LEO Austria may be basking in the glory right now after winning his second championship with San Miguel in the just concluded 40th season of the PBA.
But unknown to many, the soft-spoken coach also had a rocky start handling the powerhouse team the way his predecessors did.
Teeming with talent and individual superstars, Austria, himself a former PBA player, admitted initially having a hard time gaining the respect of his players in his first few weeks with the Beermen.
Although he’s already been with San Miguel before – as deputy to former coach Todd Purves – it was only at the start of last season when he became head coach of the most successful franchise in the history of Asia’s first ever play-for-pay league.
“At the start, napakahirap dahil they’re trying to size me up kung ano ang meron ako,” Austria recalled.
The experience made him conscious enough of the constant coaching changes within the franchise the past three years, an episode in the history of the team that paved the way to coin the term ‘Petronovela’ at the time San Miguel still carried the brand name Petron.
During that stretch, the team replaced coaches just like changing shirts, from Ato Agustin, Olsen Racela, Rajko Toroman, Gee Abanilla, Purves, Biboy Ravanes, to Austria.
And for someone who hasn’t proven himself yet as a coach in the pro league, Austria is aware he has yet to earn the trust of his players, especially the established ones.
“Wala pa naman akong napatunayan sa kanila. Dahil in the ABL and in the amatuers, marami akong panatunayan. But this is the PBA, so they thought na hindi pa ako seasoned para mag coach,” he said.
Implementing his system likewise didn’t come in handy.
“Ang hirap talaga, dahil pagkabaguhan ka laging ganun ang ma-e-experience mo. Hindi naman ako tulad nila Tim Cone, nina Norman Black na kahit ano sabihin nila, susundin dahil mga veteran coaches na yun,” he said.
“I am also a veteran coach but not in the professional (level). Ang pinanghahawakan ko lang eh yung nagawa ko sa Adamason at sa ABL.”
The former Rookie of the Year (1985), however, didn’t lose hope, especially with management giving him the needed support.
“But I know what to do. With the confidence and trust of the management, nagawa ko yun,” said Austria.
Patience served him well as Austria slowly but surely, tried to convince and define the roles the players have to play within the team.
“By teaching them, during practice ipinapaalam ko sa kanila na ang tinuturo ko eh tama. Kung mali yan di naman sila magrerespond eh. Makikita mo sila, na-i-transform ko sa new system,” he said.
“Until ma-realize nila na tama pala ang ginagawa ko. I’ve earned the respect of the players that’s why itong team na ito eh maganda ang ipininapakita,” he stressed. “Maganda ang nagiging resulta, that’s why I earned the respect of the players.”
The Beermen did respond positively by winning the Philippine Cup championship – their first title since 2011. After faltering in the mid-season Commissioner’s Cup, the team ended its campaign the same way it started by winning the Governors Cup title following a 4-0 romp of Alaska.
With the team finally winning again, Austria said individual honors naturally followed.
“Imagine, MVP na naman si June Mar (Fajardo), si Marcio (Lassiter) mas lalong sumikat, yung mga player mas lalong na-define yung role,” said the former Adamson coach.
“I think it’s about time na maging successful ang team namin and nagkakainitindihan na kami.”
In the end, Austria said he owes the team’s success not only to the players and staff, but more importantly to San Miguel big boss Ramon S. Ang for the trust given to him.
Ironically, Austria was once unceremoniously booted out of San Miguel in February of last year for what he believed was a conspiracy against him. [See related story here: http://www.spin.ph/sports/basketball/news/leo-austria-left-puzzled-frustrated-after-losing-place-in-san-miguel-coaching-staff].
But now, he’s back with the team better than ever.
“I am really thankful to boss RSA (Ang) for the respect and the second chance he gave me. That time, sinabi ko sa kanya na ‘salamat po sa pagtitiwala. Hindi ko po kayo bibiguin.’ And so I did,” he said of the San Miguel big boss who personally picked him for the job.
Watch video of interview with Austria: