Le Petit General: Larry Cordaro Leads NAIA School Past Two D-I Teams

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 20th, 2015

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a national columnist.

Former Southeastern Louisiana assistant coach Larry Cordaro was given a unique opportunity: Build your own college basketball program, from scratch, in your home state. In his first season anywhere as a head coach in 2014-15, he took the debutant LSU-Alexandria Generals to a 23-4 NAIA record, including Red River Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles. This year, Cordaro’s team has won five of its first six games, including road wins at NCAA Division I schools Southeastern Louisiana, 82-68, and at Northwestern State, 99-97.

We took the time to talk with Cordaro this week about what it was like to beat his former school, the process of building a basketball program from scratch, and how life is different in the NAIA. This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity. Unlike the 5’5″ Cordaro, it is not particularly short.

Started from scratch, Larry Cordaro has quite a nice program down south. (Red River Conference)

Started from scratch, Larry Cordaro has quite a nice program down south. (Red River Conference)

Your page on the school website talks about how you want to build recognition for your fledgling program – what better way to do that than two wins over in-state Division I opponents?

Two Southland teams, we were able to go on the road and compete against and were fortunate to come out on top. It was our night both of those nights and hopefully the college basketball fans and people that keep up are recognizing what we’ve done, because our players put in a lot of time and they deserve the recognition.

When you go into these games against Division I opponents, what are you telling your players?

Just to play hard, to play together. We don’t get these opportunities too often. A lot of NAIA schools don’t get Division I schools to schedule them, but because of some relationships here in the state of Louisiana, we’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to fundraise for our program and just to really battle test our team. We feel like if we can play with Southland teams, Division I, then for sure we can hopefully compete and win a conference championship in the Red River. Last year, we were 0-5 versus the five Division I schools, and came close in three of them. Those games prepared us for the season moving forward. It’s just like the lower Division I schools going and playing against the high-majors – it prepares them that way for when they get in their leagues. You want to play better competition whenever you can.

What was it like getting to beat the same Southeastern Louisiana team you worked for as an assistant?

Well, both of these wins were bittersweet, in a way. They were sweet personally for me, but at the same time, I’ve been on the sidelines at Southeastern for eight years, I’ve known Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy from when before I was coaching basketball, he’s a family friend, and it was very nice for Southeastern coach Jay Ladner and Coach McConathy to even schedule these games. I’m appreciative of that. It helps our program financially – we are a program that obviously is new and funds are lacking, and we’re just trying to survive day to day, so financially, that helps. And when we go in there and win, it helps our recruiting, it helps our psyche, it adds confidence.

Although not tall in stature, Larry Cordaro -- based on tangible numbers -- is currently building a big-time program. (LSU-Alexandria Athletics)

Although not tall in stature, Larry Cordaro — based on tangible numbers — is currently building a big-time NAIA program. (LSU-Alexandria Athletics)

There’s something special with this group right now, and really with this program building since last year. We’re labeled as “giant-killers” or however people try to say it, but we’re not trying to get into that too much. We’d like to beat Louisiana College on Friday. We go on the road against a Division III school and somehow gotta get our players to feel like it’s a Division I opponent. All games are important, but our guys do happen to get up for those Division I games or whatever the case may be. Even as a coaching staff, we can’t be guys who get up just for the Division I games and then take a step back down, and it’s not easy to sustain that energy level or that mind-set. […] We’re going to take these lessons from these Division I games and build on it and try to get better and better. I guess what it shows is what we’re capable of doing. We’ve got a high standard here now, obviously by winning two of those games; it helps our coaches, our players, see where we are and how good we can be.

What was more impressive in your win at Northwestern State: Never trailing in the second half, or making 36 of your 41 free throws?

The free throws, at halftime we were 25-of-27 and that stood out. My mom told me 10 days ago that we were out in the community doing too much. We try to excel in the three C’s: In the classroom, on the court, and in the community. She said we needed to get in the gym and spend some time shooting free throws, and we did that, I took her advice, and sure enough, I called her after the game and told her ‘Thank you.’ We shot 88 percent as a team from the free throw line. That was impressive. Even leading in the second half, a stat I didn’t really know, to be honest with you, we were playing some good basketball and they were playing good as well. We were fortunate to catch them without arguably the conference’s best player (that they play in) in Jalen West. It’s unfortunate to him, and we wish him well. We knew we didn’t have their best shot, but their backup played a very good game and it was a competitive game – too high-scoring for my liking – but I’m just glad we came out on top and we held off at the end, thanks to our guys making plays and making free throws. […] To get that win for our university is big. We’re not a new university, but as far as growing, we’ve only been a four-year school for a decade now. This brings some recognition, some exposure to LSU of Alexandria. Hopefully, this helps us not just as a basketball team or an athletic department, but as a university as a whole.

