We had 20 spare minutes and few cups of coffee. Joe Cantafio bought. He was born not far from where he stood Monday morning, inside the DeNaples Center at the University of Scranton. He grew up in Dunmore, and he played his college basketball just across the campus green in the John Long Center. But the former head basketball coach at Virginia Military Academy and Furman, Joseph in the college basketball world but always JoJo back home, hadn’t been on this campus in decades. Couldn’t believe the U had a building that contained a Starbucks.
He and Joe Wootten, the son of the legendary high school basketball coach Morgan Wootten — winner of 1,274 games and the second-winningest basketball coach in the history of the nation, at any level — and a great coach in his own right, were in town to serve as keynote speakers at the Bochicchio Sports Character Initiative’s annual conference. In a while, they’d talk about team building and coach education and what it was like to work with (JoJo was his top assistant before moving on to the college ranks; Joe played for him and grew up admiring him) a legend like Morgan Wootten.
But before that, they had a few minutes to discuss the state of sports, a changing landscape and what ways the ship could be righted before it’s too late.
Here’s what they had to say, before the speeches had to start.
Q: Why are events like this important to you? Why are these important messages for coaches and athletes to hear about thinking through why they are doing this and what they want to accomplish from it?
Cantafio: Well, I have a young son who is a coach, and my son actually worked for Joe for a few years. I think a lot of people in the business right now know it has changed tremendously. Look at what is going on in college basketball. It has gone crazy. For young people to get to know this, they have to know how to teach the game and the qualities that go with it. This is so very important. I’ve always been around people who gave back. His father…phenomenal. You should make it a point to talk to him on the phone. Joe, how old is your dad?
Wootten: He’s going to be 88.
Cantafio: Eighty-eight. And the guy has got a photographic memory. He’s the wisest guy I’ve ever been around. I learned from an early age being around him that it’s important to learn the fundamentals, the basics you’re trying to teach them. You’d be surprised the amount of (players) who can’t do it. He’d know better than me because he’s around the McDonald’s All-American community. I was telling Joe this last night: I don’t watch a lot of games anymore. I just watch my friends. … You can watch 1,000 games, because it’s so saturated now. But for young kids to learn how to do it the right way, to get them into the business for the right reasons, to me, is important. We actually have driven good people away from business over the years. I think. We’ve got to get them back.
Q: Why do you think that is, though? You hear it all the time, that some of the best coaches don’t want to coach. Why not, if they have so much to offer?
Cantafio: Look at the landscape. Look at the culture. Joe, tell him about your rule with the parents…
Wootten: I won’t even speak with the parents about basketball. I will speak to them about a concern with their child academically. I will speak to them about concerns socially, about college. During the season, I’ll meet with the player 55 times a day. But I won’t meet with the parents. Because I think, number one, the parents have inserted themselves into the relationships, and if you can’t put parameters on it (as a coach) you can’t build a relationship with the kids. That’s big. … I say to myself before every game, “It’s all about the kids.” We’re all competitive. We all want to be successful. But you have to remind yourself, it’s about the kids’ experience and helping them learn how to set standards and meet standards and be consistent with them. That’s what it’s all about with coaching. It’s not about having the next star. It’s about developing kids, and in the end, if you do that with good people, you’ll develop some great ones, and you’ll develop some who were just solid citizens who got a lot out of the game.
Q: Have we — as parents, as coaches, whatever — become too focused on getting the scholarship?
Cantafio: If that’s all they focused on, we’d be all right. They’re focusing on the NBA. … I talk to parents, and I travel a lot. Everybody’s got video of their kids.
Wootten: And they’re all highlight videos. Never videos of a game. … Me and Joe can go in the gym for 20 minutes and find one good (highlight) play for ourselves.
You know what’s interesting? Everybody has the mentality of what they call “check the box.” “Well, we did the training when he was 9, and I did this when he was 10, and I got him in this league when he was 11.” In the end, it has got to be the kids that want it, not the parents. I have a kid going to Mount Saint Mary’s this year. He’s 6-foot-1, says he’s 6-foot-3. He’s a string bean. And the kid went to our camp when he was a kid, a good athlete but not a great one. He was just driven. And I give his parents a lot of credit, because it wasn’t about them. They supported him. He has made 115 3s, leads the D.C. area in 3s. That kid has worked at it. And yet, I’ve seen other kids where maybe they have physical talent and the parent pushed him, but he hates the game. So, I think parents have to support and encourage, but not make it about them.
Cantafio: There are a lot of kids who quit when they are 14, 15 years old because they’ve had it. They’ve been pushed to the limit. … This is one thing I’ve realized: If you’re not having fun, you’re never going to enjoy it. And some of these kids just aren’t having fun. It’s a real pain in the neck for them to play. I remember when I played, and it was such a different time, but we all played because we loved it. We know no one was going to the NBA. Most of us weren’t even going to college to play. But we loved to play. You have to be excited about it.
Wootten: I think with the parents, too, in their exuberance to get their kid really good, it becomes about what they want. Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to play sports. I want them to learn lessons from playing sports. But in the end, everyone asks if I want my son to play basketball. Well, he hasn’t shown any interest, and I personally say don’t push him. He likes baseball; he likes this or that. And that’s OK.
Q: You guys see the statistics out there now. They say baseball participation at the youth level is down 40 percent (since 2000), basketball is down 25 percent, football is way down and has its own set of problems. Do those numbers surprise you?
Cantafio: Not at all.
