Rob Beveridge has the Illawarra Hawks soaring. Winners of six of their past seven games, the Hawks suddenly look like genuine championship contenders. Is anybody surprised? Beveridge, with his wealth of knowledge, championship experience and relationships with players far and wide, was a sensational hire by GM Kim Welch and the Illawarra ownership. His team’s exciting style and his ability to empower and embolden his players – coupled with his personable nature – make him one of the top coaches in the country. Beveridge spoke with Downtown this past week while enjoying some time back in Perth celebrating Christmas with his family.
How difficult has it been working away from your family?
It’s extremely difficult. I’m just very fortunate that, at the end of the day, this is what I do. The kids get it, they understand it. It was actually my two oldest kids who told me ‘look, this is what you do, this is what you’re good at’. They sort of talked me into doing the Illawarra job.
It is hard, though. You miss a lot of milestones with your family; awards nights, balls, Grand Final days, national tournaments, things like that. At times it is very difficult but I’m very lucky to have an incredible wife who is very supportive and allows me to do what I love.
You said after your 0-2 start that this was going to be a “very, very, very good team”, how far along that path is the group at this point?
The first twelve games of the season were extremely difficult because of the amount of injuries that we had. Once Rhys Martin came back in it was like the weight of the world had been taken off the shoulders of the team. Everybody had been playing out of position and were having to do different things. I just don’t know if that was recognised at all, by anybody. For the first time we actually had our full team together, obviously minus Tyson (Demos) because he had his knee injury. We went into a game for the first time all season thinking ‘we’re actually balanced, we’ve got two point guards, we’ve got two shooting guards, small forward, power forwards, centres’. I like coaching like a tag-team wrestling type thing and for the first time it felt comfortable.
Since then it’s just been so much more balanced and people have become more comfortable in their roles. I think that’s why, particularly in the last couple of weeks, we’ve really stepped up a notch.
When a builder builds a house they have a certain order in which they construct it – they lay the foundations first, then they build the structure and so on. What has been your process of building this team on the floor?
The first thing I always look into, whenever I recruit for any team, is the character of the person. I’ve been doing this for such a long time now and for me it’s all about the people that you have. People that you know are going to be great people off the court and be dedicated on the court. Once you get that type of personnel then it allows you to say ‘ok, this is the system of play that I’ve done for twenty years’. I’ve coached it at so many national championships and in Australia for seven years.
There’s a system that you put in place, it’s your philosophy that you are most comfortable with. When I recruit I’m looking for players that I know can actually play my system. The high intensity, the up-tempo, the unselfish play, making extra passes, all the blue collar type of stuff that I like… I really look at: can those people fit into my system of play? There’s no point in getting a big slow guy that can only play in the half court into your system if it just doesn’t work. And vice versa.
I look at Cairns and a guy like (Markel) Starks. I think he’s an incredible player when they play up-tempo. He’s really, really good. Whenever we play against him, because we want to play that style and get them out of their comfort zone, he actually plays really well against us because I think that’s where he’s at his best. Then when Cairns goes back to where they play the more controlled, disciplined, execute type of thing – which they’re exceptionally good at – he may not fit in as well as what he probably does in another system.
It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. We had the pieces of the puzzle when we were recruiting - role players, blue-colour workers, studs, the whole thing. I think we were pretty balanced but because we had so many injuries throughout the first 12 games of the season, it was extremely difficult to get them going properly but now that we’ve got the full team back we’re pretty good.
You talked about your system there… What comes first for you; that you believe it’s a winning formula or that you believe it’s what the fans want to see?
Both. I look at it and go ‘okay, I’ve coached 15 National Championships and I’ve made 10 Grand Final series’, so you say 10/15 is pretty good. It’s not necessarily about winning. When I was in the NBL with Perth we won a championship and we were competing for every other one and it was because of the system of play that we went with. I know every team that I’ve ever coached we are going to be in the mix because it works. I do it with national junior teams, I’ve done it working up in the Philippines. The two teams I worked with over there I introduced the style of play – with the defensive system, the offensive system, what we’re trying to achieve out of it – and they go on to win championships as well. So for me it’s got to work.
You’re not going to win all the time, but the style that I do, I do know that over time, will be successful. A lot of people say ‘ah, you can’t do it blah, blah, blah’ and well, I’m sorry but it works. Why would I go out and try to implement something that I’m not very good at? I think as a coach you’ve got to identify who you are and what you are about and believe in it and keep making tweaks as you go on.
You’ve had a really interesting coaching journey. I want to ask you about a few of your international adventures; the Hoops Summit, the Shanghai Sharks and the Philippines. How did those international experiences help to tool you as a coach?
I think what it did, it helped me to identify who I am as a coach and who am I as a person.
One thing was developing my communication skills with all of the different teams. For example, with the Hoops Summit which I did for six years, you might go in there and the majority of the players in the team don’t speak English, so you need to find different ways of teaching. I’ve spent a lot of time on the psychology of the game of how the personality of the players, how they learn. Everybody learns differently and learning to be a lot better communicator non-verbally.
