Q&A with Coach Jim Berkman: ‘I like to compete in whatever I’m doing’

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Jim Berkman is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA men’s lacrosse history.

Stop for a moment and think about that: all-time; history; no one has led a lacrosse team to more wins; ever.

Salisbury University’s 2015 season started two weeks ago. The Sea Gulls stomped in their home opener against Greensboro, but struggled to score and lost their second game on the road at Lynchburg. They’ll be back home this weekend for three games straight; anyone want to wager on whether Saturday’s loss will have them completely focused?

This season is Berkman’s 27th as head coach. In 26 years, he has won 10 National Championships. His record at SU: 440-45. In 2013, the coach was into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Salisbury has been in 26 consecutive NCAA tournaments since Berkman’s arrival and won national championships in 1994-95, 1999, 2003-05, 2007-08 and 2011-12. Salisbury has made 15 national championship game appearances under Berkman.

An All-American midfielder at St. Lawrence University in 1982, Berkman came to Salisbury after serving as the assistant lacrosse coach and head basketball and junior varsity soccer coach for three seasons at his alma mater. The Watertown, N.Y., native starred on the basketball team as well as the lacrosse squad at St. Lawrence, earning MVP honors in basketball as both a junior and senior. He also was selected to play in the prestigious North-South All-Star lacrosse game in 1982. Berkman was inducted into the St. Lawrence Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Because of the popular acclaim his interview with local basketball coach Butch Waller generated (the Salisbury Lions were so inspired by the interview that they created an award to honor Waller), we asked Coach Berkman’s longtime friend and Pinehurst-area neighbor Mike Dunn to interview the lacrosse great.

Q: Jim, you’ve spoken to me a lot over the years about your coach back in high school. You two still keep in touch, and I know he’s someone who means a lot to you. Tell me a more about him, and about how he influenced you.

A: His name is Lou Kibling, and he was my high school basketball coach.

But long before that, I went to a little neighborhood school – back in my hometown of Watertown, N.Y. When I was there in Kindergarten through fifth-grade, he was the physical education teacher. And, he ran one of the most elaborate intramural type programs that anyone had ever seen.

Once you got up into third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade, and you started getting into sports – he ran our basketball league after school. We had uniforms, he put the stats on the door, and that got me really into basketball.

So, even when I was still in elementary school, I’d be playing against his high school guys, and with guys from my neighborhood outdoors. I remember I was always playing with older guys

As a teacher, he was always very organized. We had great gym classes. So, that was my first association with him.

I was always one of those kids who loved to play everything. And, so he was a great early mentor. He always kept us busy after school. He’ll periodically send me a note or call.

He lives 20 miles from my hometown, so when I’m up there I’ll usually call or stop in. He’ll clip out newspaper articles from Upstate New York if somehow my name gets in come spring and lacrosse season.

But he’s always been really proud of me, being from the north side of my hometown. That’s more of the working-class section of town. He always respected a north-sider doing well.

One of the things that I think got me into coaching was that he would always be there an hour before practice, and I’d be there waiting for him. And after practice, for an hour, he’d let us stay there and shoot. I saw him work hard, and I saw that hard work pays off.

Q: It sounds like your old neighborhood was a pretty good setup for a kid who was into sports.

A: It was. I played basketball and hockey as a young kid. The Cooper Street school was, say, a half-mile from my house, and 300 yards from my house was a seminary for aspiring priests.

Well, the seminary had an outdoor hockey rink. Back then, it seemed like the winters were longer, and colder.

So, usually once we started getting ice in the first week of December, you know we’d have ice all the way ‘til the end of February.

And right after school, we’d go down there and we’d play hockey until it got dark. Then we’d go home and eat dinner, and come back and skate for two-and-a-half hours until my father would whistle at 8:15 to come home.

So I started gravitating toward hockey, while still playing church league basketball. But, when I got to 9th grade, and my high school had a hockey club, but not a hockey team, that’s when I started playing high school basketball for Coach Kibling.

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Q: It seems to me that a common thread between you and Coach Kibling is that you’re both gym rats. True?

A: I’ve always been, from day one, a kid who just loves to play. There were about eight to 12 kids in that area who were all about the same age. And we literally played until we heard a whistle. And we played everything.

