Q&A with Phil Sykes
University at Albany field hockey head coach Phil Sykes, who has led the Great Danes to five of the last nine America East championships, sat down with the ASP’s Rob Lep to talk about his coaching career, representing the U.S. in the Olympics as a player, etc.
Editor’s Note – This conversation was done before this past weekend, when Sykes earned his 200th career victory with UAlbany.
Rob Lepelstat: Take me back to your childhood. Growing up in Livermore, California, around 30 miles away from the San Francisco Bay Area. What was it like as a kid?
Phil Sykes: So I was born in Tacoma Washington and then around five and a half six years old we moved to California. It’s a mini Napa Valley, East-Bay California they call it, and huge into sports. Randomly a friend one day, I lost a bet to him and he said, “You have to come play field hockey”. I was like, no, I don’t wanna play that. It looks like someone’s gonna get hurt! It ended up being my favorite sport. I just got a real attachment to it and about a year after that date our men’s national team coach, a guy named Gavin Felishaw moved to my town. He had just coached the ‘84 Olympic team and started growing the sport. I kinda narrowed my sports down to tennis and field hockey and played tennis in college. Played D-1 tennis at a school in Texas — University of Texas Pan-American and as soon as that was over, I got directed back into hockey and we had just been granted the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta. I was on the national team and I had taken a little break from tennis. I got back on it and was fortunate enough to make the Olympic team and play in Atlanta and travel the world through playing field hockey.
RL: You have a smile on your face. Just what was that experience like? I mean, representing your country in the Olympics. I don’t think there’s anything that can compare to something like that.
PS: It’s amazing. Just even going through the Opening Ceremony, I don’t think I could not smile. You know, look who is in the crowd. We first started walking, Carl Lewis pops out.
I get a photo with Carl Lewis who’s, you know, way before you, but hopefully, you know who he is.
RL: Yes, of course, I do!
PS: Good! Then you see the Dream Team and then you see all these celebrities and they’re just like, where am I? This is crazy. And then we would have between five and 10,000 people at a game there too, which was unheard of and a pretty amazing experience overall for sure.
RL: You touched on it a little bit, but as a teen/young adult, what did you learn from playing in the Olympics on that stage?
PS: I was 25 when I was there in the Olympics and as I said I’m a lot older than you haha. A lot older. I started making our junior national team around 16 and traveling and playing and having the flag on your shirt. It’s a pretty neat experience. And then, you know, I think that along with playing high-level junior tennis in California, which is a very tennis-rich community and dealing with those different types of competitions, you know. It just really kinda got me to where I eventually wanted to be. And I think coaching was a natural kind of path.
I was instructing and playing tournaments and then I coached college tennis for a little while and I was like wow I like this a lot. Randomly I met my wife at a mutual friend’s wedding. My future wife, she was gonna move to California after we had dated for a while. She lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But around the year 2000, the prices were going through the roof, Silicon Valley and all this stuff. So I said, maybe I’ll come out there and coach hockey. And I hadn’t played, I hadn’t coached much and I just sort of looked on a map and said you know, Towson University looks really close to you. It’s an inch away on a map. I’m sure that’s really close. It was an hour and a half drive (laughing). But I got a job there. I made about $9,000 for the year. But I discovered that I really love it.
I actually grew up in a very unique sporting environment. My next door neighbor was a guy named Jack Trudeau. He played at Illinois football as a quarterback, ended up playing for the Indianapolis Colts, played in the Rose Bowl, all this stuff. And then the next street over was a guy named Randy Johnson, 6-foot-11 pitcher. He’s won 300 games two blocks over. Many more too. I was just sort of in a sporting hot-bed and I got to see it and witness it and watch these guys and say, well, I want to be like those guys.
RL: It’s funny because Randy Johnson is one of my favorite pitchers of all time. Is there a Randy Johnston story that you could tell me right now?
PS: There is! Ironically he and Jack Trudeau, there was like, you know, kind of a few families in there. They were rivals and I got to kind of see that. So he ended up going to a crosstown high school. But my brother, anytime we get together for a family reunion, my oldest brother Marty, won as a pitcher against him [Johnson] as a 12-year-old. And that’s his claim to fame is I beat Randy Johnson! I’m not gonna say it was in the majors, but as a 12-year-old little leaguer, he did it! But I got to talk with those guys when I was a kid watching play and they’re always really nice gracious people, but you could see there kind of aspirations and their different levels of intensity and just, we just want to mirror that. I want to be like those guys.
RL: 14 years ago, you get the phone call that you’re going to be the head coach at UAlbany, when you got that call, what was going through your mind?
PS: Well, it was beyond shocking because I had coached at Towson. I thought I had a good resume. I applied for over 60 jobs, DI, D-II, D-III, and I got nothing. I was not getting interviews or anything. And in the matter of a two-hour span, on one day I got offered three jobs. Albany said, you know, we want you to come in for an interview. I saw, okay at the time transitioning in D-I and they don’t have a field. Not a lot of scholarships at the time. Not very good. Maybe one of the five worst teams with rankings. But, one thing I really saw was the level of all the teams improving every year. And I kinda historically went through all of them and in meeting then-athletic director, Dr. McElroy, he blew me away. I said this guy is impressive.
And the first thing he said was, I know nothing about field hockey, but he’s like, here’s three things I want to happen. I want the kids to have a great experience. I want them to graduate and I want you to win. And he said, are you okay with that? I said. That’s great. And I’m the guy for the job. I’ll take it.
RL: I’m very fascinated by the way you run practice — “Competition days” — What are they?
PS: So basically there’s a bakery across the way called Fiorello’s and the fantastic Jen and Li who run it over there. I say bake me 12 chocolate chip cookies, 12 oatmeal raisin and we split them into teams and we play different games for points and the winners get the chocolate chip and the losers get the oatmeal raisin. When they freshly bake them and they’re bringing them over and the girls are a little bit hungry, the daggers come out and it’s fun competition, but they get into it, they talk trash and gets out the laughs and then I think it kind of relieves tension instead of being like, okay, we’ve got these tough games, we’ve got to do this, and then there’s just stress, you know but this way we have a light practice and it’s worked over the years.
RL: How would you describe this 2018 team versus any other that you’ve had in terms of not just on the field, but overall, the way they conduct themselves?
PS: Overall. Very different. I think they’re all led by our captain Frederika Helmka who is probably one of the most relaxed Germans you’ll ever meet. You know, they’re typically a little intense but she’s very relaxed. And then they follow her lead. I think, you know, practice and whatever we’re doing, there’s always good times and bad, but they’re all genuinely supportive of each other. I think in college sports with stats and goals and headlines and this and that everybody can get a little jealous here and there, but our team and we try to present it that way too, that, whoever scores the goal, we’ve all scored a goal. Let’s have that mentality and you know, I haven’t had to deal with too many problems, based on jealousy, envy and that sort of thing, which is what you see often.