Jon Teitel's Coaching Greats Series: Samford's Jimmy Tillette

January 17th, 2011
As part of his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time in the preseason with current Samford head coach Jimmy Tillette. Coach Tillette, who led a New Orleans-based Babe Ruth team to the World Series title as a child, is the all-time wins leader in Samford history and was also an outstanding high school coach in the Crescent City. Currently his Samford Bulldogs are 10-7 overall and 2-3 in the Southern Conference.

Jon Teitel: In high school you led a New Orleans all-star team to the Babe Ruth World Series title by throwing a pair of three-hitters and batting .616 in the four wins. Were you a better batter or pitcher, and how far did you think you could go as a baseball player?

Jimmy Tillette: Talk about the height of injustice. I am actually in Cooperstown and Pete Rose is not! I thought that I had a chance to go pro as a hitter but my eyes got worse over time. That was the apogee of my career.

JT: As a high school coach in your native New Orleans you went 196-55 over seven seasons and were named Louisiana high school Coach of the Year in 1986 after your De La Salle team set a state record by going 40-1 and winning the Class 4A state title. Where does that team rank among the most dominant you have ever seen, and what did it mean to you to win the title?

JT (coach): That was one of the best teams we ever had. My starting point guard Dwayne Bryant was the state Player of the Year and played four years at Georgetown, and my center ended up playing tight end for a Division I football team. I just tried to stay out of their way, as they had great chemistry.

JT: You were an assistant coach under Perry Clark at Tulane and John Brady at Samford. What made them such great coaches, and what was the most important thing you learned from each of them?

JT: Perry was more of an intuitive coach. He could smell if there was a problem and could adjust quickly. John was very intense and very detailed. Both of them had success in their own ways.

JT: You run a Princeton-style offense which relies on precision cuts and three-point shooting, and your teams are often among the best three-point shooters in the country. Why did you decide to go with that offense, and what is your secret to three-point shooting?

JT: I help teach a class on leadership and one of the first obligations is to accurately interpret reality. Samford is a private school, so you have to do three things to play for me: be a good kid, be committed to getting your degree, and be a good basketball player. If you can only do two out of the three that is not good enough. Our best plan for success is the Princeton offense because it is based on cerebral skills; if I was in the SEC I would not run that offense. I take no credit for our three-point success, but we recruit guys who can shoot the ball.

JT: In your first season as head coach in 1997 you guided the Bulldogs to a 14-13 record despite only starting one senior and having underclassmen comprise the remainder of the team. Were you nervous about having such a young team, and how were they able to finish with a winning record?

JT: We were transitioning from a motion offense, and I realized that we could not win three straight games in the conference tourney if we stuck with that offense. We had the youngest team in the entire country, but played well down the stretch.

JT: In 1999 you were named conference Coach of the Year. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?

JT: Those are truly team accolades, as you need a talented staff and great players. Some of my assistants from back then are still with me, and are an active part of what we do. They have the freedom to give me input.

JT: What are your memories of the 1999 NCAA Tournament (Ron Artest had 17 points and 10 rebounds in a St. John's victory)?

JT: It was the first time we made the tourney so we celebrated for a week...and then realized that we had to play the game. I quickly learned that being in the tourney is like playing the bagpipes in public. You do not have to play well to be noticed! Mike Jarvis had a great team, and we missed a lot of shots.

JT: The following year you pulled off an eight-point upset win over St. John's in the CoSIDA Classic. Was your team just out for revenge, and how were you able to beat them?

JT: We brought everyone back and added a guy who transferred from Mississippi State. We might have caught St. John's looking ahead to playing New Mexico in the title game. They ended up playing them in the consolation game. Beating St. John's was one of our four main goals that year (along with beating Alabama, beating Belmont, and making the tourney), and we were able to do all of that.

JT: What are your memories of the 2000 NCAA Tournament (Etan Thomas had 16 points, four blocks and four steals in a Syracuse victory)?

JT: The whole day was a bad omen. We played in Cleveland, it was raining when we walked into the arena and snowing when we walked out. We were only down by a couple of points with eight minutes left but could not hang with them down the stretch. Syracuse should have been a #2-seed, as they were ranked #2 in the country only one month earlier.