When we’d get a big snowstorm, we’d have two games going. We’d have tackle football in the street. And/or we’d dig out the side of the snowbanks and we’d put water on them a little bit, and it would freeze and make a goal. And we played street hockey on the snowy/icy street.

We were playing 24/7, even in the winter.

Q: So, you’re coaching kids today who grew up in a completely different way, in terms of how they play and pursue the sports they love – lacrosse in this case. They’re coming up where most aspects of their games or teams or tournaments are pre-planned, and less spontaneous. You and I come from a time when, as you say, you just get the kids in your neighborhood together, and got a game going. No matter what the game was. Tell me about how those changes affect today’s student/athlete.

A: Obviously, everything is gravitating toward the club, and specialization. Kids today, they just play games. It’s all about the games and the tournaments and all of that kind of stuff.

But yet, the kids that we get who become great at Salisbury, and the kids who become, say, the great basketball players, are the ones who reinvent themselves a little bit.

And, in their sport, it’s not games that make you great. It’s that individual time that you work on your skill set that starts to separate you from the other players. When kids come to me and they talk about how they can get better, and I’ll say, “Well stop playing in so many tournaments.” And they’ll say, “What?”

Then I’ll use this example. I’ll say to them:

“Well, you’re going to go play in a tournament this weekend. You’ll play three games on Saturday, and then maybe two more on Sunday, and you’re a midfielder. Well, if it’s a really good weekend, in five games you might get 20 shots. Well, we can go out with a ball bucket with a hundred balls in it, and in 20 minutes you can shoot all of them. And, if we stay out there an hour, we can shoot 300 balls. Now if you do that on Saturday and Sunday, that’s 600-700 shots. Now, how do you think you’re going to become a better shooter?”

You know, what I’ve been proud of, and what we’ve accomplished at Salisbury I think a lot of times comes from the culture that we’ve tried to create. It inspires people that they’ve got to do some of those old-school things. They’ve got to go out there with their headphones on and they’ve got to throw the ball at our wall endless hours.

And they’ve got to go out there with a ball bucket and a buddy and shoot endless hours. Those are the things that let our guys develop skill sets that get them to the next level, and separate themselves from the competition.

Q: Speaking of separating themselves from the competition, you seem to do that pretty well. In 2001, you were inducted as a basketball and lacrosse player into the St. Lawrence University Hall of Fame. One of the lacrosse teams you played on at St. Lawrence was inducted into their Hall of Fame, too. And, in 2013, you were inducted, as a coach, into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. That’s three Hall of Fame appearances. For one person. Clearly, you didn’t set out with that as your goal. But just as clearly, it’s impressive.

A: Look, I don’t think anybody who’s been fortunate enough to be inducted into a Hall of Fame ever thinks about it along the way. But, as time went on and you’re fortunate enough to coach a lot of good players over the years, and you think back and realize that you had a pretty good career in both sports in college, and some people start to say to you that, you know, you might end up in the Hall of Fame?

Well, that’s pretty neat stuff. To be honest with you, there came a point in my lacrosse career when I had, when the teams had, done some really special things, that a lot of people were saying to me: “Why aren’t you in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame yet?”

Q: Yeah…myself included!

A: Well, the whole Lacrosse Hall of Fame changed a little bit too. As the sport grew and got bigger and more popular, U.S. Lacrosse, as an organization, got more committees together and they developed a set of criteria that they never used to have.

One of those criteria was that you had to be a head coach for 25 seasons. And, of course, your career had to have some special things to it also. And, we’d been able to accomplish a lot here at SU.

So, it happened. And it’s all because we’ve been able to have some great players, and teams, and support here from SU, and coaches. So, it’s quite an honor.

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Q: So, switching gears a little bit. A lot of people out here in the community who know we’re friends, they’re curious about you. They want some insight into you. They see your success as a coach, and your commitment and passion. But, they’re also intrigued to know what you’re really like, outside of lacrosse. One of my standard answers when I get asked that question, is this: “Jim’s not wired like the rest of us.” That’s how I see it anyway. You go hard at everything you do. You’ve got lots of passions away from lacrosse – you’re an avid local bike enthusiast, you love to ride your motorcycle, you play lots of golf, you try to get away and ski a few times a year, you love Colorado. But with everything, it’s always full speed ahead with you. Many of us aren’t like that. We’re not wired like that. Where’s that come from?

