Men’s basketball coach hopes to impact players’ lives


El Camino Men's basketball coach Robert Uphoff, 42, addresses his team before practice on May 6 in the EC North Gym. "Providing encouragement and dialogue, this is something we are lacking," Uphoff said. Ryan Farrell / The Union

Coach Uphoff’s faded grey hat shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked across the field at his team.

One by one they took turns squatting down to clutch a 400-pound tractor tire and, with a grimace and sudden burst of power, lifted it off the ground and flipped it over. The exhausted players repeated the motion again and again.

Men’s basketball coach Robert Uphoff, 42, began his seventh year with El Camino this season and said the tire flips were designed to condition and reprimand.

The team issue: two players had not turned in their grades, so instead of practicing basketball, the whole team suffered through the tire flips.

“On academics, we promote accountability,” he said.

In his office, duffel bags and basketball shoes formed a small pile. Angled away from his computer, the tall coach leaned into the chair and shared his thoughts about the physicality of his program, the influence of social media on teamwork and the difficult realities aspiring elite-level athletes face.

He said he tells prospective players, “you need to understand that you are going to be pushed harder than you ever have before and, if that’s not something you’re comfortable with, then you are going to be miserable here.”

Forging a resilient team is one way the coach has been combatting selfish trends in sports, something he attributes to a generation influenced by social media.

“We are used to social media conversations and text messages; that face-to-face stuff is still uncomfortable. Even picking each other up and being positive with one another is abnormal nowadays,” Uphoff said.

In an athletic atmosphere where criticism and positive reinforcement have become mutually exclusive, Uphoff sees potential for the Warriors to grow.

“Providing encouragement and dialogue, this is something we are lacking,” Uphoff said.

He said making shots will always command most of the attention, but added other important areas of the game are overlooked.

“There’s no, ‘Hey, great job, I appreciated you taking that charge or diving on that loose ball,’” Uphoff said.

But in order to cultivate teamwork, Uphoff has the team run through loose-ball drills where the player who dives on the ball and recovers it is supported by everyone around him.

“Diving on a loose ball and taking a charge is a sacrificial act and you need to appreciate that,” Uphoff said.

Some players don’t agree that social media has had a negative impact on teamwork.

“I think social media does help on the way we give effort and the outcome of things,” guard Rashon Crutcher, 19, said.

But guard Jason Woods, 19, said Uphoff’s teamwork exercises have helped.

“I think the loose-ball drills help us on aggressiveness and it helps us to show teamwork and know how to pick each other up when we are down,” Woods said.

In preparing athletes for physicality, Uphoff puts them through a grueling strength and conditioning program.

Coach Robert Uphoff 3.JPG
El Camino Men’s basketball coach Robert Uphoff, 42, speaks to Warrios on the PE and athletics field on Monday, May 6. Ryan Farrell / The Union

“When I got here, I was scrawny, no doubt, coming into my freshman year I was getting bullied on the court. Now, going through his weightlifting program, I felt myself get stronger, wanting more contact, instead of evading it,” point guard, Oshiua Alston, 20, kinesiology major said.

Guard Darius Alexander agreed when he said he he gained about twenty pounds of muscle since joining the Warriors basketball team.

The gauntlet is demanding both physically and mentally. Uphoff’s players are expected to work hard despite facing the difficult truth that they will most likely never play on a Division I or NBA team.

“Everybody’s goal when they come here is to transfer to a Division I school,” he said.

Many talented players with NBA dreams are told plainly by Uphoff that statistics tell a different story.

He is honest with his players because he values truth above all else. Players are expected to accept their statistical reality, adapt and succeed.

Uphoff has a fierce drive to win at El Camino despite a poor record of five wins and 23 losses last season.

“There is this mentality that failing is bad; but if you don’t grapple with your mistakes, then you don’t figure out what you can do better next time,” Uphoff said.

Hence, Uphoff has widened his definition of success to include more than winning.

He added the basketball program is an opportunity for his players to earn an education and return to help their community in some capacity.

“More than wins, I am hoping that I am impacting their lives and character,” Uphoff said.