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Mike Ekanem turns support staff experiences into assistant coaching success

The Houston native joined staff at George Mason this offseason

Mike Ekanem
Mike Ekanem helped lead Sam Houston State to one of the most successful seasons in program history in 2023.
Courtesy of Mike Ekanem

Mike Ekanem has spent a decade in various roles at multiple programs around the country. After serving on the support staff at places such as Memphis, Texas A&M and Arkansas, Ekanem became an assistant coach for the first time with Sam Houston State last season. The Bearkats set a program record by winning 26 games, claiming the WAC regular season crown and receiving a berth to the NIT. The Houston native then left the Lone Star State to join the new staff at George Mason this offseason. He recently spoke with Mid-Major Madness’ Ian Sacks. Below is their conversation:

Ian Sacks: How would you describe the life as of assistant coach?

Mike Ekanem: It’s non-stop. You’re always ripping and running. There’s no time off, really. If you want to be a successful assistant coach and help your head coach build a successful program. There’s no time off.

You’re always on the phone with recruits, high school and AAU coaches, parents, or other coaches in the business, talking about different ideas or discussing players. Even more so now with the transfer portal, you have to reach out to other college coaches that coach these guys.

So, I would say it’s non-stop, always on the go, always on the phone, always working. Then you have to take care of your current guys with player development, game prep, scouting, etc… It’s a life I love and there’s not much I would trade it for.

IS: You talked a lot about recruiting there. I want to get more into that. You helped bring in one of the best recruiting classes at Sam Houston. What is recruiting like where you have to reach out to so many different people, both players and coaches and parents now also the transfer portal adding another wrinkle to it as well. What’s it like? How do you find your players? How is it that you see someone in this state and then the opposite corner of the country, someone else you’re looking at as well?

ME: For sure, there are many layers. Recruiting is like hiring for a job and doing background checks and looking through resumes – it’s very similar in a lot of ways.

You’ll have several players that are just as qualified as the other. By going to these AAU tournaments or watching film and navigating the transfer portal, you’ll find a lot of players that are similar. Similar in their skill set or what they can bring. But you find the differences when you do the background checks; it’s everyone in their inner circle: their parents, their handlers, their AAU coaches, their high school coaches.

And then you take it a little bit deeper, and you contact coaches of teams that they played against or coached against them. I just to try to find deeper information and info on their character, what type of person they are, what type of kid they are, how coachable they are, what they’re going to bring to our program and our culture and things like that.

So doing that deep dive into players and their background, including their social media could help weed out certain players that are just about the same as far as their athleticism. They can be weeded out by the info you get from those other contacts. ‘Oh, he’s a bad kid. You can’t coach him. He doesn’t listen. He wants to do his own thing,’ or ‘he has a lot of off the court issues.’

That always helps with recruiting, like singling certain guys out, and narrowing it down. The questions always is, ‘Who do you really want?’ Once you start to get to know them, you start to dig and do that background info.

IS: You mentioned how coaching is a non-stop profession. How much, what percentage of that is recruiting?

ME: Oh geez, I would say probably 75% of that is recruiting. Just because recruiting is year-round. Whether you’re in-season or not, you’re always recruiting. Throughout the season, you’re still going to high school games, going to JUCO games, and watching film on kids. You still have to be making calls, but at the same time you have to be doing your scouting reports. You’ve got to be game-prepping and preparing for the next opponent and trying to win games while also coaching your team and getting in the gym with your current guys and helping with player development and things like that, catering to those current guys is also very important.

Overall though, I would say 75% of coaching is recruiting because it’s non-stop. It’s year-round. I’m always making calls every day. With like recruiting a guy, recruiting a high school kid, and recruiting a parent, recruiting an AAU coach, recruiting somebody to try to help your program.

IS: How do you balance all of that in season? I know the offseason you hit the recruiting trails hard, but when you have games and practices and so many other things to worry about and focus on during the season, how do you fit the recruiting in?

ME: It’s hard, but that’s just part of the job and the nature of the business. It has to be done. In most cases, the season, the schedule for example, is split up amongst the three assistant coaches as far as scouting opponents.

As an assistant, you might have a scout once every three or four games. So, whichever assistant is off and not, ‘Hey, this is your scout, this is your game prep coming up,’ then that’s the coach that is probably out at high school games or JuCo games that week. They are probably recruiting a little bit more or evaluating a little bit more than the guy that is actually doing the scout for that upcoming game.

IS: That makes a lot of sense.

ME: Yeah, it kind of works out when scouts are split between three guys or sometimes four guys. Somebody can be on the road recruiting while the others are at home taking care of the current players and working on the scout.

IS: Turning now, more to you. You joined George Mason this offseason. What drew you there?

