Robert Kirby Interview

Mississippi State assistant basketball coach Robert Kirby talked about the life of being a coach, his strong friendship with MSU head basketball coach Rick Stansbury, how he wound up in coaching, his career goal, and the players he coaches (the forwards and centers).

What do you do for relaxation?
"This time of year, if we don't have a camp, I'm usually in the Sanderson (Rec Center) working out at 5 o'clock. The exercise is relaxing to me because it allows me to get my mind off of what I am doing. I try to get as many phone calls in and paperwork out of the way before I go. The other thing I like to do is rent a movie."

You have two daughters and a wife. Do you have the time to take an annual vacation?
"We didn't last year, but we are trying to squeeze it in this year - trying to get it in in the middle of the July (recruiting) period. The last thing I want to do is add more travel time to the July period, but I want to find some time with my family. Up until about 4 or 5 years ago, I had never taken a vacation. I wound up taking it one year - the second year I got back here - because they requested that we take it. My wife and daughters made me put my phone up. You would be surprised how much more relaxed you are. Our first vacation I stayed at home, but the other times we traveled."

Does it take a special women to be an assistant coach's wife?
"Very much so. We coaches talk about that all the time, because it takes a very special woman to put up with a coach. It takes one that is very much into what he is doing because it takes so much of your time. You'll plan something to do and it gets cancelled at the last minute. The second time we went on vacation I got there two days later. It takes a special woman to not let things like that upset her. The kids never understand it. They want you to put the phone down and not talk to anybody else while they are around. When I walk in the door, they want me to put the phone down."

Why don't you turn the phone off at a certain time at night and just forget about it?
"The thing is, Gene, if you aren't talking to the recruit, somebody else is."

Why not use caller ID?
"Called ID has helped, but sometimes you get a call that's not from a recruit but it may be some information about a recruit that you are involved with. And it may be information that you need to know before you make that next phone call to the recruit. If you don't take that call, then you don't have that information."

With all the time it takes to be a coach, how do you find time for your family?
"You have to try and make time. Before I go into my house, I try to get as many of the critical phone calls out of the way as possible. And when you are home, you try to make sure you do the little things with your family. If one of your kids asks you to be at a certain place at a certain time, you need to make every effort to be there. And I try not to let anything get between me and my kids. If they are in a play or they are cheerleading and I tell them I am going to be there, very rarely do I miss something like that. It's almost never. Everything else has to wait. They don't ask me to be at lot of things, so when they ask me to be there, then I am going to be there."

When you and your wife met, were you coaching?
"No, we've never been in the same spot very often. She went to a different high school than me and we attended different colleges. She went to Fairley and I went to Whitehaven. We actually met on a summer work program. Because we were rarely together, the conditioning (of being a coach's wife) was put into place before we got married."

When you two started dating, did you know you were going to be an assistant coach?
"No, I had no idea. At that time, all I wanted to do was play ball. I actually fell into coaching. That was not what I set out to do."

How did you fall into coaching?
"When I went to Three Rivers Community College, Coach Pattilo came in as an assistant coach. He coached me for the two years that I was there and I became very close to him. I went on to a 4-year college from there. When I was finishing my degree, he called one summer and asked me what I was planning on doing when I graduated. I told him I was going to graduate at the end of the semester and go play ball. He told me that he was thinking about retiring from his position in about three weeks and was going to ask the head coach to hire me. He asked me what I thought about that. I told him that I had a contract to play overseas. He then told me to think about it and he would call me back. A couple of days later, he called me back. I told him I still had a contract to play overseas. The third time he called me, he asked me about it and I told him that I had another team to contact me about playing overseas. He said '(expletive) Robert, come and try it, if you don't like it, then you are still young enough to play.'

"It just so happened that summer I had to do some extra work in a class that I was taking to get my grade up. That kept me from being able to go overseas to play.

"After I finished my work, I went to Three Rivers and was helping Gene Best, the coach at Three Rivers, coach an all-star game. One of the coaches who was at the game recruiting some players for his school, an NAIA school, Arkansas College, saw me and asked someone what I was doing there. The guy said that I was interviewing for the job as Coach Best's assistant. He said if he doesn't get that job, then he wanted me. I wound up getting beat out by another guy who was already an assistant coach, so I wound up going to Arkansas College. While there, I wound up signing a couple of kids who were McDonald's All-American nominees. Coach Mike Newell heard about it. And while we were talking on the phone about scheduling, he told me that he had a spot open and wanted to know if I wanted to come visit him and talk about it. I told him I would. So, I wound up taking the job at (University of Arkansas at) Little Rock."

