Archive for the ‘dealing with adversity’ Category

Why Is Calipari Taking All the Heat for One-and-Dones?

Monday, April 7th, 2014

For those readers who are interested in younger son, Alex’s, shoulder surgery (and, I guess, for those who aren’t), it was successfully performed by Eric Hanson (who has done miraculous work on the shoulders and knees of many Fresno State athletes past and present). According to Dr. Hanson, the surgery was actually rather simple and straightforward. He said Alex should be shooting in three weeks (from the surgery date) and back to 100% by the middle of May. Alex just completed a week of rehab in Fresno, is now back in Monterey and will be continuing a strength and flexibility program there under the guidance of highly skilled trainer Mike Paddack. 

When the subject of “one-and-done” college basketball players comes up, all the talk centers around Kentucky’s John Calipari. While Cal might be the face of one-and-done, there needs to be additional conversation. Of course, everyone knows other coaches, several well-known and highly respected ones at that, who’ve recruited this type of player. Yet, the criticism always falls at the feet of the UK head man.

A check of his record would illustrate that Cal uses the rule to his advantage better than anyone, whether he was at Kentucky or, previously, at Memphis. People seem to give a pass to other coaches because they don’t have so many of these guys. It’s almost like fans are saying, “OK, recruiting a one-and-done player I understand, but Calipari takes a whole team full of those guys.”

One issue must be addressed, however. While some coaches have only one, one-and-done guy on their squad, it might not exactly be by choice. In other words, if they could have an additional one (or two), would they? You can pretty much bet that the majority of coaches who signed or recruited a one-and-done prospect would answer in the affirmative. Now, would these same coaches have recruited all seven of the freshman Calipari did? Who knows? Probably not, because most coaches would look at it as too monumental a task to install from scratch all the offense, defense, special situations, etc. (not to mention having to deal with all the egos, parents and “others”) they’d feel necessary in order to win. There is also the task of getting everyone on the same page.

Then, if they were successful (meaning for nearly every coach, at least a Final Four appearance), they would have to start all over again the following year. Add to the mix that if they were not successful that they would be subject to universal ridicule - many to their face and the rest (more than they could count) behind their back. The endeavor would simply be more risk than reward - even though the reward would be the Holy Grail of their profession.

What can’t be overlooked in the recruiting of the one-and-done player is the fact that Calipari has the charisma, the understanding of social media and the track record to accomplish such a feat. Heck, he ought to be admired, not criticized. Another thought to keep in mind is that if these guys don’t sign with Kentucky, they’re going to sign with somebody else! Chances are, with a rival team, or teams, Kentucky will have to play. It’s not like if they didn’t go to UK, they’d be headed to junior college.

There are thousands of people - coaches and otherwise - who would love to be in Cal’s shoes right about now but don’t forget everything he had to go through this season (which wasn’t exactly a bed of roses - with the exception of the thorns). First to sign them, then to coach them, deal with them and try to get them to disregard all the noise - that he and his staff also had to do. For the wrap up quote, we turn to Memphis (wouldn’t you know it, where Calipari began his mastery of the one-and-done) and its favorite son, Elvis Presley, who said (I would imagine on many occasions):

“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.

Talk About Taking a Gamble

Monday, March 31st, 2014

On January 18th, our younger son, Alex, shot faked a big guy from Chico State after running a pick & roll and forcing a switch. The result was the big guy biting on his shot fake but coming down with his elbow on Alex’s shoulder, as Alex - realizing he had drawn a foul - put up a shot. It was a standard move that guards use on defenders they get up in the air, but this time when he got fouled, Alex knew something was wrong. His right (shooting) arm “went dead.” Luckily (if that’s the right term), it happened just before there was a media timeout so the team trainer had a chance to work on him a little. He made one of the two free throws and somehow, not only did he finish the game but, with his team (Cal State Monterey Bay) down two, he hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. The next day, he couldn’t move his arm.

Initially his injury was diagnosed as a brachial plexus. He completed the season but it continued to bother him, so much so that X-rays and an MRI were ordered. It turned out to be an AC problem and he underwent “routine” surgery to correct the problem. He is home for a week and begins rehab today. Therefore, this blog will be put on hold as we focus on getting Alex back to 100%. It will return Monday, April 7.

The rule of thumb regarding whether two teams are evenly matched is that the game is usually close throughout. However, should one of them open a lead of, say five or more, inevitably, the other will catch, and eventually pass, the leader. Such was the case with Kentucky and Michigan last night. With five minutes to go in the first half, UM was up ten. They were tied at the half.

