For the Love of the Game: Ben Stirt shoots high with dream of becoming college basketball coach

Issue Date: 
April 26, 2009
Ben StirtBen Stirt

Ben Stirt’s life has always revolved around basketball. His love affair with the sport began at age 3, when his father signed him up to play in a basketball league of 5- and 6-year-olds in his hometown of Gainesville, Fla. In the years that followed, so did participation in other leagues, basketball camps, and high school sports.

The love of athletics runs in Stirt’s family. His father had coached him in baseball and basketball on community teams throughout his childhood. His father also taught sports journalism at the University of Florida and founded a newspaper called Gator Bait, which followed University of Florida athletics. His mother handles billing for his father’s advertising and college sports consulting career.

But it was Stirt’s personal experience at the University of Pittsburgh that led him to pursue his dream of becoming a college basketball coach.

“I want the opportunity to shape young people’s lives, not only to help them become better basketball players, but to give them the skill set to succeed in life,” he said.

“Basketball skills only take you so far. Life skills stay with you forever.”

The 23-year-old Stirt graduates magna cum laude today with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in economics—two fields he says are important to developing a career courtside. This fall, he will begin pursuing a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Florida.

Stirt, who is 6’1,” began his college years at Carnegie Mellon University, where he played basketball and was a business major his freshman year. He was on track for a business career—until he received word from his parents that his coach from his teen years had died of cancer in his 40s. Stirt began to flounder, and his grades dropped.

“My parents wanted me to come home,” he said. “I realized I didn’t want to be a business major anymore. I had seen the impact my coach had had on everyone, and I realized that was what I was meant to do.”

Stirt returned home to Gainesville and ran basketball camps for preteens while maintaining a 4.0 GPA at Santa Fe Community College. As head coach for the Gainesville Stampede, he supervised a team of 12-year-olds in tournaments across the state. Eventually, he headed back to Pittsburgh, took a few courses at Community College of Allegheny County, and then enrolled at Pitt. Through his Carnegie Mellon contacts, he befriended Orlando Antigua—who was then the Pitt men’s basketball assistant coach. Soon, Stirt was spending every spare minute watching the Pitt team practice and talking to the student managers, who assist the coach with many facets of the program. By the time he became a Pitt student in January 2007, he was a shoo-in for a spot as a student manager.

The timing couldn’t have been better.

The Pitt Panthers made it to the Sweet Sixteen that year, under the leadership of Pitt Men’s Basketball Coach Jamie Dixon. In 2008, the Dixon-led Panthers won the Big East Championship, and this past spring, they advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Tipoff Club named Dixon the 2009 Naismith Men’s College Basketball Coach of the Year, a top national honor.

Stirt, who by this past season had advanced to head student manager, was in the inner circle of all the excitement—helping run drills on the court, staying up until the wee hours of the morning editing video for the coaches, and traveling with the team. He recalled with a smile the antics on the bus, the charter flights to various cities, setting up study halls for the squad, and his job of waking up the players for breakfast that sometimes involved “jumping on them or ripping the sheets off the bed.”

Stirt says it is this familial spirit that he loves—the camaraderie among team members and between the players and their coach. It is unique to high school and college basketball, he said.

“A coach is a father figure to kids in high school and college,” he said. “The players look up to you and care about you as a person.” He says at the NBA level, it’s “grown men dealing with other grown men” and not the same kind of relationship.

Stirt plans to use his background in psychology and economics, as well as what he has seen in the Pitt locker room, to forge relationships in his career. He already uses it when coaching preteens. “You have to know: Is the reward fitting for what the person is doing?” he explained. “If a player does well in practice, not saying anything might fire them up and make them perform even better. Another player might need constant reinforcement.” The idea, he said, is to motivate each player individually.

Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Brandin Knight says Stirt has all the tools to become a good coach. “He’s a good people person, able to communicate well and process information quickly,” he said. Knight says Stirt excels at analyzing numbers and statistics. “He marks the opponents’ tendencies through analysis. He’s very insightful when it comes to the game.”

But for Stirt, his main philosophy as a head coach will be the relationship with his players and assistant coaches. A good rapport, he says, stems from mutual respect. He envisions himself giving the players a schedule and a good routine and helping them set and reach small daily goals, which will lead to bigger ones. “You can’t say ‘We’re going to win a national championship.’ Your job is to show them how to do it,” he said.

“Coaching is really in-depth,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, he runs good plays.’ But, to get a player to run that play, you start with the relationship ... then the respect ... then harnessing that energy. The play is the last piece of the puzzle.”

Networking is also a big part of the road to success. It was networking that landed Stirt his student manager job at Pitt. And as one of the Pitt men’s basketball team’s first student managers to work with video, he has used his contacts to track down opposing teams’ videos while on the road.

The night following the announcement of the NCAA tournament bracket last month, the Pitt coaching staff had trouble finding video of Pitt’s first-round opponent, East Tennessee State. Stirt contacted a coaching friend in Florida who was able to give him access to East Tennessee State’s entire season of game film. “That got me some high-fives from the coaches,” Stirt said, smiling. Working these contacts has already landed Stirt a job at the University of Florida as a graduate assistant video coordinator for the men’s basketball team.

Stirt said that working alongside coaches Dixon and Knight and the Pitt players has definitely been a highlight of his Pitt experience. In addition, the University’s faculty was “awesome,” Stirt said, and he was impressed by their accessibility—an important attribute for student athletes, who sometimes miss several straight weeks of classes.

He has a vivid memory of being in the Panthers’ locker room after the team lost in the final seconds of a game this spring against the Villanova Wildcats. A victory would have advanced them to the Final Four.

“They wanted it so badly. They had worked so hard,” he recalled. But Stirt says even in that moment, the care and emotion they all felt for one another was almost palpable. “That love everyone has for one another is really why it’s such a great career. That’s why I want to do it so much.”