Monday, March 25, 2019

"What makes you great will kill you:" Q & A with Ken Novak, Jr.

Ken, I know you played high school ball for your dad here at Lindbergh. Where did you play college ball?

I played at Augsburg. I played for Irv Inniger, and then I tore my ACL and he asked me to coach with him. So I coached with him. It was a lucky deal.

I know you learned a lot from your dad. But, I think you first worked (after Augsburg) as a coach at Blaine, is that right?

Yes, I was assistant coach for three years under a guy named Frank Sheldon, and then I became head coach, and I was head coach there for seven years.

So, then you’re a head coach, now you can do things your way. Who were the coaches who influenced you, how you approached things as a head coach?

It was a little bit of everything. Certainly, my dad was the biggest. What we do (even today) was (what we) started way back then. Though the game has changed a ton, there’s still a lot of things still involved—the ability to compete, the ability to anticipate, being in balance, playing as a team, a lot of the basics are still there. I played for Irv Inniger, and Irv influenced me. Frank Sheldon influenced me. He knew a ton about basketball. He learned under Del Schiffler. He was an assistant coach for Del for a few years at Melrose. 

Now Irv’s a guy who liked to push the ball, I think.

Irv liked to push the ball, he’s a guy that’s a competitor. My dad’s a competitor. He pushed the ball. Most of the ball we’ve played has been up and down. We’re in defend and go, and the years when we don’t defend are generally the years we get beat.

Minnesota is known for playing a little slower pace. Why did you want to go the other way?

I don’t even know. My dad pushed it when we were at Hopkins and it’s just what we’ve always done. You want to get easy buckets. You’re making a mistake if you don’t. You gotta push the ball to do that. Of course, if somebody wants to slow me down, they can slow me down, but then they’re going to have to really slow it down. Then we hope we can prevent them from getting easy buckets. 

We’ve always done it. I think it’s a fun way to play. We like to be aggressive both offensively and defensively. And, generally, people that win are going to be people who are aggressive. Teams that slow it down, once in a while they can pull big upsets and they can win, but seldom do they win it all.

You often hear it said that the defense dictates the tempo and that seems to be especially true today. Defenses weren’t aggressive enough back in the day to do that.

Referees called a different game back then, too. And I would honestly say the opposite. If an offense really wants to slow it down, they can. Kids are so skilled nowadays that you can’t really speed them up if they don’t want to. But we play aggressive defensively and offensively and over, I don’t know how many years it is now, but we average almost 90 points a game, and it’s about 15 points higher than the next team around here. Some of it’s offensively and some of it’s defensively, but it’s very aggressive, which is what we want.

Do kids want to play the running game?

I don’t think that dictates it too much. I don’t think anybody really has a clue. 

About what kids want?

Everybody says they want to run until they have to run, then they don't want to run. They’d rather walk it up, it’s easier. But you gotta push (your opponent) when the team doesn’t want ‘em to push. And we’re trying to get into our offense after pushing, we want to shift the defense and keep them moving, we don’t want the defense to get set. It’s more important to set up your defense than to set up your offense. Most people come out and say, OK, let’s get set up offensively. We don’t need to do that, but we do need to set up defensively. 

On defense, you’ve really got to play as a team. On offense, you just gotta move the ball. If you can move the ball and move your players around on offense, you’re generally going to be decent. But, our kids play a lot of basketball. They play more than anybody else. You’re going to see this (pointing to the open court then going on) every night. You’ll see college coaches here every night, so….

Who are some coaches that you admire, whether they influenced your style or not?

In high school, or…

Any level.

In high school, Ziggy Kauls I thought was a great coach. I thought Bob Brink did a great job. I like the Princeton stuff, John Wooden. I like to look at the European coaches right now. I look at everybody. I like to look at things that are a little different, things that are a little out of the norm, I like to see that. 

Who do you hate to coach against?

I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anybody I hate to coach against. We like to play good teams. We’re going to play the best coaches, because if someone’s good they’re going to call us, they’re going to want to play (us). And once they aren’t any good anymore, then  they don’t want to play. We like good games, we like games that are going to be competitive. 