In less than three minutes after intermission, UK opened a six point lead but not only could they not keep it, Michigan tied and went up four just six minutes later. Naturally, the Wildcats retook the lead and went ahead by seven with 6 1/2 minutes to go. They clung to a five point lead with just two minutes to go but a three and a two point basket knotted the score at 72 with 27.9 seconds left.

Here was the situation: Kentucky ball, Michigan had a foul to give, i.e. they had only committed five team fouls. They chose to take #6 with 10 seconds to go and as all of America knows by now, Aaron Harrison hit the game-winner with 2.6 seconds left. Nik Stauskas’ desperation heave from mid-court hit harmlessly on top of the backboard and UK was headed to the Final Four, denying the Wolverines back-to-back appearances.

Years ago I was part of a self-improvement clinic (a group of 10-12 assistant and head coaches) and the topic I was given was “late game strategies.” One situation I brought up - which was easy to do philosophically, especially because I was an assistant coach, meaning if it failed, it wasn’t my neck on the line - was exactly what occurred in the UK-UM contest following Michigan tying it at 27.9 seconds.

Here were (and are) my thoughts in such a situation. If the opponent has the ball, with the shot clock off and the game tied - meaning they will undoubtedly hold for the last shot because the worst thing that could happen is they win (if the shot goes in) or they tie (and play five minutes of OT if it misses) - why not, if they have a terrible free throw shooter in the game, tell the referee your guy is going to foul him (not intentionally, maybe just an overly aggressive denial). Keep in mind that a guy who has a poor free throw shooting percentage will on most occasions, see that percentage drop (often considerably) in such an end-of-game, pressure situation. UK had 7-0 freshman Dakari Johnson in at that moment, a player who, on the year shot 46.1% from the FT line. Do you really think that, at that point in the game, with 40,000 plus in the building - most of them wearing Kentucky Blue - and many millions more watching (it was the only, and last, game of the day), that Dakari Johnson wanted to be on the FT line, deciding whether his team went to the Final Four or its season was over? (Note: Obviously, this move is even more attractive if your team is an underdog and another five minutes would definitely not be in your favor.)

I admit that, upon hearing my strategy, there were many in our group (headed by Jeff Van Gundy) who wanted me to submit to a drug test but my reasoning was, and is: just as the worst your opponent can do is win or overtime, the worst your team can do is lose or OT. That’s bad odds - in Indianapolis, Vegas or anywhere else.

From 1980-87 I worked for Don DeVoe at the University of Tennessee. After seeing a few games one year (ours, and others, in which the outcome came down to a last shot,), Don shared his philosophy, which was that those shots always go in. His reasoning was that the kid taking it is a scholarship player (meaning he has some skill) who isn’t thinking about anything other than that shot. No worries about getting chewed out for missing or not passing, no worries about being pulled because it wasn’t a “good” shot, just . . . no . . . worries. His total focus was on making the shot. Knowing that he was going to be a hero if he made it probably (subconsciously) filled him with positive vibes too. What we noticed then, and seems to be true today, is Don’s theory holds true a heckuva lot more than it doesn’t.

Granted, it would take a pair of gargantuan “onions” to take the risk - in a game to go to the Final Four no less - but as the ‘Cats coach John Calipari said in the post game press conference (a refrain heard often from coaches in games like this):

“Whoever had the ball last is going to win it.”    

Oh No! No More Dunking in Football

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

So dunking in football is disallowed. In reality, all the NFL did was tell the referees to enforce an already existing rule. Why? One reason was that last season the New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham dunked and tilted the crossbar. Although this occurred only once all season, it did cause a delay in the game, with the field crew coming out with a level to get the goalpost back in the proper position. Forget for the moment the unbelievable amount of entertainment we as fans are about to have snatched from our viewing experience and think about this. Does football really need additional delays? Aren’t seeing the refs “under the hood” enough to make you say (unless you have money on the game or are a fantasy player - I realize, in some cases, that’s redundant), “Jeez, just flip a coin and let’s get on with actual football!”

Those poor people in Green Bay, Buffalo, Cleveland and all the other cold weather cities that don’t have domed stadiums, is it right to make them freeze their tushies any more than they already are? Or, for the people at those sites who say they don’t mind it, is it right to force them to further lubricate themselves? Because if they say they don’t mind sitting outdoors in the cold, have them tell their faces when the cameras take crowd shots.

As stated, all the league did is to inform the referees to enforce the current rule. Could another reason be to avoid the “loophole lawyer.” We all know the guy who loves to sue big business over technicalities. Hypothetical case: a player goes up to dunk and breaks his wrist. His lawyer (actually, the lawyer his agent got for him) can almost be heard railing now, “The NFL claims it is concerned about player safety and has been working feverishly on decreasing injuries (yeah, like concussions) and they allow something as obvious and serious as this type of potential career-ending injury?” Career-ending. Yeah, his career.