ME: So, Tony Skinn, our head coach at George Mason, is one of my really good friends in the business. I’ve known Tony for a long time. We’ve always kept in touch and we talk to each other all the time. Through me working at other programs, him the same, we were always bouncing ideas off each other, giving each other advice, talking about players, talking about basketball in general, or things we’re doing around the office at our respective places we were at. We just have always stayed close and kept in touch, and we always talked about working with each other someday.

He was at Maryland this past year as an assistant. I was at Sam Houston at the time, and I had several other opportunities that came up, one of which our head coach [Jason Hooten] got the job at New Mexico State, and that was an opportunity I was considering.

And then Tony got the job, and I was literally his first call. He called me the day before he officially got the job, and he’s like, ‘Man, I think I’m going to get the job at George Mason. Just be ready.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, man, I wish you the best.’

The next day, he calls and I’m like, ‘Hey, man, am I talking to the head coach at George Mason?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, man, I got the job. Now I need you to come with me.’

And there was no second guessing or thinking about it or, you know, give me a couple of days. It was an immediate yes, like, I’m there. What do you need? Let’s hit the ground running right now, build a team, and we’ve got to try to be successful there.

It was a no brainer for me, just because he’s one of my very close friends. And it wasn’t a case of, ‘Hey, you got the job, aw yeah, let me just hire my buddies or my homeboys.’ No, it was more like we are good friends, we have mutual respect for each other in this business and admire the success we’ve had at the highest level. And so, it was our opportunity to work together and build this program together.

IS: So, how have your first couple of weeks been?

ME: It’s been non-stop. We returned four guys, so we needed to sign nine scholarship players. We had nine scholarships to fill, and we’ve filled seven so far. And it’s been a whirlwind.

George Mason is an amazing place. They love their basketball. I mean, basketball is king because there is no football. But the rest of the sports, the entire athletic department is really, really good. They have success across the board in all sports. But basketball is king here. And it’s something that they very much take pride in. They support the athletic department and the community. I’ve seen that since day one.

We’ve been ripping and running with bringing recruits in. It’s almost like speed dating. One guy comes in at 11 a.m., he’s out at 11 a.m. the next day. The next guy’s landing at the same time. So, we’re at the airport dropping one off and picking up the next. We did that for eight straight days.

With the nine visits, seven of those committed to us. The two that didn’t commit were actually because someone else in their position committed first. And so, it wasn’t [that] they chose another school over us. It was more so that we didn’t have that spot anymore. So, I guess we’re batting a pretty good percentage right now.

And it’s been such an exciting time for us. It’s been so much fun working with Tony and the staff he assembled. We have a good staff, hard workers, young guys, grinders, and so far, we’ve been working great together.

Of course, we haven’t played a game yet and we haven’t lost the game yet, but this entire process has been great so far working with the guys that Coach Skinn has put together.

IS: Now you’re coming off of one of the best seasons in Sam Houston State history: record number of wins, first at-large berth into the NIT, two wins over Power-5 programs.

What experiences did you learn from this past season that have helped you already in this offseason and will help you going forward?

ME: Oh man, I’ve learned a ton the past season. Not a lot of people know the name Jason Hooten. He was at Sam Houston for 13 years and just got the job at New Mexico State. Even me, I’m from the Houston area, I knew of Sam Houston, but not really anything in-depth.

I’m sitting there at Arkansas as the director of player development. We go to the Elite Eight, had a great year and everybody’s talking, ‘you’ve got to be an assistant’. You have to be an assistant. So, an opportunity comes up at Sam Houston. And my thought process was, ‘well, I mean, I know Sam Houston, but I don’t really know much about it, but it’s an assistant job. They’re going to Conference USA, I’ll take it.’

So, I took the job of Sam Houston, not really knowing a lot and not really expecting much. But knew it would be a great opportunity for me and my growth. Looking back, I think that’s probably one of the best jobs that I’ve had. And I’ve been at some pretty big-time places and worked for some big, big-time coaches.

I just respect Coach Hooten a lot. I’ve learned so much from him. His organization and running a program, his culture, just getting guys to play so hard and doing more with less; I learned a lot from him in that one season. Nobody expected it from us. We were picked what I think was 11th or something in the WAC preseason, and we ended up finishing as the No. 1 seed in the WAC tournament, had a record number of wins, and then made the NIT; nobody expected that.

But nobody knows how good of a coach he is. But with all that being said, I learned so much from Coach Hooten, and not just basketball, about being a man, being a coach, being a mature individual in this business and running a clean program.

It was a lot of fun. We won a lot of games, so you can’t complain. It was so much fun. And those guys we had, they played so hard. They worked so hard, day in and day out, they lived in the gym. I’ve never been around such hard workers. In 10 years of being in college basketball, that was one of the best years of my life.

