Practices are nearly three hours long, starting with a daily film session, and organized down to the minute. A clock and an alarm signal when to move from one drill to another.
The No. 1-ranked Hopkins girls’ basketball team rarely stops moving during its preparations, all done under the watchful eye of coach Brian Cosgriff. He’s been known to pause a practice briefly to call out a player not working hard enough with a demand for frozen push-ups, a planking maneuver in a push-up position.
Yet a bad word is never uttered nor an angry glare ever given. This is what the Hopkins players thrive on, the foundation of a program with six Class 4A state championships since 2004. It’s all part of Cosgriff’s plan. His style sounds tough, but Cos — which he is called by nearly everyone who knows him — is more like a demanding and caring father than stern taskmaster.
“I love coach Cos,” said senior forward Tejia Treml, who has known Cosgriff since second grade, when he was her physical education teacher at Hopkins’ Alice Smith Elementary.
“Is he easy? No. But you know he cares about you as a person and just wants the best for you.”
Star freshman guard Paige Bueckers said players know that Cosgriff always has their best interests at heart.
“He doesn’t necessarily care about winning,” Bueckers said. “He cares about how we grow up to be young women and about our lives out of basketball.”
The reason, Cosgriff says, came from something his mother told him years ago.
“She told me that, when you teach or coach kids, every one of them is the apple of their parents’ eye,” he said. “Whoever is out there deserves the best we can give them.”
Still a grade-school phys-ed teacher and now in his 18th season as the force behind one of the state’s elite girls’ basketball programs, Cosgriff admits it wasn’t always that way. His priorities have changed, which he traces back to Hopkins’ first state championship in 2004.
“I had been an assistant under [boys’ coach] Ken Novak Jr. for nine years when I got the girls’ job in 1999. And at that time, I really wanted to come in and win and all that stuff,” he said. “But after we won [the state championship] in 2004, it didn’t feel the way I thought it would. I was happy for the players and that we’d won, but I realized that wasn’t what it’s about. It’s about the people and the relationships you build, the wisdom you can bring and caring and compassion.”
The best way to do that, Cosgriff realized, was by example.
Always a dedicated worker and passionate about basketball, Cosgriff has a work ethic that is well-known in basketball circles. In addition to his legendary practices, he spends countless hours scouting. He wields a three-ring binder with a season-long, day-by-day schedule of potential opponents to scout. He breaks down video, prepares game plans and works with players.
“If Cos was paid by the hour, he’d be making about 50 cents an hour,” Hopkins assistant athletic director Joe Perkl said with a laugh.
Days off are few during the season. “I can tell you my days off,” Cosgriff said. “Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year’s, New Year’s Eve. … There’s not much, but I don’t need it. I’m doing what I love.”
Being a hard worker is just a part of Cosgriff’s formula for success. He’s determined to consistently grow as a coach, ever vigilant in finding new ways to approach the game. If another coach is doing something Cosgriff likes, you can bet he will store it away for future use.
“I can’t devise, I can only steal,” he laughs.
One person he cites as a mentor is DeLaSalle boys’ coach Dave Thorson, who is renowned for his fervent coaching style.
“I learned from Dave the intensity in practice you need to be successful,” Cosgriff said. “It’s the overload principle. We try to bring that to every practice to prepare for games.”
Intensity with caring
The more intense the practice, he believes, the easier it will be to handle sticky game situations.
“The practices are harder than the games,” said junior guard Raena Suggs, who lives in St. Paul but has attended school in the Hopkins district since middle school. “They’re intense.”
They’re also the catalyst for Cosgriff’s remarkable success. He was inducted into the Minnesota Girls’ Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015 and has a career record of 468-62 (.883). The 2016-17 Royals are 21-0.
Lest anyone think he plays favorites, Bueckers confirms that no one is immune to his demands.
“He always gets on you, then he’ll say ‘It’s not personal. It’s just to get you better,’ ” Bueckers said. “He comes straight at you because he knows that no matter how good you are, you can always be better. He always talks.”
For all of his success, it’s been Cosgriff’s ability to connect with his players that allows him to push them.
Annie Isler, who played for Cosgriff in 2003 and 2004, is the video coordinator for the Minnesota Lynx. She’s considered an up-and-comer in coaching circles, with stops at the high school, college and WNBA levels. That she’s in her second stint as an assistant at Hopkins says volumes about the respect Cosgriff has earned.
“What makes Cos a hall of fame coach is that he cares,” Isler said. “You can’t fake that. Authenticity is real and the kids sense that.”
And occasionally, they get the chance to reciprocate.
During the 2016 Class 4A state tournament, the Hopkins players, unbeknownst to Cosgriff, went out to warmups wearing T-shirts supporting Cosgriff’s older brother Brad, who was battling lung cancer. He died two months later. For Cosgriff the gesture, more than any win or championship, is his most cherished coaching memory.
“It was very moving and it was all brought on by the players,” he said. “That these kids would go out of their way to design and wear those shirts made me want to love them up even more.”