A lot of guts, but little glory for managers

It’s early mornings and late nights for the seven student managers.

Zach Eisendrath

Bryan Bender practically lives at Williams Arena. He even admits to sleeping at The Barn on a few occasions.

Bender, 20, is one of seven student managers employed by the Minnesota men’s basketball team that makes a habit of early mornings and late nights in order to ensure things run as smoothly as possible for Gophers coaches and players at all times.

While they receive little recognition for accomplishing not-so-prestigious tasks such as doing players’ laundry, handing out water and towels during games and packing suitcases for road trips, student managers play a critical role in making sure a basketball team runs efficiently and effectively, first-year Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said.

Smith said they allow him and his team to relax and focus solely on basketball, knowing that every minute detail has been taken care of.

“They probably have as tough a job as anybody,” the 56-year-old Smith said. “We could probably do without a couple players, but we couldn’t do without our managers.”

Long days, little pay

Ask anyone within the program and they will all tell you the same thing: Student managers are always the first to arrive to a team function and the last to leave.

On a typical day over the summer, Bender would arrive to Williams Arena at 5:30 a.m. and leave at 11 p.m. His workload each day started and ended with rebounding and passing basketballs to individual players. In between those duties, the junior sports management major was responsible for acclimating Smith and the new coaching staff to the University campus.

Managers are required to arrive at Williams Arena 45 minutes before daily practices. For a typical in-season practice, junior manager Nick Janasik, 21, who lives in Dinkytown, must wake up at 5:30 a.m. to fit a shower in before rushing to Williams Arena by 6:15 a.m. to set up drills before coaches and players arrive to the facility for 7 a.m. practice.

On game days, the tasks are not difficult, but they are time-consuming. Managers are required to arrive at Williams six hours before games to make sure game necessities – markers for the locker room whiteboard, towels and water, among other things – are available to both teams and that day’s three-person referee crew.

During games, viewers may notice a handful of young men dressed in suits and ties scrambling like a NASCAR pit crew throughout the 40 minute collegiate game. Those are the student managers setting up chairs and handing coaches their clipboards during timeouts, wiping slippery spots on the floor and giving players water – barely able to catch their breath in time to actually enjoy watching the game.

In addition to those tasks, even more is asked of managers on team road trips. When the Gophers arrived back to Williams Arena at 1:45 a.m. on Nov. 27 following Minnesota’s 75-61 loss to Florida State in Tallahassee, players and coaches headed home. Managers, however, had another hour and a half of work ahead of them. Sophomore Andre Phillips, 19, along with two other managers stayed at the arena unpacking the team’s luggage and doing laundry until 3:15 a.m., despite having classes early the next morning.

Being a student manager for the Minnesota men’s basketball team is a seven-day-a-week commitment, with few days off around the calendar year. The managers, many from other states in the Midwest, were required to stay in Minneapolis for a Thanksgiving day practice. The team also required the managers to stay in the Twin Cities for nearly all of winter break, including a Christmas day practice.

For the most part, managers receive little compensation for their efforts, other than catered meals with the team and a variety of team-licensed clothing. The athletic department has a manager fund which pays six of the managers based on how long they’ve worked for the program. Bender received the Paul Brown Manager Scholarship – awarded to one manager at the University – this year, but said he made only $450 his first semester as a manger.

Dealing with mistakes

All student managers make a mistake at some point, but it is how they respond after an occasional blunder that shows the character of the manager, Phillips said.

One manager quit in the middle of a game in 2005. He couldn’t find assistant coach Jim Molinari’s clipboard and was being screamed at by the coach. Unwilling to take the verbal abuse, the manager walked out of the arena and left the team for good.

“You have to be willing to accept the pressure. You are going to get yelled at, you are going to screw up, if you don’t Ö I couldn’t imagine someone not screwing up at some point,” Phillips said.

Some mistakes the managers make can be rather comical.

Among the many responsibilities on the road, including loading the team bus and holding on to team uniforms, it is the managers’ responsibilities to make sure all coaches and players are accounted for. On the way to the Donald L. Tucker Center before the Gophers’ game at Florida State, the managers miscounted the number of people on the team bus and forgot assistant coach Saul Smith at the hotel, forcing him to walk four blocks to the arena.

Gophers assistant coach Steve Goodson, who is in charge of the student managers, said mistakes are OK, so long as the team knows the managers are committed to their jobs.

“You are going into a family and people that need to trust you. You need to show you are doing it for the better of the group,” he said.

Why they do it

The men who take on this task do not take kindly to being referred to as “water boys” by their friends or being yelled at by players and coaches for making mistakes. But they put up with naysayers and pressure-packed moments because they believe their jobs are the equivalent to an internship which will help them achieve their ultimate goal of becoming basketball coaches themselves.

“I thought it was a great way to expand my knowledge of the game and also gain references and (start) relationships that I can build upon from here on out. You can never know enough in this industry,” Phillips said.

The seven managers do not have to look far to find someone who has prospered from being a manager. In fact, all they have to do is look down the end of their bench.

Goodson started by wiping floors and doing laundry for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. He is now an assistant basketball coach in one of the most prestigious conferences in all of college basketball, the Big Ten. 

Once a manager at Kentucky, Goodson landed his first coaching job this season when Smith asked him to leave Lexington after six years as a manager for Minneapolis.

Goodson, who was one of only two student managers hired out of 350 applicants when he applied his freshman year at Kentucky, said nothing can simulate the experience prospective coaches gain by being managers.

“You are in practice every day. You are in the locker room for the games. You learn the game from one of the best coaches in the country,” he said. “It’s a ladder, you take one step at a time and that’s what I’ve done.”

Part of the team

At Kentucky, Goodson said the managers lived with the players and had no choice but to consider one another family.

Although Minnesota players and managers do not live together, some have established strong bonds. Senior starting center Spencer Tollackson, 22, said he sometimes spends his free time on the weekends hanging out with a few of the team managers.

Tollackson said he doesn’t take for granted what the managers do to make his life easier.

“They do everything for us. They do anything we need,” Tollackson said. “They are definitely a huge part of this team. They don’t get enough credit.”

Goodson said Smith emphasizes to his team that managers are just as important as anyone else associated with the program.

“They are just as important on this basketball team as the players, as the coaches, as everybody. Coach Smith is very big on making everyone as important as the next person,” Goodson said. “Everyone from top to bottom, we are all in the same family.”