REGGIE HAYES: Coach-player bond remains as Cameron Newbauer, Darby Maggard move on
Cameron Newbauer sits in the women’s basketball head coach’s office at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in late March, talking with guard Darby Maggard.
He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s 45 minutes away from a call that will rock his world.
Newbauer takes pride in developing strong relationships with his players, mentoring them, befriending them, running the extra mile beyond simply coaching them. He has a knack for establishing a level of trust that carries onto the court. It leads to strong bonds. It leads to tons of wins.
Maggard holds a special place with Newbauer. They’re both from the same Indiana court, so to speak. Newbauer is a Leo native. Maggard, from Larwill, played at Canterbury High School, ending every season in a state championship game. Maggard was Newbauer’s first Indiana recruit. He’d known her and her family for years.
She’s a heck of a player and shooter, the NCAA’s best from three-point range last season. But there’s more.
“She’s like my daughter, man,” Newbauer said.
On this day, Newbauer is meeting with Maggard as part of postseason coach-player meetings. It’s a review, a look ahead, a challenge, the usual stuff. But this one’s different. Rumors are swirling that the University of Florida women’s program is pursuing Newbauer, considering making him their head coach.
Maggard lives life as a straight shooter.
“Hey, the team is kind of freaking out,” Maggard says. “Some people are saying Florida might want you.”
Newbauer doesn’t hesitate. He tells her he has talked to Florida officials. They haven’t yet offered him the job. He reemphasizes his love for Belmont, his players, the impressive program they’ve built together. Leaving Belmont would be the toughest decision of his career.
“He’s a really relational coach, and he cares about each and every one of us,” Maggard said. “I tried to take myself out of the equation.”
Maggard drew back and fired.
“If you have an opportunity to take this job and you don’t do it, you’ll be going against everything you told us,” Maggard says. “You always tell us to chase our dreams. Go after everything in life with reckless abandon. Just know God’s got your back.”
“I would be so proud to know you were my coach,” Maggard says, before leaving.
Forty-five minutes later, the phone rings. It’s Florida, with the job offer. Newbauer accepts.
The Newbauer-Maggard exchange, recollected by them for The News-Sentinel, proved a pivot point to big changes for both.
Newbauer is now a coach at the highest level, at a university where people expect to be in the national championship hunt.
Maggard, after some soul-searching about whether to stay after Newbauer’s departure, is diving into her junior year at Belmont and learning a fresh approach with new coach Bart Brooks.
“Saying goodbye was the hardest part,” Newbauer said. “I’m such a relationship person. To leave such an incredible place and culture and an incredible group of young women – to leave them was the hardest thing.”
Newbauer, 39, didn’t need Maggard’s words to know he should take the Florida job when it was offered after last season, although he appreciated those words more than Maggard knows.
“As coaches, you think your job is to have an impact on these kids,” Newbauer said. “It’s amazing how much they can impact you to be even better.”
Newbauer’s move was a whirlwind, flying to Florida, moving his wife Sarah and their two daughters to Gainesville, settling into a new environment. He forged ahead with devising a game plan for offseason workouts, hiring a coaching staff, hitting the recruiting trail. He has a lot to sell now, including top-notch facilities and support, and he reminds recruits they’re likely to be “punched in the face by sunshine” every day.
It’s a job Newbauer has been preparing for his entire adult life. After graduating from IPFW in 2001, Newbauer worked with the Siena men’s team, the Georgia men’s and women’s team and the Louisville women’s team before he landed his first head coaching job at Belmont in 2013.
Newbauer was 79-50 at Belmont, including 27-6 last season after going undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference. He led the team to consecutive NCAA Tournament berths.
“There are still times I almost don’t fathom what’s going on,” Newbauer said. “I’m just an Indiana kid from Leo. I had dreams of playing big-time basketball and never came close. I had dreams of becoming a coach, and I’ve just been amazingly blessed to go where I’ve gone, meeting the people I’ve met.”
Part of Newbauer’s success is the fact he refuses to become hardened by the grind of the job. He still embraces each day with enthusiasm. He’s still that kid from Leo.
“Steve Spurrier has an office here. He’s called me multiple times,” Newbauer said. “The head ball coach. Can you believe that?”
Newbauer has spent much of his first stretch on the job trying to develop the trust and community needed to succeed with the Florida players who are returning.
The Gators were 15-16 last season in the 10th season under coach Amanda Butler. Butler was 190-136 during her tenure, with four NCAA Tournament appearances.
“It takes time to heal from the pain of the staff they chose not being here,” Newbauer said. “You have to engage and create new relationships. It’s an ever-moving process where we have to remind ourselves the most-important recruits are the ones on campus.”
For players who stayed at Florida, there is a natural tendency to wonder if they still fit in. Will the new coach value their skills? Will their careers be drastically altered?
Newbauer recognizes that uncertainty and has tried to deal with it up front.
“It’s about getting to know them and them getting to know us and being on the same page,” Newbauer said. “We’re all here for the same reasons. It doesn’t matter how we got here, there’s something special to pursue, something bigger than ourselves.”
Newbauer believes in the power of team chemistry, and knows that first season at a new place can be the most challenging. He has set high, long-term goals of matching the championship standards of all sports at Florida. The first step is relational.
“A player-coach bond is really special,” he said. “They were very tight with the last staff. That doesn’t mean they can’t be tight with us. Those relationships take time.”
CHOOSING TO STAY
Once Newbauer accepted the Florida position, Maggard faced a similar decision as the players sitting in Gainesville. Should she stay or should she go?
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the player-coach relationship at the college level. Usually, it’s a deciding factor for the player in choosing a college.
Maggard thrived under Newbauer – they shared an understanding of his system, his approach, his vision – and now she’d be taxed with starting fresh. That would be true whether she stayed at Belmont or went elsewhere.
She came home and took about a month to decide.
“It took a long time but ultimately the decision came down to I felt like Belmont was where I needed to be and where God still has work for me to do,” Maggard said. “A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t go. Belmont is really a special place and, ultimately, you have to go where your heart is and where you feel like you still have a purpose to be fulfilled.”
Maggard had a tremendous sophomore season, averaging 14.5 points and 5.7 assists per game last season. She hit 116 of 238 three-point shots (.487). Her percentage ranked first in NCAA Division I, her made threes ranked fourth.
As close as Maggard is to Newbauer, she is excited about the next step with Brooks, who had been with DePaul as an assistant the last 11 years.
“Coach Bart, he’s a real great dude, a really great guy,” Maggard said. “I have 100 percent confidence in his ability to lead the program to new heights and where we’re going. We’re excited about where we’re going.”
Maggard’s enthusiasm is a plus. She’s always been the type to seize coaching and be a leader on the court. But she also knows that no transition to a head coach is without a challenge.
“Switching coaches for me is not going to be easy,” she said. “It’s going to be hard. But a lot of growth can happen out of it. I’m excited to see how it goes and see what we’re made of.”
Newbauer and Maggard will remain friends in the years ahead. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Maggard on Newbauer’s coaching staff someday after her playing career is over.
With her personality, background and drive, she’s destined to coach.
Newbauer can’t say enough about how he touched he was by Maggard’s encouragement to chase his dreams. It was, after all, the advice he’d been giving her all along.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.