USA TODAY Sports Images

One on one with Tyler Thornton

TDD's Alumni Series returns with a sit-down conversation with former Blue Devil captain and current Marquette graduate assistant, Tyler Thornton. From his recruitment to his early career struggles to being named a captain and then transitioning into a coaching career, we cover it all.

Let’s start with your current role at Marquette, how are you liking being a graduate assistant?

Tyler Thornton:  It’s great, it’s been great to complete my first full year up here in Milwaukee and it’s been great to learn a lot. With seeing the transition with Coach Wojo taking over the program with the new staff it’s been good. When you first take over a program you sit down and look at all that you want to do not only on the court but off the court as well, so I’ve definitely learned a lot in this first year. 

Was the plan for you to do two years at Marquette as a grad assistant and finish your masters program?

Yeah I definitely planned on staying until I finished my masters program next summer. I’m doing a Communications Studies degree program and I’ve been participating in a lot of marketing and other types of surveys and courses, as well as some social media platform stuff as well. 

For fans who may not have an idea as to the day to day life of a graduate assistant in a big time college basketball program, is there any insight you can provide into that from your experience?

I pretty much am involved with the staff meetings in the morning which is great because Coach Wojo lets me be a part of those. We just go through whatever we have on the agenda for that day, then we talk about recruiting to our current players, what our players are doing in the community, just all kinds of different things that you as a player don’t necessarily go on every day but it does. Then I just kinda help out any way I can whether it be doing rebounds for our guys when they are shooting and obviously giving them any advice and talking to them when they want you to.

What’s the main things you think you have learned that you didn’t know going into the coaching/grad assistant side of things?

I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, it’s more that being a coach is much more than X’s and O’s, there’s so many things you are dealing with. You are dealing with things that 18-22 year old guys are dealing with because their life is changing and everything is so different with different guys having different personalities who day to day you are trying to figure out the best way to manage and get them to be together. It’s definitely much more than X’s and O’s and I definitely experienced some of that when I was a player, but you don’t know really what to expect with the day to day of being a coach with all the things you worry about how to make as smooth as possible for the program to run as well as it can.

With Coach Wojo implementing his vision for the program, what have you observed to be the main things that he’s building his vision of the Marquette program on?

I think Wojo wants to build his program the way he’s been coaching and the way he’s been a part of a family the last 20+ years. He wants this program to be first and foremost where the guys are proud of the school that they went to and he wants those guys to come back and teach the younger guys that are here what it means to have the pride they had in this school. Then he also wants to build a program where guys take pride in taking care of their bodies, doing things the right way with basketball and school and life. I think over the last year we’ve definitely done that and we’ve got some great guys in here including this year with five freshman to add to our team and one transfer. I think those guys are going to help build something great.

You guys got a lot of attention for the recruiting class you built for this past year.  How are you guys feeling now that they are on-campus and you are integrating them into the program?

They fit in seamlessly because they are all great kids from great families who have different personalities. They are all gym rats and they all want to learn and get better. I think for a coaching staff to have young guys who come in from day one and attack and who want to get better, all of our coaches are very pleased with how they have been. With the older guys that actually gives them energy too when you don’t have to drag the younger guys to the gym. When guys want to get a workout in or run some extra pickup, it builds competition while all of those guys want to work hard and get better. 

How much of a feel did you get from a recruiting perspective with how the coaches go about it during your first year with the program?

From what I’ve seen, the types of guys we’ve recruited, just how relentless they were in going after guys, we definitely targeted a really good pool of guys while not targeting a big pool of them. Our coaching staff is definitely really particular with the kind of kids they want to go after. So far it’s worked out and they want to go after guys that they feel will fit in with a family atmosphere. So these five freshman, what they have shown is they want to work 24/7 and they all want to get better. Those are the types of guys that we want to have in the program, the gym rats who look forward to working hard. I want that as a coach too, I look forward to one day hopefully having my own program and seeing those guys and how hard they want to work, those are the kinds of guys I would want to have and mold in my program. It’s about getting the right guys with the right attitudes and the right personalities to come to the program.

Are there any examples you have from this past year where either Coach Wojo or Coach Carrawell or yourself brought some experience or teaching to bear that you first learned through your time at Duke?

I think the message overall from day one has been the same in that we are going to be open and honest with each other, good or bad, player to player, coach to coach, player to coach, we’re going to be honest with each other and that’s the only way you can have a successful program is by being honest, up front and open to the person next to you to be the best. If they aren’t being the best, it’s important to tell them about it and if they are doing something great, it’s important to tell them about it. You should be accepting of that feedback and try to adjust. I’ve never been in any other program except for Duke and here, but that’s a formula for success when you are open and honest with each other because it builds great character and it makes everybody feel like they want to be a part of something greater and contribute to that. It makes you want to work to be a part of that family and I think that’s the most important thing.

When you look back at what led you to Marquette, what do you remember about that process and how it came together?

Well you know from the very beginning, Coach K and Coach Wojo when they recruited me, I had told them that I had dreams and aspirations of one day being a coach. That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to go to Duke was because the way Coach K coaches players and with how many guys he’s had go onto professional playing or coaching careers, there’s so many references that Coach K has with guys that he’s helped them get positions in the coaching field. That’s one thing I definitely wanted to do and after Coach Wojo got the Marquette job, I met with Coach K and he told me that I should give Coach Wojo a call and he might have a position for you. So I called Coach Wojo and he told me that he had a graduate assistant position that he thought would be a good fit for me for me to learn and get my feet wet. So when I graduated, the next day I moved up here to Milwaukee and met with him, told him I wanted to be there with them and Coach Carrawell was there and I had talked to him about it and he told me that if I wanted to coach that this would be a good spot to get my start. He said we’re going to do great things here and you are going to learn a lot and it’s been a great experience so far for me.

