Most newly minted head coaches will admit that there is nothing to prepare a man for his first season as the boss.
No matter how much control he was given as an assistant. No matter how much his former head coach trusted him. That first season when every decision is his -- from starting lineup to letterhead design -- is daunting.
In normal circumstances, Steve Prohm would be able to find his way quietly. Murray, in the southwestern part of Kentucky on the edge of the Tennessee border, is home to a proud and successful program, but not exactly one brimming with the pressures of the national spotlight.
But this is no normal circumstance. Prohm is in charge of a team that is equal parts basketball darling and basketball lightning rod. Murray State is 18-0, one of just two undefeated teams left in the country and ranked 10th in the country.
Plenty of people love the plucky Racers, who have fitted themselves with a Cinderella slipper before March. Plenty others wonder if Murray, playing in the lower-level Ohio Valley Conference, deserves the love and the ranking.
It’s all caused plenty of unexpected attention for a 36-year-old who cut his teeth as a manager at Alabama.
On Monday evening, Murray State was preparing for Wednesday's road game against rival Morehead State (last year’s NCAA darling) when Prohm found time between national interviews and his own radio show to answer a few questions.
O'Neil: You’re in your first season as a head coach, sitting at No. 10 in the country and undefeated. How do you handle the pressure?
Prohm: I feel like I’m a college football coach. You just want to get through Saturday and not lose a game so you’re still in the national championship discussion, because when you lose in college football, you’re done. We aren’t done if we lose, but everyone is having so much fun with this, you don’t want it to end. We had 9,000 people at our game the other night and we only have 14,000 in this town.
What’s helped me is Coach [Billy] Kennedy prepared me in so many ways to become a head coach. I was involved in every aspect of the program, so there’s nothing I wasn’t unprepared for. Well, some stuff. I mean, the New York Times is here today. I never thought in my wildest imagination that the New York Times would be in Murray, Ky., and ESPN was here earlier [for an all-access piece that will air on ESPNU].
O'Neil: Have you allowed yourself a moment to enjoy this?
Prohm: I was leaving the locker room the other day and as I was walking out the door, I said to one of my assistants, ‘Can you believe we’re 18-0?’ That night I said I was going to my buddy’s house and not watching any tape and he said there’s no way you’re holding yourself to that. But you have to do that. You have to have a balanced life. I learned that this year especially with Coach’s medical condition. [Kennedy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the fall.] That helped me refocus. I was really stressing out, wondering, ‘Am I going to be alright? Can I do a good job?’ And that made me realize that you work so hard to get an opportunity, you have to stop and enjoy it. You have to embrace it.
O'Neil: What has allowed your players to remain so grounded?
Prohm: One of the things we talk about is you don’t seek out honor. Honor finds you. That’s been one of our messages to the team. The other is eyes up. It comes from a Bible verse about when Gideon went to war. Basically it’s the idea that, do you want fighters who lap water up like a dog or someone slow and steady and focused?
These guys have been totally humble. Finally [on Monday] I slowed down to tell them congratulations on a couple of things. I mean, we’re ranked 10th in the coaches’ poll. But these guys aren’t slapping fives. They’re getting ready for Morehead State. So much of that goes to our seniors [Ivan Aska and Donte Poole]. When I took over this job, I thought we had two guys we could build the program around. They’ve handled this so well and the other guys have embraced their roles.
Our senior class was 72-14 before this season. I challenge them all the time because the four-year record for wins here is 99. I tell them, ‘That should be your goal.’
O'Neil: There has been a lot of conversations about whether your team would deserve an at-large bid should you not win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament or, if you go undefeated, what seed your team deserves. How do you answer those critics?
Prohm: We hear it. We know a lot of people don’t think we should be ranked 10th. But I say, if you want an idea of how good we are, call the coaches at Dayton, Southern Miss and Memphis. We’ve got three top-35 wins. We have seven road wins. I read that North Carolina hadn’t left home in 45 days.
Look, everyone has a story. One of our old assistants is at Missouri now and when people talk, they say, ‘Do they have the size?’ Our story is our conference. But all I know is the OVC has made the second round of the NCAA tournament two years running now. We’ve had two players [Kenneth Faried and Lester Hudson] in the NBA draft. I can sell the OVC. I don’t know if we are going to go undefeated. I do know we deserve an at-large bid.
O'Neil: So how is your team different than everyone else in the Top 25?
Prohm: We go to Morehead [on Wednesday]. I looked at the attendance. They had 3,300 the other night, so they’ll be ready for us. Kentucky fans, they love their basketball. That’s a long trip for us. It’s a five- or six-hour bus ride. Then we go to SIU-Edwardsville on Saturday. That’s another five-hour bus ride, so those are two back-to-back tough trips.
I was riding home the other night from Eastern Illinois. We were watching the highlights because we have satellite on the bus and I thought, we might be the only Top-25 team that can drive home and watch our highlights. Who else is on a bus?