Getting to Know: Quin Snyder

New Lakers assistant coach Quin Snyder joins us to detail his hoops past as both a player at Duke and coach for the last 17 years.

In the second of a series with Mike Brown's new assistant coaches (Getting to know: John Kuester), we get to know Quin Snyder, who played for three Duke Final Four teams in the late 1980's before starting his coaching career in 1994. Snyder most recently worked for Doug Collins and the Sixers.

MT: What’s your family background with sports, and how did you get first get involved with basketball in particular?
Snyder: My dad was a high school baseball coach who went to University of Washington on a basketball/baseball joint scholarship. He gravitated towards baseball and played in the minor leagues in the Giants’ organization, so I was always around sports growing up. I liked all sports, and when we moved to Mercer Island (in Washington state) and I started school there, my dad was coaching at a different school. But my high school coach has subsequently become the all-time winningest coach in the state of Washington, a Hall of Famer named Ed Pepple. We had a youth program that was pretty unique, in that all the high school players on freshman, JV and Varsity teams would coach a group of younger kids every Saturday. When I was in 4th grade, I was getting coached by some really good older players, so I just grew up around the game. I was lucky to be in that whole program, and I ended up quitting other sports to focus on basketball mainly because it was so well organized and I enjoyed it so much.

MT: Lest we forget now, since you’re more well known as a coach, allow me to list some of your old accolades as a player: you were the first McDonalds All-American in the history of Washington state, you were the twice the state’s player of the year and you lead Mercer Island to the 1985 state title. As such, you were a top national recruit. What made you choose Duke, where you’d go on to play in three Final Fours?
Snyder: The four schools that piqued my interest the most were Stanford, Arizona, Kansas and Duke, and it really came down to Duke and Kansas. As much as anything, the opportunity to go to a school that had the quality of education and also basketball was important to me. When I went there, I hit if off with a lot of the guys on the team. It was very easy … Danny Ferry* happened to be there on the same weekend I was there, and he and I were roommates. Other guys like Jay Bilas were there, and all those guys tricked me on my visit, and I committed. Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski was a huge, huge part of that. He built the program with his values, and the chance to play for him was one of the first connections, in addition to those players with whom I connected.
*At Duke, Ferry was a consensus All-American and Player of the Year who went on to become the No. 2 overall pick in the 1989 draft. He played 14 years in the NBA and is currently the VP of Basketball Ops for the Spurs.

MT: Seth Davis from CBS was on Jason Whitlock’s podcast recently describing Coach K before he really became the big national coaching star he is today. What are your specific recollections of Krzyzewski?
Snyder: It’s funny, I was at graduate school when Seth Davis was finishing up, and he was broadcasting the games on local cable access, so I came on and would do the color commentary with him. But yes, when I committed to Duke, we’d yet to establish that big time winning tradition, but the foundation was there. When we had our home visit, Coach K and one of his assistants (Bob Bender) came out to meet with my family and me, and he literally carried one of those old, huge reel-to-reel projectors in a big case. He parked it up in the overhead and brought it across the country to show us the film, and that made a huge impression. There’s a humility about him that’s been there as long as I’ve known him, and that’s one of the things that’s allowed him to have continued success, that he truly knows who he is. There’s a confidence that resonates, and I felt that. He was consistent throughout my career and has been throughout my subsequent relationship with him. There weren’t gold medals hanging around his neck and rings on his fingers yet, but he didn’t really need them, because I think he had the same belief in what he wanted to do. It was compelling. You wanted to follow that and believe in that, especially as a 17-, 18-year old kid, and he hasn’t stopped having that vision. I think he has more fun now than he did then, as he’s accomplished more and more. That said, I’m sure he still gets after his players behind closed doors.

MT: Some may remember the great Duke teams of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, et al more vividly, but your squad was pretty nice in the middle to late 80’s, going to three Final Fours in your four years.
Snyder: We had some pretty good teams, though we ended up losing in the title game my freshman year, which was our best team. Ferry was a freshman, Bilas (broadcasting for ESPN) was there, plus Tommy Amaker (coaching at Harvard) Johnny Dawkins (coaching at Stanford), a lot of guys that are still in the business. The teams I played on weren’t quite as talented as some of the teams that won it, but we were more talented than people thought, and we really played together. There was a lot of pride that we were building something, especially during my junior and senior years, as we’d gotten that far multiple teams. And we were gunning for North Carolina, too. You look at the two programs now, and people would say they’re on equal footing. That’s not how it used to be. I still remember the first time we beat them three times in one year, and that was a huge deal. We were staring up at these guys for the most part throughout my career, so that was always the benchmark.