JT: In 2009 your player Jim Griffin died at age 23 from an undetectable heart condition. What was your reaction when you learned of his death, and how was your team able to overcome this tragic event?

JT: We were having some pre-practice workouts in September, and a trainer came over to tell me that they had found Jim dead in his room. We never did overcome it. We never quit, but the whole team was just spent by the end of the year. The two conflicting emotions we had were grief and competition, and there is no way to make them work in harmony.

JT: In January 2010 you suffered a seizure and collapsed during a win at UNC Greensboro, but you postponed an air-lift to a hospital at UAB because you did not want to miss watching your hometown Saints in the NFC title game. How serious was the incident, and what did it mean to you when the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl?

JT: My body just shut down, but luckily I had an assistant there to catch me before I hit the floor. The Super Bowl win meant a lot to me because I remember the days when fans wore bags on their head to cheer on the "Aints". I woke up from the seizure and was asking everyone what happened. I had a little headache but generally felt fine. I found out a week or two later that there was going to be some physical incapacity and mental diminution, but luckily I now feel healthy and am trying to make the most of my second chance.

JT: Earlier this season you hired assistant coach Terrence Johnson to replace Thomas Johnson. Was this just an attempt to keep all the "T. Johnson" labels that were lying around your locker room/office?

JT: You hit it on the head: I did not want to change the name on the front of his door! Thomas left for personal reasons, but Terrence is a good guy who was displaced after Hurricane Katrina and spent some time in Texas. I have to be around guys who I know, and they are all great guys. We are good at recruiting in-state, but a lot of the kids have moved to Texas, which is where TJ will help us immensely.

JT: What are your goals for this season, and how hard will it be to succeed after the graduation of Trey Montgomery?

JT: Trey was one of the most special kids I have ever been around. He was Jim's roommate and was the one who found him, but he handled it as well as I have ever seen. Samford gives out two big awards at graduation: one for the highest GPA and one for the best representative of the school. Trey won the latter award, and was the first athlete to ever win that. I am excited for this year, as we have kept moving up to stronger conferences throughout the past. I think travel is a huge issue, but our school president is aware of that. I do not have a specific number of wins in mind, I just want us to get better.

JT: You have the most wins in school history. How long do you plan on sticking around and do you think anyone will ever break your record?

JT: I plan to stick around for 3-4 more years, but I think that someone will break my record. It is like being the tallest kid in 6th grade: if you stick around long enough, you will be the tallest! I have three grandkids and want to spend more time with them.

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?

JT: The equation is to live now, so hopefully people will think of me as someone who showed up, did things the right way, and put in a full day's work. We made decisions in our team's best interest, and never did anything to exploit our kids. If the only thing my players learn during their time here is a superficial skill like shooting the ball, then they will not be prepared for many aspects of life.

Coach Tillette is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Southern Conference history.

Appalachian State: Buzz Peterson (1996-2000, 2009-2010) 103-52, 1 NCAA tourney, 4 conference titles, 2-time conference COY

Charleston: John Kresse (1979-2002) 560-143, 4 NCAA tourneys, 9 conference titles, 4-time conference COY

Chattanooga: Mack McCarthy (1985-1997) 243-122, 5 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 3-time conference COY

Citadel: Les Robinson (1974-1985) 132-162, 2-time conference COY

Davidson: Bob McKillop (1989-present) 391-257, 5 NCAA tourneys, 10 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 6-time conference COY

Elon: Bill Miller (1959-1979) 329-224, 2 conference titles

Furman: Joe Williams (1970-1978) 142-87, 5 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1-time conference COY

Georgia Southern: Frank Kerns (1981-1995) 244-132, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 4-time conference COY

UNC Greensboro: Fran McCaffery (1999-2005) 90-87, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title

Samford: Jimmy Tillette (1997-present) 216-188, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY

Western Carolina: Steve Cottrell (1977-1987) 145-133, 1-time conference COY

Wofford: Mike Young (2002-present) 124-135, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title