Feb 22, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; UNLV Rebels head coach T.J. Otzelberger reacts in the second half against the San Diego State Aztecs at Viejas Arena. UNLV won 66-63. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The following is a transcript of T.J. Otzelberger’s appearance on the Tuesday, March 23, 2021, edition of KXnO’s Sports Fanatics. It was the Cyclones’ new head coach’s first interview since taking the job last week.
Editor’s note: Questions from Chris Williams and Ross Peterson appear in italics while Otzelberger’s answers are bolded.
Chris Williams: TJ Otzelberger, somehow has clawed his way to the top.
Ross Peterson: Coach, what’s up man? Congratulations!
T.J. Otzelberger: How are we doing, guys? I’m surprised that Chris hasn’t been run out of town yet, but I guess as long as he’s here we have to deal with him so let’s go ahead and do that.
RP: Coach, don’t worry man. He’s only here part-time anymore. We’ll get by without him. You don’t sweat it, man. How you been, Coach?
TJO: Outstanding. Everything’s going great, fired up, excited to be home and ready to continue the work.
CW: What have, I kind of have a glimpse of this, but what are the last six days been like, just as far as work level like what you’ve been doing it just, it’s got to be crazy?
TJO: Well first, honestly, it’s surreal. It’s something that, for me to come here as my first opportunity as a Division I college assistant coach, think back on all those great times and memories, unbelievable relationships, the fans, players, student-athletes, coaches I’ve worked with, so much history, so much tradition, so many unbelievable memories that will last me lifetime. To think, to be back here so even though there have been long hours, there’s a lot of adrenaline and excitement and it doesn’t feel like I’m working, it feels like I’m, you know, I know I’m back with family and so it’s going fast, you know, you come here you have the press conference, you have questions, you’re, you’re working on building the relationships with the players that are here, being a great listener, working on assembling a staff of some of the best coaches, you know, across the country. So many great things going on, just, you know, Humble grateful and excited for every step of it.
RP: It seems like it takes a certain type for this job coach and there is a lot. You just threw a couple of the things out there, you got to get a staff, you got to get a hold of the players, you got to get ahold of your recruits. When I have a lot of things going on on my plate I lay down at night and I like keep myself up and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I forgot, I’ve got to get a staff. Oh my gosh, I forgot I got a call all my friends and family and tell them I got my dream job.’ How do you prioritize all of this stuff because what you just ran through and there’s a fun energy that you talk about it with. It doesn’t sound daunting, but, man, it’s a lot of big bites of an elephant. How do you prioritize it?
TJO: Well, at the top it’s the players in the program so every decision or every thought constantly comes back to their well-being, making sure that investing the time, first and foremost in those relationships and their development and being here for them in any way we can. So, my mind every 10 or 15 minutes it’s like the players, what can I do for them, how can I be here to serve? How can I have their back? That’s most important and as you’re working with them then you start thinking about the recruiting piece and go into that, And what do we need to add to our roster, how can we supplement. And then, as you mentioned, you know, rounding out our coaching staff or getting those people in place, so you’ve got these lists. I’ve got sticky notes all over my desk right now.
RP: Can you tell us what they are? Just read them off to us, Coach. Just read off those sticky notes so we have an idea.
TJO: Well, I would, you know, there’s some very confidential stuff here. You know it’s high-level, high-level coaching things that I wouldn’t want to intimidate Williams, yeah right now. There’s only so much brain space that exists there so I don’t want to do that to him but and then in the midst of all it’s the FaceTimes with my wife Allison our kids at night, trying to stay connected because as much as I’m, you know, have that sense of pride being the caretaker of this program, being a good husband and father is atop the priority that so trying right now to do that for the five to 15 minutes a night on FaceTime, I could see my kids before bed.
CW: We were having a conversation yesterday, where Iowa had just lost of course we were all just kind of reacting and sifting through everything, just watching the NCAA tournament, and this year’s tournament’s really weird, the highest average seed in the history of the, since seeding started in 1979, in the sweet 16. But, Ross and I were, we were going through, you know, there’s programs like Jay Wright with Villanova, your buddy Tony Bennett at Virginia, I would throw long Kruger onto the list at Oklahoma. It’s just like it does. They don’t have down years, they just are, Few at Gonzaga…
RP: I mean, even Porter Moser, I know it’s a couple of times but the guy’s been there and he finds a way to make his way, make a run. There’s something about certain coaches and certain programs.