“Well, they allow it in basketball,” says Joe the Fan. Well, in basketball, it’s done to score points for the team. In football the player has already scored! “Here’s another example of how NFL stands for the No Fun  League,’ ” bemoans Joe. We’ve heard that refrain before and some of the people complaining were the players! Hey, isn’t scoring a touchdown enough fun?

Face it, if taking away the “dunk after a TD” is lessening the excitement of watching - or playing - the game that much for you, it might be time to find another sport. UFC might fit the bill. And, then, at the end of the fight, they allow the winner to dunk a ball over the octagon. Or maybe the loser gets dunked over the octagon.

If the announcement bothers you to such an extent you think you might explode, Google “15 simple ways to overcome anger.” One example is #9: breathing relaxation techniques. They are:

  • Sit up straight in your chair, or stand up.
  • Loosen up clothing, especially if your stomach feels tight.
  • Inhale through your nose. Exhale through your mouth.
  • Put one hand over your belly.
  • When you inhale, feel your hand expanding as air is filled up in your diaphragm.
  • When you exhale, feel your hand retracting to the initial placement.
  • Count in your mind the number of inhales and exhales, and gradually level them off such that both take equal counts.
  • Slowly, add a count to your exhale.
  • Keep adding a count to your exhale until the count for exhales doubles that of the count for inhales.
  • Repeat this breathing rhythm for 5 to 10 times.
  • Keep your eyes closed in silence for a few minutes afterwards

If none of these work, try technique #10:


Residual Effects of March Madness

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

For a three week period, you can’t beat the excitement and drama of the NCAA tournament. Upsets, near upsets, buzzer beaters, heroes, goats (and scapegoats), second guesses (and second guessers). But there’s more than just the games that goes on during March Madness.

For coaches and players in the NIT (and the other post season tourneys), they’re so focused on winning that next game, you’d never know there was anything else happening. To them (and I speak from experience as teams I was associated with went to the NIT ten times), it’s simply an extension of the season, e.g. scouting reports, walk-throughs, pregame meals, etc. Maybe not as many individual workouts because you want players’ legs rested (even though a few will still come in - to get some extra shooting, if nothing else). Then, if there’s time, maybe you catch an NCAA game - especially if friends are involved.

Another interesting dynamic is the coaches on the hot seat who have unexpectedly won (Cuonzo Martin, Johnny Dawkins) - undoubtedly disappointing some of the fans - and maybe even administrators who are now pretty much obligated to extend, rather than terminate, their contracts. Anything less makes the coach a “dead man walking” and a target for rival coaches to inform recruits how the coach won but didn’t get an extension so, if you want to go to a school where there’s likely to be a coaching change . . .

On the flip side, there are the hot coaches (Greg Marshall, Shaka Smart) most likely being contacted (through their agents) by bigger institutions (schools with much, MUCH higher budgets and a salary that will elevate the coach and his family - extended, not just immediate - to another tax bracket). Since timing is everything, they do so shortly after they lose, hoping to catch them at a weak moment. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t but, hey, the schools figure, it’s worth a shot. Added to all that are the coaching jobs that are open and the maneuvering that takes place among the assistant coaches, those who’ve been recently fired and the guys who were out of the game but want to get back in.

Sometimes, nice things happen - like Dayton extending Archie Miller’s contract (through 2018-19 season, a move that can be used as a positive in recruiting) after the Flyers beat Ohio State (no wonder the Buckeyes wouldn’t schedule them), then topping that off (there are people in Dayton who felt nothing could top beating OSU) with a win over #3 seed Syracuse.

As luck would have it - because we all know the committee doesn’t intentionally set up games like Dayton-Ohio State or make an undefeated (but in the Missouri Valley conference) Wichita State have to go through Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State to get to the Final Four (Barkley made me put that one in there) - in Indianapolis one of the Sweet Sixteen games will be Kentucky-Louisville. That it’s those two is a big enough story but the fact that the game is close enough for both sets of fans (although if that game were played on another continent, their respective supporters would find a way to get there) makes it even more compelling. Did I mention that scalping tickets is legal in Indy? Sometimes even the sleazy catch a break.

As if all that intrigue isn’t enough - beyond just the actual games on the men’s side - how about the second seeded Duke women losing to #7 DePaul? There’s no joy in Krzyzewski-ville. With all that’s going on, the best advice might just be:

“Live every day as though it was your last - and one day, you’ll be right.”

