On the grind: The life of a college basketball coach

Brennan Angel

With his team losing early in a game it had to win, Kevin Bromley clapped his hands angrily and signaled for a timeout.

An animated talk in the huddle ensued, with Bromley not targeting one specific player, but using aggressive hand motions to match his lecture on defensive effort. What followed was Bromley’s Cal Poly men’s basketball team scoring 24 of the game’s next 31 points on the way to an 89-80 home win over UC Irvine on Feb. 10.

“To be honest, practice is a lot more enjoyable than games,” Bromley said a few days earlier. “You plan in practice and you have more control over it. It’s like a lesson plan. In a game, it’s test night. How do you feel when you take a test every time? It’s like you enjoy going to class, but the test. Whatever you did prior for that test, get a good night’s rest and go into it and see what happens.”

Behind Bromley’s intense stare, clean-cut look and strictly-business persona is a coach who cares deeply for his players and possesses a genuine love for the history and integrity of the game.

As a guard for Colorado State in the early 1980s, Bromley had the opportunity to play against future NBA greats such as Tom Chambers, Danny Ainge, Michael Cage, Xavier McDaniel and others.

Largely because of his playing days, Bromley is a fierce competitor and often works on game plans long past midnight.

“In your mind, it doesn’t shut off,” Bromley said of coaching. “You’re married to the game. Even if you have a little downtime, I’m thinking about ways to beat Long Beach State. It never leaves you during the season. Mentally, it’s 24/7. Like last night, I watched the Long Beach State-Pacific game – it was on at 1 o’clock in the morning. I’m up ’till 3 o’clock watching the game.”

That’s the calm after the storm.

Against UC Irvine on Feb. 10, the lights are bright and the action is live.

Nothing is scripted.

Before the game, Bromley shakes hands with three officials.

Then come the starting lineups. But while music blares and loud introductions send shockwaves through Mott Gym, Bromley is calm, collected and focused on his players.

When the last starter, Trae Clark, is introduced, Bromley leans close to the sophomore point guard and tells him something. Clark laughs and high-fives his teammates before running onto the floor to play one of his finest games of the season, dishing out eight assists.

Both coaches begin the game in their seats on the bench, watching the early action unfold.

That doesn’t last long.

After Cal Poly falls into a 7-1 deficit, Bromley becomes vocal. When UC Irvine’s lead reaches 10-3, a timeout is called.

But even after his team grabs a 27-17 lead, Bromley still finds room for advice, talking to and patting sophomore point guard Chaz Thomas on the back during a substitution.

About eight minutes before halftime, a call is made that Bromley disagrees with. He articulates his viewpoint close to the ear of the referee, who cannot respond verbally because he has a whistle in his mouth. The referee nods and eventually jogs toward the other end of the court.

UC Irvine has narrowed Cal Poly’s lead to six points. Arms folded, Bromley begins to pace the sideline.

Once the lead is cut to four, Bromley calls another timeout and lets his players have it in the huddle.

The team responds by doubling its advantage, going to halftime up 50-42.

Coming out of the locker room with the eight-point lead, Bromley clasps his hands and looks at the scoreboard as if for reassurance that his team is in front.

The Mustangs begin to pull away from the Anteaters.

After junior shooting guard Dawin Whiten makes a spectacular reverse layup to give Cal Poly a nine-point cushion, the crowd goes wild. But Bromley has no time to celebrate. He quickly throws his fists into the air to signify a new defensive set while his players get back on defense.

After another controversial call midway through the second half, Bromley approaches the referee to argue, but not in a loud, extroverted manner. An assistant helps him in his cause, to no avail.

Cal Poly’s lead grows to as many as 14 points on the way to the team’s sixth win in its last eight games.

Afterward, players praised Bromley for his knowledge, communication skills and method of coaching.

“He’s very passionate,” Whiten said. “His face turns red when he’s running up and down the sideline trying to get us to play hard because he knows that we’re capable of playing well, but we don’t always do that all the time. His job is pretty difficult but he does it well, better than anybody I’ve played with in a long time.”

Senior forward Derek Stockalper agreed.

“Coach called that timeout and kind of got in our faces a little bit and made sure we stepped up our defensive effort,” Stockalper said.

Bromley’s own efforts and eventual immersion in basketball began like many children who grow up around the sport.

“I loved the game when I was real young,” he said. “We had a basketball court in the back. My dad showed me how to shoot. Started at a young age and just fell in love with the game.”

Then the competitiveness kicked in.

“When you start getting better than others at something,” Bromley said, “it gives you self-esteem. When you find someone who can beat you, the competitive part of you takes over. I’m a competitive son of a gun. I hate losing.”

