“Everybody has a lot of eyeballs on them. It has to be right. We have to be successful," T.J Beisner explained about Kentucky Basketball.
Beisner is the Director of Player Development for the men’s basketball program at the University of Kentucky. Beisner manages community service, life skills and now name, image and likeness as it plays a larger role with new legislation.
“The way Coach Cal explained it to me is he wants me to be the coach for off the court and he manages everything on the court," Beisner explains.
He giggles, saying that he jokes that he's "the team dad."
Every day looks different for Beisner, usually entailing a lot of meetings with players and other people in the athletic department. He explains that meeting with people in the athletic department on behalf of the basketball team is also part of his role, so the coaches can coach.
“I try to touch base with players periodically just to check in on how they’re doing with school or with life," Beisner said.
He explains he likes every day looking different.
“My first job out of college, I sat at a desk in a cubicle, and it drove me nuts," Beisner said.
Beisner went to journalism school, and that’s partially why he’s curious, wants to learn, ask questions and meet people.
“This is good for me because I get to move around, and I’m learning so much about how athletics work and all these different departments," he said. "But there are days when I come home, and I’m like, 'What happened today? I’m so tired.'”
Beisner has kids of his own, and he said his favorite part of his job is working with young people and student athletes.
“I’m not the most important person in any of their lives, I’m probably not even top 100, but to be a part of their growth process makes me feel like what I’m doing is meaningful," Beisner said.
Kentucky Basketball is a household name, and pressure comes along with it. Beisner said the hardest part of his job is the pace.
“I mean this is Kentucky Basketball, it’s unlike anything in the country," he said.
He explained that everyone has eyes on them, because everything is expected to be right, and they are expected to be successful. Beisner is new to the position, and everyone else has been here and is already successful at what they do.
“Everything we do here is at the best for college basketball," he said. "So, at the stuff they’re looking at me to do if it’s not also at that level, I’m going to stick out pretty badly."
Beisner puts pressure on himself to live up to those expectations, but he also wants to be impactful on the kids.
“I think the speed of how things move and the expectations make it the place to be for all those reasons, but it’s also the reason why you get home sometimes at 6:30 p.m. and it feels like it's 11 p.m. because there’s a lot happening," Beisner said.
The position of Director of Player Development was created in August 2021, Beisner explained the goals of the position haven’t changed from then to now. However, as name, image and likeness evolves, they have to adapt with it.
“It’s [name, image and likeness] changing again with Senate Bill 6, it won’t change a whole lot but there are some little nuances that will be different," he said.
“I think for me, there’s a lot to this job I didn’t know was a part of this job when I started," Beisner said. "This is an organization where our success is black and white, we have to win games and we have to help young people succeed.”
He explained a scenario during a road game when the team post-meal would arrive before the game ends, and he helps with that because the guy who normally does it has bench responsibilities.
“There’s a lot that goes into the machine of Kentucky Basketball, and I didn’t realize it," Beisner said. “It’s funny as I’ve been in this position since August so you would think oh, you’re comfortable with it, no. This is my first March.”
Beisner explained that this is his first postseason, and he is just getting to test the waters of what that looks like. He says he hopes in August he’ll be able to say “Oh I’ve done this, so I know what it looks like." He wants to be the best at his job, like everyone else who has been doing it for years and succeeding.
“I want to make sure when surprises pop up, I have a plan in place in situations I don’t know what’s happening. But at least we have a structure, a kind of a foundation of culture that I know how to manage," Beisner said. "So, there have been some things popping up where it’s like, ok well how do we address this? How do we handle it? Because we stay true to our core principles, we have an answer.”
College athletes being able to make money has been a highly debated topic for some time. However, now that athletes can make money off their name, image and likeness it has changed collegiate sports.
NIL has provided great education tools, Beisner said. Calipari and Besiner have talked and studied these things for years, even though Beisner has only been in his position since August. It has only made them stronger, he said.