I see things in you that make me believe you would make a good coach. You are very friendly and knowledgeable. What do you think makes you a good coach?
"I am very personable. I care a lot about the kids and I'm very knowledgeable of what I talk to them about. I am one of 13 brothers and sisters. We have 9 brothers. My brother and I were always coaching and teaching the little guys. I think that helped me a lot. Later on, the coaches at my high school noticed how quickly I picked up things."

I've heard you and Rick Stansbury are not only coaches on the same staff, but also good friends. Were you already friends prior to the time you two were on the same coaching staff your first time at MSU?
"No, we didn't know each other at all. I was here, as was (John) Brady and Richard Williams a full year before Rick came in as a part-time coach. That summer, Brady left to go to New Orleans. I moved up and Rick became a full-time assistant."

Did you two form a special bond during the time you were at MSU the first time?
"We became good friends due to being assistants together."

Once you left MSU to go to the University of Houston, did you two continue your friendship?
"Yes, we did. It helped that we were recruiting different areas. It's hard to maintain a friendship when you recruit the same areas. Very few coaches have close friends in this business."

What I am leading up to is when he was first hired as the head coach at Mississippi State, you were the first coach that he hired?
"Yes, his main goal was to get me back to Mississippi State."

Did you expect that he would call you about the job?
"Yeah, after he got the job, I did. Before he called me, he had been working my family before he worked me. At that time, there were a couple of offers on the table, but I was very comfortable with Rick because he and I are very close."

Is it good to be comfortable with someone that is, basically, your boss?
"It is good to have that because this is a high stress job, not from the outside, but from the inside. What I mean by that is you have to have people around you that will put as much energy and effort into it as you do. If they don't, then it's not going to work."

In the MSU basketball media guide, you are listed as the top assistant coach. How is that different from the other assistant coaches?
"Some coaches set it up different than we do, but the duties of the first three assistants are pretty much the same. We all do scouting, recruiting and video. Some of us do a little bit more than others when it comes to the finer details of the program. I guess the main thing is if something happens to Rick like he gets sick, I will be the guy that takes over for him."

You are a really friendly guy. Can you be too friendly of a person when it comes to coaching your players?
"You can always be their friend, but on this level there is a fine line. There is a fine line in being able to coach a guy and also making him feel comfortable enough to talk to you about things that are going on in his life. You can be their friend, but when we get on the court and they aren't working as hard as they need to be, I can bite their head off if I need to. When you are a coach, however, you aren't just his coach on the floor, but you are his coach in life. Sometimes, they depend on you for things that they don't tell their parents about. As a coach, your job is to help teach them what is right."

It almost sounds like they become a member of your family.
"It's not almost, they are. And it's not just for four years. I still have some that come to my house after 10 or 15 years, and the first thing they do is go into the refrigerator."

What is your career goal?
"There is no question that I would like to be a head coach some day. I remember I was trying to get a head coaching job during one summer. I thought that I had it, but I didn't get it. I was really hurt at the time. But my mom set me down and told me that the Good Lord didn't want me to have that job. When the job the Good Lord wants you to have comes along, you will get it. And that's the philosophy that I have tried to keep with me."

You coach the centers and forwards. Let's talk about each one of them. Your first guy is Wesley Morgan. What are things you like about him?
"Wesley is one of the hardest workers that I have ever been around. And he has a great attitude. He's done an outstanding job of coming to work everyday with his hard hat on. He is the type of guy that you love to get up every morning and go coach, because he is going to come in with a willingness and attitude about him that says, teach me, I want to learn. As a coach, you really look forward to that. Wesley is the type of player that believes wholeheartedly that when you teach him something, what you are teaching him will make him successful on the basketball court and in life. He picks up things very quickly and tries to do it exactly the way you teach him.

"Wesley is going to be a great player for us. The biggest thing that will help Wesley is (new MSU assistant strength) Coach (Richard) Akins is back to help him develop his leg strength. That is really going to help him."

Piotr Stelmach.
"Piotr is one of those guys who will work really hard and try to do things exactly the way you teach him. He is very skilled for a big guy and has a great ability to pass the ball to the perimeter area. What we need to get him to do is be more aggressive offensively and defensively. One of the things I joke with him about is he is too friendly. You can't always be nice to a guy. Sometimes you have to knock them on their butt and pick them up on the way back."

Do you think he will be able to do that and be able to contribute more this coming season?
"Yeah, I think Piotr can do that. The thing about Piotr is he is such a team guy, sometimes he forgets to be the guy. Wesley is the same way. They forget to be assertive, because they are trying so hard to fit in with the team. There is a fine line between the two. You have to be assertive, but you also have to be a team guy."