What did it mean to you to have those guys be in your corner and want to give you that opportunity?

I can never repay them for that so I’m hoping that when I get my opportunities I’ll be able to help other people out like they did with me. That’s the only way I can thank them is by working hard and being a part of the Marquette family.

Once you were in the Duke program did Coach K or Coach Wojo give you any advice on some coaching things knowing that you wanted to follow a coaching path after you graduated?

Me and Wojo would have conversations and he would tell me little things here and there that were helpful. I just remember he would tell me little things about the game and I feel like I have a great knowledge for the game for my age. Obviously I don’t know everything there is know, not even close, but being on this side of the game, I’m looking forward to learning even more and moving forward and helping guys get better. Wherever I end up next I’m just going to continue to keep learning.

You obviously took the first step towards that process of learning and growing as a player and ultimately a coach by going to Duke.  What do you remember were the main reasons why you chose Duke?

The recruiting process for me, I didn’t want to drag it out, I didn’t want to make a big deal by holding out and waiting. It was the right fit, Nolan Smith was an older guy I looked up to out of the DC area, he played for DC Assault and his first year at Duke, he kinda struggled a little bit, nothing was given to him and he really learned a lot from that experience. I knew if I went there that nothing would be given to me, everything would have to be earned and I knew it would build character and that I would learn how to do things the right way. I’m fortunate enough that Coach K and his staff felt like I would be able to contribute to the program. I wouldn’t ever change my decision, I feel like I’m in a great place right now and moving forward I’ll be blessed with many opportunities because of the education I’ll have and the coaching I was fortunate to receive. Having the association I’ve been blessed to have with these people, I would never change my decision for anything.

We interviewed Nolan a few months ago for this same article series and he mentioned some of those struggles that you just mentioned. What do you remember about how you helped him work through those struggles when you were teammates?

I think when you are there, the older guys really help the younger guys and the young guys really respect them for that and the older guys give them words of wisdom and encouragement to help them with different situations. That’s been that way since Coach K has been there. It’s funny, when Coach Wojo here talks with the guys and talks with recruits, he tells them that anything you are going through or have gone through, best believe it has happened to me at some point in my career. We all have those ups and downs, not even just when you are a freshman, but you have ups and downs as an upperclassmen as well. So those experiences he went through as a young guy helped him go through the things he went through when he was older. Like this year with Quinn being a senior, he went through a lot of ups and downs his first few years but he stuck with it, he persevered and he had a great year. I was just so proud of him and also Nolan with just how much they grew from when they were first on campus versus when they left, there were some maturity with the way he handled the young guys, the way Quin led the team this year, I was so excited for him and those guys that they were able to win it all this year.

You were recognized as a team leader and captain while you were at Duke, what do you remember about your approach during that time?

Being a captain is more than a title. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know for me that being a captain, there was a lot of responsibility and there were a lot more conversations with the coaches and a lot more tough conversations with Coach K. He would tell me that those guys want you to take ownership of the team because you have those tools that will help you moving forward in life. It’s hard, it’s definitely hard, but you look back on it and you appreciate it because you learn so much. I just try to shed wisdom on the guys here based on my experiences.

Those conversations with Coach K you mentioned…what for you are the most memorable things he said to you from those conversations?

One of the main moments is it was probably my sophomore year, our team obviously had a great year my freshman year and coming into the season, I was trying to do things that weren’t necessarily who I was as a player. Coach K sat me down and told me that if you don’t do what you do, you won’t help our team. It would be a great thing for us to win, but doing those things and doing them extremely well, everybody has this thing as a player where you feel like I should be doing this or I should be doing that, but when he had that conversation with me, I looked myself in the mirror and I said I would do whatever it takes to do what they ask and I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities. I’m going to get the most of this opportunity is what I told myself then and looking back to when I graduated, I definitely think I did that. 

When you look back on your four years at Duke, in what ways did you grow?

The first year everything is new. College is new and you basically aren’t living under your parents.  So as a young guy you make mistakes here and there. One of the things for me my freshman year, I probably wasn’t doing the right thing all the time off the court.  I remember Wojo sat me down and he had a real conversation with me and he told me that we’ve all done some of the things that you are doing, but if you want to be really successful and take advantage of the opportunity that you have, for you to maximize your opportunity here you need to focus on the program and making yourself and your teammates better. You can still enjoy some of the things going on around you, but you don’t have to be in everything and show your face at every single thing. For me as a young guy for him to have that conversation with me and to share with me some of the ups and downs that he went through when he was in the program, I really respected it and understood it and from that point on, it really changed how I approached certain situations just being a new, young person to the college life. I think that really helped me in the long run.

When you think big picture about your Duke career, how do you feel it went for you as a person and a player?

I just think that I’m most grateful for the people I met and the people I was able to build relationships with including my teammates, coaches, students, some of my teachers, the people I met in the community. It just helped raise me during my college years and what I enjoyed the most from playing was playing in Cameron Indoor and contending for a national championship every year was great. The thing I take away the most, the thing I miss the most is definitely the people.

The Devils Den Top Stories