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Herb Sendek’s relationships spark successes

Over his nearly 30-year career, Santa Clara’s head coach has built an impressive coaching tree collection of players

NCAA Basketball: Santa Clara at Gonzaga
Herb Sendek has a career record of 533-389 in 29 seasons. He is one of 17 active head coaches with 500 career wins.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Josip Vrankic was a working out as a high school prospect at a Hoop Group summer camp in Pennsylvania. It’s 8 a.m., and the Toronto native is working on ball-handling drills. The gym is mostly empty except for one man sitting in the front row: Santa Clara head coach Herb Sendek.

Following the workout, the camp director told Vrankic that he had never seen a coach attend a session so early in the morning.

“To see someone that invested and that passionate about my development, after that Santa Clara was an easy commit,” Vrankic said.

The 6-foot-9-inch forward played five seasons with the Broncos and was one of the best players in program history. He graduated with the third most points (1,817) and eighth most rebounds (801) on the school leaderboards, while starting more games than anyone else (131). He received All-West Coast Conference honors four times.

On top of crediting his performance to Sendek, Vrankic took it a step further.

“You can’t put into words how much he’s affected my life, not only as a player but as a person,” Vrankic said. “Seeing him be able to joke around, seeing him as a father, seeing him as a husband, seeing him in settings where we’re out to have fun has been truly a privilege. … He’s a really fun guy.”

Sendek is entering his eighth season at the helm of the Broncos program. Inheriting a team that experienced a losing record in three straight seasons and four of the previous five, he has posted a winning record in all but one year.

The Broncos have won 20 games in three of the past four seasons — with the one exception coming in 2021, when they played a total of 20 games. They have won 76 games over that stretch, the best four-year period for the program since the mid-80s. Sendek’s club finished third in the WCC and qualified for the NIT in each of the past two seasons.

“What we do is the ultimate team mission,” Sendek said. “At the end of the day, you are as successful as the people are around you. It’s a complete and total team effort. From the administration to the staff to the players, it takes everybody to have any measure of success. And so, we’ve been really fortunate to have a great team here.”

In each of the last two NBA Drafts, Santa Clara has had a player selected in the top 20. Jalen Williams was chosen No. 12 by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2022, and Brandin Podziemski was picked No. 19 by the Golden State Warriors this past June.

Williams averaged 14.1 points, 4.5 rebounds 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.3 minutes per game while starting 62 of the 75 games in which he appeared over his rookie season. He played three seasons with the Broncos, posting 7.7 points per game as a freshman before closing his career by notching 18.0 points a night during his junior campagin.

Podziemski began his college career at Illinois, where he played sparingly and averaged just 1.4 points in 16 games in 2021-22. He played his sophomore season with the Broncos and posted 19.9 points, 8.8 boards and 3.7 assists per game before he delcared for the NBA Draft.

NCAA Basketball: Santa Clara at Gonzaga
Herb Sendek with Brandin Podziemski
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

“At Santa Clara, we’re not going to get the McDonald’s All-American, but we’re going to get really good players and we’re going to develop them,” Broncos assistant coach Jason Ludwig said. “You’re going to get an opportunity earlier rather than later at our place. That’s number one. Jalen Williams had a chance to start halfway through his freshman year. That doesn’t happen if he’s at UCLA. So, that’s the first part because you have to have an opportunity. If you don’t have an opportunity, I don’t care how good you, then how are you going to develop? You’re not going to develop.”

Sendek has implemented a pro style, which has helped to ease the transition for players who play at the next level. The Broncos do not run many set plays. Instead, they base their offensive sets on what the defense gives them. This approach teaches the players how to read and react in real time.

“We play a very open basketball, so it’s a lot of reads,” said Vrankic, who currently plays professionally in Spain. “We’re making decisions quickly. We’re playing very free and openly. However, we still have that discipline and sense of structure. … On defense, a lot of what he’s done, I’ve learned over overseas. So, being able to pick up on what he’s taught me and use that has been extremely helpful.”

Sendek prides himself on teaching and learning. One of 17 active coaches with 500 career wins, he is entering year 30 of his coaching career, which includes head coaching stops at Miami (Ohio), N.C. State and Arizona State before Santa Clara.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Santa Clara
Herb Sendek has led Santa Clara to the NIT each of the last two seasons.
Cody Glenn-USA TODAY Sports

The game has changed a lot over that time, and Sendek has adapted and adopted.

“If you’re going to be in any leadership position, you have to adapt because as the saying goes, the only thing that’s constant is change,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to compromise your core values, your bedrock beliefs. But, at the same time, things change. … I love learning. I’m on a journey where I’m constantly trying to improve myself as a person, a leader, a teacher, a coach. I find that to be a fun process of discovery.”

Sendek’s imprint on the college game stretches far beyond his own programs. His coaching tree is extensive and includes the likes of Sean and Archie Miller, Thad Matta and Eric Musselman.

“He is one of the best human beings you’ll ever meet in your entire life,” Ludwig said. “He’s such a good person. He just cares about people. He’s honest. Just one of the best people you’ll ever meet, regardless of basketball.

“I know when I get an opportunity to become a head coach, I’m going to be able to be ready. … His coaching career is ridiculous. So many current and former Division I head coaches were assistants under him. And I think that’s what truly makes him special as a head coach is the fact that he expects and demands and allows his assistants to really take such an incredible vested interest in the program.”

Ludwig compared Sendek to a CEO in the way he runs the program. The Pittsburgh native oversees every aspect but allows those under him to come to their own decisions and conclusions.

He takes this same approach when communicating and keeping in touch with his former players.

“Coach Sendek has always had a positive impact on my life,” said Julius Hodge, who starred for Sendek at N.C. State in the early 2000s. “He’s been a great role model and a great teacher of not just the game but of the game of life. Coach is somebody that when I reach out to him, he’s never going to give you the answer, but he’s going to help you find it.”

Hodge won ACC Player of the Year and was picked No. 20 overall in the 2005 NBA Draft. He is now an assistant coach at Little Rock after spending four years on Sendek’s staff at Santa Clara.

The relationships are what Sendek values most. He loves to see what his former players go on to achieve after they leave his program.

“That’s one of the very best parts about being a coach,” Sendek said. “It’s extremely fulfilling and gratifying. I wish I could be in closer touch with all of them, to be honest with you. But I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities that we have to reconnect and to visit and to be together.”