DeRusha Eats with John Tauer

St. Thomas Basketball Coach

Jason DeRusha and John Tauer eat at Mancini's in St. Paul
Photo By Eliesa Johnson

John Tauer is entering his slow season—at least as slow as it gets for a guy who’s a University of St. Thomas psychology prof, head coach of the men’s basketball team, CEO of a summer basketball camp, and single dad of two sons.

Tauer’s been an achiever—and a basketball player—his whole life. He won the state championship with Cretin-Derham Hall in high school, he was an Academic All-American at St. Thomas in college, and the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal named him to its “40 Under 40” list when he was, well, under 40. (He’s 41 now.) His picture is on the wall of fame at Mancini’s in St. Paul, where Tauer and his two sons joined me and my two sons for dinner.

Mancini’s. Mancini’s has been a place I’ve come since I was a kid. It’s a St. Paul classic. If you live in St. Paul, this is where you come for a great steak.

Your picture is awesome. It’s my buddy Matt McDonagh and I with our coach from high school, a photo taken before our senior year, 1991. We went on to win the state championship that year.

Did high school Johnny think he’d be involved in basketball today? I probably thought I’d be a 41-year-old shooting guard in the NBA. I was pretty delusional.

Your dad coached eighth graders at Nativity school in St. Paul. I spent a lot of time with him, almost every night in the gym. That’s a place I associated with fun things: shooting a basketball, hanging out with my dad, and looking up to the kids that he coached.

Do you worry that you’re sentencing your kids to a life of basketball coaching? Sentencing?! I teach intrinsic motivation—I don’t want to force it on them. My parents always encouraged me but never pushed me into anything.

What’s it like living and working where you were a standout athlete as a kid? St. Paul is a special place. Life is really good. It’s a balancing act—spending time with my boys, coaching, biking, hanging out with friends. These are things I love doing. I don’t feel consumed by any one thing.

I’ve always been interested in your research—I’m always trying to find the best way to motivate my kids, my co-workers, myself. I was never the most gifted athlete. I wasn’t the fastest kid, didn’t jump exceptionally well. I worked really hard. What fascinated and confused me was people I played with or against that didn’t have that intrinsic motivation to work hard to hone their skills.

Our Dinner

The restaurant: There’s always a Mancini in the house when you eat at this St. Paul institution. John Mancini greeted us as we piled into one of the iconic red vinyl booths.

What we ate: Tauer ordered his usual, the New York strip, which was seared with the flavors of a grill that’s been cooking for years. My filet was perfectly medium rare. The scent of garlic toast—white and pumpernickel—filled the air. When you arrive, you find enormous relish trays—piled high with pickle slices, pickled cherry peppers, and tomatoes—on your table.

My dinner date: Tauer wanted dinner to be a family affair, exactly how Nick Mancini would have wanted it when he opened the place 66 years ago.

What’s the biggest misperception about motivation? That we can motivate others. If it were that easy, my athletes would never lose a game and my students would get straight As.

Who’s harder to motivate: college student athletes or your kids? It depends. The student athletes usually want to be there. Jack and Adam? They’re usually motivated by Skittles and ice cream. (Laughs.)

Motivation seems really squishy. We’re motivated by the biological, psychological, and environmental. Each one of us is wired differently, we think differently, and we’re in different situations. It gets pretty complicated.

I have a theory that everybody knows some kid who has gone through Johnny Tauer’s Basketball Camp. It’s famous. It’s crazy. This is the 20th summer—20 years. We started the camps when I was a senior in college. We had 25 kids for two weeks the first summer.

Today? We have nine weeks, about a thousand kids. Literally thousands and thousands of kids have gone through the camps. It’s gotten bigger every year.

What’s the secret? We try to motivate but also balance that with the lessons we hope they’re learning from the game of basketball: teamwork, the psychology, having fun—that’s a recipe for success in anything in life

Jerry Kill just got a million-dollar raise. Richard Pitino is around a million bucks. St. Thomas? You’re in the same league? I’m sure this article will push me into that league.

Is what those guys do much different from what you do? The media, publicity, and the pressure-cooker environment are on a different level when you talk about a revenue-generating sport.

If a Division I school came calling? If someone were to offer me $2 or $3 million to coach, the intrinsic motivation researcher may be extrinsically motivated.