RED WING — Oliver Simmons is chomping at the bit to meet his players. He understands the need to stay safe during a global pandemic, but when high school sports get the go ahead to resume contact, he will be ready. Ready to coach, ready to teach and ready to build relationships, he said.
Simmons was recently hired as the Red Wing head boys’ basketball coach. The Red Wing School Board approved his physical education teaching assignment at the May 4 meeting.
Coming off head coaching gigs at Haywood High School and University School of Jackson in Tennessee, he has experience in the lead role. A two-time Mr. Basketball in Tennessee and playing under Rick Pitino’s 1996 championship team with the University of Kentucky, Simmons also has experience in high-leverage situations.
Heavily recruited out of high school, Simmons committed to Kentucky but transferred to Florida State after his sophomore year ended with an injury. After college Simmons played in Sweden, then Des Moines of the International Basketball League. He then went back overseas to play in Amsterdam, but before his stop in the Netherlands, he had his first crack at coaching.
“I had run into a gentleman in the grocery store actually, and he asked me if I would be his assistant,” Simmons said. “He had two 6-foot-8 twins. He said nobody on the team could guard them so he wanted someone to come in and guard them. ... I ended up falling in love with coaching.”
Simmons said it was at that point he thought coaching and teaching could be his next career. He traveled from Texas to Orlando, Fla., landing coaching positions at high schools and a junior college but once he married and had kids, travel seemed daunting.
“My three kids are my life,” he said. “The thought of recruiting and traveling, being gone and not seeing them pretty much deterred my college aspirations.”
Simmons’ wife is a Minnesota native so the move north made sense. He said Red Wing being a couple of hours away from her hometown and within reasonable travel distance of their kids’ cousins made the decision easier.
“We spent every summer up here for about two weeks since our kids were born,” Simmons said. “They just love it up here.”
A rebuilding project
Coming off of 19 wins in the past four seasons and playing a grueling Big 9 schedule, the Wingers have a tough road ahead. The team, however, is only four years removed from a third-place finish at state so the potential is there. Both are reasons that Simmons sought the lead role.
“I’ve taken over several programs that resemble what I feel like this job is going to be,” Simmons said.
Prior to his taking over at USJ in 2013, the college had six wins the previous season. The team averaged 20 wins a season during his five years at the helm. When asked why, Simmons said, “I do things a little differently, I play a little differently, and I think that really helps a lot.
“If you bring another guy in that does the same kind of things, there’s no real change,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that what I do is better than someone else ... I think kids go ‘Oh, we’re doing something different, this might work.’”
Simmons said he researched the team prior to interviewing for the job and looked at film of Red Wing’s games. He was sold on the job as soon as he watched the Wingers’ last regular season game at home against Mankato West. At the time, Red Wing was in the midst of a 1-17 stretch.
“The kids were jumping up, cheering and giving each other high-fives. They were playing extremely hard and were excited about when good things happened,” Simmons said. “That just spoke to the culture of the kids and the program.”
So, how does he plan to turn Red Wing into a perennial winner?
“We’re going to win as a team,” he said.
Simmons said he has a base style he likes to play but that will adjust each year based on the team’s strengths and weaknesses. He plans to coach those foundational ideals each year to the younger student-athletes to ensure everybody understands how he wants the team to play, but the style of play once the games begin will adjust accordingly.
Although it follows the typical cliches, he said the key to success is getting team members to play hard and enjoy each other's achievements. Specifically, he’s hoping to get some early victories to get the team excited about what it can accomplish.
And although the season doesn’t begin until November, he’s chomping at the bit to get in the gym with the players.
“I’m just hopeful I get to be in the gym with them soon and see them face to face, not text messaging or Zoom (video chatting) with them,” Simmons said. “To see them, get to know them and hang out with them.”
When that happens, he’ll be ready to coach, ready to teach and ready to build those relationships.