CW: I guess what we’re getting to…
RP: What is it?
CW: Yeah, what is that secret sauce? It seems like some have it and then there’s some like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna have two good years and then we’re gonna be down for three.’ But, those guys we just named off it’s like Villanova, you know, lost their point guard before the postseason and they’re playing as good as they have been. You just replace the guy. What is that? How do you assess that as a coach?
TJO: Well, before we even go into the basketball part and how that goes, I’ll tell you this, under Coach Campbell, it’s the five-star culture, under Coach Fennelly it’s the Iowa State Way, and in our program and as you look at those basketball programs, it’s about studying program culture, it’s about daily habits, finding student-athletes, young men, that love Iowa State, that are passionate about the Cyclones being successful, that understand Midwestern values that take that sense of pride in our program. That’s who we are and we have to find the right people, get the right people on the bus, roll up our sleeves, each and every day, and build it and put one foot in front of the other one day at a time. And when you look at those programs you mentioned, I mean, for me, Tony Bennett’s been a tremendous mentor, someone I’ve always looked to for advice. He’s texted me these days almost daily a reminder of how to go about doing things and to be meticulous, to have urgency and patience at the same time. It’s about building something special. So, one recruiting class gets through your program or one player graduates, you don’t fall off. You just mentioned, Villanova losing their point guard, and really, you know, not skipping a beat, so it’s not about one individual, it’s about, you know that culmination of a group and the special part of sports, where you can bring people together, and the sum of the parts are better than the individuals, then you’ve got some programs that I mentioned here with Coach Campbell and Coach Fennelly have done with the sustainability and that’s what we’re going to build. I know to do that, you’ve got to be very diligent with every detail and, and you’ve got to have the right people and the right work ethic. That’s what we’re going to be about and we’re off to a great start already.
RP: How do you do that, Coach? I mean, saying it obviously is much easier than doing it, and what are the first steps of this? Is it assessing the pieces in place? Is it making sure that the pieces you bring in are into that mold that you’re talking about? Or is it somehow all-encompassing?
TJO: Well you have to have the vision first of what is that on a daily basis? What are those work habits? What is the accountability? We had a team meeting yesterday and talked about building trust with one another. How each class, each study hall, each session in the weight room, the training room, on the court, is an opportunity for us to earn and build each other’s trust. When you get in big moments in the game, you’re out of that last media timeout or the last few possessions, you can’t try to just elevate your game in the moment, you’re always going to play to the level of your habits that you build every day. Right now it’s about creating those habits, building those habits, winning the games next year right now in what we have as our postseason workouts. You start there. You build the habits. You create that workman-like culture and make sure that every day, my job is the accountability piece and there’s nobody more accountable than me. So much of leadership ends up being me leading by example because young people are just watching a lot more of what you do, than what you say. And so putting it all together it’s about making sure we have the right guys on the team. I asked every player, ‘Why do you love Iowa State? Why did you pick Iowa State? Why do you want to move forward on this journey with us?’ That’s really personal to me because, for us, this is a really special place. Who gets the opportunity that I’ve gotten here to come to a place that I love so much? My wife, you know, played here and this is her family, she came from Australia and Coach Fennelly’s like a second father her. It’s a tremendous sense of pride, but it’s finding the right people, creating the right habits. You mentioned it with our roster, it’s important we build it, but it’s the most important thing that we get the right people, who want to work, and then we put that process in play one step at a time.
CW: I feel like your jobs more difficult now though, Otz, because the landscape’s so different than when you came here with Greg McDermott in 2006. You know, think about like what transfer rates were then.
RP: It’s a totally different world.
CW: Think about them now. Think about, you know, with the name, image and likeness stuff changing, we’re gonna have open transfers here in college basketball. Is it more difficult, I think I know the answer that it is more difficult, but how do you combat it, it just seems like programs anymore are more prone to having to fill four scholarships every spring because of attrition and stuff. Just the game’s changing. How do you keep working on continuity and to combat some of that?
