Mentorship and Growth Mindset Elevate Recent Grad’s Game
December 15, 2020
“McCormack and UMass look for go-getters,” observes sport management MBA/MS graduate Josh Estes ’19 (left), whose own ambition since graduation has helped propel him from an assistant coaching position at Amherst College to an analytics coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers that he started in October.
For Estes, McCormack’s state-of-the-art classroom and experiential learning helped launch his sport career, but the school’s focus on networking students with supportive alumni and industry professionals has proved vital. Alongside sport management lecturer Will Norton, who offered him direction and inspiration, Estes has also benefited from one of McCormack’s most productive and long-standing alumni relationships, with Amherst College’s legendary men’s basketball coach, Dave Hixon.
“Josh has a mindset for personal and professional growth,” notes Norton. The two first met in Norton’s Professional Development seminar, which is mandatory for all first-year Sport Management MBA students. With its industry-wide overview, the course offers students pragmatic advice in launching and growing their careers. “Josh was the perfect example of what a student can accomplish through mentors and networking,” Norton continues. “I felt early on that he was a career switcher with his eyes on an NBA front office role. (Before Isenberg, Estes was a research analyst with Ulland Investment Advisors in Minneapolis.) “He was a self-starter and receptive to new ideas and change. He excelled in the course’s consulting projects and his passion for sports analytics ran deep.” Estes, of course, has his own take: “Without pressure, Will encouraged us to grow, to be our best. He encouraged us to embrace change.”
An introduction from McCormack department chair Stephen McKelvey and his own dogged initiative led Estes to his relationship with Amherst College basketball coach Hixon. In 42 years of NCAA Division III basketball, Hixon (right), who retired earlier this year, compiled an off-the-charts 826-293 record, including two national championships. For the first year of that relationship, Estes hung out with the team, absorbing its methods and culture. After graduation, he continued at Amherst for a year as an assistant coach. “Josh put in so much work,” Hixon recalls. “Our relationship started out as a mentorship and grew from there. “Most days, I got started at 7 a.m. Josh would come in at 7:30. We’d talk basketball, team structure, family, social issues. This one went as far as you can go.”
McCormack’s forty-year partnership with Amherst College began, in fact, with Coach Hixon himself. On the heels of his own undergraduate degree in psychology from the college, he transitioned to a master’s degree in McCormack’s forerunner, Sport Studies. “You had to take four courses in sport management and four from the business school,” he recalls. For Hixon, two courses resonated most deeply—a history of sport seminar with Guy Lewis and a sport sociology course with John Loy.
In research under Loy’s direction, Hixon found that athletes with decision-making authority on the field—catchers, second basemen, quarterbacks, and middle linebackers—were more likely to become coaches versus athletes with fewer such responsibilities. “Those findings, moreover, had racial implications—few of those positions went to players of color. The study made me look at the world differently,” he recalls. And, he added, it exemplified the McCormack program’s value as an incubator for leadership in sports. “What you learn complements on-field experience,” he emphasizes. “You see the game from the other side of the fence. That will make you a better administrator.”
Since earning his own MS degree, Hixon has been a staunch advocate for the master’s degree program, periodically sending newly minted Amherst College graduates to McCormack. That includes major league baseball GMs Neal Huntington and Ben Cherington. And over the years, Hixon has mentored UMass students with exceptional drive like Josh. “It’s been win-win for both schools,” Hixon remarks.
“At Isenberg, we worked a lot in groups, where you have to learn to delegate and take responsibility,” Estes observes. “That’s true for assistant coaching as well. You have to figure out how to get players to buy into a strategy. You have to be diligent. Preparation is critical.” For the McCormack grad, analytics is just as crucial. As a student he immersed himself in the subject excelling in the second-year MBA course, Advanced Sport Analytics and Data Management. “It is indispensable in high-level collegiate ball and in the NBA,” he insists. “You need to know, for example, if an opponent runs more pick-and-rolls on the left; you need to know when to force fouls or opt for rebounds late in a game. You must analyze the data, but you also need to use your eyes. In the end, you are creating a story that embeds the numbers.” Both, he says, are intertwined.
Academics aside, “the biggest takeaway for me at UMass was networking,” Estes continues. A key connection in his expanding network was Seth Partnow, former director of analytics with the Milwaukee Bucks. (Estes and Partnow are both graduates of Carleton College.) “When I asked Seth how I could get better at analytics to help my coaching at Amherst, he invited me to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an annual state-of-the-art event.” Estes was also in the sight lines of Koby Altman, who become the Cavs’ GM in 2017. A McCormack MS grad and former Middlebury College hoops star, Altman had served under Hixon as an assistant coach from 2007 to 2009. For Estes, those connections plus a strong endorsement from Hixon played a role in his ascent to the NBA. But the McCormack grad will never rest on his laurels. “You must always,” he insists, “add new ways of doing things, new perspectives.”
Other McCormack graduate students who have served on Hixon’s bench include the following: