Creating a winning game plan – whether in business or in sports – requires the right mix of identity, focus, incentives and passion. Just ask Bunky Harkleroad, coach of the fast-paced women’s basketball team at Sacramento State.
“When people say ‘Sac State women’s basketball,’ they expect a team that plays hard, that’s exciting to watch and fun to watch,” Harkleroad says.
Now in his third year in Sacramento, Harkleroad began developing his run-and-gun strategy when he coached his alma mater, Berea College in Kentucky. “We were a small college with no athletic scholarships, and we had a hard time finding a big post player,” he recalls. “We were trying to be good at everything, and we just weren’t.”
If he couldn’t recruit the the biggest-name players, the coach needed a different strategy. Fans just call it “The Bunky System.”
His game plan has evolved over the past 12 years, but it’s still based on a few “Bunky-isms” that also apply to business success.
IDENTITY: “We’re creating an identity here. How can you have a plan if you don’t know who you are?”
The identity of the Sac State women’s team is clear to Harkleroad, his coaching staff and his players.
“We want to be the most aggressive team,” Harkleroad explains. “Our style of play is fast-paced, with a full-court press, lots of three-point shooting, and frequent substitutions.”
Indeed, the coaches make five-player substitutions about every minute of play. Those fresh legs go hard for a minute at a time, setting records for the college, the Big Sky Conference and NCAA Division I basketball.
Under Harkleroad, the Hornets have twice broken Division I single-season records for three-pointers made and attempted. During their first Big Sky game this season, the team set school and conference records for most points in regulation, defeating Portland State 132-91.
Yes, this team scored 132 points in 40 minutes of play.
FOCUS: “It’s easy to get distracted and try to do too much. Keep it simple. We want to be the best in the nation at a few things.”
The Bunky System calls for specific and measurable goals. For Sac State, the team goal is 100 shots per game, including 50 three-pointers, with 40 percent offensive rebounding and 30 forced turnovers per game.
“The closer we get to those numbers, the better our chances of success,” Harkleroad says.
Last season, the Sac State team advanced through two rounds of the women’s NIT post-season tournament. This year, the coach has set his sights on a bigger prize: winning the Big Sky Conference and earning a spot in the NCAA women’s tournament. He doesn’t even recruit a player unless he thinks she can help the team win the conference championship.
“We’re only as good as our worst player,” he says.
INCENTIVES: “Our best games are when we have contributions from everyone, so we provide incentives to step up.”
Not only does Harkleroad play all 15 on the roster, but last season he started 31 different lineups in 34 games. “Every day is an audition with us,” he claims. “On any given day, anyone can start.”
To determine the starting lineup, the coaching staff adds each player’s points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, then subtracts fouls and turnovers. The top five players get to start the next game. Even third-string players will often get about five minutes of game time.
In the record-setting game against Portland State, six players finished in double figures, but no single player contributed more than 19 points. Harkleroad believes that this team approach – not relying on a single star to carry the team – frees the team up mentally.
“Women are often told ‘don’t’ — we tell them ‘do,’” he says. “Do take chances. Take risks. Play fearlessly.”
This coach who recruits for skilled, tough, determined athletes with a good heart also wants players to master skills they can carry into the business world: Be on time. Be reliable. Put in extra work. Be honest.
And love what you do.
PASSION: “This is not something we have to do. It’s something we get to do.”
Whether it’s an overtime win over the reigning conference champ or a heart-breaking one-point loss, Harkleroad tries to keep it all in perspective.
“One of the beautiful things about basketball is there are a lot of ways to get it right,” he says. “You can play a fast-paced game. You can slow it down. The question is, do you have people in your organization who can do what you’re asking them to do?”
It’s clear that he loves the game of basketball. He communicates that to his players, and encourages them to be grateful for this opportunity.
“This is an amazing time for all of us,” Harkleroad says. “We have the opportunity to use basketball to make our lives better.”