JOLIET – With all of the success that Steve Brooks enjoyed during his 17-year coaching career at Indiana Wesleyan University, you’d think that he would have no real concerns about taking over as the women’s basketball coach at the University of St. Francis.
After all, he won two NAIA Division II championships, took teams to the NAIA national tournament for 14-straight seasons and posted a 469-133 record, making him fifth in career victories among active coaches in that division.
During a college career that also includes several seasons working with men’s teams, Brooks has learned some valuable lessons, like just because a past program has enjoyed a lot of success doesn’t ensure that a new staff can keep that going.
He takes over a program that Samantha Quigley Smith built into one of the nation’s best during her five years, as the Saints went 101-62, including a 62-7 mark the past two seasons when they made consecutive trips to the NAIA National Tournament. The 2016-17 team was top-ranked in the final NAIA D-II poll and finished 34-2 after losing in the semifinals.
“This is a different kind of opportunity for me,” Brooks said. “My wife, kids and I always lived in small communities but we’re empty-nesters now so this is a chance for us to do something a little bit different, but still be close to our kids and grandkids. The other programs that I’ve taken over struggled the year before, so it was kind of a building process, but this one is going to be a different challenge.
“Sam did a tremendous job of building the program, and I know what they accomplished a year ago and what it feels like to have a team that’s undefeated, since in 2007 we went 38-0. So I understand that pressure and what USF was able to accomplish last year is a pretty incredible thing. The task for us is going to be how are we going to sustain it and with who graduated and who’s staying and going, it will be a challenge, but I kind of like that battle.”
A one-year hiatus following his successful stint at Indiana Wesleyan not only convinced him that the coaching fire was still there, but also provided a chance to pick up some new ideas.
He spent time with then-Butler coach and friend Chris Holtmann, who now is the coach at Ohio State. Brooks was an assistant at Taylor University when Holtmann played there.
“During my time away from coaching, I have a lot of coaching friends, and they asked me if I’d come and watch a practice or a game and then sit down and talk,” Brooks said. “But while doing that, I decided that the flame is real and I still had the passion to coach. Also, I built a file full of ideas, things that I saw that convince me that I can do things better. If you’re going to try to stay the same, you’re in trouble, so you better be a learner. I love looking at the game and trying to see how this can apply to us and how can we use this.”
Like many successful coaches, Brooks feels blessed to have been around some outstanding individuals who have helped to shape his philosophy and approach to the game.
“I had the good fortune coming up of being surrounded by some amazing people,” Brooks said. “The head coach that I played for in college and was an assistant under for nine years, Paul Patterson, was a really good coach who won 734 games at Taylor University and is in the Indiana basketball hall of fame. Beside Chris and me, he also coached John Groce, who was at Illinois. Coach had a tremendous influence on all of us.
“And coach was really good friends with Don Meyer, who was an icon at Lipscomb and then went to Northern State, so I became friends with him, too, and he also had a major influence on my coaching. And I became good friends with Keith Freeman, who spent 18 years as the women’s coach at Valparaiso and now is the associate head coach at Wright State. He’ll challenge me and we kind of push each other a bit. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by people who have challenged and taught me, and I wouldn’t trade that, it’s part of who I am.”
While Brooks is understandably proud of his 2007 and 2013 national champions, his 2007 NAIA team being the first to go undefeated, an NAIA record 56-consecutive wins from 2006-2008 and a number-one ranking for 37 straight weeks, another achievement that he is thrilled about was having a 100 percent graduation rate for four-year players in his program.
“I’m really big on the process, to come in and do things a little better than you did yesterday,” Brooks said. “Never one time did we set a goal of getting to the Final Four. We really didn’t want to talk about anything other than what we were doing today, and the winning and losing are just byproducts of what you do today.
“I’m thrilled to be back in it and to be challenged each day, and it is a challenge. Chemistry is big and Sam had incredible chemistry on her teams and that’s something that we’re going to have to re-establish. And I want to try to make the transition as smooth as possible. Our kids need to enjoy what they’ve accomplished, but also to understand that this is a new year so they’re going to create their own memory.”