“Our players are more educated in finance, taxes, LLCs and all those things than I was when I was 30," Beisner said.
One thing they make sure of is to teach the players how to take care and protect themselves.
Beisner said it’s made them more community-minded and more engaged. In terms of brand, he says other schools wanted to get players on social media when this was implemented, but not Kentucky.
“Opportunity here is far better than it is anywhere else in the country, we believe that. But you will only be successful in life and in NIL if you are engaged in two ways, one is basketball,” Beisner explained. “We want you to make hundreds of millions of dollars. We want you to go to the NBA, be wildly successful and take care of generations of your family. Then, the other part is you have to engage in your community.”
Players have to engage in basketball and cannot let anything distract them besides school, Beisner said.
“Playing well and who you are as a person is what makes people like a player and is what is going to develop you as a person,” he said. “They help the team identify the community, which of course is Big Blue Nation and campus. Then you have hometowns and interests.”
“Oscar Tshiebwe is a great example of this — not even able to make money, but was so engaged in the community, so strong in who he is that people came to love him,” Beisner said.
Beisner recalled a time he sent a group text about a book he was reading, a biography about George W. Bush. It was talking about what he said to his kids.
“And this goes back to the dad thing”, he jokes. “‘Preach the gospel every day and if necessary use words,’ and I sent that to the guys. I'm not talking about the Bible or anything, but just who you are, your actions every day are going to be viewed by the entire world and definitely our little circle in the world of Big Blue Nation.”
Beisner said they’ve done such a great job with that. It helps them to make money, and it helps them be attractive to businesses, but that's not what it’s about.
“We've hit on something,” Beisner said. “I hope that it's sustainable, not just to continue to create opportunities for them financially, but to really build better young people and equip them better for the next chapter of their lives and want to be better fathers and husbands and those things down the line.”
Tshiebwe was initially unable to make money from NIL because of his student visa, but that changed in February. Beisner recalls another book he read, something he held onto since he was a kid.
“They said Magic Johnson had a million dollar talent, but he had a billion dollar smile and said ‘Kid use your talent to get you to where your smile can change the world,’” Beisner said.
“I remember sitting with Oscar and his host family and sitting there talking about that, and I was like ‘Oscar, I’ve seen you with the kids at camp and I know who you are, you are the epitome of that to me. That when it is your time you are going to be able to change the world because of who you are. Your basketball is going to get you where you can really be a voice and change the world,’” Beisner said.
Beisner said he thinks Tshiebwe is the best example, but said all of the players have done a tremendous job. Beisner is convinced Tshiebwe will make a difference in the world outside of basketball because that’s what his passion is. “He’s special,” he said.
When it comes to players staying long term now because of NIL, Beisner said “We want this to be your best place to be, having the opportunity to have some financial security. To have the ability to help your family a little bit, you know, be a little more stable, I think helps across the board.”
As Beisner said, engaging in the community is important. Over the summer, he sets up community service across the state such as packing food, visiting hospitals and homeless shelters. Once the team got into the season, they brought some ideas to Beisner. Some players shot a text about a service opportunity and saw who can go depending on their class schedule. He said Lance Ware was always in.
“He's so tough on the court, but he really is so great with people and seeing him with kids at the camps,” Beisner said of Ware.
Ware was named to the SEC Men’s Basketball Community Service team in March.
He says it’s something that is meaningful to him but it’s even more meaningful to the people who are receiving the act of kindness.
Beisner commended the team’s kindness, recounting a time when a young man from Make-A-Wish visited players. The players were texting each other, wanting to know all about the young man. The young man was just one of the many people with health issues who visit to take pictures with the team and receive signed basketballs. Beisner said this is something that’s meaningful to him, but it’s even more meaningful to the people receiving the act of kindness.