Bullyball: A Different Kind of One-and-Done

Monday, March 24th, 2014

That upsets occur during March Madness is a foregone conclusion, but nearly all of them happen in the first round. Each year, a “blue blood” school, or two, or three (or sometimes more), get rudely treated in their opener by - and I think this is the best description of the team that pulled off the upset - a school with a vastly inferior budget. Since I was a college coach for many years, I truly believe that the fault for the upsets lie not with the coaches but with the players in uniform. More specifically, with the human nature of the players. The “big-time” programs’ players weren’t recruited by the “poorer” school, nor would those kids have had any interest in speaking with, much less attending, that school. The one which was about to send them home. On their charter plane.These upsets occasionally take place in the next round as well, but the “little” guy has a much tougher time advancing, even if the following game’s opponent isn’t as talented. Why would that be? In Jim Croce’s song, You don’t mess around with Jim, two of the three stipulations about not messing around with the big guy are “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape” and “you don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger.” To stretch the analogy, have “Jim” be synonymous with a one of the NCAA’s power schools - the kind with lots of money. In that scenario, a third “don’t” would be, if you’re not a member of the upper echelon, don’t embarrass one of them in the first round.

Going beyond the first round was like the tooth fairy - something you’d like to believe in but, you find out is just fiction. Since the turn of the century, George Mason was the first in that category to break that myth and make it to the Final Four. Butler, VCU and, of course, Wichita State followed but, in reality, there’s still another level of Division I school - the type that emerges from a one-bid league. They didn’t ever really think they were going to the Final Four, much less dream about winning the national championship. The first round upset was their national championship, their chance to celebrate - to “dance” and clown around - like the big guys do when they cut down the nets.

But . . . they tugged on Superman’s cape, they pulled the mask off that old Lone Ranger - and exposed them. In the subsequent game - a mere two days later - after hearing from all their peeps from back home, being subjected to all the unfamiliar press coverage, even taking in the adulation from the fans of the other schools at that site, they have to play . . . another “Jim.” It’s time to face another Goliath. But this time, he’s ready. And your stone supply has dwindled.

Take the case of Mercer. In the first round Mercer beat Duke - and beat is the right word, according to no less of an expert than Mike Krzyzewski. Next up for the Bears was Tennessee who might have entered the tournament as a “bubble” team but one who won its “first round” game with Iowa and then obliterated a good UMass club. While UT is by no means a year in-year out hoops power, make no mistake it is an NCAA blue blood. As one of my closest friends says when he sees teams whose players look and have the potential of teams like UT, “They got some boys.” Translation: they are really talented.

Mercer’s guys didn’t lack for effort, they just came up short - literally and figuratively. Tennessee had 16 offensive rebounds to 6 for Mercer, 41-19 overall rebound stats. To give the numbers meaning, think about this. Other than a made field goal or free throw, an offensive possession ends with either a turnover or a defensive rebound. Mercer missed 29 shots and Tennessee had 23 defensive rebounds. The Bears’ offense was a different version of “one-and-done.”

A similar story, offensively, was seen in the UCLA-Stephen F. Austin game. The Lumberjacks beat VCU in their first game and while the Rams aren’t considered an NCAA blue blood as a school, beating its basketball team gave SFA instant credibility. Result: UCLA shot 55% from the floor to 35% for Stephen F. Austin, had 22 assists on their 29 made baskets (to 11 on 20 buckets for SFA) and while the Lumberjacks turned the ball over only 8 times, they only forced 3 Bruin TOs.

Although Creighton was the higher seed (they’re in their inaugural year in the Big East conference, a basketball only group), they managed only 7 offensive rebounds of their 33 missed shots. The Blue Jays excel in spreading the floor, moving, screening and passing the ball to get great looks at the basket. Baylor (out of the Big 12, true power conference - meaning institutions that receive obscene amounts of money from football) has players who are so big that Creighton’s offense became “one-and-done,” i.e. maybe they got a good shot but they had to make it because their guys were so far from the offensive boards. With this type of situation, a team needs to hit an extraordinary number of threes - or offensive rebound - or its point total will be disastrous. On the other end, the big guys play their version of volleyball, shooting and shooting until they finally score, get fouled or both. In yesterday’s contest, the Bears shot 52.6% to CU’s 40%.

In the monumental upset contests, what happens is the later the game gets with the big underdog hanging around, the pressure mounts on the favorite. Conversely, when an underdog, especially one that “shocked the basketball world” a couple days prior, gets further and further behind, and just can’t find an answer, frustration sets in. Legal screens become illegal blocks as the screener leans into or hip-checks the defender. Missed shots are followed by attempts to steal the ball from the rebounder, usually leading to fouls or, in the case of a guard missing and going after an offensive rebound (he has no chance to get), a run out layup due to poor floor balance is the result. The maxim, “make one mistake at a time” goes out the window.