TJO: Well, having a proactive mindset and always staying a step ahead. As you mentioned with the rules, and you know with NIL coming and even like social media, how that’s all taken off, and there are so many things that have changed. The transfer portal, this is the first year that it’s believed that, you know, student-athletes are going to be transferring being immediately eligible without a waiver. There are so many things you have to stay out in front of, and that’s part of it. My job and the coaching staff that we bring in, it’s our job to be one step ahead of the curve on all those things and, and it’s definitely a different model than the one you mentioned. Whether it was here under Mac, we didn’t take a lot of transfers. It wasn’t a thing. Then under Coach Hoiberg, that was something that became, you know, when we came in, it was a great way to get talent immediately. Well, now that’s been something throughout the country that more and more people have done. We know recruiting-wise that, for us, character work ethic and talent all come together. Whether that’s four-year prospects, whether that can be a transfer, we’re open-minded to how those prospects could come in, but we’ve got to do a great job staying out in front of the curve in this ever-changing landscape. I had one of my mentors told me this a long time ago, and I was coming up, I was working in business even before I started coaching, he said, ‘You know what, adapt or die.’ That’s pretty harsh, but what it tells you is you’ve always got to be adapting, you’ve always got to be changing, you’ve always got to be innovative and that’s something we’re going to take a lot of pride in.
CW: One thing you hit hard in your press conference with Jamie Pollard, the Zoom thing the other day, when you got hired was recruiting the Midwest, I mean we all know about you and Wisconsin and Milwaukee, you’ve been recruiting that area, it where you’re from, and I know you can’t talk about prospects, but I know that you offered, I think your first offer was (Tamin) Lipsey in Ames, I saw Jared reported that the other night so like is that recruiting mentality that you were talking about, do you think that if a young man’s from the Midwest, he’s more apt to want to stay at Iowa State for four years if he’s not a pro prospect? Right? You see where I’m going there? Is that part of what you’re thinking there?
TJO: Absolutely, because, you know kids from the upper Midwest and through the Midwestern region, they grow up with a knowledge of what Iowa State is, what it means to be in central Iowa, with those Midwestern values. They’ve seen what it is, Hilton Magic, right? The best home court in the country. A lot of these, whether it’s they played a tournament here, they’ve come to our gym. They know what we’re about and they have that brand. It’s great people, it’s passionate fans, that you know the lineage of success. They have that clear memory and it hits home to them. It’s dear to their heart. That really matters. To me, we need to be the Midwest option for the Big 12. I grew up in Wisconsin. This upper Midwest region, there’s a lot of Big Ten teams, and this isn’t a dig on the Big Ten, but the style of play maybe isn’t as fast, it’s not as open court, it’s not as athletic, and so as a result, we have a unique brand here in the upper Midwest. We are the option if you want to play in the Big 12. We’re going to do an unbelievable job scouring the state for the best talent. We are going to stake our claim in the upper Midwest. We’re going to do a great job in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, the surrounding areas down into Kansas City and Missouri. That’s going to be where our bread and butter is in recruiting. There’s going to be times when we’re going to Flint and Detroit because those have been areas great to our program. We’ll go down to Texas as well with the visibility so it’s important as we build our brand that we make our mark in this region and that we have young people that when they’re here, it’s about family, it’s about Midwestern values, it’s about what it means to be a Cyclone. I think those are the ones that understand that the best.
CW: Do you have a timeline on when you want your staff to be done?
TJO: You know we want to get it right more than we want to get done and we’ve had some preliminary conversations and we’re continuing to have those. Certainly, again, I said that blend between the urgency and the patience to get it right. I know the characteristics we want to have people of have great character who love developing young people. I had a conversation last night with a potential candidate, and this really hit home with me when he talked about, ‘You know what, Iowa State’s a blue-collar program.’ We were talking about some of the guys like a Tyrese Haliburton, who was an underdog coming out and had an opportunity here, a school that believed in him and made a great career for himself. I was even thinking back on some of the guys that we had, you know, the Melvin Ejims and so we want to make sure that blue-collar toughness, that work ethic, that we’re looking for is something that our staff has as well. I’d say whether it’s in the next week or 10 days, I mean that’s a rough estimate or timeline, if it takes longer it’s only to make sure that we get it right and we’ll go from there.
CW: Otz, thanks, man. I know you’re insanely busy right now.
RP: We appreciate the 20 minutes, Coach. I know it’s like that that prioritizing your time must be difficult today so thanks a lot and get back at it.
TJO: Appreciate it guys, thanks for the opportunity. Ross, appreciate you tolerating Chris. We’ll catch up soon, guys.