I think a lot of coaches...everybody has strengths and weaknesses. I have strengths and weaknesses. You take a look at different schools. Who’s really good offensively? Who’s really good at rebounding? Who’s really good defensively? And ultimately you start trying to meld them all together. In college, you’re going to take a look at Izzo for certain things. You’re going to look at Bo Ryan for certain things. So I don’t know if there’s any one that we look at. I read everything.

You know as well as I do that people say Hopkins recruits. You have some kids who don’t live in Hopkins….

But not as many as almost everybody else has….

Sure. To me, kids that are good, and they know that they’re good, they want to play for a great coach and a great program. So kids choose to come here. I shouldn’t say why. Can you tell me why kids come to Hopkins who don’t live here?

I don’t even know if they do. I honestly, I would like to think kids want to play for us, but we lose more kids than we gain. We have kids starting all over the place. They come up through our traveling program and all of a sudden they’re at Osseo, they’re at St. Paul Johnson, all of a sudden Minnetonka’s got 2, 3, 4 starters, and no one wants to talk about that. But it is the nature of the business. 

There were a couple of articles. There was an article by Pat Reusse that talked about all these kids, African-American kids. This was before we really came together as a program. Everyone of them was a Hopkins kid, but he wrote an article about all these kids that transferred in. Well, none of them was a transfer. And, then there was another article. Of course, we’ve won and that causes people to think in a certain fashion. We’ve had kids…. Joe Coleman lived in Minneapolis but he’d been here since second grade. 

I think we treat kids well. We work ‘em hard. We’re tough on them. We’ve got a high standard of what they’ve got to be. I would like to think it’s a good place to play for everybody.

I don’t think (all the talk and accusations) hurt us, I think it helps us because it gives people an excuse if they lose. We played in one state tournament, and seven of the top eight guys from Osseo were open enrollment kids who had moved in. We had one (open enrollment) kid, and did they say anything about Osseo?

I don’t think so.

So it is what it is. 

Do you think kids want to play for Ken Novak?

I don’t know. I would like to think they would, but I’m sure some do, some don’t. 

I think it’s just good basketball. When you think about Minnesota basketball, you think of Hopkins. I will say we’re probably more known nationally than we are even in our own backyard. If you talk to coaches anywhere what programs they can name from Minnesota, they all know Hopkins. We’re a top 15-20 team in the nation in consideration. 

And if a kid comes from Hopkins, he’s going to know certain things?

He’s going to be a good player. He’s going to know how to play the game. And, we push ‘em. Right from the word go, every kid here, you gotta work at it. We’ve got expectations to be really good.

Expectations here are very high. How does that affect what you do?

The expectations are really high, and sometimes that hurts the kids. When you start playing for wins and losses, when you say you’re going to win a state championship…. You should be thinking about this time down the floor, I’m going to get a stop. This time down the floor, I’m going to get a good shot. 

Is it hard to get kids to focus like that?

People are very results oriented. They’re not process oriented. And you have to be process oriented. You have to love the process. You’ve got to learn how to work hard. You have to learn to be disciplined. 

How has summer ball affected things?

Well, we always played a ton of summer ball, we played all the time, 3, 4, 5 days a week, and we’ve been playing all the time. Our open gym here is still the best anywhere in the state. We have 8, 10, 12 D1 players. You’re going to have the best players, so my kids play all summer long against the best players. 

Now, with AAU everybody else’s kids are playing, where it used to be just ours. And everybody has an open gym—to an extent, but not like ours. So, I don’t think it’s really helped us. 

But there’s definitely more specialization in basketball right now. More than anything, that’s what’s changed the game. It used to be kids played football, basketball, baseball. Right now these kids are playing all the time. And it’s not just Hopkins, it’s everywhere. 

If a kid wants to play D1, he better focus.

But sometimes kids don’t learn to compete as much as they should be able to, because they’re just trying to improve their skills. You’ve got to learn how to compete.

Does competing come naturally to kids, or do you have to teach them? With skills it seems obvious, you’ve got to teach that, but how about competing?

