Foundations being laid with new menís basketball coach

09:41 Jan 18, 2013 · Features · By Erwin Melocoton

  • Greg Francis coaches the Warrior menís basketball team from the sideline as they play against the Golden Hawks Jan. 16.

    Kristin Tang
  • Kristin Tang
  • Kristin Tang

It hasn’t been an easy year for the Waterloo Warriors men’s basketball team. With the departure of former bench boss Tom Kieswetter after 20 years manning the reigns, the Warriors have felt the up and downs of a program in flux. And since the hiring of 38-year-old Greg Francis on May 4, uncertainty has been followed by optimism, and optimism has been followed by disappointment.

Despite the injection of a highly regarded recruiting class, with several big name transfers, the team sees itself at the bottom of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) West with a 2-10 record. Coach Francis has reorganized the roster to fit his style of play, which features athleticism and speed over the more shooter-oriented team of the past year. The on-court product, as fans of the program can see, has been underwhelming to say the least.

Yet, inside the program hope and trust emanate from the top to the bottom. You get the same sentiment talking to Associate Director of Athletics Christine Stapleton as you do talking to a first year player. No doubt. Only certainty of future success. A lot of it has to do with Francis.

“I can see the championship in our future,” said local product Srdjan Pejicic, a forward in his second year of eligibility who played his high school ball up the street at Bluevale Collegiate.

“We just need to connect together. It takes time, but we can win it all.”

Results are your resume in this business. Coaches who win are rarely fired. It seems redundant to say, but it couldn’t be more relevant to the Warriors’ situation.Of course, other aspects play into the perceived success of any coach, but coach Francis’ modus operandi has been attached to on-court success and prominent roles in the basketball community. The case for optimism is well warranted with his pedigree.

As a player, Francis started his career at Fairfield University, a Division I program in the United States. He still holds the school record for three-point field goals made in a career and that skill has his name etched in the school’s lore. His eight three-pointers and 26 point performance against the #1 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels and legendary coach Dean Smith in the National Collegiate Athletics Association Tournament opening round, also known as March Madness, is one of the all-time great performances.

“I had to find Francis after the game but I couldn’t shake his hand because it was so hot,’’ North Carolina coach Dean Smith told USA Today after the game.

From there Francis moved on to play internationally in the British Basketball League and in Lebanon. After playing with the Canadian Men’s Senior National Team in the Sydney Olympics alongside two-time National Basketball Association (NBA) most valuable player Steve Nash, Francis moved to coaching within Canada Basketball.

From 2005-2011 he was the head coach for the Junior Men’s National Team and the National Elite Development Academy from 2007-2009. Currently he is an assistant coach on the National Senior Men’s team, led by NBA assistant coach Jay Triano and current Canada Basketball general manager, Nash.It was in this community that the seeds for Francis’ hiring at Waterloo were planted.

Moving from the Alberta Golden Bears program to Waterloo’s program was a surprise. Coach Francis achieved a Canada West Universities Athletics Association (Canwest) Final Four appearance and a Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) silver medal in his three years there. The program was established. Then the departure of Kieswetter presented an opportunity with an old friend knocking on the door from the other side.

“Coach Francis and I have known each other since 1999,” said Stapleton.“I was coaching with Canada basketball at the time. That’s when I first met Greg, when he was a member of that national team. We’ve stayed in touch ever since working as national team coaches for many, many years.”

Francis saw an opportunity, one where he could work with an administrator who saw basketball in the same way.

“She’s won national championships, as a player and as a coach,” Francis said about Stapleton.

“She has a wealth of knowledge, so when I go to talk to my boss about my program I have someone who knows how to do it ... It’s great to try and build a program with somebody who sees basketball the same we you do on the administrative side.”

It’s a unique opportunity. Waterloo is known to have stability for their men’s basketball coaches. It’s easier for a coach to believe in his chance to have long-term success in this situation. The precedent has been great support.

The recent direction of the athletics department was also a big factor in his decision to come to the school.The athletics department has sought out the best of the best to coach their student athletes over the past few years. The demands are high. Community involvement and alumni development are just a couple of aspects outside of basketball that Francis is part of.

“The direction of our leadership at the University of Waterloo has to be world class, whether it is academically or in the department of the athletics,” Stapleton said. “For us to attract world-class people it starts with world-class leadership.”

