ST. PAUL — Thirty-two students sat at long tables in a University of St. Thomas classroom one recent morning, reviewing notes or checking their smartphones, when John Tauer walked in. Tauer wore a purple dress shirt and gray pleated slacks under his black topcoat, but not the tie and blazer he would wear that night for his other job, coaching the St. Thomas men’s basketball team.
“All right, how are we doing today?” Tauer said. “Highly motivated? Let’s jump right in then.”
And off they went. The psychology class, Motivation and Emotion, explores the motives behind human behavior. Over the next 65 minutes, Tauer, a tenured professor with a doctorate in social psychology from Wisconsin, spoke to his students about what drives them to perform the important activities in their lives.
“I’m biased about why motivation is the most fascinating topic,” he said.
Most successful coaches are amateur psychologists in one way or another, but trained ones are rare in the N.C.A.A. Equally rare these days are men’s basketball coaches who teach courses, even in Division III. Recruiting and other obligations leave little time for academic pursuits.
But Tauer, an all-conference forward for St. Thomas in the 1990s and a member of its athletic Hall of Fame, enjoys teaching so much that he cannot give it up. He taught three courses a semester during 11 seasons as a St. Thomas assistant coach. He cut back to one per semester when he succeeded Steve Fritz upon his retirement as head coach four years ago.
Tauer, 42, wrote his doctoral dissertation on intrinsic motivation: doing something simply for enjoyment, without regard for money or fame or popularity. Tauer is so well regarded in his field that he contributed regularly to a Psychology Today blog until he became a head coach. He often appears on Twin Cities television news programs as a behavioral expert.
In recruiting, Tauer seeks selfless players who are intrinsically motivated. That can be hard to discern, but the results speak for themselves. The 21-2 Tommies, winners of 16 straight before falling to Concordia-Moorhead on Saturday, are ranked No. 3 nationally and have secured at least a tie for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championship, giving them a record 10 consecutive titles.
St. Thomas is 95-17 under Tauer, who took over after Fritz coached the Tommies to the 2011 N.C.A.A. Division III title.
“In Division III, we have a limit on how much time we can and should spend with players, so they can truly balance academics and athletics,” Tauer said. “For the seven-plus months that we’re not in season, we can’t do anything with them. If we get intrinsically motivated players, they work incredibly hard in the off-season. They come back as better players. If we get extrinsically motivated players, we’re probably not going to see anything near the skill development.”
Teamwork and discipline were staples of Fritz’s teams. Tauer has maintained that. Four Tommies average at least 10 points a game, and two more are at 9.8 and 9.3, in a Princeton-style offense that relies on spacing and precise movement. St. Thomas went more than seven years without someone scoring 30 points in a game until the senior guard Marcus Alipate had 30 at Bethel University on Jan. 19.
Through Sunday’s games, the Tommies led Division III in 3-point shooting at 45.2 percent while ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.62 to 1). Though playing almost exclusively man-to-man defense, the Tommies had committed the third-fewest fouls in Division III (288). St. Thomas’s 178 victories since 2008 are the most at that level.
The teamwork notion is even reflected in the team’s uniforms, which spell out the school initials, U.S.T., on the back where last names usually go. This month, Tauer rejected a suggestion to list individual point totals on the Schoenecker Arena scoreboard, saying it would send the wrong message to his players.
“John is very, very bright, and motivation is his specialty,” said Fritz, the university’s longtime athletic director. “That’s part of the package when you get a guy like John.”
One of Tauer’s mentors, John Buri, a St. Thomas psychology professor who taught Tauer as an undergraduate, was not sure Tauer’s methods would work. Buri himself coached high school basketball for 16 years.
“Some coaches motivate through intimidation; some coaches motivate through inspiration,” Buri said. “John is not an intimidator. I said to John: ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do this. You don’t intimidate. Will the guys respond to your teaching and inspiration?’
“They’re responding. And the record shows it.”
The N.C.A.A. does not keep data on coaches serving in other capacities. Tauer and Brendan Stern, a presidential fellow in government and public affairs at Gallaudet University, a Division III institution in Washington, are among the small group of men’s basketball coaches nationally who teach.
Neither of the two Division I men’s coaches who have a Ph.D., La Salle’s John Giannini and Lehigh’s Brett Reed, teach at their institutions, though Giannini did previously at Maine and Rowan. In Division II, Tom Kropp, who is a co-coach at Nebraska-Kearney, teaches physical education.
None of Tauer’s current players are taking his class. Alipate, the team’s leading scorer, audited a few of Tauer’s class sessions but decided against signing up.
“I wouldn’t say it’s too hard,” he said. “I’d get called on a little more than I wanted to in his class.” Then he laughed.
Playing for a trained psychologist took getting used to, Tauer’s players said. Forward Conner Nord said that whenever Tauer spoke to him in his first two seasons, he wondered what was behind it.
“In the beginning you were almost afraid to answer,” Nord said. “You were trying to think, what is the most neutral answer I can get?
“But as you go, you just answer honestly. It will help him evaluate you. It will help him teach you better and help him change his teaching style to match what my learning style is, almost like he would do with a student. But it’s translating over to basketball. Basically, it’s like this is his classroom.”
Alipate, the son of the former Jets linebacker Tuineau Alipate, has his own clothing line, springing from a project in an entrepreneurship class. He, too, felt self-conscious.
“Some of the questions, and even some of the methods, were a lot different than I was used to in high school,” Alipate said. “He hit different parts of your brain. You could tell he knew something different than the other coaches — getting us to be motivated and doing things in the way that pleases us and also pleases the team, I think he does a phenomenal job doing that.”
For Tauer, a divorced father of two boys, juggling time is a constant struggle. Besides coaching and teaching, he runs a summer basketball camp and is completing his first book, on youth sports, parenting and motivation.
Tauer delegates some responsibility to his assistants, all part time, but other things he must do himself. Two weeks ago, Tauer graded papers on the team bus heading for a road game.
“I feel fortunate that my work epitomizes the intrinsic motivation that I study,” he said. “I love the various jobs I have, ranging from coaching to teaching to research to running camps to raising my sons. As a result, it doesn’t feel busy. It feels like I am doing exactly what I am called to do.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 18, 2015, on page B8 of the New York edition with the headline: Coach’s Ph.D. in Psychology, Applied on Court.