Talk about Charles Rhodes.
"His potential is through the roof. The thing that Charles has to do is make up his mind that he wants to be a great player instead of just a good player. When he decides that, then the sky is the limit for him."

Do you think he has NBA type talent?
"He has NBA athleticism, but he doesn't understand the work ethic that needs to go with it. He does it for a certain period of time, then loses his focus. So, instead of sticking with his regiment of doing things to help him get better, he will get frustrated when things don't go well for him. Once he grows out of that, then he can be as good as he wants to be."

Did you see some improvement at the end of the season?
"Yes, I did. Last year, during our first couple of weeks of practice, our guys nicknamed him Charlie Hustle. The team nicknamed him that. But, the first couple of weeks were the easy weeks. After that it gets hard. Then, the mental toughness comes into play. He's not getting as many reps as he is used to getting. He's not getting the chance to go out there and make a mistake and forget about it. In high school, you can make a mistake and take a little while to get your focus back. At this level, you have to drop it. Because of that, he's having to adjust to the mental part of it."

How close is he to being where he needs to be?
"It's hard to tell. It could take him a year or two. The biggest thing with him is he wants to wait on us to give him that two and a half hours that we have with him at practice and spring some magic dust on him and make him first-team All-American. I told him just before he left that the great players, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, were the first guys in the gym and the last ones to leave. I told him he's not even close to them and he won't spend any time in the gym alone."

Talk about Jerrell Houston.
"He is very, very skilled. He can really put the ball on the floor and creates shots for other people. One thing about Jerrell is he always try to lead. Even now, he tries to lead. So, he'll catch on really well."

Why did he redshirt?
"It was the best thing for him at the time. If we had thought at the beginning of the year that we would have been able to get him enough playing time, we wouldn't have redshirted him. At first, we thought Ontario Harper wouldn't be able to play because everytime we saw him work, he was dragging his leg around. So, at that time, we were trying to develop Jerrell. But, the more we saw Jerrell in the perimeter, the more we realized he doesn't know how to play without the ball. With the ball, he is fine, but without the ball, he didn't understand how to screen away, get somebody else open, then pop back...things like that. In practice, he had Harp or Frazier on him and those guys knew how to defend. He was lost defending them and they didn't allow him to catch the ball. Because of that, we decided to slide him on up to the four position. While he wasn't comfortable without the ball as a three, he was comfortable without the ball as a four. The other guys said there was no way they would be able to defend him because he was so quick. But, he fought it mentally - totally resisted it. He thought playing at the four was going to put him on the block and he would have to play like Lawrence (Roberts). Our four man doesn't play like that. He plays like a perimeter guy. He didn't understand that, so he continued to fight it mentally. We were in and out due to recruiting and anytime he had free time, he would drive home to Memphis. Because of that, we didn't have the necessary time to communicate with each other. After a couple of weeks, we decided to redshirt him."

Where will he play this year, the three or the four?
"We'll play him where he fits the best on the team. It doesn't matter where he plays on offense. We really only have two positions, a point and a five. The other guys are perimeter players. Where we use the numbers at are on defense."

The last guy is Walter Sharpe. I know it is still up in the air as to whether he will be a Bulldog again. In case he does come back, talk about him as a player.
"Walter is one of those guys who has God-given ability like Jerrell Houston. Where Jerrell can really play off the dribble, Walt can really play with the ball. He is a great passer. His ability to see the floor is uncanny. You can't teach them how to do that. He can see movement and make passes to a player just before he is open. That allows the player to just lay it in. And he is big enough where he can take you out of the perimeter, then take you off the dribble and get to the basket and finish. He is great at doing that. The thing he has to develop is his work ethic off the floor. On the floor, he tries to do what you ask of him. We never really had to get on him about his work ethic on the floor when we got to practice. That was very good. But, it's the question of him being more mature off the floor with the other things. He has to make up his mind that one doesn't come without the other."

You mentioned that adding new strength coach Richard Akins will help Wesley Morgan. How much will Coach Akins help the basketball program overall?
"Coach Akins is a guy that does an outstanding job at molding and forging the mental toughness within the core of your team. He is going to force someone or a bunch of guys to become leaders. He will make the offseason so hard that when they get to the games it will be easy for them. Because of what he will do, when they get into the heat of the battle, they will be still be able to think and react. They will already know that they have been through some wars (in the weightroom) and that they won those wars. That's the one thing he brings that is outstanding as a strength coach."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by, the source for Mississippi State sports on the sports network. You can contact him by emailing

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