From a philosophy perspective being involved in the international game for a long time, you get to see the different styles of game and you look at what works. The strength of countries, what they’re great with, whether they’re a great shooting team, a great half court team, a great defensive team, a great transition team. You get to see that.
I think coaching is about plagiarism; you go and steal everybody’s ideas and then you apply them to yourself. And then by poaching year after year after year with different teams, you put something in and say ‘oh geez this is pretty good, this works’, and then that other thing, ‘no that doesn’t work’. What happens to a lot of coaches is that they might go overseas on the study trip or go to the USA and come back and want to be like that coach, where I think that’s a mistake. You can pick and choose lots of things and then apply it to yourself. By working overseas that has allowed me to do that.
When I was in China it was a completely different style again; the way they play, it makes you adjust how you coach. It was a lot more difficult for me to try to get Chinese players to run my presses because it was just simply too hard. Too hard basket. It’s really interesting. Then you go to the Philippines and ironically you think that they’re a nation of up-and-down running. But in the PBA the majority of teams all walked the ball up the court. So for me to go into the Philippines and teach these super athletic and strong Filipino players how to trap, how to press, how to push the ball, how to run transition… they go on and make the Grand Final series in two conferences. So that’s why I’m saying ‘hey this system actually works’. I’m not saying you’re going to win – I’ll never say that, I’ve lost a lot more than I have won – but it’s about trying to teach them that this method of play actually works. I think the international game really helped me with that. I think I’ve got something that works.
To me it’s like a Big Mac. All over the world, a Big Mac is made the same way. Why add in too many extra ingredients into a Big Mac? It’s not a Big Mac anymore. That’s what I try to do. Every program I run is like a franchise. I’m trying to make it a similar type of system. People know what I’m running – they know my offences and my defenses – that’s great, how are you going to stop it?
There’s a bit of a perception around that the Illawarra Hawks are flush with money these days. You know, ‘they spent up big on their roster this season’, etc. etc. Do you think people have an accurate understanding of the operations of the Hawks as a franchise?
Absolutely zero idea. I laugh, it’s comical. Basically us and Townsville, we’re the poorest clubs in the league. We have two and a half full-time staff in the back office, that’s it. Then there’s three full time coaches. Flinny (Assistant Coah Matt Flinn) is also the operations guy, he books all the airfares, accommodation, meals, transport, washes towels, does all the laundry all the community works. There is only two full-time staff in the office and a part time accountant who does all the books.
We’re all doing multiple number of jobs and I look at Perth who have got twenty-six full-time staff in the back office. I’ve got no idea about Melbourne but there would be a lot of people in Melbourne. And we’re trying to do everything. We’re in the oldest stadium, we’ve got no change rooms, we’ve got nothing. Absolutely zero. We just turn up as a group of guys and work our asses off every day.
It’s a volunteer-based organisation - the people that run the game nights they’re all volunteers. There’s the GM Kim (Welch) and the business guy Tim (Fares) and that’s it. They’re there till one o’clock in the morning packing up chairs and taking up the bits and pieces.
It’s just so far-fetched the perception that the club has money. Just because we call them the ‘Big 3’, if people knew what they were earning… It’s really interesting. These players have come to play for us because of the relationships that I’ve had with them over the years. It’s not about money, it doesn’t work that way. Going back to the personality of the guys, they are just the most incredible guys, they have got nothing to prove they just want to get in and play hard.
Speaking of the guys… the Lisch and Penney combination, is that playing out how you anticipated?
Yeah absolutely. Initially it wasn’t because I had to play Kev as our point guard. I had to over-play those players. No Tyson, no Rhys Martin so Kirk’s playing 33 minutes a game Kev’s playing 32-33 minutes a game. That takes its toll on those players.
Recently we’ve made a conscious commitment that Kirk won’t play any more than 28 minutes game, despite how good he may feel. He gets a little bit grumpy at times when I sub him out - I think in Sydney he only played 18 or 19 minutes and had 20 to 25 points and he just wants to keep playing because he loves the game so much – and I have to say ‘well no we’re travelling to New Zealand tomorrow at 7AM and we’re playing them in two days, mate’. So those two players in particular have played way too much court time early in the season and what we’re doing now, because we do have Rhys back, we’re actually going to reduce their minutes and make them more efficient and allow them to go at a higher capacity for a shorter period of time.
You’ve been around a while, you’ve seen a lot of ball games, you’ve seen a lot of different teams do a lot of different things… What did you think of the way Cairns went after A.J. Ogilvy a few weeks ago?
I think that A.J.’s weak point is that when teams go physical at him he reacts in a physical way and they get into his head. Right now that’s probably one of the best things that could happen to A.J. It’s all about a learning situation for him.
