Archive for the ‘Jerry Tarkanian’ Category

Telling the Truth – Even at the Expense of Your Family

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

When people close to you pass away, you find reminders of them everywhere. And . . . the longer you live, the more of your friends and relatives die. As insensitive as that sounds, it’s better than the alternative.

The reason for the morbid opening is that I recently read an article of a coach and his favorite athlete. The story triggered an amusing anecdote from, who else, but the king of amusing anecdotes – my last college boss, the late Hall of Fame coach, Jerry Tarkanian.

During the last season of The Jerry Tarkanian Show (which I was honored to host), we would end with questions from the audience. One night a friend of Jerry’s handed me a scrap of paper with his question scrawled on it. “Of all the players you coached, who was your favorite?”

I posed the question to Jerry and he immediately brightened up, just thinking of his all-time “fave.” A big smile came across his face. He enthusiastically replied, “That’s easy. My favorite player of all-time is Larry Johnson,” referring to the former NCAA Player of the Year and New York Knicks’ star, nicknamed “Grandmama.”

Jerry would passionately talk about Larry Johnson when he spoke of the most clutch player with the greatest work ethic, the ultimate leader and always would mention what “an absolutely wonderful person” Larry was. Although I knew that was going to be his answer even before I read the question, I thought I’d have a little fun with him.

“Gee, Jerry, I wonder how Danny (his son and former point guard at UNLV) feels about that?” I asked, which brought laughter from the crowd, made up mostly of his friends who would religiously visit the restaurant on the nights we’d broadcast the show.

Times like these were what made Tark the hoops version of Yogi Berra. His response to what I’d just brought up, i.e. he was choosing someone other than his own son as his favorite player ever, he said, without any hesitation whatsoever:

“Oh no, Danny knows it’s Larry Johnson.”

Changing Styles Easier Said Than Done

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

As I read the previews for each of the NBA teams for the upcoming season, occasionally the evaluation will say something to the effect, “They used to be a defense first team but look for Coach _____ to go to an uptempo attack.” Or “They liked to pound it inside last year but Coach _____ will be counting on his guys to make threes this season.” Don’t forget the “Coach _____ needs to give ______ a bigger role.” And the assessment, “Coach _____ has the luxury of playing big or going small.” Then there’s the doling out minutes and exploiting match ups that writers and talking heads print and speak of so intelligently, as if hoops was football or baseball.

Let’s analyze these appraisals, some of which are even plausible. I’ve never been an NBA coach but don’t think for a second that NBA coaches are some sort of creatures who dwell in a divergent profession. There’s no question the NBA is composed of better players than college buckets (heck, NBA players are the best athletes in the world). Plus there are more games, player trades, somewhat different rules and no academic issues. NBA coaches make more money (than nearly all of their college counterparts) but their shelf life is quite a bit shorter (although the buyout sets them up pretty well – until they’re recycled to another club).

All that said, the basketball coaching profession is much more alike then it is different. Most coaches played, even if it was just at the high school level. All of them were “smitten” by coaching. Few of their former coaches or friends are shocked when they decide to enter that particular business. Every coach had a mentor or, most likely, several mentors who instilled in them a certain belief in how the game should be played. The baby boomer generation of college coaches was strongly influenced by coaches like John Wooden, Bob Knight and Dean Smith. Prior to them, Henry Iba was the coach who “young coaches” modeled themselves after. In the NBA it was Red Auerbach, Red Holzman and Jack McKinney who had the clout while Hubie Brown held all coaches in a trance at every clinic in which he spoke.

What all that means is that, as a coach grows in the profession, he or she develops a philosophy of how the game is to be played. Basically, there are two theories about how to play basketball – decide how many points it will take for your team to win and keep your opponent under that number or decide how many points you’ll give up and execute a game plan to score more than that number. Tom Thibodeau is an excellent example of the former while Mike D’Antoni is a perfect illustration of the latter. Imagine Thibodeau deciding to launch threes (and freely substitute to give some guys bigger roles) because his players didn’t have the quickness to defend. When, exactly, do you think it would cross D’Antoni’s mind that, in order to win, the best system would involve “locking people down?”

While most coaches aren’t are so rigid in their beliefs of how the game is supposed to be played as Thibs or Mike D’ are, the truth is coaches just aren’t all that flexible with their approach to the game either. The NBA is a player’s game. When a team has lost because it gives up too many shots close to the basket, they don’t design a defense to solve the problem, nor do they just jack up threes in an effort to play three-for-two. They trade for a shot blocker. Need to score more? Get guys who are hard to guard. Practice time is limited (once the season starts, don’t expect your favorite team’s bench guys to show a marked improvement. Even in the off-season, a small percentage of NBA players are going through rigorous player development programs (don’t for a minute think that the work put in by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is typical). P.S. In college, it’s called recruiting. Deciding when to go with a big lineup or a small one depends either on your team being more talented than the opponent you’re facing that night (so you get to dictate lineups) or whether you need to gamble because the game’s not going your way – and not making a change of some sort would lead to a sure loss. The game goes just too fast to be able to employ all the possible strategies media members and fans discuss.

Now, new coaches will change styles (Chicago Bulls being one example) but a specific coach making what amounts to a 180 degree change in belief (even 90 is a stretch)? Ain’t happening. Same in football. Chip Kelly isn’t going to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy any time soon, nor will Pete Carroll become conservative.

