Assistant Basketball Coach Phil Cunningham

Assistant Basketball Coach Phil Cunningham

Gene's Page recently caught up with Mississippi State men's assistant basketball coach Phil Cunningham for an interview. Cunningham, a former graduate assistant coach at MSU under Richard Williams during the 1991-92 season, spent three seasons as the head coach of the NAIA's Sue Bennett College and five seasons at the side of the legendary Charles "Lefty" Driesell as an assistant coach at James Madison and Georgia State before rejoining the MSU staff as a full-time assistant coach in 2000-2001.

During the five years he has worked under one of the top young coaches in the nation, MSU head coach Rick Stansbury, Phil Cunningham, has helped lead MSU to 5 consecutive winning seasons and 5 straight trips to the postseason, including 4 straight NCAA Tournament berths. In the 4 seasons prior to Cunningham's arrival in Starkville, the Bulldogs posted only one winning season and made one trip to postseason play, a 1999 NIT appearance.


Why did you decide to go into coaching?
"My dad was a coach. And he had two brothers that were both basketball coaches. Our grandfather was a high school basketball and football coach. Now, my brother is the head football coach of a NAIA school. My mom is a teacher, my aunts were all teachers and my grandmother was a teacher. It seemed like in my family all the men were coaches and all the women were teachers. So I think it was my destiny to be a coach.

"I was actually majoring in business in college. But I think the thing that confirmed to me that I wanted to be a coach was something that happened when I was in college playing for Kentucky Wesleyan. I played for Rex Chapman's father, Wayne Chapman. I'll never forget this. It was when Rex Chapman was in his senior season of high school and trying to decide between Kentucky and Louisville. I remember the Kentucky coaching staff, Eddie Sutton, Dwayne Casey and James Dickey, all came by to contact Rex and his family one day. Our team was in the gym and they watched us work out while they were waiting to meet with Coach Chapman. It looked like they were having a lot of fun. I later went home that night and thought to myself that was definitely what I wanted to do some day."

You mentioned that you played for Rex Chapman's father. Now, you are an assistant coach for Rick Stansbury, a man who played for your dad in college. Do you have any memories of Rick as a player when he played for your dad?
"I think when Rick was a senior in college I was either in the 7th or 8th grade. Rick was the starting guard on what I feel was the best team that my dad ever had. They were a Top 10 team and played in the national tournament that year. I remember a couple of things about Rick. He was the Mr. Clutch free throw shooter on the team. If they ever needed a clutch free throw late in a game, they always wanted the ball in his hands. He probably shot 90% on his free throws. That tells you right there that he was very dependable. I also remember him being one of the hardest workers on the team. He may not have been the most athletic player, but he probably worked harder than any of the players. He was also a fiery, tenacious type attitude guy who was really scrappy."

Since you knew Rick Stansbury as a player, did you keep up with him once he left college?
"When he went into coaching, I definitely kept up with his career very closely because I knew that was something that I might want to do some day. When (former MSU basketball) Coach (Richard) Williams had a job opening for a graduate assistant, Rick was the one who got me the position (at MSU). Then, when I left after getting my Masters, he, basically, picked up the phone and got me a head coaching job at an NAIA school in Kentucky."

What are your strengths as a coach and what have you brought to the Mississippi State basketball staff?
"I think my strengths are my organizational skills and the fact that I pay close attention to details. And I try to bring a lot of enthusiasm to work everyday, whether it be practice, the games or recruiting. No matter what walk of life you are in, if you aren't enthusiastic, I think it is difficult to be successful. If you don't love what you are doing, I think it will show in the results of your work. And in coaching, you have to be willing to work long, hard hours. And I think I have done that."

What are your actual duties on the Mississippi State staff?
"I think one of the most common misperceptions in the south due to football being so big here is people want to look at basketball the same way they look at football. In football, you have offensive and defensive coordinators and the head coach sort of oversees everything. In basketball, the head coach will determine how you play offensively and defensively. I'll never forget something that Richard Williams told us when I was a G.A. He said that basketball is such a fast game that you don't have time to hold meetings to make decisions during a game. I completely agree with that. But, as an assistant coach, you try to have some influence. Each individual assistant has his own ideas and background. I have a very up-tempo offensive background. My dad's teams were always the highest scoring teams in the league he coached in. And, when I was a head coach my teams were the highest scoring teams in our league, as well.

"However, as an assistant coach, your biggest contributions on the court come from what you do in practice. I work with the guards when we break down in practice. Another way you contribute as an assistant coach is with your scouting of opponents. I really feel our assistant coaches take a lot of pride in preparing for our opponents. We don't leave any stone unturned.