IS: Wow. It certainly sounds like an amazing run that you guys had. And even more than just the record and numbers show. One, how nice of it was to be back in, say, the general Houston area? I know it’s about an hour north of Houston. And then also how difficult of a decision was that to leave the area that, you know, the general area that you grew up?

ME: It was great to be back, and just because it was my first assistant coaching job. I had been support staff for so long at good places and for good people. But it was my first assistant coaching job.

And what better than to be back in the general Houston area to be an assistant, a place where I had really good relationships with AAU coaches, high school coaches that I knew from even when I was in high school or in college, or guys that I played for in the past or guys that played with had their own teams.

So, it was kind of I wouldn’t say easy, but it was easier for me to coach at a place where I have relationships that I can use and leverage for recruiting ties to get closer to players and to get knowledge on who should I be recruiting, who do I have a chance with, who’s their inner circle, things like that.

So, it was great being back in that Houston area for my first assistant job, just because it was a place I’m familiar with.

Mike Ekanem Courtesy of Mike Ekanem

As far as leaving, that was hard. That was extremely hard. But like I said, Coach Skinn is one coach that wherever I was in the country, I would go work for him, and we had talked about that for the past several years. Wherever I was, whatever school I was at. Like, I can be comfortable leaving to go work for a friend like Tony Skinn.

So, leaving the Houston area was hard because it’s home. But going to George Mason with the support they have, the history of the program and even being in the A-10 Conference was kind of a no-brainer for me and kind of eased that decision a little bit.

IS: You mentioned how Sam Houston was your first assistant coaching job after spending so many years as support staff. What are the differences between support staff and assistant coaches?

ME: I’ve been probably every title you could possibly think of on the support staff side. You’re doing a little bit more of behind-the-scenes stuff.

For example, even when I was at Arkansas or at Texas A&M, Memphis, Nevada, you’re still recruiting, so to speak. You’re still making calls when you can or talking to people about the program, selling your head coach and the program wherever it may be. But you’re just really behind the scenes. You’re not out at these AAU tournaments, you’re not out at these high school games. You’re not out in these gyms at high school and Juco practices. So, you’re just not seen.

The players, the recruits don’t actually see your face unless they click on the website or watch you guys playing on TV or you FaceTime them. But I think it’s just been a lot of working behind the scenes.

We’ve had successful recruiting classes. When I was at Arkansas, shoot when I was at A&M, even at Memphis we had some great recruiting classes. We had the No. 2 recruiting class in the country at Arkansas. I wasn’t an assistant, so you don’t get that, the nod of your head saying like ‘hey you’ve recruited these guys,’ but as a support staff you’re doing all the behind-the-scenes stuff, getting the visits ready, organizing which guys are playing where, which coaches are going where for recruiting. Lots of behind-the-scenes work go into recruiting great players as well.

The behind the scenes is the biggest difference on being in a support staff role versus an assistant role. But one thing I will say is going into an assistant role for me and being an assistant now, and having been on a support staff for nine years truly helped me. I have experience in many aspects that most assistants don’t. Whether that’s breaking down video or working with some of the software that the video/operations/scouting guys use, making graphics for recruits, using Photoshop and things like that. I have that experience, and so I could do a lot of that on my own.

For example, at Sam Houston, I did a lot of stuff on my own because we didn’t have a huge staff like we did at A&M or Arkansas. Here at George Mason, I’m helping out and giving ideas to our creative media guys and things like that just off of experiences I’ve had in the past as I was on the support staff. So, I think it helped me a lot being able to be just more versatile as an assistant and step in and help when I can.

IS: Makes a lot of sense. The Swiss Army knife you’re turning into. You’ve talked a lot about coaching under Jason Hooton and Tony Skinn, but you’ve coached, with a lot of great coaches: Eric Musselman, Buzz Williams, Josh Pastner, Tubby Smith. Who has had the biggest impact on your career so far and why?

ME: Man, the biggest impact on my career. I would say every coach that I’ve worked for had some sort of impact on my career. Josh Pastner was the first one, and he gave me a chance. He literally just created a position for me at Memphis and honestly didn’t give me any boundaries or limitations or even, ‘Hey, this is what I need you to do.’ He’s just like, ‘get in where you fit in and just help us out. We’re just trying to win games, help wherever you can’.

And so, I kind of created a niche for myself, as being that I’d learned Photoshop, and I did all the graphics for recruits, and I helped with video stuff. I was kind of like a GA just helping wherever needed, helped in the weight room with our strength coach, things like that.

Then when Josh left for Georgia Tech, he had an opportunity for me at Georgia Tech, but I had literally just gotten in the business and he was like, ‘Hey, if I were you, I would try to work for Tubby Smith because Tubby’s a Hall of Fame coach. He would be great to have on your resume, and it’ll be great to learn from somebody else.’

