Ernie Zeigler, 37, was the first assistant coach hired by new UCLA head basketball coach Ben Howland, having coached with Howland at Pittsburgh for the last two years.
BRO: Just to get the fans familiar with you, give us a short resume on your career...
Zeigler: I began as an assistant at Detroit Cody High School. I worked under my mentor and former high school coach Robert Menefee. I was there from 1990 to 1996 as his assistant. During that time, I began an AAU program called Team Detroit with a friend of mine who's now a scout with the Vancouver Grizzles. From there I was fortunate enough to be a head coach overseas. I went to China and was a head coach in their league, the CNBA. I was there one year and had a pretty successful team. I actually won the coach of the year award that year for the league. From there, I cam back home that summer and continued with Team Detroit. Then I went to Saudi Arabia for two seasons and coached there, from 1997 to 1999. The team I coached won their Federation Cup Championship the second year I was there. The year before we placed fourth. I came back to the U.S. in the summer of 1999 and hooked up with Tom Asbury, the former Pepperdine coach who was then at Kansas State. That was my first position as an assistant, at Kansas State in 2000, which was Tom's sixth and final year at Kansas State. Then I got hired at Bowling Green, by head coach Dan Dakich. I was there one year and then, the following summer, in 2001, I hooked up with Coach Howland. Coach Howland and I had met a few years prior to that, through a mutual friend of ours, a long-time friend of Coach Howland's, who coached in China. So, he offered me a position at Pittsburgh in the summer of 2001 and I've been with him the last two years at Pittsburgh.
BRO: So, if UCLA had to go overseas to recruit, you'd be pretty comfortable doing it?
Zeigler: That'd be a good way of putting it - I'm comfortable internationally. Europe, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, China...I've been very fortunate to have been able to broaden my abilities and attitude toward coaching through my experiences overseas. The opportunity to coach in different cultures gives you insights into more than one way to coach, and especially motivate different types of people.
BRO: There must have been quite a bit of consideration on your part, making a move from your home state of Pennsylvania to California?
Zeigler: I guess I have to say yes and no. Since I got into coaching as a profession I've done all types of moving. When the UCLA opportunity presented itself one part of me didn't think twice about it. The other half was the half that had to consider my family. My family had gotten accustomed in those two years in Pittsburgh to be close to other family members and see them on a frequent basis. At Pittsburgh, it allowed my wife to just get in a car and go back to Detroit. So, that was really the only dilemma. But for me, especially professionally, I didn't have to think twice to coach at UCLA. I'm fortunate that I have such a great and understanding wife who trusted me in what I'd like to accomplish in my career.
BRO: You have a couple of children, too...
Zeigler: My wife's Seantelle, and my son, Trey, is 12, and my daughter, Skylar, is six.
BRO: How has the transition been - for you and your family - so far? Does the family like Southern California?
Zeigler: They have been out here two different occasions but haven't actually moved out here yet. We decided to wait until after the July recruiting period, where I'd be traveling all month anyway. I wanted to be here for the first few months after they make the move.
BRO: You've been on the job for close to a couple of months. What have been some of your initial impressions of coaching at UCLA. Is it what you expected, and have there been some things that were unexpected?
Zeigler: I've been really impressed with overall how the tradition envelopes everything, especially what you do every day. In the spring workouts, working out the guys in Pauley Pavilion, being in that arena, it definitely has a different aura. It's different than any other place in college basketball. Just standing there in the middle of the workouts I had to really focus on what we we're teaching sometimes because I kept finding myself glancing up at the banners.
BRO: In the workouts, you injured your Achilles Heel. How's the recovery coming along?
Zeigler: It's pretty good. I came out of the boot almost two weeks ago and I'm actually walking in my own shoes. I'm on target to be able to walk around July 7th, when the recruiting evaluation period begins, so that's the most important. Hopefully I'll stay on course and be ready to get out there like I'm used to doing by next fall.
BRO: Who was it that crossed you over and hurt you like that?
Zeigler: (Laughing) It was T.J. Cummings. We were in a drill, making him work to get open, and I went to deny him the ball, and when I pushed off it just popped. I was wondering who kicked me from behind, and of course he went right by me and finished the play.
BRO: In the spring workouts, what were your impressions of the players? Even though it's early, what are your impressions of the potential squad next year and its strengths and weaknesses?
Zeigler: My biggest impression was how much they wanted to learn. They're a group of kids that are thirsty for basketball knowledge and want to attain as much as they can and be better players. It wasn't a case at all that the players weren't receptive, or that they were accustomed to doing things a certain way. Each and every kid was completely open to learning, and learning in a new way. I think the level of athleticism is there. I think that's a strength we have right now. I think our ability to learn and pick up on things was evident, and that will be crucial for this group. They were able to handle multiple tasks offensively and defensively. Their collective IQ is high. I think those two things are strengths and that will help us while we shore up the weaknesses. Each player was great to work with, and I think we've laid the groundwork for a successful season next year.
BRO: What has been your relationship with Ben Howland?
Zeigler: I've worked with him for two years and it's been great. Ben is such an intense and great teacher of game. I feel very fortunate to be a part of his staff, and to have had the time I've had with him at Pittsburgh. He cares about the players and about the people supporting him. It's ideal when you can work with someone that has genuine concern about you and your family but knows what he wants you to do, and has high expectations for you. I couldn't be in a better situation.