I think it’s less natural now, it used to be very natural. Not that many years ago, maybe 20 years ago, a kid would have to wait all year to play ball. Now they’re playing all spring, all summer, all fall, they’re playing games and games and games. And so it isn’t quite as big a deal. I mean, when we played, when you finally got into your season, it was something you waited all year to do, and a sprained ankle wasn’t going to stop you, because you waited so long for it. I’d like to think these guys are that way, too, but I don’t know if they compete quite as much. Culturally it’s different. 


There’s a lot of factors. There were tough kids on the playground, and it was everywhere.

How has the 3 point shot changed things?

I like it. I’m sure my dad told you, he loves it. It spreads the court, it leads to a faster style of game. Big teams don't have a very big advantage. As a matter of fact, they might be disadvantaged right now.

Unless they’re big and mobile.

Unless they’re big and mobile, and then you’re a top 30 kid in the nation. If you’re 6-9 and that’s the case, then you’re a top 30 kid in the nation.

But a guy like Dan VanderVieren, he was a great player, but maybe today he’s a step slow?

No, Dan was a great ballplayer and he’d be a great player today. That wasn’t that long ago. The game hasn’t shifted that much in ten years.

But maybe 20 years ago, that would be 1997. Of course, you had Khalid El-Amin then but he was ahead of his time.

He was an awfully good player. But Danny could play in any era, he was smart, he could pass it, he didn’t need to score. He had great hands for a guy his size, he had great anticipation. Danny was really good and he was a kid who improved so much. 

One issue I see is there’s too much publicity and people start judging people when they’re in junior high. And they start saying, This kid’s the greatest seventh grader, this kid’s the greatest eighth grader. And, you know what? When they really start improving—sophomore year is when it really starts shifting, and that’s where the push comes in. 

Even the open enrollment issue, 90 percent of the kids who came here, nobody knew who they were until they actually made this big push. Like VanderVieren was a good example, his mom came to me sophomore year and I told her to talk to the Eden Prairie coach and go back there. She’ll tell you that’s what I said. And he went back there for another year, and next thing I know (he’s improved tremendously and he’s back at Hopkins).

And Royce (White) had a lot to do with the (criticism we get)…. And we had nothing to do with Royce. I didn’t know he was coming until he was in the school. And we were going to win it with or without him. I mean, we were really good. And that team might have been the best team in the nation. We might have been ranked 3 or 4, but I have a hard time believing anybody could beat us. 

But I think you had better individual players on other teams.

(Shakes his head.)


I don’t think so. I had some really good players (in 2009).

I think of Blake Hoffarber and Siyani Chambers and Joe Coleman and Kris Humphries and Royce White.

Royce was really, really good. Trent Lockett was really good. And those were really tough kids. We really, really defended. We were really good. Did I have some individual players (on other teams that were really good)? Yeah. But the beauty of basketball is they’ve all got to play together. You can have a great player…. Today in the state of Minnesota, everybody’s…you realize how many high-level D1 players are coming out of here like this year?

But they don’t guarantee team success like in the old days, if you had a Mark Olberding or somebody like that, you were going to win.

Back in the day, before the three-point line, if you had two kids that were…. In order to win, you needed two kids over 6-7.

And someone who could pass ‘em the ball.

But the kids who passed them the ball didn’t have to be that great.

No, not like they do now.

Someone who could get the ball up the floor. It was very much more of a methodical game. 

Who are the top 2 or 3 players you’ve coached?

We’ve had a lot of good basketball players. Kris Humphries is one of the best, if not the best. Kris was an unbelievable rebounder, he was so natural at it, his hands were so good. It was almost scary how he could rebound. When the ball went up, it got to the point where no one else was going to get a rebound. He was a kid who made such an improvement. He didn't play his sophomore year. He got hurt and he only played like three games. He improved so drastically.

Royce White was awfully, awfully good. I only coached him for one year. He was such an unselfish player, maybe the most unselfish player I ever coached. When we won it, he scored about 14 ppg, and it didn’t bother him one bit. But we could always go to him.

Blake Hoffarber was a special kid. Joe Coleman. Siyani Chambers. They’re all a little different. I’d like to make a team, how about that? If I could put that team together.

Would that team be the five best players?

Not necessarily. 