“The goal is for these guys to carry this the rest of their lives,” Beisner said. “Like Keldon Johnson … He's in San Antonio … I see him doing community service stuff all the time. It's cool because Keldon is doing these things, representing the Spurs, representing Keldon Johnson but there's a piece of that I think that also comes back to the culture of Kentucky. It makes me happy to see the good people that they are once they get to the NBA.”
Beisner is not in charge of finding the team NIL deals, but rather guiding them through contracts. Right now, all they’re looking for is NCAA compliance to make sure that it's not violating any of the university or NCAA rules. There aren’t many rules, but to name a few: players are not being paid to play for Kentucky or being paid to stay at Kentucky, and players can’t endorse alcohol, tobacco or adult establishments. Beisner’s job is more on the front end of that and where he can answer questions in the process.
“I’m educating them on what a bad contract looks like, so I can say ‘Hey someone’s offering you a contract, but they want you to do 10 Instagram posts a month. That's a bad contract. People are going to stop following you,’” he said.
However, he clarified that can’t tell players not to sign the contracts.
Beisner said that’s where the line is. The team has embraced the education part of it because they want to make money and make sure they do it right.
“It's been really interesting talking to families and even recruits who come in,” Beisner said. “They're not asking about money, they're asking about ‘How do you protect my child? How do you educate my child?’”
Beisner said the players are in charge of handling the taxes, but they will educate the team five times this year about how to file taxes.
When asked what his favorite moment of the season was, Beisner said he loves road games. He loves when they win a road game and it’s quiet.
“But I think honestly my favorite moment was just this last home game,” Beisner said. “I didn’t realize we were undefeated at home. Kellan, Davion and TyTy talked to fans, not rehearsed. We handed them the mic as soon as the game ended, asked them if they wanted to say something, and just heard what it meant to them.”
Beisner said there are times when Rupp is going nuts and you look around and you think, “This is awesome, I miss this so much. More specifically, the players who were here last year and went through the challenges and didn’t experience it, especially Davion.”
Davion Mintz was a fan favorite last year, and now he is fully embracing what Big Blue Nation is all about. He met a fan at the game in Kansas, they shared a moment and now they’re going to prom together.
Beisner shared a story Davion hasn’t shared yet.
“I got an email from a fan who was a UK graduate in the 70s and said she was so inspired by Davion and who he is as a person. She wanted to make a donation to a charity of his choice,” Beisner said.
Davion is passionate about mental health for young people — Beisner found an organization for mental health and relayed the message. The woman made a donation in the name of Davion Mintz to the organization.
“That's what we're talking about, that's the amazing power of Kentucky and the platform of Davion,” Beisner said. “You being you as a basketball player and a person are inspiring people. You don’t have to be anybody other than yourself, so that might actually be my favorite moment now. How cool it is that you move someone to donate money. When finances come out, its big-time. People don’t just give their money away.”
Beisner’s advice for people, not just for those in the sports industry, is to outwork the other person. He said you have to work hard and believe in yourself, but he learned that’s not enough. Beisner learned you have to have people around you who believe in you.
"I can't tell you how many times in my career that I've been like ‘You're not smart enough to do this’ or ‘You're not good enough, just give up,’” he said.
Beisner said his wife and even coach Calipari lift him up.
"Even coach Cal, the way he believes in me — those were the moments where I'm like ‘I have a lot of respect for that person. I know they're a good person, I know they're good at what they do. If they believe in me, I got it.’" Beisner said.
“If you have a friend who doesn’t think you can do whatever your dreams are, if your friends laugh at your dreams, they are not your friend,” Beisner said.
The sports industry is competitive. That’s why it’s crucial to find people who believe in you and are going to support you on those rough days, Beisner said.
“Some of my friends are at other schools and we’re competitive, but they’re supportive,” Beisner said. “If we lose a game, I get a call or text.”
“The people who make it to the end are the ones who didn’t give up. It’s not about who was the smartest. It’s the person who on those bad days kept pushing through because somebody was there to lift them up,” Beisner said.