MT: By the way … you’re now coaching with Carolina grad John Kuester and his college teammate Mitch Kupchak, who happens to be the Lakers’ GM and doesn’t really hide his disdain for the Blue Devils…
Snyder: Yeah, I think I’ll avoid that one. I don’t need to get the boss angry with me. I don’t wear Duke colors on my sleeve; I’ll be wearing purple.

MT: So you began your coaching career under Larry Brown with the L.A. Clippers for a season, but not before completing both law and business school at Duke, which may make you the most educated coach in the NBA? Did that emphasis on academics start with your parents?
Snyder: Both my parents were teachers, and I think I always just enjoyed learning. I have a curious mind, and I enjoyed being exposed to different types of things, so at the end of college I felt like I enjoyed school but hadn’t been a student, because you just can’t devote the same amount of time as some people can because you’re playing ball. I really was intellectually curious. But by the end of my first year I was confident that I didn’t want to practice law, so I applied to business school as you could do a joint degree program, and it was all a great experience. But to be honest, when I stopped playing basketball I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, and it was a good place to dig in on that and not have a lot of pressure to rush that process.

MT: We’ll jump back to Duke in a moment, but as a head coach of the Missouri Tigers (1999-2006), did you get a different kind of sense of how little college players are on campus, and how hard it is to compete with some students just there to study?
Snyder: When I was coaching at Missouri, and we graduated over 95% of our players, and we found that in order for guys to really have a chance to succeed, we had people doing stuff when we were on the road. In the Big 12, travel is not real easy, and we’d charter and fly back after the game so guys could be in school, but that’s asking a lot. You get back at 2 a.m. and have an 8 a.m. chemistry class, and I’m telling them as we break that they have to be in class no matter how tired they are. One way to think about it is that your identity, what you’re there for, is pretty clear: the sport. Guys have dreams of playing in the NBA and have aspirations for the money that comes with that, and when you’re walking around campus after beating Kansas, no one is telling you, ‘Great job on that math test.” You’re identified a certain way, and that’s naturally where’s you’re going to put a lot of your focus. Trying to spread yourself across a lot of different things is hard. But our guys found a way to work hard in school, and did really well, and they knew it was important to the culture of the program. Not everybody is going to embrace school, but when you’re there, you may as well get something out of it. It’s just a pragmatic argument, and that was a start.

MT: Let’s circle back to after you attended law/business school and decided to return to coaching. How did you navigate through those decisions?
Snyder: As much as anything, when I quit playing, I went back to graduate school and went down another path but I didn’t get (basketball) out of me. When I was a graduate assistant at Duke during school, there were a few opportunities in banking and law, with one in particular that I applied for and wanted more than anything. But I didn’t get it, and it kind of knocked me back and made me look at what I’d really enjoy doing. I had sent letters out to something like 315 programs, all the D1 teams in the country, hearing back from guys like Lute Olson and Mike Montgomery, and I’d decided that wherever it took me I’d go, and it happened to be Duke. It was significant for me, because I had loans coming after law school at Duke, which isn’t cheap, but decided that I wanted to return to basketball. At that point, I was fortunate that Mike Brey (the current coach at Notre Dame) had just left Duke to open an opportunity, but that was a tough time at Duke. We were 13-18 that year, but being there at the time when the program wasn’t at its strongest was important for me, because I don’t think a lot of people that worked there had that view. It helped me learn how to build something, what it takes from the ground up.

MT: Four years later, you were one of the proverbial “hot young assistants” when you took the Missouri job. Your recollections of getting there?
Snyder: Well if you go back to that first season at Duke, when we started the ACC 0-4 but managed to sneak into the tournament before losing in the first round. It was actually a really successful year for our talent level. That got things pushed in the right direction, and then a new recruiting class came to Duke and all of a sudden we were pretty good again. I got a chance to see that whole process, and then my last year there in 1999, we lost to UCONN in the title game. Afterwards, I had a few opportunities and really was in a position where I wanted a chance to be a head coach. As it turned out, I ended up taking the Missouri job without ever setting foot on campus. It was a big jump, and a really good jump, and the four years at Duke really prepared me in so many ways. I’ve now worked a number of places, but at that point, Duke was the only place I knew, so I really wanted a chance to step out of that and get an opportunity to experience different things.

MT: You were at Mizzou from 1999 to 2006 before moving on to coach the Austin Toros of the D-League, and last year in Philly. Of course the skill and talent level isn’t anywhere close when you watch games independently, but where do you come in on watching the NCAA vs. the NBA:
Snyder: I still have that debate with myself. When I left Missouri, I had to really, really think about whether or not I wanted to keep coaching. It took a while for me to process everything that had happened, and understand what the best fit would be if I wanted to stay involved. But I think they are just two very, very different games. For one, the impact of the differences in the rules is tremendous. You don’t always see it, but the subtleties of the way the rules impact the game are profound, with defensive rules, the distance of the three-point line and time out rules for advancing the ball. Also, as you were saying, players in the NBA … if they’re open … they usually make it. There’s a purity about that. NBA players are so, so good at what they do, and it’s fun to be around that and be part of that. At the same token, when that doesn’t happen in college, there’s an innocence to it. The old “college try,” as they say. And the atmosphere is great at certain college games, but it’s also great in NBA playoff games, maybe a different type. But it can be just a matter of personal preference.