Dayton-Syracuse was an exception although I wonder if Syracuse had played like they did during the first two months of the season if the outcome would have been different. Another was the Kentucky-Wichita State match-up in which David was a few inches from slaying Goliath - while becoming Goliath themselves. At least in a basketball sense.

When it comes to the underdog pulling upsets and failing to advance, they need to take solace from the words of Colin Powell:

“You can’t slay the dragon everyday. Some days the dragon wins.”

Why a Senior Dominated Team Might Have the Edge Over One-and-Dones at Tourney Time

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Fans are fascinated with “one-and-done” college basketball players because they’re more like rock stars than traditional college student-athletes. It’s kind of like pros - or recording artists or actors - hanging out on campus. Yet at NCAA tourney time, you might want to go with teams composed mainly of veterans - the kind who find a way to advance. Really? At tourney time hasn’t talent been - and won’t it always be - the most sought after commodity?

“Yes,” in terms of needing someone to make a play, e.g. scoring at crunch time or erasing a potential bucket but “No” when the situation comes down to the popular “Who wants it more?” That this is true, isn’t so much an indictment on the one-and-done fellow but the feeling of team togetherness displayed by guys who’ve spent four, maybe five, years on campus, mingling and getting to know the “regular” student. Guys who are recognized by the “eggheads” - the ones who have no idea the player is an athlete, but knows him because he might have been a lab partner with the cat.

When the game is on the line, in a tight situation, e.g. down a deuce with seconds to go, some (but, naturally, not all) one-and-dones are fully engaged in doing what’s necessary to win. Players who’ve been around the program for three, four and sometimes five years consciously - or sub-consciously - reflect on what the school has meant to them, how they want to come through for their coaches, professors and fellow classmates (including the eggheads) and, for the seniors the thought that this might be the last time I ever put this uniform on.

I’m not discounting the one-and-done’s commitment to the program but the older guys just have more invested than the player who got to campus 7-8 months ago. There’s more of that feeling of, “I came here a boy; I’m leaving a man” and “These people are my family.” When that thought surfaces, these young men seem to be able to dig a little deeper. Their careers are ending - and they don’t want them to end just yet. Independent of how much fun, how connected the one-and-done feels toward the student body (really, how closely connected can a person get in less than a year?), there’s still that realization in his mind of “I wonder where I’ll be drafted?”

No matter how intense a desire there is for the one year star, knowing there’s a professional career in the near future. Not so for the true senior. While he may have been on scholarship for his entire time on campus, his future is usually unknown - leading him to lace ‘em up a little tighter so he can put that future on hold for another game or two. Or more.

Although talent usually wins out, a 100% commitment often rules in a team game. As Jean-Paul Sartre said:

“Commitment is an act, not a word.”  

Fixing the NCAA Selection Committee

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Heading to Southern California to talk about “what makes for a great basketball team” (more about that at a later date) and to get together with #1 son, Andy, to take him and a few of his co-workers to lunch, as well as drop off some items I’d just as soon not mail. This blog will return on Friday.

Since my college days - when my summer job was working unloading trucks, sorting and delivering mail, and whatever else I was asked to do at the New Brunswick, NJ section center - I have been an admirer of the post office. The (mostly) good people who work for the POs around the country have a thankless job. They literally handle millions of pieces of mail on a daily basis - and get over 99% of it to where it’s supposed to go. However, when somebody has mail that gets lost, they go ballistic. It even happened to me a month or so ago with a baby gift. It was tracked out of Fresno but, then . . . it disappeared. I explained it to the customer, had to have the artist do a replacement gift for her, filled out the necessary paperwork for a lost item and the world kept spinning on its axis.

The NCAA tournament selection committee which decides the teams that will be invited to the Big Dance (and, of course, which won’t), what “seed” each will get, as well as when and where they play, has just as thankless job as the postal workers. True, they don’t have to do it as long as their counterparts at the post office, i.e. daily until retirement. Also, they get paid considerably less for the committee work (but a whole lot more for their everyday jobs).

While I can’t begin to figure out the problems the mail system has to deal with, here’s a potential solution for those who take aim at the selection committee. First, take all the talking heads - because they’re the ones the nation sees first - the ones who complain about leaving teams out (occasionally without saying which teams that made the field ought to be eliminated), seeds too high/low, teams placed in too difficult/easy regions, the “wink-wink” match-ups that occur (that aren’t supposed to), etc.  Add to them the writers who’ve had the time to think about what bugs them and then write a story or column disparaging the committee for their shortsightedness, back room dealing or screwing their favorite squad (the last one usually is something that remains unwritten).