Can you walk me through the process of building a basketball program from scratch?

Well, if you want to come down here and spend a week with me, then we can do that. It’s been a journey. We’ve got two assistant coaches in Jay Smith and Casey Apetrei that work around the clock; I’m very happy to have those two guys alongside of me. We’ve just got players that have buy-in and the desire to work every day. But yes, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I wish it upon anyone; just once is enough, though. There’s definitely been a lot of long nights and sleeping on the office couch. It’s been a tough task, but a fun task. It’s been rewarding and it’s nice to be able to see, from all the hard work, reap some rewards from what we sowed. It’s been great for my career. Being an assistant coach in the Southland for 10 years, I felt like I needed a change of pace. Being a head coach has been very neat for me, I guess, and I’m very appreciative and thankful for this opportunity, because I know a lot of guys don’t get the opportunity to stay home in their home state, to build a program with a school in LSU that I graduated from in Baton Rouge with those letters in the name. Everything is just kind of clicking right now.

How do you sell your program to recruits?

Well, come play for a coaching staff that’s young and hungry. We put players first in our program. We have their best interests at heart. We’re genuine, we emphasize academics – we feel that goes over well with the parents – a lot of these kids, I’ve known for three, four, five years, believe it or not. Everyone goes, “Oh, it’s your first year. You did this…” Well, some of these players I’ve known since they were sophomores in high school. Here, DeQuavious Wagner, our transfer from Arkansas, is a fourth-year senior, and you look back and add up all the years, I’ve been knowing him for six or seven years.

Other than the Northwestern loss last year where it was tied up with two minutes to go and they went on a 10-0 run – and that game didn’t really count in our record books – we were undefeated at home last year. We call our little gym The Fort, because with our mascot, we’re the Generals, and it’s just a neat little environment. It’s a small campus. We’re in the middle of everywhere in Louisiana, but next to nothing. It’s just a small campus that’s five minutes south of Alexandria, a nice-sized town, no distractions, just a safe, friendly environment. The people on campus are real nice and it’s just an opportunity to be a part of something new, doing something different.

Speaking of something special, were you expecting the sort of success you had in your first season?

Yes and no. I really don’t think much about it, just get up early and stay up late. I don’t have a family; this basketball team is my family, I give my all to it, and what happens happens. We put the time in and the hard work, and we feel like the results will come, so it’s not something I really thought about. I never really had a timetable of, “We need to win by this time or have this many wins,” we just kind of go out and do our best and let the chips fall where they may. It was neat to be able to do that in the first year, to win a conference championship, to go to the national tournament.

I never even knew much about the NAIA, to be honest. I’d been a Division I assistant for 10-plus years if you count my three years at LSU with John Brady, and here I come to an NAIA school. Being in the NAIA? New to me. Being a head coach? New to me. Starting a program from scratch? New to me. So it was really ground zero. We didn’t inherit a mess; we just kind of came in and put our footprint down, put our stamp on it and made it what we wanted it to be, from the locker room to who we recruited to who the assistant coaches were, you name it. I know the bar is higher – now we’ve got expectations. We set the bar so high. I’m one of the shortest coaches in college basketball. One day, that’s going to be a story. I don’t know if there’s a shorter head college basketball coach than me.

The bar’s so high right now from what we did the first year, but we’re just trying to continue to meet and exceed expectations. And that’s going to be something different this year. The bullseye is on our backs now. We used to be the new kids on the block, and now everyone is aiming at us. We’ve just got to keep that mental approach, telling those guys we’re still the ones doing the hunting, let guys know that we have something to prove.

Speaking of which, how tall are you?

I’m 5’5″. Let’s say that. Let’s not measure me just yet. I’m probably 5’5″ on a good day.

So that’s like 5’5″ in shoes?

