Ready to ROAR!

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy UAFS Athletics

Nov 1, 2023 | Featured, People

Heading into his first season at the helm of the UAFS men’s basketball program, Head Coach Zane Gibson has had to cover a lot of ground. From assessing players’ strengths to lining out practice plans to installing a new offensive and defensive philosophy, the process of taking the reins of a program is a long list of tasks both large and small.

Take for instance, the matter of being recognized in the community, albeit not the way you’d expect.

“The first time I walk into a place, and I have a UAFS T-shirt on, they’ll say, ‘Hey, do you play over there at the school?’” Zane says with a grin. “That happens more so than anything else because when I wear my UAFS basketball stuff they want to know do I play. I say, ‘No I don’t, I actually coach that team.’”

At age thirty-three, Coach is used to the honest mistake people make. He got his first head coaching job at Western New Mexico at the tender age of twenty-nine when he was even closer in age to his players. A native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, he comes to the UAFS head coaching job after five seasons at UT Permian Basin and Western New Mexico, including the last three seasons as the Western New Mexico’s head coach.

The Lions job is actually his second coaching stint in Fort Smith, having served two years as an assistant here during which time the team reached No. 4 in national rankings, making the cases of mistaken identity all the more amusing. Still, Zane sees his age as a plus in his role as coach.

“I think my age greatly benefits me by not being that far detached from the players,” he says. “I tell these guys all the time, ‘About twelve years ago I did play. I know what it feels like to go through these practices. I do know what it feels like to go through the preparation, the weights, the conditioning. I haven’t forgotten.’

“I can still remember my last game. I still remember those things very, very vividly. Being not that far removed means I do know the music they listen to. I understand the things that go on in social media. I can have those relatable attributes with my guys that I think helps in coaching them.”

Zane’s arrival in Fort Smith last spring added to the youth movement that’s been in place here since the equally fresh-faced Ryan McAdams landed to lead the women’s squad in mid-2021. Though a little older, Ryan can relate to what his colleague is going through. In the less than twenty years since he graduated from college, the coaching protégé has held assistant positions at Cameron University, Cal Poly University, Cuesta Community College, and Eastern Arizona College, where he’d later accept the women’s head coaching position. Prior to joining the Lions, he spent seven years as the head coach of the women’s program for New Mexico State.

Moving around that much in such a short period of time, Ryan doesn’t find adjusting to new places intimidating. Not unlike coaching, it all comes down to connecting with people, he says.

“As I made some stops along the way in my career, I discovered acclimating to a different part of the country is about making new relationships with new people and developing a comfort zone,” he says. “The people here have been really welcoming and warm and the support the teams receive from community members has been great. We’re constantly trying to cultivate more as we go.”

Both men have worked as hard in the community as they have in the gym, connecting with boosters and fans and generally drumming up support for their respective programs. Both see community service and connectedness as integral to overall success.

“This program has always been Fort Smith’s team,” Zane says. “My number-one goal when I came here, behind making sure I built relationships with the young men I wanted to return, was to connect with the community and drum up excitement about our teams – it’s a very historic program.

“We have received a lot of positive feedback. I think that our social media numbers have been through the roof and widely positive. At this point, we’re getting asked to do stuff in the community almost every day because we’ve shown we’re willing to, although we’ve had to simmer down a little bit as we get into the season. But it’s been awesome to reconnect.”

“Our athletes sometimes get more out of community service activities than do the kids that they’re serving,” Ryan says. “It puts things into perspective and balance and gives [players] the opportunity to observe kids of different walks of life or different backgrounds than themselves. Representation matters, right? You put strong, empowered young women in front of girls, or boys for that matter, in the community and you just set the standard and lead the charge as far as those kids developing interpersonal respect.

“It’s funny; I’ll have recruits and their parents ask me what our community service process looks like because they understand the value of it, and they want to be a part of it. It’s definitely something that plays a role for us and our success.”

Of course, the addition of a new head coach isn’t just an adjustment from the top down, but from the ground up, especially in the transfer portal era which makes it easier than ever for players to change programs. Both coaches have been successful not only in recruiting new players, but also in selling their vision to key players when they arrived. Those athletes now form the nucleus around which both Ryan and Zane can build.

Both programs are looking to improve on last year’s records where the women posted a 10-18 mark, and the men went 12-16. Asked what fans can expect out of the product on the floor in 2023-2024, both coaches promised a hard-nosed brand of basketball and players who won’t quit regardless of the situation.

“Not to overblow it, but we set a standard for competition on both sides of the ball every time we step on the floor,” Ryan says. “We haven’t had a great defensive identity the last two years and I think this team is going to turn a corner. I think fans will see some tough individuals who embrace competition, who guard people aggressively. We have some tremendous athletes in our program who get up and down the floor and we play an exciting brand of basketball. We’re going to make people beat us, we’re not going to beat ourselves. I’m excited about this year’s team for sure.”

“I think guards win you games and you’ve got to have a lot of good ones,” Zane says. “How we play is not traditional power basketball, it’s speed. With that, we’ve got to have guys who can handle the ball out on the islands and not look like fish out of water with the ball.

“But what I would really want the fans to know, first thing, is the young men in the uniform with the UAFS across their chest are good people. We are a representation of this university and this community and anytime somebody is representing you, you want to know that they’re good people. I think we’ve got some really good people in our locker room who are going to the game the right way and they’re going to bring an exciting brand of basketball to the Stubblefield Center.”

The UAFS women open their season at home Nov. 10 against Westminster College (Utah). The men debut at home against Harding University of Searcy on Nov. 18.

For full season schedules, player bios and more, visit University of Arkansas Fort Smith Athletics at uafortsmithlions.com.

Do South Magazine

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