Take this group and appoint them as next year’s selection committee. Let them hear, “These people need to be held accountable.” Over the years I’ve known, often quite well, not only members of the committee, but the designated chairman. Each has told me that, although they were embarrassed to admit it, since there are so many people doing truly “important” work (the military, scientists working on cures for deadly diseases, hospice workers), that being on that committee was by far the greatest challenge they’d ever faced. Bring on the new “committee” and if they protest, saying they preface their remarks with, “Overall, I think the committee did a good job . . . ” let them hear that after they release next year’s field.

If that’s not feasible - and, believe me, I realize it’s not - have them correct  the committee’s mistakes, e.g. “C’mon, Louisville vs. Manhattan, Rick Pitino vs. Steve Masiello, teacher vs. student - you know the committee intentionally set that game up.” Have a TV group of 5-10 people decide where each or both of those teams should be moved. Immediately, it will be clear that other problems will be created - and if that’s not the case, it will be when other complaints (see below) are vocalized. As the famous saying goes, “Are you kidding me!?!”

That the selection committee is nitpicked - “if how a team plays at the end of the year is so important, how come St. Louis is a 5 seed and Louisville is a 4?” or “you can’t tell me that SMU shouldn’t be in the field” - has got to wear on the members, and their families, since they’ve been “sequestered” so long, trying to accomplish the impossible. (I wonder if SMU had the identical season it had but Larry Brown wasn’t its coach, if such a big deal would be made by its exclusion - although the case might be made that if Larry Brown wasn’t SMU’s coach, it wouldn’t have had the season it did. Really, isn’t that why everyone wants to see Brown, er SMU, in the field?)

After all, it can’t be denied that my new proposed group doesn’t watch enough college hoops or isn’t knowledgeable enough. The major problem with this idea isn’t that fans would reject it. It’s not even that the Division I institutions would object (although don’t think for a minute there would would be a consensus - or anything close to one). The biggest reason this would never happen is the guys who are paid to criticize the process would never go for it. Imagine them attempting, on camera, to explain the questions they salivate over asking? They know the idea of a perfect bracket is impossible and, with that being the case, which side of the microphone would they rather be on?

In all the years I’ve been watching Selection Sunday - be it as a coach of a participating school, one that hoped to be, or one who knew it wasn’t in, or simply as a college basketball fan - I could never imagine being in that room and having to deal with all the “what if’s.” What the committee members must use to keep them going is the quote from Aristotle:

To avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Being a Consistent Winner Over a Long Period of Time Doesn’t Necessarily Meet Fans’ Expectations

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

On 7/2/12 I expressed my strong feelings in a blog entitled “Is It Necessary to Place Shortcomings on the Great Ones?” It had to do with fans not being able to appreciate individual excellence in the field of sports unless the person or his team “won it all” (limiting, for now, fans’ comments to men - a word of caution to women: WATCH OUT, you’re next - it’s just that women’s sports haven’t been around as long). Nothing short of a championship is accepted to stave off criticism. What follows is a reprint of that post - as well as additional commentary (in italics and bold) in an effort to update it.

LeBron James finally (after all, he’s already 27 - he’s currently 29) put to rest that, although he was a great player, he couldn’t win a championship. Like they’re easy to come by. It’s always been that way. In fact, just last week I was at lunch with a few NBA fans when one of them (a guy I barely knew) actually said Wilt Chamberlain was a loser because, “sure he had stats, but he won ‘only’ two NBA titles.” Much to his dismay I asked him how many titles he had won, “I mean, counting all of them - Little League, summer hoop camps, even spelling bees.” He was somewhat taken aback. Hey, here’s somebody he’d met a time or two questioning his learned opinion. He kind of raised up, looked me straight in the eye and said, as only that kind of fan can, “More than Wilt!”

Now NBA followers are placing the “good stats/great player but can’t win a championship” mantle on Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudamire, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard just like they did to Charles Barkley, Pete Maravich, John Stockton & Karl Malone. Let’s examine the last two. They came in second in back-to-back years, yet are any of the people criticizing them - including sportswriters and talking heads on TV and radio (including satellite) - considered #2 in their respective (not to be confused with “respected”) fields? Forget back-to-back, even for just one ratings period.

Some of those guys got close but it just wasn’t to be. Maybe they played in the wrong era; maybe they didn’t quite have the right mix of teammates, e.g. not enough talent or chemistry. I’m showing my age when I say I remember a couple National League MVP awards going to Ernie Banks - even though his Chicago Cubs finished last!