At crunch time, who would you want to have the ball in his hands?

Oh, man. (Changes the subject.) The best defensive guard was Marcus Williams. I had a kid named Tyler Nicolai that, when he played for me, he was 5-foot-6, 121 pounds. But he was very quick, he could shoot it, very unselfish. 

And Siyani Chambers. Nobody ever thought he would be as good as he became. I remember people telling me he wasn’t going to be any good. But I thought the best player on that team was Zach Stahl. He was a smart player. He could score easily. A very efficient player. 

But most of the time, the best team has the best players, because if they’re really the best players, they’re unselfish. And they’re well-rounded. We want them to be able to shoot. We want them to be able to post up. We want them to be able to put the ball on the floor. We want them to be able to rebound. We want them to be able to do many things.

There isn’t as much difference between a D1 player and a D3 player as people think. They think that D1 guys are all Luke Skywalker, but that’s not the way it works. Blake Hoffarber wasn’t the most athletic, he wasn’t Luke Skywalker. But his attention to detail was phenomenal, and his ability to understand the flow of the game was phenomenal. You have to understand the flow. 

I’d like to think that our kids would make great coaches. Siyani Chambers is going to be a fabulous coach. When you see him out there orchestrating things….

I always thought he was a little underrated, and most of your kids are not underrated.

Sometimes they do get a little overrated. But, I had a kid named D.J. Peterson, he went out to LaSalle. No one wanted him. Siyani, no one wanted him. Northern Illinois was about the only one that offered him. And Jeff Hagen, I had to talk the U into giving him a ride, but he had to walk on. He ended up being second team all-Big Ten. Zach Puchtel. They said he wouldn’t play. I said, he’ll start for you. Because he knew how to play. He knew how to compete.

Returning to the three-point shot: Back when they put it in, they said, we want to open it up for the low post, but it didn’t work out that way. The low post is kind of gone.

It’s less of a factor but part of it is defensively. They’re allowing so much pushing and shoving in the post that…. It used to be if you were tall like Randy Breuer, big and tall…. But now you just get shoved right out of there. And it’s true in college, and it’s true in the pros. I mean, our game kind of follows the way they referee.

Do you think there’s too much contact?

I don’t know. I like contact. I don’t mind it. The problem is it gets really hard to call when you start letting it go. What do you call, what don’t you call, what are you gonna let go by? 

But part of that is the offense going at people. They handle the ball so well, they allow you to put your hand on the side of the ball and even underneath. In the old days you had to be right on top, you couldn’t just go right by people, but now you can. And now they allow the big jump stop, you didn’t used to be able to do that. And because of that, they could call a foul every time down the floor, but that doesn’t work. The game has shifted. And I like it, it’s become an athletic game, it’s become a very smart game. Strength is a really big factor.

And that’s another thing that hurts the big kids. Most of them don’t get strong until two years into college. We've got Joe (7-0 post Hedstrom), he’s a junior, and he’s going to be good when he’s a junior in college. But I like the three-point, it has spread the game, it probably allows a lot of kids to play the game who probably wouldn’t be able to play the game otherwise. Passing has become more important because of it. If a kid can pass the ball, he can play for me.

It’s one thing to attack, and it’s another thing to be able to attack while seeing out front and seeing behind. 

But, my biggest pet peeve is kids who dribble too much, which happens nowadays because they’re working so much on their skills. The one thing they’ve got to work more on…everything ebbs and flows, and for awhile shooting was really stressed. Now ball-handling is really stressed and kids can really handle it, but shooting in some aspects has gone down a little bit.

You make a good point that the defenses are a lot more physical but so are the offenses.

The offense causes the defense to get more physical just because there is no choice. Kids are more athletic. It’s not that there weren’t good athletes then, but because the game is played differently, it’s developed different types of skills. But it’s a great game. And if you’re going to win, you’ve got to get physical.

Who are the best Minnesota high school players that you’ve seen?

I think Mark Olberding was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Khalid El-Amin was definitely one of the best I’ve seen. There’ve been a lot of really good players. I don’t think a lot of people realize. Even back in the ‘70s there were some loaded, loaded teams. The beauty of it is you watch it and you go, okay, this is just a little bit better….

