From Georgia Tech sideline, Damon Stoudamire projects atypical calm

New Georgia Tech coach Damon Stoudamire gives direction from the sideline during the Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech basketball game, November 6, 2023, (Jamie Spaar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jamie Spaar

Credit: Jamie Spaar

New Georgia Tech coach Damon Stoudamire gives direction from the sideline during the Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech basketball game, November 6, 2023, (Jamie Spaar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Sometimes, Damon Stoudamire crossed his arms, the posture of an art critic in a gallery. Others, Georgia Tech’s new coach stood on the sideline of McCamish Pavilion with his hands stuffed in his pockets, the figure of a frequent flyer waiting for his boarding zone to be called.

It mattered little what unfolded on the court in front of him during the Yellow Jackets’ season-opening win over Georgia Southern on Monday, the inaugural game of his tenure – Stoudamire seemed ensconced in his own cocoon of serenity.

When transfer guard Amaree Abram connected on a 3-pointer in the first half, Stoudamire’s arms remained folded across his chest. When Kowacie Reeves Jr., another transfer guard, collided with an Eagles player and was called for a charge – a moment begging for a “You’ve got to be kidding me!” protest – he had no reaction. A turnover on a Tech fast break elicited similar placidity. Just about the only thing Stoudamire didn’t do in his studied calm was pull out his phone to check his texts.

It was by design. It wasn’t as though he didn’t witness basketball sins that he wanted to react to. Stoudamire just wasn’t going to.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in a game that you might not like, but do you react to it?” Stoudamire asked in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Stoudamire was sitting in a padded courtside seat Wednesday morning. The Jackets had just completed practice before their Thursday night home game against Howard. He answered his own question. No, he said, a coach has to stay poised and get through the moment.

“They look to their coach to be a leader,” Stoudamire said. “You’re supposed to be a reflection of your team. When your team isn’t showing poise, it’s probably because the coach hasn’t shown poise.”

There are any number of ways for coaches to act on a sideline and an equal number of explanations for them. Stoudamire’s predecessor, Josh Pastner, sometimes appeared to be a sixth defender on the floor for the Jackets as he held up his arms, a demonstration of the form he wanted from his players. He was not immune to the occasional slam of the scorer’s table, a reflection of his competitive fire. It’s not why he was fired after seven seasons, nor was it the reason Tech won its first ACC title since 1993 under his watch. But it’s who he was.

Regardless, Stoudamire’s sideline cool makes a lot of sense.

“I don’t want to show anybody up,” Stoudamire said after Monday’s game. “I just want them to play to the best of their ability. So, for me, practice is where I can act the fool, so to speak. I overreact a lot. I do – in practice. But you’ll never see that in a game.”

His thoughtful explanation went on. Once you chide a player, he said, you can’t take those words back. And even if a player doesn’t see his coach stomping his foot in frustration during the game, he might see it later in a video session.

“You’re showing them exactly if you believe in them or you don’t believe in them,” he said. “There’s a time or two where you’re allowed to do that. But if it’s a conscious thing, at some point, that’s going to break a player down, and they’re going to lose confidence.”

This wasn’t just the evidence of one game and a happy sound bite after a win. Ted Leland, the former athletic director at Pacific who gave Stoudamire his first head-coaching job in 2016, saw the same thing. He described Stoudamire’s sideline demeanor as “almost stoic.” Leland said that he and his wife liked to give Stoudamire a hard time when he was a Boston Celtics assistant coach (the job Tech AD J Batt hired Stoudamire from). Even with a seat next to the head coach, Stoudamire showed little animation.

“We were like, ‘How do you make money doing that?’” Leland said in a phone interview with the AJC. “That’s just the way he is. I was an athletic director for 29 years. I happen to think that that’s a great way to be. There’s enough pressure on the kids playing the game that the coach doesn’t need to add his antics. I happen to like that style.”

It extends to his interaction with referees. Working officials to try to get a call could be an effective tactic and might communicate to players how hard their coach is working for them. But it also could show players how stressed out and anxious he (or she) is. Against Georgia Southern, Stoudamire made one traveling motion when the Eagles had the ball and then spoke (calmly) to the official on Tech’s sideline as the play unfolded (without a travel call). That might have been it.

Leland said he never saw Stoudamire do anything demonstrative such as stomp his feet, wave his arms or slump down in a chair. Tech fans may neither.

“It’s subtle, but right now I’m not worried about the refs,” Stoudamire said. “The refs aren’t going to win or lose any games for me right now. We’re trying to get better each and every day.”

Point guard Kyle Sturdivant said that, at first, he sometimes expected Stoudamire to jump on him after a mistake in practice.

“But I think even since the summer, he hasn’t been a big, like, ‘OK you made your mistake’ (coach),’” Sturdivant said. “It’s always the next play. He’s a next-play coach.”

Forward Tyzhaun Claude said that while Stoudamire isn’t a “rah-rah coach” that gives him confidence in games. When Claude makes a mistake, Stoudamire just tells him how to fix it.

“And for me, that just helps me out a lot mentally,” Claude said. “I’m not afraid to mess up. I can go out there and play hard for him, so I’ll run through a wall for him just because he gives me the confidence.”

It’s a different style. But Tech (one NCAA appearance since 2010) can stand to be different, especially if it has a clear rationale behind it.

We all know how this works. If Stoudamire doesn’t lead the Jackets to the NCAA Tournament, his sideline behavior will stop being cool and calm and start being detached and meek.

But until then, give poise a chance.