As I was catching a plane back to Sioux Falls in June, I found myself sitting behind South Dakota State’s Head Coach Eric Henderson. I was coming back from vacation, and he was heading home after hitting the recruiting trail.
It’s easy to forget all that a coach’s job entails after the last buzzer sounds during championship season. Coaches are working around the clock to secure success for the program’s coming years.
Coach Hendo’s first offseason as head coach was spent locking in his roster and creating a squad that played for one another. He’s said how together this year’s team has been, and players have told me the unity no doubt stems from their trust in him. This trust dates back to when he began fostering relationships with them during the recruiting process, and it has carried over into the first half of the season.
Question: Coach Hendo, thank you so much for giving us some insight on this year’s team. The players have told me they trust in you fully. How were you able to create that relationship before they got to campus?
Coach Eric Henderson: Two things, really. First, we know it is equally important for our coaching staff to spend time off the court with our guys as it is to be around them on the court. Second, our program prioritizes honesty. Those intentional relationships allow us to have straight-forward, open communication and build trust in one another.
Q: The guys on the team seem to mesh really well together, which is crucial in the sport of basketball. How important is personality when offering a player a spot on the team?
EH: Personality is probably one of the first things that we look at when we're recruiting a kid. It's always fun and enjoyable to go to these AAU tournaments, or even high school games, and watch how certain certain student-athletes interact with their teammates. You can see some that are so positive, and they're trying to lift people's spirits, and then you also see some that are not necessarily trying to be negative, but they certainly point out each other's faults. That's certainly one of the first things that I notice when I'm recruiting.
It's not like you have to be perfect or an angel or anything like that, but you have to show a smile every once in a while, because there are going to be some tough times during basketball games. If you're somebody that points out all the negatives, and if you're always going to look frustrated or defeated, then you probably are going to be defeated. So you have to smile a little bit when you interact with your teammates. That type of personality is one of the first things we look for in the recruiting process.
Q: You’ve told me one player you got to know well during the process was David Wingett, and his journey to SDSU relied heavily on your relationship. What would you like fans to know about him as a person?
EH: As far as David goes, we've been in contact for a long time. The thing about David is that he has a heart of gold. He cares so deeply about his teammates, the people he's playing for and his family. I've really been fortunate enough to spend even more time now with David and see that while he's always a competitive dude, he's more than just a guy who scored a lot of points in high school and was the star. He's such a team player. He competes every day in practice, wants to do the right thing on both sides of the floor, and he really cares deeply about his teammates. That's what I think really makes David special.
Q: You got to learn a lot about the guys during the non-conference schedule. What is the biggest improvement you’ve seen that you’re excited about bringing into conference play?
EH: We have a challenging non-conference schedule. I think some of the things that we've seen improvement on is that we've really shared the basketball well, and I think we've seen different people step up on different nights. We need to continue sharing the basketball and playing unselfishly while also making fewer mental mistakes, specifically with our philosophy and following scouting reports. Things like that come with having a young group, though, and it's exciting to see them continue to get better and understand that part of the game. The more they grow on the mental side of things, the more success we'll see, because those little things determine the outcome of so many games.
Q: What is the biggest thing you need to see executed as you head into Summit League play?
EH: As we approach Summit League play, we need to be more consistent. There have been times we've played extremely competitively, but then there are also times we haven't put complete games together. If you're going to be as successful as you want to be in our league, you have to be consistent with not only your effort, but your concentration level. It's going to take a full 40 minutes. This is a wide-open, well-coached league, and they're going to be able to take advantage of mistakes, so consistency is going to be big for us. We feel that if we do that, good things will happen for this group.