How to hire a coach

Five years ago when athletic director Tom Burman was hired to guide Portland State athletics, every program had a losing record except for football. The soccer team scored five goals all season.

Two of Burman’s initial hires, former soccer head coach Tara Erickson and former men’s basketball head coach Heath Schroyer, made an immediate impact. Both coaches won Big Sky regular season titles by the end of their time at PSU. With the wins came a change to the culture of the athletic department.

The desperate times gradually gave way to successes, including three straight Big Sky golf championships and regular season championships in soccer and basketball this year.

Now Burman is at the helm of another period of transition. In the past year Burman has replaced the men’s and women’s basketball coaches as well as the head soccer coach. He must now start the search for a new softball coach to replace Teri Mariani, who is the latest to leave PSU. Mariani ended her 29-year career just this month, though Burman hopes to keep her “in the fold” for the foreseeable future. Now the longest tenured coach is Tim Walsh, who has helmed the football program for the last 13 years.

“Transition is part of athletics,” Burman said. “But I don’t like losing my coaches.”

Even so, Burman has filled each vacancy with generally young, passionate coaches who he feels should flourish in Portland State’s environment and who share his vision of turning PSU into the premier sports destination in the Big Sky.

“In each year I hope PSU has three or four conference champs,” he said. “I think we’re one or two years away from that goal.”

Ultimately, the now-veteran athletics director understands its up to the coaches he hires to get the school to that point. Recruiting to Portland State can be a challenge considering its lack of facilities, budget and tradition, according to Burman. Coaches have to sell the city of Portland, the easiest sell in the Big Sky, and their coaching philosophy to recruits.

“At PSU you have to be a great communicator,” he said. “Our coaches have to make up for those other liabilities.”

Ideally, coaches should have experience at both smaller and larger schools. Burman points to new hire Ken Bone, who takes over the men’s basketball program after a three-year assistant coaching stint with the University of Washington and 12 years as head coach at tiny Seattle-Pacific.

Despite all the seemingly positive hires in recent months, at some point Portland State athletics will need to grow exponentially or risk floundering. PSU currently operates with an approximately $8 million budget – one of the lowest in the Big Sky, Burman stresses that money isn’t everything and won’t always keep a coach at a school.

“Coaches want to compete at the highest level,” he said, adding that a school such as Portland State may never achieve a great level of stability in its athletic programs even with a bigger budget.

“You have to build championship programs first,” he said. “We had five sellouts last season in basketball. That’s five more than we’ve ever had before that.”

For now, PSU will continue to operate on a shoestring budget and take its chances in the Big Sky, a conference that is wide open every year.

“We are here to win,” Burman said. “There’s nothing like the smile on the kids’ faces when they accomplish something people thought was impossible.”