A Tale of Two Coaches

By Mary Boone

  • She is comfortable letting long stretches of silence settle into conversations.
  • Her practice plans go out the window if players get too tired.
  • She’s spent her entire collegiate coaching career at UPS.
  • She likes the role of underdog.
  • He literally runs down the halls of the fieldhouse to pick up photocopies and faxes.
  • He hands out minute-by-minute agendas for practices.
  • He’s lived in six states and coached at seven schools in the past 10 years.
  • He and his team visualize a national championship.

At first glance, it seems Puget Sound basketball coaches Eric Bridgeland and Suzy Barcomb couldn’t be more different. Even the playing styles that propelled both their teams to last year’s NCAA Division III National Tournament and Top 15 pre-season rankings this year are a study in contrast. Bridgeland’s men’s team plays a frenetic, all-out, run-and-gun game in which players are substituted every one to three minutes. Barcomb’s women’s team plays a more traditional game and has a reputation for smart ball handling and a strong zone defense.

Still, those who work with, play for, and compete against the two coaches say Bridgeland and Barcomb may be more alike than they are different.

Bridgeland: The constant in his life was basketball
Bridgeland’s youth was far from idyllic. His parents divorced when he was young and, as a result, he moved 13 times between kindergarten and 12th grade and played basketball at four different high schools.

“I was a hockey player until 8th grade, when we came to the States; nobody played hockey here,” recalls Bridgeland. “But, it was just about the time the Chicago Bulls were becoming huge, so I decided to give that a try. I went to a small Lutheran school in Rockford, Illinois. I was tall and the competition was horrible, so by default I was good. People started to know me as ‘the kid who plays basketball.’ I needed that because up to that point I was pretty quiet.”

His prowess on the court helped Bridgeland develop the confidence to cope with his often-changing surroundings.

“I’m living proof of what athletics can do for kids,” he says. “It gave me confidence, helped me learn to set goals, taught me the value of teamwork, and helped me adapt to adversity.”

Bridgeland played college ball at the University of Manitoba, where he set an all-time scoring record. He was named to four all-conference teams, three all-Canadian teams, and was selected Canadian Rookie of the Year as a freshman. He played three years with the Canadian national team and had a brief career with the pro team in Winnipeg.

Bridgeland’s first coaching job was as a volunteer assistant for the University of West Florida. “I lived in a mildew-infested dorm room that they gave me,” he says. “It was pretty awful, but I was a coach and that was all that mattered.”

After a year in Pensacola, he took a paying job as an assistant at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. From there, Bridgeland went to the Colorado School of Mines, Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, and California State University-Bakersfield. In 1998, he landed his first head coaching job at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

“I moved for six straight years, but I had a goal in mind. And when you have a goal, you do what it takes to achieve it,” he says.

Bridgeland was hired as Puget Sound’s head men’s coach in 2000.

“I’d been an assistant at Lewis and Clark, so I was familiar with the conference, and I fell in love with the campus when I saw it,” he says. “I kept thinking it would be a piece of cake to recruit at a school like this.”

During his first three years at the helm of the Loggers program, Bridgeland has compiled a 47-30 record. His 2003-04 team set multiple school records: number of three-pointers in a game (18) and a season (329), and overall winning percentage (.888). The team, which won 15 of 16 conference games, was the third-highest scoring team in the nation with an average 103.3 points per game. Bridgeland was named Northwest Conference Coach of the Year for the 2003-04 season, and three of his players were all-conference selections.

Preseason polls ranked the 2004-05 Loggers No. 6 nationally. Bridgeland, who insists that his players read Jim Collins’ Good to Great and whose upbeat style includes daily affirmations, is pleased with the ranking but, frankly, he and his team practice visualization exercises in which they win it all. “No ifs, ands, or buts,” he says. “We are trying to win a national championship.”

Bridgeland’s success has come thanks in part to the unorthodox game his team plays. Realizing he can’t compete with bigger programs for bigger players, he recruits guards who he turns into utility players or, as he calls them, “tweeners.” His players run and play as hard as they can for a minute or two before they’re pulled for a quick rest. The style of play relies on a deep bench and requires about an hour and a half of coaching staff time just to plan the substitutions for the first 12 minutes of a game.

“It’s definitely organized chaos,” says Bridgeland.

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point head coach Jack Bennett and his team defeated the Loggers in last year’s national tournament. Bennett’s memory of the Loggers’ playing style is still fresh: “Eric has an excellent team. He presses, he runs, and if you’re not prepared to play them you could look pretty silly. They just want to go, go, go. We see a little of that type of ball throughout the season, but Eric really takes it to the extreme. If you don’t take care of the ball, I could see where they could just turn a team inside out. It’s exciting to watch, and from all I’ve heard and observed, Eric has done a terrific job of reigniting interest in basketball there.”

Barcomb: From hitting a ball over the net to putting one through it
The youngest of four children, Barcomb used to tag along with her brother Douglas when he went to a nearby church parking lot to play basketball.

“I was in about fifth or sixth grade, and I’m sure he thought I was a pain,” she says with a soft drawl. “Of course, he has since taken full credit for any successes I’ve had in the sport.”

A native of Springfield, Miss., Barcomb quickly advanced from parking lot pick-up games to competitive school teams, becoming a Jr. Olympic athlete in volleyball, an all-state athlete in basketball, and a state medalist in track.

