Mark Clayden didn’t necessarily know he wanted to be a head coach again, but when the Cockburn Cougars men’s job became available, and he got the blessing from three key people, he put his hand up and now can’t wait to start the 2024 NBL1 West season.
Clayden might not have been a head coach in the SBL, now NBL1 West, in some 15 years with his previous stint at the Rockingham Flames, he has never been too far away from coaching and is familiar with the Cougars program.
He was an assistant coach to Andrew Cooper and has been coaching in the Cockburn WABL setup and with the Cougar Pride program, and was named the WABL Coach of the Year back in 2019.
While he wasn’t necessarily searching to be a head coach in the NBL1 West competition again, once the Cougars job was available following the departure of Cooper, Clayden knew that it was now or never to give it one more crack.
With his involvement already at the Cougars and with daughter Maia part of the women’s program, it made all the sense in the world to him.
However, once Clayden got the all clear from his wife to pursue the role and then spoke with the Cougars board, he was excited. When long-time team manager Pete Stanley along with captain Gavin Field and vice-captain Seva Chan gave him the thumbs up, he wanted the job.
Clayden is now excited to be taking on a head coaching role in the league again and can’t wait to have the group together on the floor once pre-season training officially begins next month.
How have you ended up back as a head coach
For two reasons Clayden didn’t expect to coaching the Cougars in 2024 – both because he didn’t have an inkling that Cooper wouldn’t be back and also that he wasn’t sure it was something he necessarily wanted to do again.
However, once the opportunity was there to put his hand up for the job and he thought about it, the more and more he thought he wanted to do it.
“The opportunity kind of presented itself a little unexpectedly when Coops and the club didn’t move forward together and I then came home, and thought about it and talked with my wife and some very close friends,” Clayden said.
“It perked up my interest again and with my daughter playing with the NBL1 women’s team as well, I was there every night already so if I was ever going to put my hand up again, it probably was the time to explore it.
“So after a week of contemplating and talking to people, we decided I would talk to the board and then after that, it went through.
“It’s been a bit of a rushed process and I didn’t see it being on the horizon, but to say I’m already enjoying it would be an understatement. It’s been great to get back in there and start to think about it more, and starting to work with these guys and being part of the club head in the right direction.”
Benefits of already having been involved
The added benefit of Clayden taking on the job at the Cougars is that he’s already got an involvement at the club, his daughter is playing there and he’s had some involvement with the majority of players to some degree previously.
“Having only been involved a couple of years ago with Coops when I was his assistant coach, he gave me a lot of responsibility and opportunities to work with him and that was a great learning experience for me,” he said.
“That helped set up the club and I owe him a great deal of gratitude for that, and also working with the Cougar Pride boys the last two years, it means I feel like I’ve already got a good grasp of the younger group of players coming through.
“Coaching the under 18s and 19s over the last couple of years has been good but getting back with that older age group with the 20 or so year olds, and seeing what they want to achieve through their basketball, that’s something I’m really big with.”
Immediate mark he wants to make
It’s fair to say it’s a different world that Clayden is now stepping into as a head coach in the NBL1 West than what he previously experienced in the SBL at the Rockingham Flames.
Having said that, the overall philosophies still hold true and Clayden will have his standards he expects his players to hold themselves true to, and won’t be accepting anything but full commitment.
“My last experience with SBL about 20 years ago, a lot of people just thought by rocking up they had made it and the professionalism has gone through the roof since then,” Clayden said.
“We want kids to have to come in and put in the work, and earn their spots so a lot of our conversations now is around how to get better and how to get better.
“If they want to get better, this is a great place for them, but if they just want to cruise through, then there’s probably better options out there. That part has been really exciting and it’s helped me see what Coops and I did when he started building this program, and from working with the under 18s, it’s a consistent message.
“That’s why I’m pretty excited to get in there and do the work because I know I have 10 or 12 boys from Cockburn who are really keen to get better, and we just have to add the right other pieces of the jigsaw to that.”
