This former sprinter now trains pro basketball players — and has a track record for results.
Robert Hackett ’88 was fast.
As a sprinter for the Badgers, he won NCAA championships and qualified three times for the Olympic trials, competing against the likes of Carl Lewis. But Hackett didn’t just run fast — he also knew precisely why he could. And that has made all the difference for him and for the professional athletes he now trains.
Hackett’s path to becoming assistant coach for strength and conditioning with the reigning NBA-champion basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks, started when he arrived on the UW campus to join a track program known more for distance than speed. The Milwaukee native, who grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in the inner city, had been nationally recruited, but he chose UW–Madison to stay closer to home and family. As he began working with Badger track coach Ed Nuttycombe, Hackett became a student of the sport.
“I wasn’t being defiant. I was just always asking questions like, ‘Why are we doing this? What is it going to help me do?’ ” he says. “I learned about the body itself — how to train the body — and it led me into coaching.”
Nuttycombe saw Hackett’s potential and hired him following graduation to work as an assistant track coach while Hackett trained for the Olympic trials, events at which a hundredth of a second can separate those who make the team from those who watch from home.
As his sprinting days were winding down, Hackett started to think about a career move.
After going 1 and 10 in his first season with the Badgers, then-head football coach Barry Alvarez saw big improvements during the second year. But entering his third season in 1992, he wanted his players to be faster. He turned to Hackett for help.
Hackett knew he would be making big changes. “Football mentality is, ‘If you’re not moving, you’re not working,’ ” he says. “But I said, ‘If you’re trying to get faster, you’re going to have to have down periods. [You] have to rest and recover.’ ”
After six weeks, 98 percent of the team was running a faster forty-yard dash, and players could make tackles they previously missed by inches. The following year, the Badgers put up a winning season that culminated in victory at the 1994 Rose Bowl.
Around the same time, Stu Jackson, the new UW men’s basketball coach, drafted Hackett to help players gain speed and strength on the court. Hackett trained them the way he had been trained, and they got faster and stronger without bulking up. “If you’re in better shape than everybody, you give yourself a better chance of competing, no matter what sport you’re in,” he says.
The team earned enough wins to get its first invitation to the NCAA tournament in forty-five years. Jackson soon left Wisconsin for Vancouver to become president of the Grizzlies, an NBA expansion team. Not long after, he offered Hackett a job, hoping he could do for the Grizzlies what he had done for Badger athletes.
Do the Work
Hackett arrived in Vancouver in January 1995, joining a team that lost a lot of games at the start of its fledgling season. “I came in and said, ‘Hey, we have to do this extra running. We have to lift these weights’ — and they looked at me like I was crazy,” Hackett recalls.
Attitudes changed after a conversation with veteran player Byron Scott, the Grizzlies’ team captain who had won three NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Scott confessed that he had never bench-pressed more than 300 pounds. Hackett told him, “Give me ten days, I’ll show you a couple things, and you’ll bench over 300 pounds.”
Ten days later, Scott benched 310 pounds, got off the weight bench, pulled Hackett into the locker room, and told his young team, “If Hack tells any of you guys to do it, you better do it.”
From that point on, Hackett was known as someone who has high expectations — but gets results. He commanded respect from both NBA stars and journeymen alike.
Hackett joined the Mavericks’ coaching staff in 2002, after receiving one warning from the team’s general manager before his interview: “Whatever you do, don’t come in here in a suit.” The trainer initially balked at the idea of looking anything less than professional, but the reason for the advice became clear when he met Mark Cuban, the team’s outspoken billionaire owner.
“That’s how Mark is,” Hackett says. “Mark walks around [in] jeans and T-shirts, and he’s got shoes on like he just cut the grass.”
In Dallas, Hackett designs team and individual workouts to help players build the endurance needed to play four games in five nights in three time zones. His approach to training paid off for the Mavericks during the fourth quarters of last year’s NBA playoffs.
“The strangest workout [Hackett] has ever put me through was when he made me lunge-walk uphill for fifty yards … five times,” says Mavericks guard Jason Terry. At age thirty-four, Terry has increased his bench press, vertical jump, and endurance under Hackett’s direction, and he ranks among the league’s leading fourth-quarter scorers.
“For me, he is more than a coach; he’s a friend and a motivator,” Terry says. “His knowledge of training at a high level is his biggest strength, and he’s always been a positive influence in the locker room.”
Hackett credits his time at the UW for his ability to work with a variety of personalities from diverse backgrounds and cultures. And he makes it a point to treat all players — from rookies to superstars — the same. “They think I’m a drill sergeant sometimes, but I also make the workouts fun. … They know they need it, and I’m trying to help them. It’s not punishment,” he says.
