All the bright lights and piles of praise can spin a college basketball player’s head sideways.
That’s one reason Wichita State has had Steve Dickie around the last three years.
A former associate pastor at a Wichita church, he’s officially the Shockers’ volunteer team chaplain. But Dickie calls himself the character coach, which is just fine with Gregg Marshall, the coach of all things men’s basketball at WSU.
“He gives them perspective,” Marshall said.
That’s good to have at all times, but it’s especially helpful during moments such as now as the No. 1-seed Shockers head into the NCAA Tournament.
Dickie talks to the players about “everything under the sun.”
“We talk life,” he said.
Sometimes those talks come during scheduled sessions with the team when a specific character quality is discussed. Gratitude comes up regularly.
Usually those talks happen while hanging out together after practice.
“It means a lot to have someone there for us who doesn’t have to be,” sophomore Fred VanVleet said. “He’s helping us grow as men.”
It’s easy to get lost in a sport, even when your team isn’t on an unbeaten run.
“This basketball thing can swallow you up if you let it,” he added. “It can be stressful if you let it.
“You need to see the bigger picture. That picture is bigger than basketball, bigger than us.”
Prayer is part of seeing that picture.
“All of us are pretty much guys of faith,” VanVleet said. “He prays for us all the time.”
Senior Nick Wiggins said Dickie frequently “tells us to keep God first and to remember we are blessed to be in this situation. We have a bunch of guys coming from different paths. I feel like God put us together for a reason.”
Dickie’s listening ear has been the most important part for Wiggins.
“He’s seen my ups and downs,” Wiggins said. “Just listening helps keep my spirits up.”
Many college basketball teams around the country – including Kansas and Kansas State – have someone who works with their players in capacities similar to what Dickie does for the Shockers. Former KU star Wayne Simien provides that role for the Jayhawks.
Marshall has always had a team chaplain, including his years at Winthrop. But no one has put as much time into it as Dickie, he said.
“Steve came up with the term character coach because that’s what we’re doing,” Marshall said. “He’s always there for them. They’ve gotten to know him. They like him, they trust him.
“You know he’s doing it with your best interest at heart. That’s what makes him effective. He’s been a great addition to our program.”
Sometimes Dickie deals with a player’s issue that Marshall knows about, but sometimes he doesn’t. And that’s OK, the Shocker coach said.
“Steve probably listens better than he talks,” Marshall added. “The players need that.”
Dickie has spent more than 30 years working with college students at churches, including one near the UCLA campus. He came to Wichita’s Eastminster Presbyterian in 1994, primarily to work with families.
Still, he had concerns when Marshall first asked him to do the job.
“I knew I could relate to the players,” the 57-year-old Dickie said, “but I wondered if the players could relate to me. I’m older now.
“So when I went into it, I said, `I’m not going to try to be the cool, young gun. I’m going to be like a dad.’ And that’s how they see me. In fact, we joke around that I’m the team dad.”
Family relationships is a frequent topic of discussion with the players. To help connect in that area, Dickie told the players his story about how he and his wife, Linda, became parents.
It was also a story about overcoming a difficult situation.
Unable to give birth to children, the Dickies adopted an 8-year-old boy from a Russian orphange. He told the players about how the year-long adoption process became “a miracle after a miracle after a miracle.”
Their son, Josh, is now a sophomore in college.
“I told them about this little boy who came from a horrible life,” Dickie said, “and now he’s in college. I wanted them to see that they are significant, they’re capable and can make a difference in life.”
Before each season, Marshall gives his players a goal sheet to fill out. Goals for the team, themselves, academics and so on.
Pursuing broad goals “usually don’t work out well,” Dickie said. So he convinced Marshall to have the players boil all their goals down into one word.
“Not a word that would define their season,” Dickie said, “but a word that would drive their season.”
Before coming up with the word, the players were told to consider three questions:
What do they need – not want – most this season? What’s in the way of achieving what they need? What in their life do they need to eliminate or enhance to achieve what they need?
VanVleet’s one word was perspective. He grew up in a rough area of Rockford, Ill., and he wanted to understand how his past and future connect.
Ron Baker’s word was benefit. He not only wants to to benefit from the experience, but he also wants to use it to benefit others.
Cleanthony Early’s word was love. He wants to love the game and his teammates.
Humble was Tekele Cotton’s word. He wants to stay even and not be changed by the experience.
For Evan Wessel, the word was thrive. Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile chose consistency. Kadeem Coleby’s word was comfort zone – as in getting out of his comfort zone.
“When you’re committed to one word,” Wiggins said, “it helps your focus.”
Marshall also chose a word – appreciate.
“He said he didn’t want to be 80 years old sitting on a beach trying to find someone to talk to about how great 2014 was,” Dickie said. “He wants to appreciate it now.”
The time has also brought reflection for Dickie. He left Eastminster about a year ago and just completed a sabbatical.
“I wanted to realign what I’m good at,” he said.
Dickie had spent two years as a volunteer serving with Nation of Coaches, a faith-based organization that goes around the country encouraging college basketball coaches. He decided to make the organization his job over the last year, which included spending part of the summer going to AAU tournaments to talk to college coaches.
He said he’ll continue to volunteer as WSU’s team chaplain/character coach as long Marshall wants him there.
“What an honor to have influence on shaping a person’s life,” Dickie said. “College students will hand you their heart and let you mold and shape it. As the older you get, the more you hide your heart.”
Of course, being around a team that reached the Final Four last year and is on an unbeaten run this season brings its own rewards.
“I love basketball,” Dickie said, “and I’m a big kid.”