Waiting his turn | SteamboatToday.com

Waiting his turn

Confidence pays off for Hayden coach

— Successful basketball coaches come from everywhere and start with all manners of experience.

Mike Krzyzewski came from Chicago and was an assistant coach at Army before taking control of the Duke basketball program.

Pat Summit came from Tennessee and was 22 years old when she was promoted to head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s program, where her team since has won 983 games.

Eric Hamilton came from Craig. He played college basketball for two years at tiny Doane College on the plains of eastern Nebraska and had owned and guided for Big Rack Outfitters for 17 years before he was named head coach of the Hayden girls basketball team.

The story of every coach is different. Hamilton’s journey is no exception.

His own way

Hamilton is the kind of guy who’s happier preparing his own steak on a grill than leaving it to someone hidden away in a restaurant kitchen.

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There’s a process to becoming the head coach of a high school varsity basketball team. That Hamilton had no interest in that process is evident in nearly everything he does.

“Oh, he has a strong personality,” his wife, Keri, said tactfully, recounting the many trials that came before he finally got the job in Hayden.

He hasn’t worked for anyone for years. He’s his own boss when guiding hunters into the Northwest Colorado wilderness in search of elk. He was his own boss for eight years while running Big Rack Horseback Adventures, a sleigh ride dinner operation that was based out of Milner before it closed in 2007.

This season, his first as a high school coach of any kind, he plans to run the offense he wants to run and run practice the way he wants to run it.

It’s that personality trait that wouldn’t allow Hamilton to settle for being an assistant coach first or to settle for the process of becoming a varsity head coach.

He wouldn’t settle, despite interviewing for six different head coaching jobs in the area, including three at Hayden before then-athletic director Kevin Kleckler finally hired him.

“I just stayed after it, because it’s been one of my dreams after college,” Hamilton said. “After the last time they said ‘no,’ I almost gave up. But then, a position came open again, and I tried again.”

Learning to adapt

Hamilton played high school basketball at Moffat County and followed that up with the collegiate basketball in Crete, Neb., a small town 30 miles southwest of Lincoln.

He picked up a fast-paced offense along the way, a scheme filled with breaks and, if all goes well, layups.

“My style is fast-paced, intense defense and run, run, run,” he said. “We want to score a lot of points, and we’re going to really focus on man-to-man defense, pressing and pushing whenever we can.”

In the girls basketball program at Hayden, Hamilton found exactly what he was looking for – not that he realized it right away.

The apple Hamilton always envisioned waiting for him with a head coaching position had little to do with the 32 members of the Hayden High School girls basketball teams.

His eldest child, Matthew, is 12 and will be ready for high school basketball before long.

“I always wanted to coach boys,” he said.

The thought of coaching his two daughters, however – 10-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Halle – slowly took root in his mind.

Talking quietly in the dark halls of the school after a practice last week, he explained that his up-front personality underwent some changes.

It wasn’t abandoned entirely, however. His children continued to attend schools in Craig even as he applied for coaching jobs in Steamboat Spring and Hayden. It finally was pointed out after his third unsuccessful interview in Hayden that the fact didn’t help his cause.

“We moved them to Hayden so I could have a better job up here,” he said. “We heard a lot of good things about Hayden schools, and we decided to try it.”

Hamilton’s family became as determined in adapting to their new life as he was in pursuing a coaching position. They switched Moffat County’s blue and white for the Tigers’ orange and black. They quickly came to appreciate Hayden’s small-town atmosphere and had little trouble making inroads in the community.

Hamilton, meanwhile, did whatever he could to keep his dream alive. He attended as many Tigers basketball games as possible and made himself familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the boys and girls teams.

But for every sign of the stubborn hunter who wouldn’t take “JV” for an answer, there was a sign something was changing.

He paid more attention to the girls team, which was struggling and losing six of its final nine games. He began to watch more women’s college basketball and considered how his schemes and coaching style would fit with a group of teenage girls.

“When they finally offered me the job last spring,” he said, “they asked, ‘boys or girls?'” “I didn’t even think about it. I went with the girls.”

The payoff

Just what the season holds remains a question. Five seniors return from a team that was ousted last year in the first round of the district tournament. Hamilton is, of course, confident.

“What surprises me the most so far is how much talent we have,” he said. “I can be pretty intense, and I thought I might have to change that to coach girls. But I haven’t had to change anything. This is an intense bunch.”

That confidence – the same which made administrators reluctant to give a varsity coaching position to an untried applicant – so far has proven invaluable to those whom the hire will affect the most.

“He believes in us,” Hayden senior Caitlyn Mahanna said. “That’s the difference so far between this year and last. It’s obvious all the time that he has confidence in us. Things are going much better.”

On the topic of “much better,” Hamilton couldn’t quite agree. Everything’s not peachy, now less than a week into his dream job.

“The basketball’s great, but I haven’t been a very good (hunting) guide since it started. I’m having too much fun with basketball,” he said, laughing about a statewide slow elk season.

It’s an acceptable trade.

“I’ve never seen him more happy,” his wife said. “The kids are happy since moving to Hayden. We love the community, and I’ve never seen my husband happier.”

– To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 871-4253 or e-mail jreichenberger@steamboatpilot.com