LEIGHTON — Austin Phillips addressed several aspects of the Colbert County boys basketball team late Tuesday morning in the school gym.
His players practiced passing and moving in transition to close their first true practice of the summer. Then they sat along the baseline and listened to him talk about discovering and reaching their potential.
Finally, he explained the kind of shoes and warmup gear he hopes to get them and asked players to fill out a sheet with their sizes.
Skill development, inspiration and logistics are all important aspects of leading a team, and for the first time at the varsity level Phillips, 31, is responsible for all of them.
He was hired in early June to replace Norman Lemaster, the latest step for a 2006 Cherokee High graduate who played for his father, longtime Cherokee coach Richard Phillips, in both basketball and baseball.
“Obviously my dad is why I went into coaching and teaching,” Austin Phillips said.
But while Austin and his father discuss the various aspects of coaching regularly, the son has also gained insight and ideas from other coaches he’s worked with at the University of North Alabama, Homewood, Clay-Chalkville and Muscle Shoals.
And Austin Phillips is ready to put it together and build his own coaching philosophy.
“I know I’m ready. I’m ready to be a head coach because of the opportunities and the people that I’ve worked under,” he said. “I’m prepared for this job.”
Though he believes he showed more natural ability as a pitcher and second baseman, Austin Phillips has always been drawn most to basketball – in part because it features fewer stoppages in play than baseball and football do.
Richard Phillips coached baseball at Cherokee from 1978 through 2006 and basketball from 1985 through 2006, stepping down after Austin’s senior year. It didn’t take long for Austin to decide he wanted to coach, too.
It’s not unusual for Austin and his dad to go over a play or strategy Austin has in mind and, according to Richard, it’s not uncommon for that idea to be a good one the elder coach hadn’t considered.
Richard recalled sitting in a hospital waiting room once as Austin’s sister-in-law was about have a baby, going over plays Austin had drawn up.
But Austin’s big takeaway from watching his father coach was not strategy but rather how his dad related to players, instilling discipline but also doing his best to treat them fairly. No game outcome was more important than helping a player succeed as a person.
“Even though he was very successful, he never let winning or trying to win interfere with that,” Austin said of his father. “His primary purpose was to develop men and to teach men how to become, when they graduate high school and they leave from his program … successful fathers and successful in the workforce.
“He taught me that’s the ultimate job as a coach. That’s the biggest thing I learned from him.”
Austin spent a year on the UNA men’s basketball staff under former coach Bobby Champagne. He worked for coach Tim Shepler at Homewood for four years (some of that spent time coaching middle school players) and then worked for two years for coach Jeremy Monceaux at Clay-Chalkville.
Phillips then moved to the Shoals and married his wife, Taylor, and spent the last two years working for coach Neal Barker at Muscle Shoals.
Before last season, Barker asked Phillips – who had been helping coach the junior varsity – to take over as the freshman team’s head coach. Freshmen practice on their own at Muscle Shoals, so it allowed Phillips to get a feel for handling all aspects of leading a team.
“Austin being a basketball guy, coming from a basketball background, we felt comfortable putting him with that group,” Barker said, adding “I think his biggest asset is his knowledge base.”
Barker said Phillips will make mistakes, whether it’s an interaction with a parent, a disciplinary situation or something else, because everyone does. But he remembers upon hiring Phillips two years ago that Phillips didn’t promise to stick around long because he was determined to be a head coach.
“I admire that,” Barker said.
Colbert County’s boys team was runner-up in the county championship as recently as 2017 but struggled over the last two seasons. Phillips knows there is always talent in Leighton, though, and believes Colbert County can excel again. The school won boys basketball state titles in 1972, 1981 and 1997.
“Pretty historic program. You can see on the wall the state titles that they’ve won, and I’ve always wanted to be a head coach,” Phillips said. “This was an opportunity I wanted to pursue and was very fortunate that they offered me the job.”
Richard Phillips now coaches junior varsity girls basketball in Burnsville, Mississippi. He hopes this winter’s schedules will allow him opportunities to head east and watch his son lead Colbert County.
He acknowledged his parental bias but said his son’s interest in young people can be seen in his coaching, teaching and mission trips Austin has taken to places like Haiti. Austin will teach science at Colbert County.
“There are going to be some peaks and valleys, but the big point is you get to work with young people,” Richard said.
Said Austin: “I’m a big believer in you’re called to do specific things. And I love working with young people. I love working with students. I love developing students.”
Austin Phillips said he appreciates the staff and administrative support at Colbert County. He cited as an example a good relationship with football coach Brett Mask as they each need time to work with the multi-sport athletes critical for success in both sports at a Class 2A school.
“When I accepted the job, I didn’t know how good of a job it was until now,” Austin Phillips said. “It’s just gotten better every single day.”
Richard Phillips is right. There will be peaks and valleys, just as in any job, but Austin Phillips sounds like he’s ready for the journey.