St. Thomas men’s basketball coach Johnny Tauer is in Kansas this weekend recruiting at an AAU tournament. He is also coaching a 15U team at the same event. He can talk to his players about basketball but not about St. Thomas basketball, and he can’t mention any of them by name for this column because that would be an NCAA no-no.
Technically, by rule, he is not even supposed to talk to recruits in person until after their sophomore year. His players will start 10th grade this fall, but since he is their AAU coach, he gets a pass. Though, he notes in jest, his players could invoke the no-contact rule if he gets on them about shot selection.
Tauer has his Ph.D. in social psychology and authored a book entitled “Why Less Is More for WOSPs — Well-Intentioned, Overinvolved Sports Parents,” which delves into the psychology of parenting kids in youth sports. Now he is coaching his son in a summer basketball circuit — one that has spawned a Twitter handle (@AAU_bingo) that often highlights overzealous parents.
“This is like an experiment where I’m going undercover to see if I can get a parent to lose their mind on me because I’m not playing their son enough,” he joked.
Tauer might be the only college basketball coach in America who interjects “cognitive dissonance” into normal conversation. A college head coach coaching AAU is man-bites-dog material.
“There are probably people who think I ought to have my head checked,” he said.
He’s kidding, of course. He has coached his oldest son, Jack, in the Minnesota Heat AAU program for three years. The Heat was founded by St. Thomas alum Willie Vang. Tauer’s team competes in a handful of out-of-state events and is ranked among Minnesota’s top teams in that age group.
The NCAA permits Division III coaches to coach high school AAU teams, presumably because scholarships aren’t awarded in D-III. Tauer traditionally scouts those events anyway so he’s pulling triple duty: dad, coach and recruiter.
“Everybody knows the reason I’m doing this is not recruiting,” he said. “It’s a really good group of kids and parents and I get to coach my son.”
Tauer runs a first-rate college program. He won a national championship in 2016 and twice been named Division III National Coach of the Year. He is also a tenured professor in the school’s psychology department.
Coaching AAU offers its own case study. At a recent practice, Tauer instructed his players to run a “naked screen” — a term for one of his sets. His players were laughing too hard to do anything.
“Because I said the word naked,” he sighed.
Hey, sophomores enjoy sophomoric humor.
At tournaments, Tauer wears St. Thomas apparel while watching recruits so they can identify him as a college coach. But when his team plays, he sheds his pullover to display his Heat shirt.
“It’s a poor man’s version of Superman,” he said.
Tauer wore a bright red Heat shirt to one tournament — the same color as St. Thomas’ fierce rival. St. John’s coach Pat McKenzie happened to be standing nearby and did what any proud Johnnie would do.
He took a photo and playfully vowed to use it in his promotional material.
AAU basketball finds itself under intense scrutiny in wake of the recruiting scandal that rocked college basketball this season. It’s a shame that summer showcases get painted with a broad brush, because AAU offers many positives. But high-profile cases of corruption also exposed the underbelly.
Tauer sees good and bad from his unique perspective. He believes kids benefit socially from playing with peers outside their own circle. And facing tough competition is always beneficial, especially, Tauer said, if it occasionally provides a dose of perspective and humility in defeat.
Too often reality gets ignored in the pursuit of scholarship and glory. Tauer has likely future college players on his team, but he is grateful that his AAU parents “understand the big picture.”
“I don’t think any of these parents think these kids are going to be paying their mortgage some day through basketball,” he said.
Tauer said what “breaks my heart the most is you see the delusion of grandeur” in kids and/or parents. He worries about teens being repeatedly told how special they are.
Tauer also sees an increasing rate of burnout. He has had a handful of recruits in the past five years choose to stop playing basketball and attend college as a regular student.
“As much as people say we shouldn’t specialize,” he said, “if you’re going to play basketball, it’s hard not to be 10 or 11 months out of year.”
The positives outweigh negatives in his eyes, which is why Tauer hopes to continue this side gig next summer. He is teaching basketball and spending time with his son. That’s a win-win.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org