At his team's first meeting of the 2013-14 season, men's basketball head coach Brian Katz shared with his players a vision for the future of Sacramento State hoops: sold-out stands each night; electrified crowds at every game; a University teeming with excitement, energy, and campus pride.
That should sound familiar to anyone who has watched the Hornets lately, because in just eight years at the helm, the man known on the court as Coach Katz has brought his vision to life.
In 2014-15, the Hornets posted their best season in the program's history on the court and in the classroom: They notched 21 wins and reached the postseason for the first time in the Division I era, won a postseason game for the first time in 53 years, tallied the highest team grade-point average in the program's history, and netted Sac State's head coach the prestigious Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year, District 6 Coach of the Year, and Big Sky Conference Co-Coach of the Year awards.
For Katz, such success starts with his relationships with his players and the teaching toolkit he amassed while he was a student at Sac State.
"Every player needs to clearly know in his heart that (the coach really cares) about him beyond just basketball, and the way you do that is you spend a lot of time with them," Katz says. "The more you know about them, the better you'll be able to coach them, mentor them, and lead them. Capture the mental, and the physical will follow. I really believe that."
Brian Katz, a lifelong Sacramentan, is a product of Casa Roble High School who has been coaching basketball since he was 18. He graduated from Sacramento State in 1980 with an English degree and a secondary teaching credential. He says that those two degrees and the skills he learned while earning them were integral in shaping him into the coach and leader he is today.
"Really, coaching is exactly like being a teacher," he says. "You have a lesson plan every day, you have goals and objectives. It's down to the minute about what you're going to do, and it's all about communicating.
"So really, my coaching skills were honed in the classrooms in the English Department and in the Secondary Teaching Program (at Sac State). Those two programs had a huge impact on my career in really teaching me how to be a good leader, how to be a good mentor."
Katz earned his master's degree in counseling psychology from Santa Clara University in 1989. He worked his way up the ladder over the next two decades, coaching at the high school and community college levels before taking over Sac State's head coaching position in 2008.
He inherited a program that had not a winning season since 1988-89 and had never finished above .500 since joining Division I in 1991. In his first year with the team, the Hornets finished 2-27, ninth in the Big Sky Conference.
But Katz, his staff, and even his players began recruiting future stars diligently and thoroughly, spurning mass mail-outs seeking any and all kinds of talent, opting instead to recruit smaller, better, and smarter for what the coach calls the "right" players.
"The big key is: Are they really a Hornet?" Katz says. "Do they really want to be here? Do they want the structure and discipline we're going to provide in the classroom? Do they want to go through the stands after the game and thank everyone for coming to the game? Do they take pride in being a part of the student body and a member of the classroom, and not putting themselves above anyone?"
"That's the right kind of guy: Team first, unselfish, wants lifetime relationships with staff members, teammates, and classmates."
Slowly but surely, the team improved each year: three conference wins in 2009, four in 2010, five each in 2011 and 2012, and 10 in 2013 before the breakout 2014-15 campaign, in which they dominated conference opponents with a 13-5 Big Sky record.
Hornet pride soared as staff, faculty, and alumni rallied behind the team. Tickets to home games sold out as fast as they became available, and contests at the Hornets Nest, where the team went 13-2, became rousing, raucous events.
Dylan Garrity was one of Katz's right guys and joined the team in 2011. In four years with the Hornets, he became one of the greatest players in the program's history, transitioning from a pass-first point guard into a dynamic scoring threat. He credits his development to his coach's personable hands-on style, engaged nature, and tireless work ethic.
"Coach Katz's biggest quality that really got to us as a team is how much of a people person he is," Garrity says. "It really helped being so close with him and seeing him on a daily basis. We'd talk about life and how school's going, and he was just basically like a second father for me. It was just huge in my development."
Garrity says his transition from a passer – he ranks first all-time at Sac State in assists – to an offense centerpiece of the program's greatest team to date was not easy, but he undertook it for the greater good at his coach's behest. "I wanted to do what was best for the team," he says, "and that's what Coach Katz told me was best for the team, so I put all my chips in that basket because I trusted him 100 percent with whatever he said."
At the end of the 2014-15 campaign, four seniors on the team graduated, including Garrity, but the legacy of winning was firmly established. The culture of basketball, now arguably the school's highest-profile sport, has undoubtedly shifted on the court and throughout campus.
That culture starts with Katz, who was honored with a special recognition from the Sacramento City Council, which passed a resolution lauding both Sac State's men's and women's basketball programs in June 2015.
Katz is humbled by the attention, deferential to the hard work of his staff, players, and department, and says he never dreamed that he would win something like the Hugh Durham Award, in light of all the other outstanding Division I teams and coaches.
But the greater rewards, he says, are being able to bring positive attention to the University that he loves, developing relationships with and watching his players thrive, and helping cultivate an atmosphere where students, faculty, staff, and alumni are proud to claim California's capital campus as their own.
"When you talk about campus activity, the band, groups, sports – all that great stuff goes hand in hand," Katz says. "Certainly this place for years had a reputation of being a commuter school, but boy, it's becoming less and less every year."
"We've never had a kid come on a visit from the Bay Area or L.A. or out of the area that wouldn't go, 'Wow!' When they get here, they're just blown away."
The impact of the 2014-15 campaign goes far beyond the basketball court and extends into the years ahead. That energy adds to Katz's dedication to the University where he first honed his craft and where he is now leading the way in a new era of Hornet sports.
On and off the court, Katz has always believed in Sac State. Today, he has his players, campus, and region believing, too.
– John Blomster