A: I never thought I was different. But, one of the things I realized about myself early on is that I had an uncanny ability to occupy myself with things that I like to do. And if those things result in developing a certain skill set in a certain sport?

You know, I enjoy doing that. I used to enjoy shooting endless hours against a wall.

When I was a little kid, I grew up basically as an only child. My closest sibling was 10 years older than me, then my other two siblings were 18 and 20 years older than me.

I could sit in the living room with my parents watching TV and I could entertain myself with 14 Matchbox cars for an hour-and-a-half, creating some fantasy world with just me and those cars.

You know, I could do that. But, I was always somebody who could do things by myself, without having to have everybody else in the social component motivate me to do things.

Q: So, if you take that as “your wiring” if you will, where does the intense competitiveness come from?

A: Well, I don’t know if I’m intensely competitive. I just like to do things. And I like to compete in whatever I’m doing. I don’t know where all of that came from. I was just always trying to prove I’m better. You know, after you do all of those things by yourself – like tossing a ball against a wall for hours and hours, or shooting all of those free throws – you want to go out there and show that your effort was paying off.

I wanted to out there and play basketball against guys who were 6 and 7 years older than me and prove that I could play with those guys.

Q: So, after all of this time – first as a successful athlete – and now, as a successful coach launching into yet another season, how do you keep yourself motivated? It’s a cold February night right now. It’s 6:30 p.m., and you’ve just taken off four layers of coaching gear that’s supposed to keep you as warm as possible on these cold early months of the season. You’ve got a big game coming up this weekend. It’s that time of year, when your focus sharpens. How do you keep at it after all this time?

A: Well, No. 1, I think all coaches have a responsibility to their players, and they all have responsibilities to their teams. And every team is different, and every team is new. So, it’s not like I’m doing the same thing.

I got a new group. And I have new challenges.

You know, a lot of people who know me know that I’m not the guy who lives for the game. I’m the guy who lives for practice. I live to get to practice early today to tell his eight attackmen that this is what we’re going to do to make them better shooters. I’m going to get out there early to get them some individual coaching time, to try and make them better.

To see a kid get better, you get a good feeling about that. I think that it’s the pushing and prodding, the extra coaching, the motivating that goes on. That’s what gets me going, to see one of the kids get better from putting in the extra effort — to see that improvement.

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Q: Within the last year, your self-motivation has taken a new twist. We’re sitting here in my living room, surrounded by books. You know I’m a big reader. And I know that books have now become a tool for you. I remember last summer, you brought a book over for me to read. And I recall asking you then why/how this book reading gig had come about. I’ve since learned that you and some of the coaching staff at SU have a bit of a book club thing going. That’s way cool. Tell me about it.

A: I think sometimes in our profession, you get all tied up in the recruiting and the day to day coaching. Well, the next thing you know, you’re not growing because you don’t have time for other things.

So, in the everyday world, you might not have the time to do those things that help you become a better person, or a better coach. So, I’ve really put an emphasis on in the last year to try and read things that help me be better as a person, to be a better communicator, a better husband, and a better motivator.

And, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s helping me find things to become an even better coach.

I can intrigue the guys with new info, perhaps a new angle on something we’re doing, or a new saying or a vibe that might make us all better. Just something that I’ve picked up in my reading that I can perhaps pass along.

Q: This season, for the first time, you have a full-time assistant coach. This season, for the first time, you can see the long-awaited, and much needed, new Sea Gull Stadium being constructed. And, of course, this season – not for the first time — you have a lot of former players and coaches helping you out as part-time, mostly unpaid, assistants. How important is all of this to you personally, and to the program?

A: Well, first, the former players and those great coaches I have? It’s all about tradition, and creating tradition. Those guys were the building blocks and have been integral parts in getting us to where we are today.

And those guys bleed maroon and gold. They had a good experience, they love the program, and they want to help the next generation. They have a great deal of knowledge, and for them to keep coming back? I’m so thankful because in most cases none of them have gotten a cent for what they’ve done, yet they’ve truly been a difference maker in our success.

They’re like sons to me, and some of them are now like best friends to me because of the relationship we’ve created. They’re giving back, and that’s what keeps the tradition going.

The new assistant coach? Well, first off it brings a lot of stability. It brings a lot more organization to the program on levels.