Traveling with the team gives him a window into the ways that he can help. Among other lessons, he has educated young players about fast food, noting that it won’t help them succeed on the court. When they respond that they’ve always eaten those items, he tells them, “You ate that because you didn’t have any money. You have money now. You have to eat better.”
Hackett acknowledges it’s tough to be away from his wife, Renee (who was also a sprinter at the UW), and their three children during the season. But the job’s rewards — such as courtside seats at every game — balance out the sacrifices.
“It’s just unique to have a job where it’s fun every day,” he says. “I don’t think most people can say that.”
Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin.
Published in the Summer 2012 issue
Michelle Watts '90 and '91 June 2, 2012
Thank you for such a well written article on Robert. The article literally brought tears to my eyes because I’ve known Robert since high school and we’ve remained friends/family since that time. One point I would like to add is that Robert is not only a hard working family man that is driven by strong internal motivation, but he is genuine, compassionate and humble to the core. Who could ask for anything more in one human being? Again, thank you for the feature story.
Corliss Hackett June 3, 2012
Thank you so much for this feature story on my brother.Robert is well grounded and genuine. He has spent his career helping athelics improve their game and its works.He is a hard working man that loves his family and his job.He is a success story for our family. First one to go to college and make it. He and his wife and children are wonderful people. All down to earth people.I so applaud and apprecciate my brother. Thank you.
A. Lima (Lee) June 6, 2012
A great role model while I was at Riverside UHS in Milwaikee, and a great example now as a man. Thank you for the article. Heartwarming to see his diligence and dedication pay off. Reminds me of a Bob Kersee-ism: “Those who know why will always beat those who know how. ” Keep it up Robert, and God bless you, Renee and your family!
Bryan Jones June 6, 2012
Thank you for the wonderful article about Robert! As a Milwaukee native and former track athlete, I’ve known Robert for more than 30 years. He was my first track & field role model and was very influential in my decision to attend the University of Wisconsin. I can’t say enough good things about him and his wife, Renee. They are both kind, generous, compassionate and humble. I think the Jason Terry quote about Robert being more than a coach is the epitome of who he is. For me personallly, he was a coach, mentor, motivator, confidant and continues to be a friend. His personality and demeanor instill trust amongst those that he works with and allows him to bring the best out of those athletes. Once again, thank you. Bryan Jones – Former UW track and field captain
April Hackett June 14, 2012
This was a great article and very well written. Thank you so much for taking the time out to acknowledge my big brother and also for sharing his continuous journey. I’m so proud of my brother and what he has accomplished in his life, not only career wise but also his fathering, well being, compassion for others and his positive fortitude.
He has always encouraged me as well as others in my family to move forward in life and instilled in me that aged saying “it’s not where you come from but where you going that makes a difference”.
After reading this article it all ties together and I can honestly say that his encouraging words and guidance is what motivated me to go to college and obtain my degree and I’m so appreciative of that.
When I look back at the statistical paths I could’ve taken and the path that choose with Roberts’s guidance, it really proves to me that belief in oneself, hard work and determination will always bring good things and opportunities your way.Once again, thank you for featuring my big brother.
Vicci Lee June 14, 2012
This is an awesome article about Robert Hackett. It’s always good read and see great news about someone you know. I grew up next door to Robert and our families are very close (like cousins). I can remember Robert was in high school and I was in middle school he was very driven and focus back then. I always knew Robert would be an asset to society. He always had a positive attitude. He was always one way very pleasant and polite. Robert I’m very proud of you, keep up the extraordinary work. Keep making a difference. Humbly, Vicci Lee
KuMays June 14, 2012
Uncle Rob!!! Nice!!!!
Les Mays June 14, 2012
Thank you for the wonderful article about Robert. It was a most informative and favorable article.(if you didn’t know him) Robert is a most unique individual to say the least. He, as some have said is a genuine person. And let it be said that he is the one you can depend on to get the job done because he is committed to all he endeavors to do. He is a great person . Some one to pattern you life by for success. I call him the “Good Brother” because he is that to more than just his family members. He is a “Good Brother” !
Daisy Hackett July 14, 2012
Thank you all so much for this wonderful spread about my baby. It is so wonderful to know other people see the wonderful things he has accomplished.Congratulations to a special son.You deserve only the best in life.You are a wonderful son. You made it.Thank you for being you. Thank you for loving me @ keep on being who you are. Your proud mother.
Ricky Hackett March 29, 2014
This is an awesome article about my cousin. Great an outstanding accomplishment, from a loving cousin.I’ve been in the U.S. Navy for over (20) years plus, and I always follow my cousin greatness. Keep up the good work, and go NAVY……Your proud cousin Ricky Hackett……