First three phone calls
Before Clayden committed to the job as coach of the Cougars, he knew that he needed some more pieces to fall into place. He didn’t know if he would want to do the job if Stanley didn’t want to remain involved or if Field and/or Chan didn’t want to continue playing.
Once all three gave him the yes to being on board for 2024, then Clayden had only one thing left to do and that was let the Cougars board know that he was accepting the position.
“I met with the board, I drove home and walked in and my wife asked what I was thinking, and I told her I thought it went pretty well but I had to make three phone calls before going any further,” Clayden said.
“I rang Pete Stanley first and I asked him if he was in, and I told him I was just hoping I was in because I didn’t know if I’d do it if he said no. He said yes so that was the first piece of the puzzle.
“Gav was the second phone and then Seva was the third, and they both said yes as well and when all three of those guys said they were happy for me to put my hand up and would be part of it, then my decision was made.
“I think it’s really important for us to have good role models and both those players cannot be questioned on their loyalty to our club. Then obviously with Pete, you don’t get anybody who gives up as much time and effort at our club, so to have him continue to be a part of being around our young group is vital to us keeping on moving forward.”
Excited to sign Hunter Clarke
The new signings have already begun for the Cougars too with the addition of former Brisbane Bullets development player, and Willetton Tigers guard Hunter Clarke.
He brings great versatility to the Cougars and is a genuine two-way player who can be equally influential on the court at either end of the floor, but Clayden has already identified that he wants him primarily to play as a point guard.
“We could not be happier. He is one of those guys who when you coach against him you don’t want to come up against, but now that he’s on board, I’m happy to have him on our team,” he said.
“Just his general demeanour around the club and with the boys has already been amazing in a short period of time. In our first meeting he already was talking my language and was talking about what our junior players were like and how he could help them, what kind of leadership role he could have and how he also wanted to achieve his personal goals.
“It was a win for me to have a guy still driven to try and get back to the NBL but who is also all about how to make our kids better, and be a good club person. Then basketball IQ wise he is awesome, he adds a new dimension to us in a point guard role and will work so well with Seva and Matty Clifford.
“Hunter just gives us a lot of versatility on defence because he can guard anyone from one to four, and then we’ll play him a lot at point guard but he can play a number of positions depending on what we need.”
Clayden is already happy with the four main players he sees sharing the backcourt for the Cougars in 2024 with Clarke, Chan, Clifford and Josh Hunt, which makes it significantly easier to identify the type of other imports and extra pieces he might look to bring in.
“Then having Matty Clifford there who is a defensive piece and we all know how good Seva is defensive and with his playmaking,” Clayden said.
“Then the fourth part of that guard rotation is Josh Hunt and we kind of move him into that two spot to try and work on that with him.
“So we’ll work on those four guys rotating through and sharing some responsibilities and trying to follow the lead of some of the other elite clubs have done in recent years where you have multiple point guards and not just the one guy you rely on.”
Is it starting to feel real that you’re the coach now
Now that the Cougars have begun signing players for the 2024 season, Clayden is getting out on court and working with some of them already, and the plans for pre-season are being put in place, it’s certainly hitting home to him now that he’s officially a head coach once again.
“I think this week has been when it’s all hit home. I’m not a big recruiter and anyone who knows me knows that about me, I’m not a salesman and I’m pretty honest down the line,” Clayden said.
“There’s even been a couple of interviews where I’ve said that it might not be the best situation for them and I just said that to be very honest with them because I’d rather say that now instead of a tough conversation come March.
“But this week by having Ducky finally make a decision and with having Hunter on court working out with our guys, and watching our Cougar Pride guys playing on a Tuesday and seeing our 18 and 19-year-old kids stepping up has been great.
“They’ve won two out of the three games already and then even watching Gav and seeing him have a spring in his step means there’s lots we’re looking forward to. We’ll get up and running in November and we’re going to set the bar pretty high with fitness which has a few guys a little worried, but so far they’ve stepped up well.”