Cantafio: And for the very reasons we were just talking about. By that time, they’re done. … MIke Brey told me about the point guard he had (at Notre Dame) a few years ago by the name of (Chris) Thomas. His father never let him play AAU, which is a rarity. So my question is this, “Why do you have to play AAU?” And the answer is obvious: The exposure, and all of that. But (Joe’s) point guard (at Bishop O’Connell) is going to Nebraska (three-star prospect Xavier Johnson), and if he didn’t play AAU, everybody is still going to see him because of the nature of your league and the nature of your business.
Wootten: What I say to guys is, play travel ball and AAU for experience, game experience. Don’t play it for the skills. What I think has happened is, things have gotten out of balance. If all you do is drills, you’re never going to be a good player. If all you do is play, you’re never going to be a good player. You have to balance it. It has become almost too much play and not enough skill and drill work.
Q: Here’s something a lot of parents, myself included, have had to look at over the years with kids playing and being exposed to some of these travel teams in sports like baseball and basketball. Pretty much any kids who really want to do it and can do it will have a chance to do it. But, there are plenty of criticisms from coaches at the higher levels of those teams. You mentioned exposure. That can’t be the only reason to do that, right? There have to be some other positives? Is there a certain age where you really should consider doing that? Or is it always something to generally be skeptical of?
Cantafio: I’m trying to think of the positives.
Wootten: Well, the game experience…
Cantafio: …And, you are playing against the best players in the country.
Wootten: It’s funny, my daughter is in ninth grade. When she was in fifth grade, we took their CYO team and made it an AAU team, basically just to play. And, the girls got exponentially better. But, we did stay in the D.C. area. We didn’t overdo it. But it was that level of game experience they got. I’ll never forget, we couldn’t get the ball past half court the entire time the first AAU game. And they got better.
Cantafio: There are positives. You do get to meet kids from different socio-economic areas, kids that are so different from you, especially when you grow up in an area where you don’t have a lot of African Americans or whatever. There are benefits. But I think so much again is driven by the parents. They let so much of it get out of hand. I think the fact that your son probably isn’t going to be playing third base for the New York Yankees makes it different…but, you don’t know that.
Wootten: There’s nothing wrong with a kid dreaming that. But it’s different when the parent starts to dream it.
Cantafio: Sonny Smith, who coached Charles Barkley in college…he was at VCU, and at the tail end of his career, they let him stick around. … He had a rule: If I talk to your parents one time during the season, you’re off the team. So everybody would run to the phone and call home and say, ‘Don’t talk to coach Smith.’ He said he got away with it for years and years and years, and then things changed.
Wootten: I’ll never forget when I was coaching with (Cantafio), we had a kid who was a walk-on. And the dad is complaining about playing time. And Joe is like, what’s happening that the walk-ons are complaining about playing time? We have kids with a scholarship who don’t play.
Q: Your dad, Morgan Wootten, is someone you obviously grew up with and learned a lot from. He was ahead of his time. What was he doing differently all along than other coaches?
Cantafio: Well, I’ll tell you what he was doing differently. You’ll be shocked. He kept it so simple. I was like, my God, I’m going to DeMatha and I’m going to learn all these secrets. And I get there, and they’re doing the same drills every day. I was the freshman coach, and he told me I could only teach three drills every day. But the kids could do them like that (snapping his fingers). We did them differently, and we did competitive drills. But he had a gift that the rest of us didn’t have. Maybe you have it, Joe, but…
Wootten: It takes a long time…
Cantafio: He would walk into a room, and you could hear a pin drop. He could just command a presence. He wasn’t a boisterous guy, by any means. I have a bunch of funny stories. His dad used to always tell me, if you want to get through to players, sometimes you have to whisper to them. And he was right.
To me, his attention to detail was phenomenal, even today. He could get the kids to run through a window and make the kids think it was a good idea.
Wootten: I would say that, whatever he chose to do, he would have been a great leader.
Cantafio: He would have been a good president of the United States.
Wootten: I think he studied a lot of great leaders. He loved Winston Churchill. I think Joe alluded to it, he had an ability to say a lot with a few words. His attention to detail was amazing. He could get across a point and make you feel about that big.
Cantafio: One thing about Morgan, even today: I’ll call him and ask him about something, and he’ll ask me three or four questions. And by the time I answer those three or four questions, I have the answer already. But I just didn’t know I had the answer. He just had that knack.
So many people came to DeMatha seeking coaching advice. Joe Paterno. You remember the day Joe Paterno came to our practice and stayed the whole practice? Me being from Pennsylvania, that was phenomenal. I was like, Oh my God. Just a very unassuming, nice guy. He stayed and talked to the team before practice and after practice. Do you remember two names, Rogers Alexander — he was a co-captain on the national championship team — and a guy named Smith. He was a running back.
Wootten: Steve Smith.
Cantafio: Those two kids were on our basketball team at DeMatha.
Q: Did you know he used to recruit football players by watching how they played another sport?
Cantafio: That’s exactly what he was doing. That’s why he was there.
Wootten: You talk about attention to detail…From the time I was 6 to the time I was 25, I would go to the McDonald’s All-American Game with my dad, and he would have dinner with his friend every year two nights before the game. Coach John Wooden, who I just thought was my dad’s buddy, because I was 6. The thing about coach Wooden, God rest his soul, is that he’s sitting in a room and he’s the most unassuming guy. Nicest guy in the world. But the attention to detail the two of them had? We were at the banquet, I was about 13, and there are 2,000 people there, and it was when Chris Weber was a senior in high school, and Cherokee Parks, those guys. Coach Wooden goes up to my dad and he says, “Morgan, did you notice that Joey (which I had always been called) is now introducing himself as Joe?’ My dad never called me Joey since. Here’s a Hall of Fame coach, greatest coach ever. And he noticed that?