Tubby got hired, and I actually stuck around for about a week and was just doing all the little things because I knew the lay of the land at Memphis. I was helping out wherever I could, and Tubby ended up hiring me as his video guy. He’s like, ‘Man, I love you. You’ve been working so hard. Like, you will be with us if you want to.’

And so, I took the job. I told Josh, Tubby’s going to hire me, and Josh was like, ‘Man, that’s great. Stay there, and work for Tubby.’

I worked for Tubby for two years. And those two years with Tubby, man, golly. He was just like more of a father figure, just a wise man that had been in the game a long time, had been through so many different experiences. He was a national championship coach; I learned so much from him about just being a man.

He would do the same with the players. It was bigger than basketball. It was life, and it was always life lessons. So, those two years with Tubby were amazing as the video coordinator. Then unfortunately, Tubby gets fired from Memphis. I literally saw a posting on HoopDirt for a video guy at Nevada, and I’m like, ‘Man, usually when it’s on HoopDirt, it’s filled already, but let me reach out.’

Well, Josh Pastner actually reached out to Eric Musselman. He knew him really well, and Muss was like, ‘Nah, this job is completely open.’ And Josh basically told him he had the guy for him. So, he put me in the door with Musselman.

Musselman knew some people that I worked for in the past when I was with the Spurs, just like the whole NBA fraternity. Musselman knew some of those guys, and he was like, ‘another former NBA guy coming to me like, I’ll take them.’ And so Musselman hired me.

When I was there at Nevada, I was video and social media. I was a little bit of everything there. We had a great year and were top five in the country for most of the year; one of the best seasons ever at University of Nevada, and we won a Mountain West championship there.

Mike Ekanem Courtesy of Mike Ekanem

I learned so much from Musselman. He’s just such a creative mind; his mind never stops. He’s always innovative and [thinking] what can I do that other coaches aren’t doing. So, he took social media by storm with some things and a lot of viral moments and a lot of creative ideas. And I learned that side from him.

Then he goes on to Arkansas, and I have an opportunity to come to Texas A&M based off of our director of ops at Nevada, his brother worked for Buzz at A&M, and they needed a video guy. So, I got in the door that way. And for me it was like, ‘Man, I’m coming home to Texas.’ I haven’t worked in Texas since I was with the Spurs. It had been so long.

And so, Buzz ended up hiring me, worked for two years for Buzz, and that was just one of the greatest two years of my career, because Buzz Williams, if anybody knows Buzz Williams, he’s not just a basketball coach. He’s just such a brilliant mind. He’s always learning and always wanting to learn more. He was a student manager and when he first got in, he was a student manager at Navarro Junior College. And still to this day, he says, ‘I’m still the manager.’ That’s how he operates. That’s how he runs his program; he’s out there sweeping the floor if he has to. He’s out there doing all the little things, he’s not bigger than anybody in the program, from the head coach to the managers and GAs.

I learned a lot about what it means to have humility and being humble, being appreciative of the little things. With Buzz, it’s always a life lesson. He’s similar to Tubby in that in that sense, always teaching the guys something, teaching the guys how to be a good man. But teaching his entire staff, not just the players. He wants everybody to grow in your current positions but get to the highest level you could possibly achieve. So, with Buzz, I learned a lot of that.

And just like program operations. If I were to be a head coach one day, I would take a lot of what Buzz is doing in his program, in running my program, or being a leader to my staff. So, Buzz was great with that.

And then Musselman calls, basically doubles my salary and brings me back on staff [at Arkansas] with him as player development. So, that was great. Great year. We went to the Elite Eight, so it was amazing. A lot of wins. And then as you know, I got the assistant job finally at Sam Houston. I’ve been all over the place.

IS: What’s been your favorite place to live?

ME: My favorite place to live. I mean, I’ll probably say College Station, Texas, just because I mean, I’m not far from Houston. All my family is in Houston. My mom, my brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews. So, in College Station, it’s a beast in itself. Like the 12th man of Texas A&M, and it’s just a great location. I think that was that was probably the best, just because of good weather and I was close to home.

IS: Totally makes sense to two big pluses for sure. Just to wrap it up, you kind of hinted at it when you were talking about Buzz. Any hopes of being a head coach one day?

ME: You know what, when I first got in, when Josh Pastner gave me my first job, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to be a head coach,’ fast track to be a head coach, whatever it takes, whoever it takes to work for.

But now I’m like, ‘Yeah, I would love to be a head coach one day, but there’s no rush at all.’ I’ve just been an assistant for two years. I want to be the best assistant I could possibly be, and not just rush into the first head coaching opportunity I could, you know, apply or interview for.

But yes, eventually I would love to be a head coach. No rush at all. Just trying to take it one day at a time and be a great assistant. And I think I’ve done well and been very successful with five very successful programs. I want to just continue doing that. And if that door opens up one day, that would be amazing. If not, I just want to continue being a great assistant coach.