Justin Axel has been a wonderful addition to our program. For me, personally, my day has an end to it now. For 26 years, my days never ended. I would go home every night thinking that I didn’t make these five phone calls, or I didn’t write these five letters, or I didn’t do this thing or that thing.

Now, with Justin there, together we can get to the point where, at the end of a long practice, we can go home and say: “OK, we’re good. We coached the heck out of these kids today. We got things covered. I don’t owe anybody anything else today.” That’s a good feeling.

As for the new stadium? Well, it’s special. You know, there is a little bit of an arms race in athletics. It doesn’t matter what sport you play, or at what level. You know, you’re playing against competition that has some things that you don’t have.

Granted, we’ve had great support, a great fan base, a tremendous atmosphere. But, the facility itself? It was lacking a bit.

And as other schools have made commitments to major facilities and major stadiums, it was becoming more difficult to sell SU to some kids who played in high school stadiums that were better than what we could offer them.

What’s exciting is that not only are we getting a comparable stadium to other schools, we’re going to be one-upping a lot of them too. Once this is all done, in the lacrosse world, at any level, there won’t be any better place to play. And we can’t wait to play in it in 2016.

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Q: As you set your sights on this season, and of course, the excitement of next year and the new stadium, let’s talk for a second about Salisbury – the university and the community. A question many people, mostly in the lacrosse community, wonder is this: What kept you here? What was it about SU or Salisbury in general that kept you from pursuing a coaching gig elsewhere?

A: There’s a lot of different things. You know I’ve got a lot of hobbies. Everyone thinks, well there’s Jim Berkman, he’s the lacrosse guy and all his friends are lacrosse guys. But that’s not who I am.

I’m in two bike clubs that have a hundred people in them, so I know all of those people. Back when I was a triathlete, I knew all of those people. So, I have a lot of friends who don’t have any association with lacrosse, across the whole gamut of the community, who have been special friends for a long, long time.

My family and I have a good network, a good support group. I always felt like I had a chance to win, and a great school that offered a great product. We lived in a community that was safe. We lived in a community that was very convenient.

You know, I live 30 seconds from my office. I can get on my bike and be on Riverside Drive in 400 yards, out of traffic and riding my bike. I can get on my motorcycle and be on some of the best country roads anywhere in minutes.

There were a lot of convenient things for me and my family to do here. Plus I’m not one of those guys who wonders if the grass is greener somewhere else. It’s pretty green here where I live. It’s not any greener in the next place.

And then, they always say, well Division I is where I should be. Well, anyone who knows anything about our program or anything about lacrosse knows that I coach Division I kids every day. You know I’ve coached kids who have played at the highest level.

I’ve coached two kids who played on the World team, kids who have played in MLL. So I’ve gotten to coach that special guy at that level.

And you know you don’t win Division III Championships with Division III players. You win them with Division I players.

Q: Both of your kids, son Kylor and daughter Keli, won lacrosse national championships for the Sea Gulls. That had to be pretty special.

A: It really was. Kylor and I had a real special year together in 2008. We won a championship. We were undefeated. He was the MVP in the National Championship game, and he was the national player of the year.

As a coach, and a dad, that was one of the more memorable years. Then a few years after that, Keli won a ring playing for SU’s first women’s national championship team.  She’d overcome a lot of injuries, transferred back to SU after those injuries, and changed positions and became a goalie for the first time in her life.

It was great to see each of them fulfill their dreams, and as parents, we couldn’t have been more proud.

Q: When all of this is said and done, and you, the winningest college lacrosse coach in history, call it a career, have you thought about what you’d like your legacy to be? I know you well enough to know that you don’t do all of this for the records, or for the accolades. You do it because you’re a coach, who gives it his all. But, I figure, as a coach, you’ve probably given this a little thought. So, as a coach, what do you want to be remembered for?

A: Well, one of the things I always tell recruits when they’re sitting in our office, and they’ve come for a visit at Salisbury, and they’re looking at the championships and the tradition and the success of the program, is that all of that is important, for sure.

But, I tell them that if they talk to some of the special guys who have played here, what they’ll tell you is that if you come here, and you play for Berkman, you’re going to get better.

At the end of the day I want to be remembered as the coach that helped you get better: The one who pushed you, prodded you, inspired you, and gave you the instruction that you needed to get that skill set that made you better. And that’s what still motivates me.

Because when I see a kid get a little bit better because of some of the things that we’ve been able to do? That excites me.

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