in a panic hearing that another team got shut down. We told them to calm down and reassured them that we’d figure it out. Our support staff did a phenomenal job. Every Friday all the coaches, trainers and the rest of the staff met on Zoom, and we’ve kept that. Every day we celebrated something, and we got through it.

You had some great stops as an assistant coach before taking your first head coaching job. How, and in what ways, did those experiences prepare you to be a leader and a teacher?

Back in the day, you did everything. From 1998 to 2004 I was at Georgetown under Patrick Knapp. I was the third assistant, which was also the DOBO and the academic liaison, and that was when you had restricted earnings. I was driving and picking up VHS tapes on the turnpike, with two more VHS tapes in the locker room while I was trying to figure out my edit, and I had a one-year-old at the time. We didn’t make excuses back then, we figured it out. Coach Knapp was good at delegating responsibilities, so in addition to all of the other duties I was a post coach. And how awesome was it to be able to coach Bekki Brunson, and to go with her to the WNBA draft. I also coached Katie Smrcka-Duffy – that’s Azzi Fudd’s mom. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around a lot of special people, and a lot of winners who just work.

I just learned how to work, and work in adverse situations, (because) when you have less, you have to do more. I’m confident that if anything breaks down, I can figure it out, because I did it. Being with Mike Peterson at Wake Forest, that’s where it really took off for me. I began as the second assistant and left as the associate head coach. Mike was phenomenal at preparation. He has a mind for the game, and I would ask him why do it this way and that way, because I wanted to pick his brain, and he knew I wanted to sit in that seat one day. He was such a great teacher for me. We’d talk about so many different things – life, too. He’s a family man, and he was big on making sure I spent time with my son. We still talk today, and a lot of what I emphasize from the details of the game, I have to credit him, because he really helped grow me as a coach.

How have you grown, and what have you learned, through coaching with USA Basketball?

I coached with Jeff Walz and Cori Close and oh my gosh. Fun fact: we were all assistants in the ACC together. Jeff was at Maryland while Cori was at Florida State, and I was at Wake Forest, so we knew each other. When Jeff reached out, and Carol Callan followed, I had to pinch myself. And a fun story about USA Basketball is that one one year the Final Four was at Georgetown when I was there. I approached the USA Basketball people to see how I could get involved, and they were very open. They asked me, would you like to do a clinic? And I did one, and they watched. So from that point on I was a court coach, and they watched. Then I get a call. So I say that to all coaches who want to be a part of things: just ask. And when you’re called upon, be ready.

I learned so much, and the beauty of it is that coaches share. Jeff is a brain. He’s so smart, and he’s not afraid to do things in an unorthodox way. He’s a fearless competitor, and he’s very good in game situations, he has good out-of-bounds plays. I took so much from him. One of our zone offenses we steal, and we score very time, and I think, “thank you, Jeff.” Cori is a great person, and she loves on her kids and pulls so much out of them. She has the most detailed practice plans – it’s like a binder. They will not miss a step, because she leaves no stone unturned in her preparation. Watching her prepare and watching Jeff take risks because he trusts his players. Then, just being able to coach some of the best players in the world, you learn that sometimes you’ve just got to let your players play. You’ve got to prepare them and hold them accountable, but the preparation, the ability to adjust on the fly, the ability to put your players in different game situations and let your winners win, and then have fun. Jeff has fun, Cori has fun. I felt like a kid in a candy store, soaking it all up. You come back every year with 1-2 new drills, and it changes your whole season.

I’ve always taken (USA Basketball) as an opportunity to work with and learn from coaches who I have the utmost respect for. And I always tell young coaches, surround yourself with people wh are where you want to go. It’s easy to surround myself with those who tell me I’m awesome, but I want to be pushed. And I have to talk to coaches who have done what I want to do.

What’s the best thing about your job?

The young people. Every day you get to influence, every day you get to mentor. You get to listen to, and you get to get to be in these young people’s lives and help them get out into the real world. Hopefully someday, something you taught them will help them. Kevin Sutton, who’s an assistant on the men’s side at FGCU, refers to his players as living trophies. We have so many living trophies. That’s why we come in every day and give. Many of my former players are coaching now, and I look at them all and these are my babies. The influence we can have on them, and the influence they can, in turn, have on others – that’s why I coach.

What do you want your athletes to take away when they leave your program?

That there’s no substitute for hard work, and serve, serve, serve. Work hard, be a servant and have fun. We forget to have fun. You do all of those things and there will be a whole lot of joy at the end of the day.

What is your favorite non-basketball-related thing to do?

I write poetry. I’m a big thinker – I do a lot of thinking, especially in quiet moments, and I’ve always written things down. It even got to the point where people would ask me for poems, sometimes for special occasions, and I will do it from time to time. It’s just another way for me to put my thoughts together in a positive light. Whatever time I’m in and whatever’s going on, it helps me to stay centered, in writing it down in a poetic way.