Hermiston boys basketball coach Jake McElligot stood with his heels on the mid-court line Monday, arms folded across his Gonzaga sweatshirt, his whistle held with his teeth ready to blow. He was still as he watched his Bulldogs learn his dribble-drive offense.
Every now and then, he’d demonstrate what he wanted to see, how we wanted his offense run. When conditioning commenced, he had two words: Be first.
McElligot knows something about being first.
Last season, four years after taking control of a 2-21 basketball team in Irrigon, the Ione native lead the Knights to a 26-2 record and a state title.
His ultimate goal, however frequently it rings through the Dawghouse, is not being first, though.
“Everybody likes to win. For me, if I focus on winning, I’m doing a disservice to the program,” he said. “For me, winning is a by-product of doing a bunch of little things well. If I focus on winning, we kind of bypass the little things that do matter. Whether that’s getting good grades in the classroom, whether that’s cleaning up trash after practice, whether that’s boxing out and not allowing any offensive rebounds.
“(In Irrigon), all the focus was getting better each and every day,” McElligot said. “Would winning a state title be nice? Yeah. But again, that can’t be our focus just like winning isn’t our focus every day.”
McElligot was born in Ione and played basketball there before attending Gonzaga University in Spokane. There, he helped current Hermiston assistant Dennis Stefani coach girls seventh-grade AAU basketball, before moving to Irrigon to coach seventh-grade boys and eighth-grade girls basketball. In 2009, he took over as the boys varsity coach and turned around the program.
Last April, McElligot was hired as the Hermiston boys basketball coach. The decision to apply for the job was difficult, he said.
“I knew I wanted to coach at a bigger school eventually,” he said. “It was the next logical step.”
So the small-school, small-town guy took over a program that dwarfs his last stop, just because of the size difference between the schools.
More players, more jobs, more expectations are placed on a head coach at Hermiston than Irrigon just because of the size difference. McElligot recognizes that but isn’t daunted.
That’s why he has a staff, he said.
“I have great assistants to help me out with that,” he said. “Whether it’s Dennis, whether it’s Taylor Smith, whether it’s (Coach) Romero with the freshmen and youth development, They’ve been unbelievable helping me out so far.”
On the court, McElligot is a bit contradictory. He knows what he wants to accomplish, but he doesn’t always know how he’s going to get there.
His coaching style isn’t set in stone, he said. Sometimes he’s a yeller, sometimes he’s a quiet observer, sometimes he’s both, sometimes he’s neither. It’s all a function of the players and their personalities he has at the time.
Even his schemes change with personnel. In that sense, he’s a bit of a chameleon: He adapts and adjusts to the situation.
“It’s all about your personnel, your leadership, your basketball IQ, and I think the coaching staff can change from year to year and from program to program,” he said.
As far as the 2014-15 Hermiston boys basketball team is concerned, there are many adjustments and tweaks he will make up to and even into the season.
A large number of players are still playing football (but will definitely be back next week), and McElligot does not have a great idea of what the roster will look like when they return.
He knows two things, however.
“They’re gonna have a great attitude, and they’re gonna play hard every night,” he said. “I want the coaches that I coach against at the end of the game to say, ‘Man, you guys play hard.’ Win or lose, we’re gonna play hard. We’re gonna have a great attitude.”
At the first day of tryouts two weeks ago, McElligot stood in front of all the prospective players and laid out what he was looking for. He said he was looking for guys who go above and beyond what they were asked to do and recognized several players who did so in volunteering. He also mentioned — not by name, though — that some players skipped their shifts, saying he remembers the names of those guys.
He also talked about the classroom and how important to him it was. He again recognized players who have strong grades, bringing them in front of the group and applauding them.
In simple terms, he told the players what they could do to make the team and what they could do to get cut. He’s got a very simple way to be successful on the basketball court, and not one thing is focused on winning.
“If we get better today than we were yesterday, things are gonna go well and (winning is) gonna take care of itself,” he said.