Ask the players who have been under him, one of the most common descriptions you will get for Coach Leo Austria is, “Parang tatay.” He cares and teaches his players with a fatherly touch that is starting to make an impact in the Philippine basketball scene.
His “mind and heart” coaching has already gotten him pages in the history of Philippine basketball. From ending Adamson’s decades long losing streak to Ateneo, to winning two PBA championships on his first year with the team and even coaching the first team to come back from a 3-0 deficit.
But what makes his method so different?
Care and compassion for constituents can be displayed in so many different ways. Coach Pido Jarencio is notorious for his expletive laden practices, but during game time he’s one of the first to rush to the aid and defense of his players. Coach Yeng Guiao is a known task master, openly scolding his players even during games, but in effect he can afford to blow his top and get ejected in their defense, knowing that the players will trust his system enough to run it without him.
But as for Coach Leo, he’s the cool calm voice of reason, both in and off the court.
So, what’s his secret to his almost-immediate success in the professional leagues?
During my undergraduate years in Adamson University, even as a rookie sports writer I never had a problem digging deep into the Falcons team for soundbites and interviews. Coach Leo was one of the most accommodating people I’ve ever seen. He welcomed me in practice, he welcomed me on the team bus and definitely welcomed me in the locker room.
This trait of his allowed me to see how he treats, not only his players, but everyone around him.
In the locker room, he ends the weekday post-game victory wrap up with, “Masarap mag-aral, guys.” Encouraging his players to make the most of the athletic scholarships they have. At the back of his mind, it’s probably the same advice he would like his own son, Bacon who played for Ateneo, hear from his coach.
One of Adamson’s school officials even recounted the early days of Coach Leo’s tenure in Adamson. He sat out key players after catching wind that they failed to attend class. He later apologized for the loss that ensued, but of course the school officials were more than understanding.
During the semis of the last Philippine Cup we got headlines quoting Coach Leo around the lines of, “Don’t wait for me to get angry.” It speaks to the kind of leadership he employs. In the college level he respected his players like his sons, in the professional leagues he treated them all as professionals.
It even came to the point that at the tail end of Season 76, when news broke out of Adamson not renewing his contract, ABL San Miguel Beerman Asi Taulava who just had his career resurrected because of Coach Leo’s ability to use him in the post, was very vocal on Twitter about his disappointment at the way the champion mentor was being treated. “You don’t deserve him,” posted Asi, pertaining to Adamson’s then management.
It’s tempting to compare this form of coaching and leadership to the fabled Wu Chi of the Warring States Era of China. A general who knew his soldiers by name, mourned their loss with their families and treated them as more than mere pawns on the battlefield.
His patience with his players has already reaped the fruits of success. Despite not coming up with any college trophies, he now has four championships in the professional leagues, including the ABL. He did this while employing one of the most patient offensive systems in the leagues he has coached in.
His trademark is the high efficiency offense that delivers such a high rating that it more than makes up for his teams’ lack of pace. For this to happen, every player on the roster has to buy into the system and be willing to go against the grain of their personal desire and slow their own game down and go with the flow. And as Coach Leo has shown with his three PBA championships in four seasons with the San Miguel Beermen, it’s possible to do all that without the crack of the whip.
Greatness does not have to be squeezed out by “rushing or dragging” and it’s okay to say, “Good job.”
Coach Leo is an example of how care and compassion fits into being a successful leader. Respect and motivation can reap the same benefits as nearly decapitating your drummer with a hi-hat. Hopefully more leaders, even outside of basketball will trade in their whips for compassion; heavens know we don’t need more slave drivers in our society.