"Your greatest impact, if you are a recruiter, is what you do in recruiting. Then, once the players are on campus, player development becomes the most important thing. I really enjoy the off-season when we have our individual workouts. I really take a lot of pride in helping the guys get better and improve their skills during the little time that the NCAA allows us with them."

How many hours does the NCAA allow you to work with the players during the off-season?
"We have two hours a week with each player. We used to have four players at a time, but they've changed it so that, beginning next fall, we can have as many players as we want. That is a good rule. You can now, basically, practice as a team for two hours (a week) next fall."

When you refer to scouting, is that where an individual coach scouts an upcoming opponent, breaks them down and then prepare a gameplan?
"Yes, that is what we do. Among the three assistant coaches, we alternate the scouting responsibilities. Whoever has the upcoming opponent will watch six or seven game tapes of them. Coach Stansbury also watches plenty of tape on every team. Then, we will put together a highlight video that we do on a digital editing system and show it to the players the night before the game. We also put together a written scouting report that we give to them the night before the game."

It appears that Coach Stansbury gives his assistant coaches a lot of responsibilities as well as a lot of leeway in your job.
"He's really good at giving us a lot of responsibility and then trusting us when we do the work. He is very good to work for."

You mentioned working long hours. As an assistant coach, what kind of hours do you work during the season?
"In-season, it's seven days a week. Except for Sunday, you are in the office early and go home late. And when you go home, you have to get on the phone and make recruiting calls. There is not much free time, particularly during the season. It is very time consuming, but at this level, almost every staff is very, very committed as far as time is concerned. If you aren't, then you won't be at this level very long."

What is it like for an assistant coach once the season is over? What does your job require you to do?
"When the season ends in March, we are still in a live recruiting period, so we still have about six weeks of recruiting left. April has probably become the busiest and, at times, the craziest month of the year, because we can contact juniors during that month. We can go to non-scholastic events on the weekend to evaluate, and during the week we do our face-to-face contacts with juniors. For the last four or five years, we have been able to contact juniors in April. We make our one call in March and actually make face-to-face contacts in April. If you are in a situation where you are still trying to sign guys who will be freshmen the following fall, it really becomes crazy. That means you are trying to sign guys for the current signing class and you are also trying to get face-to-face contacts with the juniors that you are recruiting. It's been a busy spring to say the least."

The spring recruiting period is now over. When do you go back on the road again?
"We go back out July 6th and the rest of July is an open recruiting period."

Since there are no high school games going on during the summer, what do you key on during that period?
"We have team camps and other camps that help us get guys on campus prior to the July recruiting period."

Is it difficult to get players on campus due to so many AAU events that seem to go on all the time?
"Yes, it is more difficult than you would think. You would think that during the summer you could get almost anybody you want to on campus, but they spend so much time away from home when they go to the AAU tournaments."

When you go to an AAU event for recruiting purposes, is that an all day thing?
"Yes it is. Most of them start at about 8 in the morning and don't end until 10, 11 or midnight. You might have a chance to go get something to eat at lunch and dinner, but it's an all day affair. Since the month of July is an evaluation-only recruiting period, it is almost 100% like that during that month."

Since the AAU tournaments have various games going on at the same time, do you and the rest of the MSU coaches go to separate games or try to go to the same game?
"We try to mix it up. Coach Kirby and I will sometimes divide up and sometimes we will be together. But the key is getting Coach Stansbury in the right spot at the right time so the recruits can see the head coach."

As far as recruiting is concerned, how much input do the assistant coaches have in regard to whether a player is, ultimately, recruited by Mississippi State?
"Obviously, Coach Stansbury makes all the final decisions. He's the type who will get very involved in recruiting. He will go out and see the kids, too. But (Coach) Kirby and I will be out a little more. We try to see the kids and identify the ones who will fit in with us or meet our needs that particular year. Then, as a staff, we come together and Coach Stansbury listens to everybody's opinions. He'll then have the final say on whether we offer the kid a scholarship. What I like about Coach Stansbury is that we don't recruit a large volume of players. We narrow it down and try to put more attention on the kids that we are recruiting. That keeps us from spreading ourselves too thin."

Either I or one of the other recruiting guys at Scout.com has talked to every player that Mississippi State signed. You were mentioned by 5 of the 7 players as their primary recruiter. And this MSU class is ranked 6th in the nation by Scout.com. That is a pretty good number of signees for one coach to sign. How did you sign so many?
"Number 1, recruiting is a team effort. The assistant coach is making the phone calls and leading on the kid. As an assistant coach, you can't leave any stone unturned, and you have to find out quickly who is important in the decision process. The head coach has to also be involved in it, because he has to have a very good relationship with the recruit. And the program has to sell itself. Then, we try to outwork everybody. We try to show the recruit more attention than anybody else. The campus visit is also very important. Our players are so important on a visit. If they get a bad vibe from being around our players, then you have no chance to sign the kid.