Yeah. Nobody’s really ran with my height much in places or stories. Maybe back in the day when I was at Arkansas on the road as an assistant with Southeastern, you get the student section going. I’m surprised, every once in a while when I’m in town, I get people asking me about it. Even our players, they don’t think much about it now. […] No one’s made a story or really talked about it, which is OK with me. I even forget I’m short sometimes myself.

Despite it's NAIA status, LSU-Alexandria has some legit talent on its roster, including former Arkansas transfer DeQuavious Wager. (USA TODAY Sports)

Despite it’s NAIA status, LSU-Alexandria has some legit talent on its roster, including former Arkansas transfer DeQuavious Wager. (USA TODAY Sports)

You’re going to have to forgive me for not seeing you play – it’s hard to get NAIA hoops on TV in the Pacific Northwest. What are you doing offensively and defensively?

Offensively, we try to push the ball first. We run a continuous ball screen motion offense and multiple set plays. I worked under Jim Yarbrough for eight years at Southeastern, and we use a bunch of sets that I learned there. Defensively, we pick up man-to-man for the most part, we try to adapt defensively and play some 2-3 zone, and we want to add some more stuff. To be honest with you, at this school, in my current situation, I wish I could watch more film, do more basketball. I’ve got two great assistant coaches that help in that area, but a lot of what we do is team-building, we monitor our academics. We’re all we’ve got. We don’t have this, this, this, this and that. I’m the trainer, I’m the strength coach, I’m the academic coach, you name it. It’s all or nothing, and we’re 10 toes deep, as we talk about on our team. A lot of basketball stuff, we try to keep as basic as we can because we don’t have a lot of time on our hands. […]

People ask me, “Hey, what are you going to run?” I go, “We’re going to run the floor.” We know we’re going to do that and we’re going to go out there and defend and just play solid basketball. It doesn’t have to be flashy. I talk to our guys about making the winning play – it doesn’t have to be the ESPN play, but the winning play. We talk about taking charges. We have a Charge Champ, which I think is pretty cool. I said, “When I become a head coach, we’re going to have a Charge Champ award.” Each time a guy takes a charge in a game, they get to sign the next day in the locker room in front of their teammates, and at the end of the year, we have a prize for whoever’s signature’s up there the most times. I did that last year and it’s contagious. It’s building on. We try to do little things like that to give them something a little different, fresh, something fun in just the day-to-day grind.

What’s different about coaching in the NAIA?

Well, you drive vans to road games. That’s first and foremost. You don’t have the full scholarships that I’m accustomed to recruiting with. It’s just more what falls onto your plate. You don’t have a chance to delegate as much. It really all comes back to you and you’ve got to be involved in a lot of different things. Sometimes you’re not able to get a film on a team, and then you’ve got to rely on your principles. You might play a team that didn’t have this guy on the roster, and in the second semester, he pops up. Teams in the NAIA can change in between semesters and they can get guys eligible. That’s just a few things.

You know, in recruiting, I tell people, “It’s college basketball.” NAIA schools can obviously hang and play with ’em. I guess I’m thankful that more players we recruit don’t get caught up in that “NAIA.” Don’t look at it as being not real basketball, because it is. It’s like American League and National League. It’s a different division, a different league. It’s college basketball. And it’s a good brand of basketball, a lot of good teams and a lot of good coaches, and the Kansas City tournament every year in March is a very unique and neat tradition that they have. We’re just hopeful and working hard every day to be able to be one of the top 32 teams in the country and make it back again in year two. Making it in year one was pretty sweet, we just hope we can do the same.

What’s ahead of you and the program?

Well, we’ve got a big cross-river rivalry. Tideville is five minutes from Alexandria. They’re side by side. We’ve got Louisiana College, a D-III school, that just so happened to knock off McNeese State, a Southland school, last night on the road. So what we did Monday, they came right behind us and did Tuesday to a different school. So we’re meeting up to play. Coach Mason is a new coach there, like I was last year, he’s from a high school in Shreveport, and he’s got a talented team back, he’s got an All-American on the roster and a bunch of upperclassmen, and I hope that win might have caught our guys’ attention, because this is going to be a big, big game, as far as local bragging rights, and it’s the next game on the schedule. These Division I wins, they count, but they don’t count. It’s good publicity and exposure for the program, and gives confidence to our players, but at the end of the day, I was talking to my assistant coaches, and I would rather beat Louisiana College or start 4-0 in conference than beat say a McNeese or a Northwestern.

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