For some reason we feel this moniker needs to be, if not presented formally, at least discussed - in every sport. From national television to local watering holes. I coached in the college basketball world for 30 years and when I started in 1970 a similar label was thrown around in our business. As a young guy in the field one of the veteran coaches I was in awe of was Dean Smith. It used to shock me when I would hear the “Greatest Coach Who Has Never Won a Title” attributed to him.  Freshman Michael Jordan’s jumper took care of that nonsense but shortly thereafter the crown was passed to Mike Krzyzewski.

It is almost a badge of honor for coaches. In order to qualify for the unenviable title, a coach needed to take a team to the Final Four - on more than one occasion and come up short. For most coaches reaching the Final Four is considered capturing the Holy Grail. After Mike won in 1991, he bequeathed the “honor” to Rick Pitino. The line on Rick was, “Sure, Rick can take a team the the mountaintop; he just can’t them to the Promised Land.” In 1996 his Kentucky Wildcats won it all. Still, the debate raged on.

It almost seemed mandatory for fans and media to have a coach whose feet they could hold to the fire. It must have made them feel good at that time because there were two contestants. And as fate would have it, their teams squared off in the 2003 championship game. In a show of empathy, while shaking hands after the game, the winner, Jim Boeheim said to the runner-up, Roy Williams, “Don’t worry;  you’ll get one” after Syracuse beat Kansas. It was similar to the exchange Bob Knight had with Boeheim after his Hoosiers beat the ‘Cuse in ‘87. And, of course, ‘ol Roy did just that. Twice.

I won’t tell you who had the wrath of the nation up until last year. You probably can figure it out. Hint: he no longer has to deal with the problem (John Calipari). My comment to these critics: There’s only ONE of these championships per year! Each season - at most - one coach who’s never won one before can win it that year.

Sports is definitely the most highly scrutinized business - possibly because there are fans and we love to argue. Now that cyberstat - or whatever they’re called -  guys have entered the world, it doesn’t seem like there will be any stone unturned. If only Wall Street could have such a fan base - although it might be a little too late for that.

Still, people revel in the misery of others even though it doesn’t make the critical person’s life any better. Or put another way:

“Although someone may come up short in their endeavors, it doesn’t make you better at any of yours.”

Conference Tournaments Are Great Drama

Friday, March 14th, 2014

In a certain way (especially for low- and the majority of mid-major leagues), a conference tournament is just as exciting as its NCAA counterpart for each of the squads’ seniors (you remember them, the kids who go to college for four, sometimes five, years). Until a team reaches the championship game, the players have no idea that this game - the contest in which they’re currently competing - could be the last time they don the old (fill in the school’s colors). As the game winds down, so does a player’s career. A blowout is often easier to accept because the player realizes from a certain point in the game that the end is near. However, when the game goes down to the final second, and the result is a loss, it’s like ice water to the face. To use an extreme analogy, the blowout is like a loved one who dies from a prolonged illness whereas the buzzer beater is like a sudden passing. In the former, there’s time for reflection and maybe even a little nostalgia, while the latter catches one totally off guard, like the completely out-of-nowhere phone call that is simply numbing.

In actuality, it is exactly like a death. All the years of toiling, of sweating and hurting, of cramming for a killer exam because, while the classmates were studying, you were at practice. Gone. While the relationships will continue, possibly forever, for that moment, it seems like . . . where did the time go? What just happened? And was it all worth it? The first couple answers are always unknown; the last is a resounding yes! Wasn’t life?

Even for the walk-on, the non-scholarship guy - because of the bonds created during the practices, meetings, community service and, even the games - many of which were comprised of pregame and halftime warm up drills, and then cheering for the others. Whatever the case, the post game is somewhat like a funeral - the kind of today. A celebration of life. Hey, the season’s over. No more yelling by the coach, only words of praise and appreciation - with the public viewing to occur at the end-of-the-season banquet.

And for the winners, it’s just another one-day reprieve, having to live it all over the following day. Putting it that way, the whole ordeal seems so maudlin. Yet, not one member of a team would ever dream of letting down the team by not giving it whatever he had.

The greatest lesson the player on a team can learn is what Andrew Carnegie said so many years ago:

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

Coaches’ Salaries - and Expections - Are Going Through the Roof

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Doctor’s appointment and a series of  tests - plus our “roommate” (Albert Van Troba) is having surgery so Jane and I become “caretakers.” For all he’s done for us, it’s the least we can do. Since I don’t know how much time I’ll have, this blog will be suspended until Friday.