Bromley did not always know he wanted to become a coach, but started giving it serious thought once he decided to pursue a background in education.

“I loved kids,” he said. “My undergraduate (degree) was in physical education, then I got a master’s degree in education administration. I just pictured myself as a physical education teacher working with kids and somehow tied to sports because I love sports.”

Bromley wears the teaching mindset on his sleeve, always imparting advice to his players – when necessary – during practice in an empty gym or a hectic conference tournament game in front of thousands of fans.

“One part that’s really neat is seeing young men grow and mature,” he said. “I love that part, and hoping you have some sort of play in that. You have some positive influence. The few things that you say they grasp a hold of, and they call you back when they’re 35 years old and say, ‘coach, I appreciated that.’ The most enjoyable (part) is getting those guys to work together and trying to find out what their strengths are, and then play to those strengths and it all comes together.”

As a Colorado native, Bromley grew up cheering for the Denver Rockets – who became the Nuggets – when the franchise was part of the American Basketball Association. He loved the red, white and blue ball and admired players such as David Thompson and Maurice Lucas.

“That’s the most influential time,” Bromley said.

Bromley came to Cal Poly in 1995 under then-head coach Jeff Schneider, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., running a variety of basketball camps and clinics.

Since becoming the Mustangs’ head coach in 2000, Bromley said he has forged friendships with mentors and rivals alike, including current Division I skippers Greg Graham (Boise State), Bob Williams (UC Santa Barbara) and Kalvin Sampson (Indiana).

When he was young, Bromley would write letters to Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who wrote him back.

“I always thought (Brown) was great for the game, college and pro,” Bromley said.

Bromley is now a mentor himself – to 16 players and three assistant coaches.

And a key cog in any intercollegiate athletics program is recruiting, an area in which Bromley has been able to apply those mentoring skills.

Most of the time, it works.

But like any organization, sometimes it doesn’t.

At the end of the five-win, 22-loss 2004-05 season, four players left the program before graduation. One (Lew Finnegan) transferred closer to home on the East Coast and now plays at Bentley College, a Division II school in Massachusetts. Another (Phil Johnson) retired because of chronic back injuries.

The reasons the other two – starting guards Kameron Gray and Fernando Sampson – departed are more complicated.

Gray, a transfer from Chabot College, was one of the most promising sophomore point guards in the nation. He helped engineer upset road wins at Cal and USC in his first year on campus (2003-04).

But he was dismissed from the program in April 2005 for repeated academic problems.

“With Kameron, he was an unbelievable young man,” Bromley said. “(He) just didn’t want to go to school.”

After a junior season in which he started 14 of the 16 games he played, Sampson opted to leave school and likely joined his family’s construction business, Bromley said.

“Fernando comes from a great family,” Bromley said. “He started off great. I think he probably just lost his focus. Maybe it wasn’t a priority. His priorities changed a little bit, so who do you blame about that? When priorities change, you can’t do much about it. Basketball wasn’t what he thought it’d be. He lost his love for the game. He’s probably working for his dad right now. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Gray, meanwhile, has gone on to become the starting point guard for smaller Oklahoma City University, which boasts four NAIA titles. He leads the 29-0 Stars in minutes played, assists and steals.

It is tough, Bromley said, to get an exact reading on every recruit’s personality and set of goals when they are 17 or 18 years old.

“You can make some recruiting mistakes,” Bromley said. “The mistakes are generally made because (the NCAA) limits the amount of time you can contact these young men, whether it’s phone calls, finding out about them. Sometimes you’re going to make some mistakes.

“Any profession – how many people get fired? ‘You’re just not quite the fit for our company.’ It’s kind of like that. It’s a business a little bit. You get your employees in here and hopefully you see that they’re sold on you and the product and the company they’re working for, and they’re going to work hard. That’s probably what most of the mistakes come down to – is people don’t want to work hard and cut corners. You can’t do it.”

Despite the challenges of recruiting, Bromley does not see it as a chore or undesirable undertaking.

“It’s not too bad,” he said. “You’re selling yourself, which is enjoyable. I think Cal Poly’s a great situation. It just gets better and better. It’s come a long way since I’ve been here. That part’s exciting. The athletic department continues to grow, maybe not as fast as some people would like to see it, but I think we’re doing it the right way. We’re not sacrificing the ethics or integrity of it.”

And despite the workaholic nature of his chosen profession, it is just that to Bromley – a chosen profession.

“It’s therapeutic for me,” he said. “If I feel overwhelmed or stressed out or whatever, I get a ball and go into the gym and just shoot. Things become clear for me. I’m sure it’s no different than an artist or someone who plays a musical instrument. It’s their therapy.”

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