She attended Central Missouri State University on a volleyball scholarship for two years and won First Team All-District honors as a middle hitter. Barcomb also played a year for the Missouri State basketball team as a small forward before transferring to the University of Washington.

“I transferred in hopes of playing Division I volleyball, but when I saw that wasn’t going to happen I walked onto the basketball team. I have people say to me, ‘Oh, you played for the University of Washington?’ and I laugh and tell them, ‘No, I sat on the bench for the University of Washington.’ I had been used to being the star, so UW was an eye-opening experience that helped shape who I am today,” she says. “I tell people I had so much time on the bench that I had plenty of time to study, really study, the coaches, and for the first time in my life I thought about the game from a coach’s perspective.”

Barcomb graduated from UW with a degree in kinesiology and a teaching certification. After college, she coached high school and club-level ball before eventually trading in the hard court for the business sector. For several years, she co-owned and operated an independent mailbox center.

Then, in 1995, a friend told Barcomb about an assistant coach opening at Puget Sound. She applied for and got the job. For the next two years, she commuted from Seattle, balancing her business and basketball interests. In 1997 she sold her business and moved to Tacoma, and a year later she was hired as Puget Sound’s head women’s basketball coach.

“As an athlete, I loved playing volleyball,” says Barcomb. “But I never wanted to coach anything but basketball. I think basketball is a sport in which the coach can truly have an impact on the outcome of the game. There are strategies in volleyball too, but there’s no way I’d trade basketball for it.”

Barcomb’s coaching style relies on quiet, calm talk and a large dose of humor. “I’m a huge competitor, but I also think you have to giggle along the way,” she says. “The game is intense and stressful enough. I try to deliver messages with a laugh, and I always try to make it clear that I respect them. At the end of the day the players have to know I love them.”

Her strategy seems to be working. Barcomb’s 2003-04 season was record-setting, with most wins (23), and best winning percentage (.821). The women Loggers advanced to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament, ended the season with a 23-5 record, and landed three players on all-conference teams. The team’s on-court success was matched in the classroom: the Loggers were named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll. With a team grade point average of 3.399, Puget Sound ranked 21st on the national list.

Both: Described in a word, intense
If there’s a singular trait they share, those who know Barcomb and Bridgeland insist it’s intensity.

“With Eric, it’s pretty easy to see he’s intense. He wears it,” says Joleen LaMay, a six-year assistant coach for the women’s basketball team. “Suzy has a very calm demeanor, especially in practice. But she is extremely, extremely intense. Like a lot of coaches, they’re both really driven. Plus, they’re two of the most competitive people I’ve ever known.”

Robyn Stewart, head women’s coach at Linfield College, agrees with LaMay’s assessment: “Suzy is very intense. She doesn’t show it outwardly like a lot of people do. She’s a tough competitor whose teams are always well prepared. They do what she wants them to do at a very high level. That’s probably her biggest strength. She respects her players, they respect her, and they work really hard for her.”

Lewis and Clark Head Coach Bob Gaillard worked with Bridgeland for a year; now the two are conference competitors. “Eric has the unbridled enthusiasm of youth,” says Gaillard. “He simply does a nice job combining his enthusiasm for the game with some real intelligent playing.”

Matt Glynn ’04, honorable mention All-American who now plays for the American Basketball Association’s Bellevue Blackhawks, played a year for Bridgeland at University of California-Santa Cruz and transferred to Puget Sound with his coach. Glynn calls Bridgeland a great teacher of individual skills. “There are two sides to him,” says Glynn. “On court or in any competitive situation, he is absolutely the most intense person I’ve ever met. Off the court, he has the ability to develop these unbelievable personal relationships with every player. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best or worst player, he’ll get to know you as a person.”

All-conference guard Kilty Keaton ’06 says Barcomb is “extremely competitive and intense. She can be tough on us and get us to push through hard days and then joke around and make us feel like we’re part of something special,” she says. “She’s definitely the most intense coach I’ve played for.”

Physics Professor Andy Rex is the official scorekeeper for both teams. He sees obvious differences in the two team’s styles, describing the men’s play as “up-tempo with a look of disorganization to it” and the women’s style as “slower with the appearance that they’re more certain of what they’re doing.”

“Frankly, though, I see more similarities than differences in the coaches,” he says. “Both are focused on the job at hand—winning. I also think they’re a nice fit with the Division III philosophy in that they want good athletes, but, more important, they want athletes who are terrific students and individuals.”

 

Scouting Report: Suzy Barcomb

Seasons as Puget Sound head coach: 7
Age: 43
Family: Single
Puget Sound record (end of 2003-04 season): 107-48
College: Central Missouri State, transferred to and graduated from University of Washington
Coaching career: head coach Mercer Island High School, assistant basketball coach at Puget Sound for three seasons.
Honors: Pacific Northwest Coach of the Year (1998-99)

Scouting Report: Eric Bridgeland

Seasons as Puget Sound head coach: 4
Age: 33
Family: Getting married in May to Brianne Faria
College: University of Manitoba
Puget Sound record (end of 2003-04 season): 47-30
Coaching career: head coach University of California-Santa Cruz; assistant basketball coach at California State-Bakersfield; Lewis and Clark College; Colorado School of Mines; Stephen F. Austin; and University of West Florida.
Honors: Northwest Conference Coach of the Year (2003-04)

Although she loves basketball, freelance writer Mary Boone admits her game is not what is could be: She grew up playing Iowa girls’ basketball, in which only forwards could shoot and dribbling more than twice was not allowed.