The guy has done an exceptional job of getting his body in shape, with our medical staff and physios and that’s allowing him to play injury free. He is such a highly skilled player, when he gets going you can’t stop him. No matter what sport you play – AFL, rugby league, basketball, doesn’t matter – if you go and rough up a guy that will challenge how they actually react. It’s happened obviously against Cairns, it’s happened against Adelaide once and it’s happened against Perth. He’s had three, I wouldn’t say bad games but they’re not his best games and it was because of the niggle. The players that are doing it, they’re veterans, they’ve been around.
The only way you can really stop him is by getting under his skin, some really physical play, elbows, slaps, push and shove all of that and he’s only going to learn from that. I think it’s a great experience for him to get roughed up like that. We talk about it, we show him, show him how he reacts, we’ve done a lot of video with him and spoken to him and I know Kev White and Kev Lisch met with him individually just to talk to him about. It’s part of him developing as a player and I think it’s been a good experience for him to get roughed up like that and now he’s got to find some strategies to cope with that sort of thing.
How dire did the rebounding situation get last month?
It’s frustrating, there’s no question, but I think we’ve been out-rebounded once in the last seven or eight games. It’s a mindset thing. As you develop as a group, as I said, you put the jigsaw puzzle together and you ask ‘what are your priorities?’ You can’t be a jack of all trades so we want to get good in certain areas. Then over the last few weeks in particular we’ve made a significant improvement in our rebounding. We’re matching all teams now or we’re in the mix and that’s why we are winning because we’re competing lot more.
I know you guys have had a crack at us about defense, and I think you guys have got to get a better understanding of what we’re actually trying to do. When you’re playing an up-tempo game, the high possession game, there’s higher points out there, therefore the scores are going to be higher as well. I think that’s what you’ve got to look at. You look at a team and see the score of 65 to 64, they walk it up the court, it’s only 40 or 50 possessions a game, well of course it’s going to be a low score. So you hear ‘they’re a great defensive team’… and I’m going ‘that’s a load of crap’. It’s nothing to do with that at all, it’s about the possession game. We are the highest scoring team, the highest percentage in everything. Like I said, you can’t be a master of everything but what we’re good at we’re great at.
Having said that, you guys are last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Obviously, like you say, you can’t be a jack of all trades, but did you get to a point where you said to your team ‘hey guys, we actually do need to make some large improvements in this area or we’re staring down the barrel’?
Oh absolutely. We keep our players highly accountable, there’s no question whatsoever about that. And we have. We were very, very poor. That was one that was killing us. When we lost to Perth we gave up 22 offensive rebounds which is an absolute joke. You lose the game by three points and give up 22 offensive rebounds. As soon as you start to take care of that, you start winning and that’s what we’re doing now. In the last seven or eight games the differential would be minimal.
Jarrad Weeks has received a lot of press this season, but has Kevin White’s work flown a little under the radar do you think?
Absolutely. He is one of the most underrated players out there. It’s one of those things, when you look at teams you need to have blue-collar workers. You need to have the meat and potatoes out there and that’s what he is, he’s a jack of all trades. I keep saying to him the reason I bought him into the club was for his defense. He’s 6’3”, he strong, he’s very good laterally, he can defend post players, wings and he can defend guards. Everybody always looks at the offence – of course, it’s an offensive game – but he’s the type of player that can come in and do all the little things that I ask him. He’s not a pure point guard, I’ve had to throw him in the deep end and he struggled at times but he’s just got better at those areas of delivering the ball to Lisch, giving it to Penney, giving it to Ogilvy.
One of the greatest things about Whitey is his off-court leadership. Being a cheerleader – he’s like Patty Mills – he’s waving the towel, he’s high-fiving, he’s doing all those little things that I notice, that others don’t notice. He pats you on the backside, he’ll actually have a go in the change rooms, he’ll be going ‘oh c’mon guys, you’ve got to get a body on that player’. Those things there are so underrated, that’s what he does. You look at the stats… are his stats good? Not really, but I don’t really care about that, because I need him to be able to just slow down Jackson a little bit, slow down this payer. He doesn’t care… if I sub him out he’ll be coming off high-fiving, there is no ‘gee I can’t believe it!’ That makes your job so much easier.
And now he’s trying to throw down!
[Laughs] I know, that’s how he hurt his ankle I think. He got up there and didn’t realize that he was up there… He came down and hurt his ankle.
You guys are up 2-0 on New Zealand, you’re up on point differential vs Melbourne… how valuable would home-court be during a semifinal series this season?
Of course it would be tremendous, there’s no doubt about that. Our initial goal right from day dot was we just want to make the top four and compete. Because the competition is so close, you look at it and we’re one game behind the other group. You do look at the head-to-head. Everything we talk about is the series. We look at differentials and that’s what we keep saying ‘we have to win the series’.
Thanks a lot Coach, good luck for the rest of the season.
NB: Parts of this interview were edited for clarity and brevity.