BRO: The assistant staff hasn't worked together, besides you and Director of Basketball Operations Chris Carlson. How's the atmosphere been so far?
Zeigler: It's been great. Donny joined the staff, and that was a natural transition since he had a good understanding of how Coach Howland does things with Ben being such good friends with Coach Majerus. Coach Majerus has been a mentor to Ben. And Donny fits in really well. He's jumped right in. He has his own philosophy and experience, with everything he's done at Utah and Cal State Fullerton, but he's been pretty quick in picking up what we're doing. Donny has so much knowledge, having coached under Majerus and being a head coach. And I have some head coaching experience. That kind of experience has to help Coach Howland. It's just the type of experience you can't get as an assistant. With Kerry, I've known him by just passing him on the recruiting road. I've always had respect for him, knowing what type of coach and person he is, and his contributions to the Tennessee program. I feel really good about this staff. It's meshed quickly. It's really a testament to Ben, the type of people he'd want to be here and have around him. I think we'll be a very cohesive group in reaching our goals.
BRO: Since you've been at UCLA, without any specifics, how do you think recruiting has gone so far? What are you goals overall in recruiting for UCLA? And what are the general immediate goals in the 2004 high school class?
Zeigler: Thus far, we've hit the ground running and have gotten off to a good start, being behind the eight ball in terms of recruiting for UCLA, since we came in late. I think, though, what we've done is going to be an integral part of the program and it will really set a tone for what we're going to accomplish here. We're still working hard to complete this class. I think it will be the cornerstone the program for years. I think we'll look back a few years from now and recognize that. I don't want to put too much pressure on us here, but I think we'll look back and think that this class is the one that got UCLA back to where it needed to be.
As for plans for the 2004 class - we're looking for a wing, because wings will be a big part of what we do. Then also hopefully a post player or a skilled, versatile post player, who can complete the class.
BRO: How different do you feel it will be recruiting at UCLA? How will you have to adjust your recruiting philosophy recruiting at UCLA?
Zeigler: I guess the biggest adjustment is having the luxury of an abundance of talent in our backyard here. Secondly, it will be different targeting student athletes that are capable of the academic excellence that UCLA represents. Though Pitt is a very good academic institution, UCLA is the cream of the crop. We're looking at different tier of student athlete than we were before.
BRO: What kind of unique perspective do you think you bring to the recruiting table - having been an AAU coach?
Zeigler: I think it could be my ability to understand the mindset and landscape of summer basketball. In the past few years there has been a lot made of the influence and control summer basketball has in recruiting. The NCAA has put in regulations to limit that control. One thing that remains the same, though, is that it's all about relationships. When people know that you understand them, you've been where they are and you're not looking down on them, it makes them feel more comfortable with you. It then becomes about recruiting the kid and not about anything else, and that helps. I've been able to establish relationships over the years that will help us here at UCLA, and help us bring in the type of talent to put UCLA back to where it deserves to be.
BRO: Will you be more responsible for recruiting the east coast?
Zeigler: I would say so. Kerry brings a lot of ties to the east and south. A combination of myself, Donny and Kerry is pretty strong, in my opinion, in terms of what we bring to the table in recruiting. I don't know if there could be a better staff in the country in terms of recruiting, given the ties we have around the country.
BRO: With the timetable in recruiting sped up, how early do you feel you need to recognize a recruit and be showing him attention, of course, within NCAA guidelines?
Zeigler: We're definitely recruiting sophomores - as much as we can by NCAA guidelines. The rules only permit you to start sending literature after June 1st finishing their sophomore year. So, we'll do everything we can within NCAA guidelines to get on the recruits very early. When you hear about high school freshman committing, most of the time your program is at a successful level and you're recruiting early. That's where we hope to bring this program to in the next couple of years. It's all about relationships, and in being able to recognize players early you have to have relationships with the high school and AAU coaches.
BRO: Do you have a specialty in coaching? Guards, defense, etc?
Zeigler: Actually both of those. On our staff, I'll be working with the guards. And one of the biggest things we'll emphasize is defense, teaching them how we're going to defend and get after people. That's one thing for certain I can say, is how tenacious we're going to play defense.
In our scheme, though, we don't break up coaching into offense and defense. We work with groups and teach the principles that Coach Howland emphasizes.
BRO: What makes Ben Howland (and the coaching staff) the kind of coach and staff that can make UCLA competitive nationally?
Zeigler: The attention to detail. Ben is a stickler for details. It makes a huge difference. Also, the ability to motivate and get guys to give of themselves, put their teammates and their team before themselves. If you watched our teams at Pittsburgh, you would have seen that that's what the teams were about.
BRO: What are your personal goals in coaching?
Zeigler: Personal goals I truly believe are secondary. They're obtained through winning. My personal goal is to win a national championship while a coach on this staff. If that happens, the opportunities to possibly direct my own D-1 college basketball program will present themselves.
BRO: What are your goals for the UCLA basketball program? Where would this staff like to take the program?
Zeigler: UCLA is about winning championships. Our goal is to eventually first and foremost become Pac-10 champions and then win national championships. Hopefully that's something that can be attained during our tenure. I don't want to jinx us, but we're going to strive to do that, and work our butts off to make it happen.