"But the main reason we have been so successful lately is winning on the court. That opens up so many doors in recruiting and puts you in a better position with the recruits. It's so much easier to have a top 10 recruiting class after the success that we have had, than it would be if you were in a situation where you have been struggling. The winning that we have had the past few years has really helped our recruiting efforts significantly. Guys like Patterson, Gholar, Austin, Z (Zimmerman), Bowers, Ignerski, Roberts, Power, Frazier and Harp; they've had more to do with our recruiting success than anything that we could do as coaches. Winning on the court breeds more success."

I mentioned that you were the primary recruiter on five of the seven signees. Talk a little about each signee. What will each one bring to the MSU basketball program?
"The Delk twins (Richard and Reginald) have such a good bloodline. Their dad, Rickie Delk, was a great player. Tony Delk, their uncle, was a star at Kentucky and has had a long career in the NBA. They naturally have a very high basketball IQ and just know how to play the game. They have some other things that you can't teach as well. They are long and athletic and they are very versatile. Reginald can really shoot the ball and is more of a two-guard. Richard is more of a point guard because he is a great passer and a very unselfish player, probably too unselfish at times. They both will be guys who have the capacity to shoot a good three-point percentage, and they both will flourish in an up-tempo style of play. They should develop into good defensive players in time, and we are very excited about their potential. The key to their development, as it is with most young kids, is how quickly they develop strength. They both need to get in the weight room and add some strength in order to help next season.

"The greatest thing about Bernard Rimmer is his personal character. He is a high character kid who is also a big time athlete. He won the state high jump in high school. His athleticism and character adds up to give us a kid with a lot of potential. Sometimes you don't like talking about potential, but Bernard is such a good kid, and we believe that he will develop because he will follow all of the coaches' advice and listen to what the strength coach tells him. He really wants to be here. It was always his dream to play at Mississippi State. Now, he has worked himself into that type of a player. I don't know how much he will help as a freshman. That depends on how hard he works this summer to add some strength. If he works hard to develop his game, he has a chance to be really good down the line."

I've got a two-part question about signee Jamont Gordon. What does he bring to the team and how important was it to sign a guard like him after losing Monta Ellis to the NBA?
"It was very important that we signed Jamont. People may not realize this, but we've been recruiting him all year. We probably got back in heavy with him in November or December. We were always aware that we could lose Monta. That's why it was so important to sign Jamont.

"He is probably a small forward, but he is one of those guys that can play almost anywhere. He can play the point or the two. He could actually play the four due to being so physically tough. His versatility is something that we really like.

"The thing about Jamont is he is ready to play in this league as a freshman. He is 6-3, 6-4 and weighs about 225 and is a very strong, tough kid who loves to play defense. While he has a good body, he is also a mentally tough kid. Then, add in the fact that he has played a year at Oak Hill, a place that has the best high school program in the country. Playing for them is almost like playing a freshman year at college. He is not only a guy that we expect to play next year, but produce, as well."

There has been some talk that his outside shot is a concern. You've seen him play. What is your opinion?
"The rap on him is his outside shot is his weakness, but he shoots it better than most people think. He'll need to continue working on it, though. If he does that, then he will be even more of an offensive threat."

The last of the five signees is Monta Ellis. Obviously, he is headed to the NBA. What kind of impact does losing him have on the MSU basketball program?
"The impact is actually two-fold. Number 1, we are not going to have Monta for next year. That makes us really young and inexperienced in the backcourt. Of course, he would have been a freshman, too, but he was so talented that he would have been as talented as any player in the league, even as a freshman. Number 2, it affected us this year because we told him three years ago that we wouldn't recruit any guards, which left it open for him to play as a freshman. We weren't just going to tell him that, but show it as well. So, we didn't sign a lot of depth at the guard position in the last few years because we were going to count on Monta, who was very, very capable of playing as a freshman. That ended up hurting us this year because when Frazier broke his foot, we weren't real deep in the backcourt. But, our upholding our word was one of the main reasons he committed to us.

"The tough thing with Monta is the timing of it all regarding high school guards going straight to the NBA. We got smart with the big guys. We didn't recruit Al Jefferson and that turned out to be a good move. But when we started recruiting Monta, no one dreamed that a guard would go straight to the NBA out of high school. Then, last year, Telfair went to the NBA. That threw up a red flag. Since I was recruiting Monta last summer, I was at every one of his games in July. I knew there was a serious problem when the guys started coming to watch him on a regular basis with an NBA logo on their shirt."