For today, I return to a blog I posted 11/27/07 (with no changes even though coaches’ salaries are higher than reported in the blog). If anyone thinks this isn’t just as true today as it was so many years ago, all I can say is you’re either misinformed or you’re a coach’s agent.

Anyone who knows me or who’s read this blog is aware of my 30-year career (none of which as a head coach) in intercollegiate basketball. It started in 1972 as a graduate assistant at the University of Vermont and ended in 2002 as Director of Basketball Operations at Fresno State with seven other Division I stops along the way.

I witnessed many monumental changes - from allowing freshmen to play on the varsity to the introduction of the shot clock and three point line. In addition, when I started there were the unlimited number of scholarships that schools could offer and the rule (or lack of one) which made it legal for coaches to recruit off-campus (including grad assistants) every day of the year! This included how many times you were allowed to visit with a prospective student-athlete face-to-face, how many times you could watch him play or practice or call/see his parents or coach. There was a story about an assistant coach from the University of New Mexico renting an apartment in Petersburg, VA for the entire season to recruit Moses Malone (far and away the most dominant high school player I’ve ever personally seen - including MJ & LeBron). Prospects could take an unlimited number of trips to campuses - some kids were gone every weekend, e.g. we had Moses visit Washington State. Imagine a 7-footer traveling cross-country to Pullman, WA. We asked him where else he’d gone and he just exhaled, trying to recall. I think he’d said he’d gone to Maryland the week prior to our visit (where he eventually committed, before deciding to go pro out of high school and sign with the Utah Stars of the ABA). “How about the week before that?” He thought for a while and finally said, “I can’t remember.” There was money well-spent.

Speaking of money, well-spent or otherwise, brings me to the topic at hand. When I got to UVM in ‘72, our head coach, Peter Salzberg, was making $12,500. I was a graduate assistant getting $1,000, plus tuition. That was the extent of our coaching staff. $13, 500 in salaries for the entire coaching staff. Today, guys get twice that for clothing allowances! At the end of the year, Vermont felt Peter had done a good job and rewarded him with a raise - all the way to $12,800.

I left and went to the big-time - the Pac-8 (the Arizona schools had not yet joined the league) and Washington State (once again as a grad assistant) for $1,550, plus $2,000 for summer camp. As far as a percentage increase, I’ve never topped the UVM-WSU move. No exaggeration, there were weeks - and it was not unusual- where I worked 100 hours - and loved it! That’s what all of us got into coaching for in the first place - following a career choice that we were thoroughly immersed in. Even still, WSU got a pretty good return for their buck. George Raveling, the head coach at WSU, took the job there in 1972 for $32,000.

Even when I became a full-time assistant at the University of Tennessee in 1980, many head coaches were making around $75,000. If and when there were too many losses compared to wins, it wasn’t uncommon for an athletics director to bring in the head coach and say something to the effect, “Look, things aren’t working out. You know Mr. (Hot Shot Car Dealer), one of our big boosters. He told me he’ll give you a job as a manager of one of his dealerships and pay you the same as you’re making here. We can say you’ve decided to go into the business world and it will be best for all of us.”

Today, I don’t have the actual figures, but I can safely say there are dozens of coaches making more than $500,000 and some making upwards of $3 mil. I don’t care how moral a person you are, when you get used to that kind of lifestyle (not to mention your wife and kids feeling pretty comfortable with it), it’s impossible not to skew your beliefs on issues that prior to this windfall, you’d never consider dealing with in the manner you currently are (and feel compelled to). Not being in those shoes, it’s easy to be critical, but there are several people I’d like to think I have more than a casual acquaintance with, who have changed their philosophy from the days I first knew them. Some I’ve discussed this with, others I’ve observed. I’ve seen them take actions that I’m certain they would have never have (or not take actions they would have) had not the obscene amounts of money been involved, blurring their vision.

I’ve discussed my concern that the biggest problem in college basketball today is coaches being paid too much money with Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (Jim and I were on the staff at the University of Oregon in 1975-76, he as a full-time assistant, me as a grad assistant and he is one of the most Christian men, of unquestioned integrity, there is today). He agreed it’s a serious issue, one of great concern. But with the last contract between CBS and the NCAA for the rights to college basketball (including, naturally, March Madness) going for, I believe, $2.6 billion, it’s simply something that’s spiraled out of anyone’s control. It would be a foolish business decision (and don’t anyone try to tell me college basketball isn’t a business) to turn down that kind of money and what it does for the NCAA as an overall organization, but there are evils that are attached to the price tag.

The current situation being as it is, coaches have a tough time (and while I can’t empathize, I sure can sympathize) following the adage:

“It is more important to do what is right than what is personally beneficial.”