Brielmaier learning from game’s top coaches in pursuit of goalby Javier Morales on Jul. 13, 2010, under Sports
LAS VEGAS — Bret Brielmaier sat at the end of San Antonio’s bench Monday afternoon at Thomas & Mack carrying a clipboard, watching intently to the development on the court between his Spurs and Minnesota in an NBA Summer League game.
San Antonio’s coach here, Mike Budenholzer, sat at the head of the bench on the other end, flanked by assistants other than Brielmaier, including the recognizable Jacque Vaughn from Kansas.
Brielmaier, the former UA walk-on, who occasionally played significant minutes for the Wildcats in his career from 2004-08, looked very much like a recent coach at Arizona who has influenced him a great deal. This coach is not Lute Olson or his good friend Josh Pastner, although Brielmaier credits each for helping him develop as a coach.
You remember Mike Dunlap? His one year in Tucson in 2008-09 was valuable because he worked around the clock with Russ Pennell to prevent the program from unraveling in the wake of Olson’s abrupt retirement. Dunlap sat at the end of the bench (a spot usually allocated for a team manager) holding a clipboard and binder, away from Pennell, assistant Matt Brase, and Brielmaier (who served as a graduate assistant that season).
Dunlap was accustomed to sitting in that spot as a Denver Nuggets assistant coach, and he believes he can teach more by being closer to the players.
“Coach Dunlap kind of ran the program a little bit when he was helping as an assistant, a little bit like a pro organization, so that helped,” Brielmaier said when asked how he is transitioning from college coaching to the pros.
The NBA coaching system is different from that in college because assistant coaches impact the development of personnel as much as or more than the figurehead head coaches.
Also, college coaches are more authoritarian than their professional counterparts. NBA coaching staffs run five deep, which makes the head coach more like a chairman of the board with most assistants being valuable board members. When Dunlap was hired by St. John’s coach Steve Lavin on June 15, Nuggets coach George Karl was quoted as saying that “there is no higher level of coaching ability than his.”
“Mike Dunlap absolutely elevates every player and team he comes into contact with,” Karl said in a St. John’s press release. “He is our guy. He will take you from good to great. Name any top-level, elite coach in the game – the only difference between Mike and them is their address.”
Learning Dunlap’s organizational skills, and on-the-floor coaching ability, is just one part of Brielmaier’s development as a coach. What Brielmaier is doing with San Antonio is similar to an aspiring doctor taking residency, or an apprentice learning his trade through first-hand experience.
The opportunity to coach with San Antonio came about with the assistance of Pastner, whose Texas roots helped pull some strings to get Brielmaier a spot on Gregg Popovich’s staff. Brielmaier is not listed as a Spurs assistant, nor is his name on the team’s directory. He was hired under the title of “workout coach.” What exactly is a workout coach?
“You have a hand in the development of players, working the guys out before and practice, and also during it,” Brielmaier said.
More than anything, Brielmaier has been like a fly on the wall at Popovich’s team meetings, practices and film sessions, only unlike the proverbial fly, he interacts with the Spurs. Following San Antonio’s game Monday, Brielmeier walked up the ramp to the locker room, receiving a pat on the back from at least three of the players as they ran past him.
He certainly is not foreign to them, sitting at the end of the bench.
“In my mind, this is the best way to grow as a coach and develop philosophies,” Brielmaier said of his role with the Spurs. “Every aspect of learning how to coach, every facet, helps me develop not only as a coach, but also in dealing with personalities and things like that.”
When Dunlap coached at Arizona, he usually spent 16 to 18 hours a day focusing on the Wildcats, with practice, meetings and film sessions. Brielmaier is living that life now with the Spurs. When asked what his typical day entails, Brielmaier sighed with a laugh before answering.
“Let’s see, in the office early,” Brielmaier started. “We’re always on the floor with them before practice working on their skills. In practice I am involved in drills and coaching. You imagine it, we’re doing it. Then there’s late nights in the office watching film, breaking down teams.”
Moreover, this daily experience is with one of basketball’s winningest coaches — Popovich — who is a four-time NBA championship coach. When Brielmaier looks at Popovich, he can see a vision of himself. When he was 36, Popovich took the 1985-1986 season off from coaching at Pomona-Pitzer in Claremont, Calif., to become a volunteer assistant at the University of Kansas, where he studied under Larry Brown. He returned to Pomona-Pitzer and resumed his duties as head coach the following season.
Brielmaier, 24, was born that same season when Popovich learned his trade from Brown.
“Seeing a coach like Coach Popovich deal with players in film sessions and all sorts of things like that and combining that with Coach Olson, it will be instrumental for me,” Brielmaier said.
Brielmaier is from Mankato, Minn., which is roughly 80 miles from Minneapolis, where Olson attended college at Augsburg. Olson also started his high school coaching career in Minnesota. Brielmaier, however, said Olson’s Minnesota past did not spark his interest in playing for the former Arizona coach.
He was enamored with the Arizona program that Olson built and wanted to be part of the system. His desire to coach actually began when he played under Dan Ireland at Loyola High School in Mankato.
“The first time I got the opportunity to speak with Coach Olson (about walking on), I knew it was the right place for me and that I would be taken care of,” Brielmaier said. “I have really been passionate about the game for a long time and have worked with some unbelievable coaches whether it be Josh Pastner, Lute Olson, Coach Dunlap, and even my high school coach Dan Ireland.
“Everyone has been a big mentor for me, helping my love of the game even more.”
Those “countless” hours of film sessions, as Brielmaier calls it, in a week during the regular season are never cumbersome. He is also not placing pressure on himself to immediately be a college assistant coach and start climbing the ladder.
“Basically, right now the most important thing in my development is learning as much as possible from this experience with the Spurs,” he said. “I’ll come back next year and take it from there. The biggest thing is I get to work with some of the best players in the world and I’m learning from some of the greatest coaches.
“The more interaction, the more I grow, the more I learn, and that will help me be more successful.”