Lipscomb Bisons coach Casey Alexander first accepted the challenge to rebuild a program at Stetson for the 2011-12 season. After two seasons he became the head coach for the Bisons and is finishing his first season. He took both jobs with no illusions about what he would face.
“I think most everybody that coaches wants to be a head coach,” Alexander said. “That’s just human nature no matter the business you are in. You want to be the leader. You want to be the person that is ultimately responsible for making the decisions.”
When evaluating a possible head coaching situation, there is the need to find a place where you will be allowed to be successful.
“You have to determine what is the best place and the best fit,” Alexander said. “Timing is involved. What is God’s plan in all of that? You have to see how you can align all of those things together.”
Alexander played college basketball at Belmont University. He also served 16 seasons as an assistant coach for Rick Byrd at Belmont. The success of that program allowed Alexander to wait for the right opportunity to come along.
“I was fortunate to be at a place where I was extremely comfortable,” Alexander said. “I had a significant role. We had a lot of success.
“Unlike a lot of coaches I could afford to stay and buy some time if I needed to do that. There were places along the way that were interested in me that I wasn’t interested in. And there were some places I was interested in that were not interested in me.”
Based on his evaluations he decided that the call from Stetson was the one he needed to answer for his first head coaching job.
“All coaching jobs are not the same,” Alexander said. “I wanted a Division I opportunity and those are very hard to come by.
“Stetson happened to be the first one where we both felt the fit was right. You want to be in a place where you can recruit to your style and at a level where you feel like you can be your best.”
He knew that being part of the success at Belmont made him attractive to other schools as a head coaching candidate. But he wanted to find a school that was similar to Belmont.
“It had to be a place with similar circumstances and be the same type of school as Belmont,” Alexander said. “It had to have the same type of administration looking for the same type of person, team, culture and success. I felt like Stetson was the right place at the right time.”
When the Lipscomb job became available he saw another program that fit all of his requirements. The icing on the cake was that Lipscomb was located in his hometown of Nashville.
“I think the culture here prior to my arrival was similar enough to the way we want to do things so it wasn’t a noticeable difference for the players when we arrived,” Alexander said. “There wasn’t as much of an apples and oranges situation. There wasn’t as much culture shock from what we wanted compared to the previous staff here.
“Lipscomb in general is unique in what they expect from students, athletes, faculty and staff. That distinction is what makes Lipscomb what it is. Even though the previous staff, and my staff, is going to do things differently it is Lipscomb that holds everything together. That’s what I like about Lipscomb. We are not out on an island with the things we want to do with our program. Every coach in this department is trying to accomplish the same thing with the same parameters. It is pretty universal.”
Alexander has used many of the lessons he learned at Stetson in making the transition at Lipscomb easier.
“The main difference between taking over at Stetson and taking over at Lipscomb was having the knowledge of having done it already,” Alexander said. “If I could do it all over again in that first job at Stetson there are some things I would have done differently.
“There is some trial and error to determine what the essentials are. Is it a roster overhaul? Is it just a change in culture? Is it X’s and O’s? Or is it a combination of all of those things? It is a matter of deciding where you are going to place your priorities and then getting started.”
He has discovered there is no blanket formula or “one size fits all” template to refer to when taking the first steps to making a program your own.
“So much of it is dependent on the style of the team before you got there,” Alexander said. “So much of it is not only the caliber of players, but what will your style ultimately be. What are the strengths of the players?
“When you take over a program where the previous coach has been let go there are things to repair. It doesn’t mean that you have bottomed out and it is a total rebuilding project, but there are things that need to be fixed.”
One area where Alexander has been consistent is with how to deal with the players who are dealing with a new coaching staff.
“If the school has made a commitment to a player with a scholarship, it is important to me that I give that player every opportunity to stay and be a part of what we are doing,” Alexander said. “I think that is what he deserves as long as he is doing what he is supposed to be doing. I think that is my obligation and I have done that at both places.
“It is more common for coaches to clean house, maybe not completely, but to some degree. By no way would I go back and clean house at Stetson. But I would have been more deliberate in making sure the players and the staff were on the same page and not figure that out as we go. If the player felt like that what we wanted was what he wanted, then by all means, he would be able to stay. I brought that model with me here to Lipscomb.”
Alexander brought more than a model to Lipscomb. He also brought his entire coaching staff from Stetson. Roger Idstrom had worked with Alexander on the Belmont staff before joining him at Stetson. Steve Drabyn has played under both Idstrom and Alexander at Belmont. Dwight Evans had not worked with Alexander before becoming a member of the Stetson staff.
“Roger and I had already worked together for 11 years,” Alexander said. “Steve had been part of our program during that time. Dwight Evans was a long-time friend and a veteran of the business, but our style was new to him.
“We skipped some steps at Stetson due to the pre-existing relationship we had. Bringing the entire staff to Lipscomb, we tweaked some responsibilities. They were able to be on the job, and do what they do, from the very first day. That really helped us accelerate the process. I brought them here because I have great confidence in them. I think our cohesiveness is very good. Those two things are very, very important for a program to be good.”
Success in terms of wins and losses is usually elusive in the first season or two of a program rebuild. Alexander finds that struggle to easily be the most difficult part of a new program. At Stetson Alexander’s team was 9-20 in season one and improved to 15-16 in season two.
“To be fair to our players this is their season,” Alexander said. “We need to make this one as absolutely as good as we can make it. We spend every day trying to do that. That is our first obligation.
“Because of that it makes the lack of wins very real, urgent and tough to deal with. We have to step away as a staff and say this isn’t a surprise. We would like to be better than we are. There are better days ahead.”
The challenge is to balance the needs of the players this season with what Alexander and his staff want the program to be next season, five seasons from now and 10 seasons from now.
“Our players this season are not interested in hearing how much better we are going to be next year or five years down the road,” Alexander said. “And they shouldn’t be.”
The move to Lipscomb has had a few hiccups with transfers, commitments changing their minds and injuries.
“Things on the periphery are probably always going to be worse than you would hope,” Alexander said. “I had almost no control over the transfers. Injuries are just part of the season.
“That is magnified to us right now because we have such a short roster to begin with. So you just deal with it. We are dealing with things we know are short term. That allows you to not dwell on it.”
Alexander and his staff are naturally competitive and every loss hurts. But they find solace in the way the second season at Stetson finished after struggling the first season.
“It is nice to know we had a season similar to this our first year at Stetson,” Alexander said. “The next season was not a stellar season by any stretch but we did things that had not done there in a long time.
“There was a noticeable difference between year one and year two. We were a better balanced team. We were much better statistically. We finished third. I hope we’ll see the same kind of progress here.”
Alexander stresses that he is building a program, not just a team. He knows the importance of basketball on the Lipscomb campus.
“I really believe my job is to have a basketball program that enhances the reputation of Lipscomb University,” Alexander said. “That is my job at all times.
“With that I mind it is a lot bigger than just how we are doing in this basketball season. It is how we are representing Lipscomb. It about the kind of environment we are generating. It is about the kind of support we are generating. It is about how engaging we are with the Lipscomb community and beyond. These are all of the things that go along with being a championship caliber program."
Alexander wants the basketball program to be increasingly competitive on both the regional and national level.
"We have great things happening on this campus, but our basketball program has a profile on campus that is important," Alexander said. "That is a great honor, but it is also a great responsibility. That is why the big picture is much larger than what our record is during this first season.”