But, you just can’t even compare (the 1970s to today) because it’s just such a different game. It's like tennis, where you have the different rackets, and you just can’t compare.

But basketball’s not like golf where the clubs and different, the ball’s different…. In basketball you’ve just got a hoop and a ball, and they’re not any different. It’s the kids that are different.

The kids are different. If you take the kids today and put them back in the 1980s, can (he 1980s kids) compete? No. That’s why you have to change as you coach. The problem with the Bob Knights of the world…. What made Bob Knight great was that what he did, he did it so well. There was no bending. You’re just going to do it. And that’s what made him so great. It was such a structure, what they did. It’s what made them great. But it’s also what made them no good (later on) because they couldn’t shift from that. 

As a coach you have to have a little bit of both. You have to have a commitment to what you do, and that’s the most important, but, with the way the game is shifting, you have to be able to make that change, that what made you great will kill you. You have to understand that.

It’s like…ten years ago ball screens would happen now and again. There were more ball screens in my day. But now everything is ball screens. And if you can’t defend a ball screen, you’re getting beat. And if I don’t run a lot of ball screens, then we’re not going to be able to defend it. Are we going to do it as much? I don’t know. It depends on what we have. But practice-wise, we have to be able to do it. It’s become a fundamental skill.

I was talking to your dad about some of the old time coaches like Butsie Maetzold, and people say, “He was a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And Harvey Roels--“He was a tough son-of-a-bitch.” They were the drill sergeant. One upon a time, it seems like coaches were all drill sergeants. Are you a drill sergeant?

It’s a combination. As I get older, I’m less of one. When I first started coaching, I think I was a much meaner, tougher coach, and I think I was better in some ways. I was less compromising. 

When I think of the drill sergeant model, the fundamental relationship was that you were afraid to make a mistake. If you made a mistake, you were going to get your ass chewed.

Yeah, and that’s not us. I contend that the team that ends up making the most mistakes is going to be the best team. The team that makes the most mistakes at the beginning of the year is going to end up being the best team.

As long as they’re attacking mistakes.

As long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And you have to…. If we err, we let them shoot too much. If we err, we let them attack too much. You have to fail before you can succeed. And you’re right and that was part of the way basketball was. Dean Smith and John Wooden are my favorite coaches, and Dean Smith always said, We discipline them in practice, and then we let them play. 

I tell my kids, if I call time out, I’m going to be pissed. We shouldn’t have to call timeout. For me to call timeout to tell you that you should guard somebody that’s right in front of you? Then I haven’t done my job in the first place. They have to coach themselves. It’s all about them coaching themselves. And then we’re going to let them go, and that’s what we need to do. I want them to be coaches (on the floor).

It’s their game, but it’s your practice.

I love practice. I love the orchestration. Basketball is like a concert. Its ebb and flow. In a concert, you may have a great violinist, but to have a great orchestra, you need all the different instruments. But you can’t have someone going off on their own. You can’t have someone being louder than everybody else. That’s the beauty of basketball. It’s an ever-moving, flowing game. And that’s why I like to see it sped up so much because when it does it adds more orchestration to it. 

And that’s why in basketball momentum becomes the most important thing there is. Kids have to know what momentum is, they have to judge momentum, they have to feel things going their way. Coaches call time out to stop momentum. But our kids better be able to know—they’ve scored two buckets, they’ve scored three buckets, now we better be able to get one.

How long are you going to do this?

I don’t know. My dad loves it more than I do. I like it, but he loves it. I enjoy practice, he loves everything about it. I tend to be a little more introverted. 

You’re pretty demonstrative on the sideline, though. You’re up on your feet, you’re yelling at people.

I yell, but some of my kids will tell you I don’t yell. I never berate someone, even an official. I may disagree with them. I think officials have more control of the game than even they realize and than most people realize. As you coach longer, you start realizing how much the officials…. How different they can be. I don’t mean to criticize them, it's tough. 

Do you feel like you have influence over the officials during a game?

No. As a matter of fact, sometimes I think it goes the other way. 

But I’ll be in it for a few years here still. I’m still pitching.

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