What does signee Vernon Goodridge bring to the table?
"Vernon is very athletic for his size. He has a great body and frame. He is probably the top shot blocker in the entire class of 2005. You just don't find big guys with his kind of athleticism. He has a lot of potential. While it's a bigger adjustment for big guys than it is with guards, if he can make that adjustment, then he can really contribute. Coach Stansbury has seen him more than anybody and he is really excited about his potential."

How does he compare to another big, athletic big man that played at MSU, Erick Dampier?
"He has some similarities to Damp, such as his ability to rebound and to block shots. However, he's different than Damp. He's more of a runner and jumper, but not the power type player Damp is."

What does his offensive game consist of?
"He's a great finisher around the basket. He can go up and dunk with authority. He's got a turnaround jumper and he has a jump hook. A lot of the so-called recruiting experts think he is behind offensively, but we think he is further along than most people think."

What do you think about the last signee, Jeremy Wise?
"After we lost Monta, it was very important to sign Jeremy, because he is a guy who can play either the one or the two. He can score from the point. And he really knows how to play the game. He sort of has an old school game. He can hit that 15' jumper that few kids can make any longer. He is also a capable three-point shooter. He just needs to add strength. He fits in the same mode as the rest of the kids that we signed. He is versatile, which allows him to play several different positions. And he is quick and athletic, and he knows how to win."

Going back to you, what is your long-term career goal?
"Like any assistant coach, my long-term goal is to be a head coach some day. My immediate goal is for us, as a team, to keep getting better and take it to a higher level than we have achieved up to this point."

You mentioned taking it to a higher level. What do you think the future of Mississippi State basketball can be now that Rick Stansbury has gotten the MSU program to the point where it is having top 5 recruiting classes?
"Although we will be very young next year, our immediate goal is still to make it the NCAA Tournament, which would be five in a row. Because we will be so young and inexperienced, that will be a very, very difficult challenge, to say the least.

"As for the future, I think the nucleus that we have brought in can continue to build on what we have done to this point, which is play for SEC championships every year and play in the NCAA Tournament. I also believe that they will help us to take it to the next level in the NCAA Tournament. I think the future is very bright for our program."

What will allow MSU to take it to that next level, the level of making it to the Sweet 16 on a regular basis?
"I think the reason why this particular recruiting class will help us in future NCAA Tournaments is because it is guard heavy. Something that has been a drawback for us in terms of advancing in the NCAA Tournament, from a personnel standpoint the last few years, is not having enough versatile guards that can put you on their backs and take you deep into the tournament. Don't get me wrong, we've had really good guards, but the key to advancing in the NCAA Tournament is having 3 or 4 guards who are versatile, guys like Timmy Bowers. If you look at the teams in the Final 4 of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, guards led every team. Then, you had North Carolina, which had all that NBA caliber talent. This recruiting class, in my opinion, has the versatility in the backcourt that you need; 3 or 4 Timmy Bowers-like kids."

You mentioned North Carolina's talent level and the fact that several of them were NBA type players. Do you feel MSU is starting to sign players of that caliber?
"MSU has been signing that caliber of a player for a good while now as evidenced by so many guys getting drafted in the last ten years. The only problem is that the three best signees never made it to campus. On paper, we have some guys on the team now who have the potential to play in the NBA. The key ingredient for a guy to play in the NBA is he has to have the athleticism to play on that level. We've had guys that have been close to making it. Guys like Zimmerman, who was defensive player of the year in the NBDL last year, and Timmy Bowers and even Mario are all close and I think some of them will eventually make it. We've also signed high school kids that wound up going pro. If they had come to college, even for one year, they would have eventually been first round draft selections. We've just been unfortunate because those guys were just a little too good straight out of high school.

"We definitely have some guys in our program right now who have that type of athletic ability though. It just depends on how hard they are willing to work. A guy like Charles Rhodes, will he be obsessive about it? Will he be willing to work 3 or 4 hours a day in the off-season to make himself into a player who could possibly play in the NBA? The guys you watch in the NBA at some point in their lives have been obsessive about developing their skills. You just don't go out and score the way Tim Duncan and Steve Nash do on natural ability alone. They have been in that gym working hard, day in and day out for years."

My final question: How much have the recent additions to the basketball facilities helped the program?
"The recent upgrade in our facilities has been a tremendous boost to our program. The new locker room and lounge area that were completed in December are second to none in quality and style. And the new scoreboard and jumbotron have made the atmosphere at the Hump as good as or better than that of any SEC arena. We keep telling our young guys that all of their new amenities were paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of the guys who came before them (along with the generosity of some very supportive alumni!), and now they have to uphold the tradition."


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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