MT: To state the obvious, college players are amateurs and NBA players – including a big uptick in international talent – are the best in the world, with the best of the college players now almost always leaving early to become pros. So it’s not bashing college hoops to say the pro game is better, is more advanced.
Snyder: Right, and to me, the shot clock is one of the biggest things. There are so many more plays in the NBA that players are able to make because of the shot clock. So in college, when the ball moves around the perimeter for 20 seconds, people sometimes think, ‘Wow, they’re so unselfish, this is a pure game’, when they’re just moving the ball sometimes just to move it. And then what they mistake for selfishness in the NBA is just talent. The best players get the ball at a certain spot and people have to figure out how to defend that. There’s another level to it as well, where the execution and talent are just superior in the NBA, but people in college have an emotional connection as much as anything.

MT: What was your experience in the D-League like, as the head coach of the Austin Torros from 2007-10?
Snyder: For me, the D-League was great. Whether you have HBO or no cable, paper towels instead of towels, commercial to charter planes … when you throw all that out you have games and a chance to coach players that want to get better. There are a ton of adjustments you have to make all the time because your roster is always changing. That whole experience was great. Furthermore, I was in San Antonio in for the summer, the preseason and the playoffs with a chance to learn from Gregg Popovich and his staff, and in between I had a chance to go to Austin and coach my team. Like the Lakers did with the D-Fenders, I had the opportunity to run the Spurs stuff with the Toros, and it was just a great learning experience. It was something that really helped me learn a lot about myself and what I really valued, and how much I enjoyed what I’m doing. Frankly, like we’ve talked about, it differentiated from college, and I liked the intellectual challenge.

MT: And working for Doug Collins with Philadelphia in what ended up being a season that really exceeded expectations?
Snyder: Having a chance be a part of a team that dramatically improved and made the playoffs after a tough start to the season was also really rewarding, and where that led me was to this opportunity with the Lakers. But with Doug, I knew him because his son Chris played at Duke, so I had a personal relationship with him prior to working for him. Aside from that, he really gave me a chance to do a lot as the year progressed with the Sixers. It was exciting to see his mind work and learn from a guy who has one of the great basketball minds, to see him keep getting more and more out of our group. The passion with which he approaches the game, and the job, is really unique, and to see someone be successful doing that while staying true to who he is was telling.

MT: Coach K, Popovich and Collins aren’t bad basketball minds from which to pick…
Snyder: Absolutely not. I’ve been very fortunate to train and work under some of the best, in places where you have so many opportunities to glean so many things, and you start to process them and hopefully begin to build a knowledge base that can help you be successful as a coach. I’ve had a chance to prepare, and that’s very important to me. I like working at it.

MT: How did your relationship with Mike Brown start to the point where you’re now on his staff with the Lakers?
Snyder: The year I left Missouri and started in the D-League (2006), I went to Johannesburg (South Africa) for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, and I was actually Mike’s assistant on our team. I started to get to know him then, and then Danny Ferry and (Brown) are very close from Cleveland (Ferry was the GM while Brown was there). So when we’d play Cleveland’s D-League team, I’d get to spend some time with Danny and Mike and establish enough familiarity that he was willing to look at me and give me a chance for this opportunity.

MT: And finally, your thoughts on coming to Los Angeles?
Snyder: It’s an unbelievably exciting opportunity on so many levels, and also challenging. The level of success that this team and the organization has had over time is unparalleled. Obviously you don’t replicate that success easily, but at the same time, that’s your goal. I’m ready for whatever type of role evolves for me, whether that’s helping the coaching staff, a player, or really anything; that’s the thing about coaching. Sometimes there are explicit duties and roles, and sometimes it’s just figuring out how you can help and enjoying that process, doing something for somebody that’s going to help the group. That’s how great teams are made, whether it’s the players doing that for each other without being asked, or anticipating something needing to be done before it happens. All those nuances I think are exciting. Furthermore, to have a chance to be around the best players there are, you realize that you can learn from them too. Players sometimes figure stuff out before coaches. Sometimes they don’t know what they did, but you can get it out of them by watching film and asking questions about it that’s more efficient that gives them an advantage. If we can notice that stuff and deduce it and be able to communicate it, it can help the group even more. To be able to be around guys that have the success they have is pretty cool.