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Q&A with Steve Forbes: ‘ETSU didn’t hire me to finish fifth’

Joe Avento • Updated Feb 8, 2018 at 5:26 PM

Steve Forbes might be the most popular man in Johnson City these days. That’s what happens when your team hasn’t lost in 55 days.

Forbes, head basketball coach at East Tennessee State, has his team on a 15-game winning streak and there’s an overall excitement around the program that hasn’t been seen in a while.

With the Bucs having six days between games, Forbes was able to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule for a Q&A session. Among the things he talked about were what it’s like to be on a winning streak — remember, his Wichita State team won 35 games in a row a few years ago — and how tough losing to Xavier was after blowing a 22-point lead.

Q: ETSU fans are worried that you’ve had so much success so quickly here that you’ll get hired away by a bigger school this year. How much do you think about that?
A: My wife and I love it here. I love coaching here. The school has made a great commitment to my staff, myself and the program. It would take an incredible offer for me to leave. I’m not looking for a job, but if somebody presented something to me that I felt like would change my life or the life of my family, then I would have to listen.

Q: What can ETSU do to keep you around for a while?
A: Just keep doing what they’re doing. Just stay committed to having a great program and the fans continue to show up and come to the games and support our players.

QThe winning streak reached 15 in front of a sold-out crowd at Freedom Hall. What’s it like having that kind of fan support?
A: Last year, (former Chattanooga coach) Matt McCall told me it was the only environment in the SoCon that reminded him of the SEC, and that was quite a compliment. I think the fans know this, but they have to realize how important it is to us. Our players feed off of that. I tell the players all the time ‘It’s not the fans’ job to get you going, your job is to get them going.’ I don’t know how many points it’s worth, but its worth something to have a house like that.

Q: What effect did playing in the NCAA tournament last year have?
A: It gave our guys a taste of something to go for every year. It’s an incredible experience to play in that and have that opportunity. We lost, but we know we can go in there and win. We haven’t done that yet. I think it keeps them a little bit more hungry as well. It’s not like we’ve been there, done that. We’ve been there but we haven’t done that.

Q: What makes Steve Forbes tick as a basketball coach?
A: I’m competitive and I’m a detail person. I’m pretty focused on the process. I don’t look too far ahead.

Q: You’ve been part of a Wichita State team that won 35 games in a row. Now ETSU is on the verge of school history with a 15-game winning streak. How much fun is it to get on a roll like that?
A: It’s the best. That’s what you hope for when you start the season. You don’t plan for it, but once you get going you don’t want it to stop. At this point of the season, you’re not going to learn anything from losing. Losing’s not going to help. At this point of the season, it’s all about winning and that’s what we’re going to try to continue to do.

Q: You’ve won 19 of your last 20 games. The only loss during that stretch was the game at Xavier, when you led by 22 points in the second half before losing in the final minute. How tough was that loss when you had the No. 10 team in the country beat?
A: Hardest regular-season loss I’ve ever had. I’m pretty good at letting things go, but I had a hard time letting that one go. I’ve probably never lost that big of a lead, not as a head coach. I felt like I couldn’t help our players just enough to help them win the game. One play, one basket, one stop … it’s an empty feeling. And it’s an empty feeling when you see their faces after that game and they’re just distraught. You really should have won and you know it.

Q: When you see a recruit, what makes you think ‘That’s the guy I want?’
A: I’ve always recruited offense and coached defense. I like kids who can score, are skilled and have athleticism and length.

Q: When you were introduced as ETSU’s coach, you said while recruiting, you’d take a guy who can score 20 points and worry about teaching them defense later. Now you have one of the best defensive teams in ETSU history. How did that happen?
A: Does that mean I’m a good coach? It’s the same recipe that we’ve used. It’s just that they’ve gotten dialed in defensively. It’s not that we’re bad on offense, but we’ve become a very good defensive team and I think that’s a credit to them as far as buying in and being coachable.

Q: What is your philosophy on recruiting? You obviously don’t shy away from transfers.
A: I just like really good players. I like players who can score. You look for high school players who can do that, but I’m not going to settle. We want to win every year. Some guys try to build a program and then say we’ll be good in year three or year four, but you might not get to year three or year four in this day and age. ETSU didn’t hire me to finish fifth.

Q: When you get away from basketball, assuming you do from time to time, what do you do?
A: I’m a history guy. I like the History Channel and I watch war movies. I also watch Game of Thrones and House of Cards.

Q: If you could talk to three historical figures, who would they be and why?
A: I would want to talk to MLK. I want to talk to Hitler and also Ghandi. I interviewed for a Presidential scholarship when I was in high school and they asked me if I could talk to one person dead or alive, who would it be? I said Hitler because I wanted to know why. ‘Why did you do what you did? Why would you hate people like you hate people?’ If I had MLK, Hitler and Ghandi in the same room, I’d like to know what makes them tick.

Q: These next few questions deal with this year’s team. Who’s the funniest guy on the Bucs?
A: I have to really think hard about this. Jason Williams. He makes me laugh because he’s always got something funny to say to my face about me. He called me a ‘spaz’ last year and I thought that was funny.

Q: Did his playing time go down after that?
A: No. Not at all. Truth hurts.

Q: Who’s the smartest as far as basketball goes?
A: It’s between Jermaine (Long) and Bo (Hodges). Bo had to learn two positions as a freshman and that’s tough.

Q: Who has surprised you the most?
A: Probably Bo. He’s really been a significant contributor.

Q: Who has a talent we don’t know about?
A: I have to think about this one. I think Devontavius (Payne) thinks he can rap. I saw a video of him in a garage studio rapping over Christmas. So I would say Devontavius ‘The Rapper’ Payne.

Q: Now it’s time for some off-the-wall questions. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want to have and why?
A: I’d need my wife to take care of me. Then I’d need cable television because then I could watch a lot of games and movies. The third thing would be my chair. I’d need my recliner.

Q: Favorite movie?
A: I have two. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.

Q: What kind of music is on your phone?
A: Everything. I love music. I was in the band. I was in the choir. I was in the jazz band. I was in the swing choir. I like Broadway, jazz and blues, hard rock, 80s, 70s, good country.

Q: Favorite food?
A: Seafood.

Q: ETSU fans are usually optimistic. What can they expect in March?
A: Meaningful games in March. When I came here we said we want to do that and we’re going to play meaningful games in March. We’re going to challenge for the title. The next step is winning in the NCAA tournament, but you can’t even talk about that until you get there. The honest truth is if we win out and lose in the (SoCon tournament) championship game, we’d be 29-5 and still not get in. Not even a chance. That’s sad. They’re going to say we don’t have a top-100 win or a top-50.

Q: OK, last one. What’s your favorite part of coaching?
A: Practice. Not even close. I hate the games. I love practice. I’m always excited to practice. I like the day-to-day of it, the planning of it, the interaction with the players, challenging the players and myself.

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