Erik Spoelstra, born in Evanston, Ill., began his tenure with the Miami Heat in an unexpected position: video coordinator. He worked his way up the basketball hierarchy to hold the coveted position of head coach and now wears an NBA Championship ring. Evanston’s new video coordinator hopes to make the same transition.
In his fifth year as the men’s basketball team's video coordinator, Mike Pepple said his job has largely been a learning experience, one that he hopes will give him the connections he needs to make it to the next level: becoming a head coach.
“You start from the bottom up,” he said. “I’ve learned a ton the four years I’ve been here and I’m sure it’ll be a lot more.”
A Northwestern grad, Pepple started his career with the athletic department when he managed the golf team during his junior year. In his senior year, he served as the basketball team’s manager and as a graduate manager the following year. Pepple then earned his Masters of Sports Administration program at Northwestern in 2011.
Now, as the video coordinator and newly appointed Assistant Director of Basketball Operations, he has truly worked his way up through the ranks.
“In this business, you think you know everything until you step foot in here, talk with these other guys and realize that you have a lot to learn still,” he said.
Pepple’s day starts early, around 7:15 a.m., just before the team begins practice. At the beginning of practice, the team will sometimes watch film, which Pepple has prepared but cannot watch with the team, per NCAA rules. Practice finishes between 10:45 and 11. After lunch, the rest of Pepple’s day is dedicated to scouting opponents via game film, improving the team’s recruiting databases, and collecting and distributing film.
Using a program called SportsCode, Pepple streams game film from the TV into his computer and can click on plays on the screen, creating an individual timeline for a specific player. The program allows him to do the same for a team’s offensive plays and defensive plays. For the first time, the video team will cut film in high definition, which is a personal gain for Pepple as one of his goals each year is to improve Northwestern’s video program.
Northwestern students may dream of working with Drew Crawford or JerShon Cobb, but for Pepple, those relationships are simply part of the job.
“I think they respect us just as much as they respect the assistants and Coach Bill Carmody,” he said. “I’d say that those guys might even be closer to Joe [Kennedy, Director of Basketball Operations] and myself at times, just because they see us a little bit more frequently and they have to communicate with us a little more frequently.”
All of this work depends on timing, which makes for a hectic and sometimes tedious day. Pepple may get lucky and be done by 4 p.m., or he could work well into the night.
When former assistant coach Mitch Henderson left to become Princeton’s head coach, the responsibility of scheduling games fell to Pepple. He found the Charleston Classic, which the Wildcats went on to win, beating Seton Hall 80-73 in the finals.
Game scheduling is one of the responsibilities Pepple “doesn’t mind doing” because it gives him good preparation for the future. Of course, winning the games that he scheduled isn’t bad either.
“When you work very hard to put it all together, utilizing all the film stuff, it makes you feel like you’re a part of the game plan out there,” he said. “When you win the game, it makes you feel that much better. It’s like, mission accomplished.”
In terms of importance to the team, Pepple’s role is crucial, even though it sometimes gets overlooked. In terms of his personal goals, it’s a stepping-stone to becoming a head coach.
“The biggest thing with being video coordinator is that you’re watching all the X’s and O’s stuff, so it’s honestly the best way to progress as a coach,” he said.
Within Northwestern’s program, being a video coordinator means Pepple can network with coaches, ones who could end up hiring him at a later date. Unlike Director of Basketball Operations Joe Kennedy or Associate Head Coach Tavaras Hardy, Pepple did not play college basketball at Northwestern. In fact, he didn’t even play college basketball – he only played high school basketball for a year. So without that experience on the court, Pepple has had to rely on his current position to plan for the future.
“These guys lived it, they went through it on the court when they were players but I didn’t,” he said. “So this is my way of being able to learn this stuff so it’s a really good opportunity for me.”
Pepple’s job also requires a lot of interaction with other teams’ video coordinators as well. Getting video is sometimes not an easy task. If a game isn’t televised, Pepple has to depend on the video coordinators from other teams for their own game film or game film of other teams’ previous opponents.
Wildcats would assume that relying with Big Ten Rivals like Illinois and Michigan for film exchange would make for a tense relationship. But, Pepple said this allows for more networking opportunities and the chance to help someone who is also on the longer path to becoming a head coach.
Individually, Pepple’s goals include coaching, but when he’s in his office, he only has the Wildcats’ overall goal on his mind: making the NCAA tournament in March. Last year the team went 19-14 (8-10), losing four of its last eight games of the regular season.
Although Pepple never wants to say, “this is the year,” he does want to help the program take the next step and make the NCAA tournament for the first time in Northwestern’s history. Even though he’ll probably see some late nights over the course of this season, Selection Sunday is one day he won’t mind pulling an all-nighter, if it means seeing Northwestern’s name flash on the TV screen.
“Obviously, we’ve fallen short the last few years but this year I think we’re gonna work just as hard, if not harder, to make sure that these guys are ready to go for every game,” he said.
The next level for Pepple himself will hopefully mean being an assistant coach or even a head coach somewhere, possibly at one of the Big Ten schools. It could be anywhere, but he hopes it’ll be Northwestern.
“That would be the ultimate job,” he said. “If I could choose one of the 12 to coach at, it’d be here. I bleed purple and white.”