All coaches qualify as change agents. Certainly the builders, even the maintainers to a degree. But very few coaches are defined as basketball resurrectionists, restoring long-stumbling teams to previous successes. Even more minuscule is the number who turn around so-called coach-killer programs, named because history has demonstrated the near impossibility of ever achieving success at such a location. Count UC Merced Coach Kevin Pham in that later category not once but twice.
In his first year of life, that being in the year 1981, Pham arrived in the United States as an Vietnamese immigrant. There were no rainbows stretching across the sky greeting his family, no inspirational speeches offered by politicians, zero fireworks. It was just another day albeit in another country. But following the values his mother instilled in him and seizing opportunities have remained Pham’s guiding light.
“My best coach is my Mom,” Pham explained. “The values she instilled in me as a kid are the core values in our program now–be grateful, give it your all and be better than yesterday. I put my heart, life and mindset into what I do. I’m all in and a very competitive person.”
So how did he get to be the head men’s basketball coach at UC Merced? Call it a not necessarily long but certainly a winding road.
Now entering his sixth season in his current position, Pham played hoops throughout high school in Sacramento with a goal of making the NBA. Granted, some hurdles just cannot be overcome and his closest connection to The League turned out be as a Sacramento Kings media relations intern while spending his off hours rebounding for the Kings’ great guard Mike Bibby.
Pham attended UC Berkeley and departed with a degree in economics, proudly noting, “I was the first person in my family’s generation to graduate from college.” Along with his studies, he served as the team manager for the Bears’ women’s basketball team from 2002-2004.
Then came a six year stint with Accenture, an IT consulting firm. “I was doing very well financially at a Fortune 500 company, receiving two promotions in one year and was on my way to becoming a manager at 28 years old. My greatest accomplishment was buying my parents a house.”
Facing a Choice
One day a family friend saw an ad for a job on craigslist and emailed it to Pham. The message was about Sacramento Waldorf, a private school in Fair Oaks, seeking a girls junior varsity basketball coach. Pham was faced with an opportunity that changed his entire career path. “I thought long and hard about coaching because I had no intention of coaching girls basketball,” Pham recalled. “But since I love the game so much and I love working with people I thought maybe this was the platform that would allow me to make the greatest difference in people lives.” He decided to apply for the coaching position and was quickly hired by the school’s athletic director. That season his team finished 19-10.
After one season as the girl’s junior varsity head basketball coach at Sacramento Waldorf, Pham landed a volunteer assistant coaching position at Cosumnes River College (CRC) with Head Coach Coral Sage. “She (Coach Sage) gave me the opportunity that changed my life, allowing me to run practice, recruit, scout, and perform game preparations, but more importantly she gave me the platform to correct my own coaching mistakes. I am forever indebted to her.” In five years at CRC, Pham helped the long-struggling program enjoy two 20-plus win seasons and CRC made back-to-back California College Athletic Association state tournament appearances during his tenure.
Reality bites, Pham bites back
After three seasons at CRC, Pham applied to 53 schools in hopes of an opportunity to coach at a four-year level. Unfortunately, the basketball world felt like he was not ready as he was met with 53 rejections. “I still have all those nice rejection emails on my laptop,” Pham said while chuckling.
Understanding it was necessary to broaden his exposure, Pham decided to try and make a name for himself. He spent two summers volunteering at various summer college basketball camps. “I worked at Texas A&M, North Carolina, Texas, Villanova and Notre Dame all in one summer, building connections and networking with other coaches.”
Then came his boldest move yet. “In 2010 I went in and gave my two weeks notice at Accenture. To be honest, looking back at it I was really naïve for doing that. This coaching industry is extremely tough to get into. You really need to know someone or have someone believe you and give you an opportunity. But it worked out for me because that year we had our best season at CRC finishing 21-8 with a post season victory.”
After that season, Pham rolled the dice again and applied to a number of four-year schools. This time Pham won – two applications and two job opportunities granted. Pham chose to become the first ever UC Merced women’s basketball coach, and was hired in late May 2012. “It was an opportunity of a lifetime and I got a chance to prove myself from the ground up.”
With no chance to fill his first recruiting class, he finished 3-21 in his first season. But with hard work came yearly improvement in victory totals and three years later Merced finished with 14 wins, its first California Pacific Conference championship plus participation in the NAIA national tournament. The Bobcats were all set to make a further jump with two freshman and two sophomores returning as starters. Seven of Pham’s players earned all-conference honors in those initial three years.
In June 2015 after a meager 1-28 season, UC Merced Director of Recreation and Athletics David Dunham needed a new men’s basketball coach. In-house was a known commodity, a hoops mentor with a rising program. Dunham turned to Pham.
“I thought long and hard before I made the decision to switch over to men’s basketball,” Pham recalled. “The opportunity to build two programs at one institution was very unique to me so I accepted the challenge knowing that I could still be here for my women’s basketball players if they ever needed me.”
In Pham’s first season as the men’s coach, the 1-28 became 9-14 with a post season bid to the California Pacific Conference tournament. Two years later, with a batch of underclassmen playing significant roles, Pham’s squad made it to the Cal Pac Conference championship game, losing by one point. It was a mirror of success to that his women’s program in 2014-15. This past season the Bobcats finished 18-10 and made it to the conference championship game for the second time in three years, but unfortunately came up short again. The trajectory of the UC Merced men’s basketball program has been a positive one in five years under Pham’s leadership, with three conference tournament appearances (in two of which the Bobcats advanced to the championship game) as well as ranking in the Top 5 in the NAIA in points allowed per game each of the last three seasons. Plus, nine players have earned all-conference honors to date.
The Pham Way
His method of operation centers around creating paths for consistent individual development resulting in team growth. “Whether it’s men or women, the schematics are the same. It’s all about human interaction. Each player wants to be loved, respected and given an equal opportunity. It’s critical to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your kids and challenge them to be their best.”
He added, “It’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize. In a leadership position, you have to make everyone’s problem your problem and provide guidance.” Pham added though, “you can’t always make everyone happy. You have to make unpopular decisions at times and always do what is best for the team.”
As for his various career moves, Pham explained, “What I did was not normal especially in the Asian culture. My parents thought I was crazy for leaving my corporate job to coach basketball. But I just love it that much and it never feels like work. That is when you know you are the most alive.”
Offering advice for upcoming coaches, he said, “I always thought I knew it all when I was young. But after my first head coaching experience, it really humbled me. I realized how much I did not know and how much more I had to learn to become better. You should always ask for help when you need it and do your best to not make the same mistake twice.”
He also stressed the need for having good assistant coaches. “You have to have good people in your corner who are loyal to you. They have to want you to become successful. If they do, they will work hard not to let you down.” Besides veteran assistants Brian Jones and Michael Sanchez, Pham added Moses Oceguera, one of his heralded players as well as a former UC Merced woman’s all-conference point guard, to his staff a year ago. “I’m lucky, I think I have the best people around me.”
A critical element, one of immense pride for Pham, is his being “the only Vietnamese-American college head basketball coach. There are a lot of talented Asian-Americans coaches in this industry, but very few have been blessed with the opportunity that I was given. For that reason, I take great pride in representing the Asian community.”
“As I get older, being present in the moment is important thing to me. I genuinely enjoy coaching my team. Without them, I do not feel like myself–I love my staff and my players.”
Maybe most important of all for Pham is, “I’ve been blessed to coach both sides.”