This type of thinking is what attracts great coaches to a program. Leaving a winning program is never easy. But, it’s a chance to flip a program that has been stagnant into a winner, through his image and philosophy as someone willing to dedicate resources. The formula makes the most tempting concoction. Francis’ acceptance of the position shows Waterloo’s dedication to be competitive in athletics.

“When I came and visited during the interview process I was really impressed with some of the things they wanted to do in the athletics department,” Francis said.

“I saw a lot of potential there in terms of having a great facility, a lot of basketball in the community. I can build it here as well as I did in Edmonton for the University of Alberta.”

From a recruiting perspective,Waterloo’s strong academic reputation puts the program into the mix before he makes a call. Francis’ pedigree built within Canada Basketball, so far, has taken care of the rest. His recruiting contacts in Toronto yielded a strong recruiting class oozing with potential. The majority of the new players have experienced success in the CIS or come from the prep school system in the United States.

“I was in Chicago when I got the phone call,” explained first year guard Ben Davis on how he became a Warrior. Davis is a product of coach Ro Russell, a founder of Grassroots Canada Basketball.

“I was getting ready to attend Robert Morris. I was going through the process. Coach Francis gave me a call. He was telling me that my cousin was interested in Waterloo. He would like if I came down and join the program. He gave me all the details, told me about the school, and got me out here.”

Francis was able to build a team over the summer. Joining Ben Davis on campus would be his highly recruited cousin Wells Davis, Denham Buchanan, former AUS All rookie-team transfer Mike Helsby, and current leading scorer Kyrie Coleman.

Often the hardest job a new coach has is getting the players to buy into his philosophy, approach, and vision for a program. Francis brought in players who could immediately contribute and understood what he wanted. Pairing these players with standout returnees such as Brendan Smith, Wayne Bridge, and Zach Angelini made it seem like the Warriors would be competitive right away.

No one envisioned the current situation.Francis makes no excuses. The remedy is hard work and more hard work.

“There is kind of a way I see the game to be played and I’m very passionate about it,” Francis said.

“The main piece when you get to a new program, it’s about getting players to work. Just like you see guys here, technically they can go home. But guys that want extra work will come in and get extra work. Get enough of those guys in this program and we’ll do well.”

The players carry the same attitude and demeanor and they see the corner. During the exam period and holiday break you could see them working out and practising in the Columbia Icefield Arena (CIF). Watching their practices, you can see Francis’ coaching is methodical. He analyzes every step of his players.

“[He] always challenges us,” said first year guard Buchanan. “We always get challenged in practice, physically, mentally, he wants us to be men and accountable for ourselves. I know he coaches at a high level and that’s the level I want to play at.”

Time is a key factor for a new team to gel, regardless of how much hard work they put in. The talent is there. As the team shifts towards becoming tougher, attacking the basket more, and locking down defensively, the wins should come. Games are invaluable for such a young squad.

“As a coach, I knew we were going to have some challenges,” Francis said. “But our expectations are to win some games, like the fans. We’re really trying to get as much work in as we can so we can get there and live up to our potential.”

“Even during the regular season our guys played hard. We’ve had spurts where we showed well.  But I take full responsibility. We don’t play like a team yet. It doesn’t happen in months. It takes years before you have that chemistry.”

It’s hard to ignore the current team’s record of 1-10. This is not where Warrior fans expected to be at this point of the season. Still, it seems that the hardest part of a new coach’s job is done. His vast experience playing and coaching internationally and in the CIS tells us not to quit on them.

Looking back at Francis’ career, he can identify with the current situation the Warriors face. The Fairfield Stags team Francis led was only 11-18 before his legendary showdown with North Carolina. They clicked at the right time and went perfect in their conference play offs to make the national tournament. You should never count a team out with Francis leading the way.

“What has stuck with me from that experience is that I never quit and never stop believing in my team,” Francis explained about his outlook.

“That team, the year we got to the NCAA Tournament was last in the conference going into playoffs ... That event has really shaped the way I see the game. As long as you have a chance to compete, anything can happen.”

The culture has already changed into the same image Francis has built his success on. All the players believe they can win and hard work is the road they need to travel down. It seems they’re all ready to do their part. The future is brighter than you might expect.

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