Girls' basketball coach Rod Hairston makes adjustment from Eleanor Roosevelt to McNamara

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; D01

McNamara senior forward Ashley Miles knew that Coach Rod Hairston had won five consecutive Maryland 4A girls' basketball titles at Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet when Hairston was named the Mustangs' coach last May, she and her teammates considered their new leader's achievement more intriguing than impressive.

Winning at a public school is one thing, they thought. Winning in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, against superior competition and with few easy games on the schedule, is another.

Five state titles? Five asterisks.

"We're not saying that [the public school leagues] are terrible," said Miles, who as a sophomore helped McNamara win the WCAC title. "But this is a step up for him. We look at it as, yes, that shows his coaching ability, now let's see what he does on the next level. And let's also see what we can do on his level."

Hairston -- who is carrying only one personal recruit on McNamara's varsity, inheriting the rest of his players -- acknowledged the initial wariness in his typical soft rasp after a recent game.

"We felt like we had to come in and prove ourselves all over again," he said. "And we had to come in and implement strategies that worked [at Roosevelt]. That's what we pride ourselves on most, is the ability to make adjustments. It's been a major adjustment."

There is a transition period when any coach, particularly a highly successful one, latches on with a new set of players. But this has not only been a team switch for Hairston. At times, it has felt like a career change, given the differences between coaching at Roosevelt, a public school in Greenbelt, and private McNamara in Forestville, about 14 miles to the south.

Hairston compares his new position to guiding a Division III college program. He chafed at what he considered "outdated" public school rules that did not allow his teams to play more challenging schedules or to routinely travel to prestigious tournaments outside the area.

The McNamara players were leery of Hairston for the same reasons that he wanted to coach at a high-profile private school.

The curiosity now is to see if the methods Hairston's teams used at Roosevelt -- namely, gritty defense that caused opponents to scramble to squeeze off a field goal attempt before the 30-second shot clock expired -- will be as effective in a deep conference, flush with Division I prospects, that does not use a shot clock.

Coaching without a clock

Players at an elite private school program such as McNamara -- the Mustangs were ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2004 -- are serious about basketball, especially given the fact that their families are paying for their schooling. Hairston said he usually whittled his roster to 10 or so at Roosevelt because he wanted to keep only the players wholly invested in the program. He kept 14 at McNamara.

The main challenge so far for the Mustangs -- and for Hairston -- has been adapting defensively. With no shot clock, WCAC teams can run more sets and take their time working for an open look at the basket, which results in fewer possessions.

Hairston considers it a "travesty" that a league as renowned as the WCAC does not use a shot clock, in part because he believes the lack of one does not fully prepare players for women's college basketball, which employs a 30-second shot clock.

Hairston has tried to rewire the McNamara players, who he thought had a tendency to slough off on defense knowing that they could be forced to defend for a minute or more at a time and not in 30-second spurts like the public school girls.

Instead of guarding their man and monitoring the ball, Hairston wants them to play the ball and monitor their man.

"Because it's so much different what he came in with, it kind of threw us off a little bit," McNamara senior guard Cierra Strickland said. "So it was hard for us to implement his ways when we were trying to figure them out ourselves."

So far, it's working. McNamara has won 10 of its first 11 WCAC games, losing only to top-ranked Elizabeth Seton, and has held five league opponents to 50 points or fewer and four others to 58 points or less. His last four years at Roosevelt, Hairston's teams allowed between 35 and 39 points per game.

On offense, the Mustangs default into what Strickland refers to as "controlled chaos," which also is a change. Former Roosevelt All-Met Elashier Hall, now a freshman guard at Syracuse, said she noticed "a little clash" in styles while watching the McNamara players adjust to their new coach during summer league games. The Mustangs were looking for Hairston to call a play, and that is not the way he coaches.

"Honestly, we only had three or four plays and probably ran only one of them," said Olivia Applewhite, a freshman forward at Dayton who won four state titles with Hairston. "We were more get the ball off the glass, anybody could push it and let's go make layups."

So close, yet so far

Hairston teaches in a special education program for emotionally impaired students at North Forestville Elementary School in Prince George's County. He graduated from Roosevelt in 1987, attended Bowie State and worked at his alma mater for nine years as head girls' coach. He's a Prince George's guy, and speaks highly of the school system there.

But Hairston said he grew frustrated with what he considered the lack of emphasis that his home county places on high school athletics and the restrictions on travel and scheduling.

Consider the backdrop that shaped that view: Roosevelt is within 18 miles of Elizabeth Seton, Riverdale Baptist, McNamara, St. John's, Holy Cross and Good Counsel, all prominent private school girls' basketball programs that are allowed to schedule more games than Roosevelt, both inside and outside of the area, face better competition and recruit top players.

During Roosevelt's run of five titles, the only local private school power the Raiders faced was Notre Dame Academy in 2007-08. So even when they were amid their string of championships and lofty rankings, they sometimes felt underappreciated and even unproven, because of their talented and more tested neighbors.

"We wanted more exposure for ourselves and for him as a coach," said Syracuse's Hall, adding that she would have considered following Hairston to McNamara had he made the move sooner.

"I used to always say at Roosevelt that being at a public school was like being at a mid-major based on resources," said Glenn Farello, the boys' basketball coach at Paul VI Catholic who won a state title at Roosevelt. "We're in the big leagues with the WCAC. Private schools are where college coaches go first. If two players are very similar, the one that has proven himself in the WCAC is going to get more attention than the ones who haven't had a chance to go day in and day out against other future college prospects."

A different world

For Hairston, the differences between the two coaching experiences have been striking, and that goes beyond his new recruiting and fundraising responsibilities, the greater parental involvement at McNamara and the expectation that he coach the team year-round.

At McNamara, he can schedule 28 regular season games, six more than what he could play at Roosevelt. Ten of those games are outside the WCAC. That's the same number of regular season games Roosevelt played against non-Prince George's teams the past five seasons combined.

McNamara this season traveled to New Jersey and Hampton, Va., for games. Roosevelt left the area twice in the past five years.

Unlike at his former public school, Hairston said his team has access to the McNamara gym just about any time he wants it. And when he discovered his new school had no shooting machine, he and the McNamara boys' program split the expense for the $5,000 piece of equipment out of their budgets.

At McNamara, the coaches meet in a modest but comfortable girls' basketball office tucked off a locker room. For postgame strategy sessions at Roosevelt, they would pile into Hairston's Ford Expedition, or Hairston would squeeze his 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame into an assistant coach's Acura.

There is an ice machine outside Hairston's office at McNamara. At Roosevelt, he would fill about 10 cups with water each night and put them in the freezer for use the next day. The coaching staff did all the taping and bandaging at Roosevelt; at McNamara, there is a certified athletic trainer on staff.

"I know public schools are financially strapped," Hairston said. "But the understanding of how important athletics and extracurricular activities are to the development of a young person, I think they put more emphasis on that at the private schools.

"You have coaches in the public schools that have been beaten up so much that all they're doing is showing up. I think that's stifling some kid's dream. There are no expectations other than come show up, make sure you stay out of the paper for anything negative. If you're breathing, they'll let you coach, as long as you don't have a record."

At this point, Hairston's office at McNamara is largely a shrine to Roosevelt, adorned with celebratory photos and All-Met teams that featured his Raiders.

The McNamara players have a different taste in decor.

"A lot of the kids say, 'Coach, you've got a whole bunch of Roosevelt stuff on the wall,' " Hairston said. "And I say, 'Well, you all have got to give me something to put up there.' "

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