For the record, the only coach I ever knew who would totally change his strategy was my last college boss, Jerry Tarkanian. He won playing 1-2-2 zone at Long Beach State (and his final year at UNLV), full court pressure, half court pressure and amoeba zone at UNLV and half court, with a little amoeba, at Fresno State. Yet, even Tark was unyielding in his offensive outlook. When it came to running set plays, continuity or even using passing game rules, his favorite phrase was:

“The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.”

 

 

Staying Put Has Its Benefits

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Quick trip to see some friends. This blog will return on Thursday, October 22.

Three years ago – to the day – I blogged about a friend of mine, Peter Sharkey. The only reason I mention that post is because it’s such a strange coincidence. Actually, the one I produced on Peter on June 15, 2010 would be more apropos to today’s entry. That one was done following his induction into the Fresno City-County Hall of Fame.

In the past two years I’ve been present at my last two college bosses’ enshrinement ceremonies in Springfield, Mass – 2013 for Jerry Tarkanian, for whom I worked at Fresno State (1995-2002) and this past September for George Raveling, for whom I worked at USC (1991-95) and also at Washington State (1973-75). I’ve posted so many times about the Naismith inductions, during which it’s almost a surreal experience mingling among the superstars from yesteryear.

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, I missed my GA counterpart at WSU, Mark Edwards (see past blogs from 12/15/09 & 2/9/14), receive his enshrinement honor into the St. Louis Hall of Fame (along with, among others, the NFL’s Jim Bakken – a hero of mine, a straight-on placekicker, like yours truly – the NHL Curtis Joseph, boxing’s Leon Spinks and MLB’s Scott Rolen). Mark is a graduate of Washington University which, a couple years after he graduated, dropped basketball. After serving with Rave for nine years, his alma mater called and asked him to revive the men’s hoops program. He’s been the head coach at Wash U since 1981 and has led the Bears to three NCAA Division III Final Fours and two National Championships. He found a home and remained. In Springfield he told me he plans on coaching at least two more years.

My man, Peter Sharkey, has done on the high school level what Mark did in St. Louis. A native of New York, Peter moved to California eons ago and, just recently, retired from Hoover High School in Fresno after teaching and coaching (girls and boys basketball) for 32 years. He was a highly successful (why else would someone be in an athletics Hall of Fame?) and highly authoritarian coach with the utmost integrity. This past Saturday night a few of his former players organized a retirement party and over 250 of his former players, teachers, administrators, as well as his family and friends, gathered to honor him at a place called The Clovis Castle. This is our 21st year in Fresno and I’d never heard of the place. It happens to be an extravagant setting up a winding road, ending at a – for lack of a better word, castle. This affair was outdoors but there are a couple beautiful structures, complete with living rooms, bedrooms and, thankfully, bathroom facilities.

There was a cocktail hour, dinner and speeches (12 speakers in all, me being the last – and probably longest – although a friend of mine told me he lost a bet because I only went 12 minutes). As with most such events, it turned into a bit of a roast, all in fun, and Peter was a good sport about it. When he spoke, he was so overwhelmed, he barely stung any of the roasters back. This, after he’d told me, “Remember, I get the microphone last.”

Most of the crowd stayed well after the festivities ended just to catch up with folks they hadn’t seen in years. We didn’t leave until 11:30 and enjoyed every minute of it (although my back could have used a rocking chair for a little relief). What I took from it was a different perspective on a career choice. Once I graduated from college, I returned to my roots, teaching and coaching at the same high school I attended. There was a veteran teacher there who, although he didn’t teach me, taught my mother. I just couldn’t see staying somewhere that long. Two years later I began my coaching odyssey, living in nine states in 21 years – the East, New England, the Pacific Northwest, the South, the Midwest and California. And loving it. Meeting different people, living in different cultures (it’s remarkable how varied lifestyles and even language “dialects” are in various parts of the country) and making so many friends has been a wonderful experience.

The closing line of my “speech” summed up the feeling of everyone who attended :

“Peter Sharkey is a genuine person and if you were coached by him, taught by him or simply know him, you’re a better person because of it.”

The Type of Guy Doc Rivers Really Is

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

As promised, what follows is blog #2 on Glenn “Doc” Rivers (for those who are on this site for the first time, or those of you who haven’t been around for a while, yesterday’s post was the first of two blogs on Doc). It explained how he got on my “Fertig Notes” mailing list. If you’re interested, check it out.

My goal had always been to be a head basketball coach at a Division I university. One of several reasons I started the mailing list – which consisted of one book summary each month for about 10 years – was to stay in touch with people who might be helpful in achieving my goal. Doc had been a color commentator when he landed the head coaching gig with the Orlando Magic, one of several commentators-with-no-head-coaching-experience-turned-head coaches (Pat Riley, Tom Heinsohn, Doug Collins). In order to supplement my income, Tark allowed me to be the color commentator for Fresno State’s televised games (the ones that weren’t on network TV or ESPN). While the previously mentioned commentators became NBA coaches, and I wanted to be a college head coach, I felt having somebody from that group would be a great reference – especially to the new breed of athletics directors, i.e. bottom line fund raising types as opposed to former coaches.

Since Doc had asked to be on my mailing list, he knew who I was. I wanted to meet him, chat it up a little and ask if I could use him as a reference. My “in” was the Magic’s first, and only, play-by-play man, David Steele, one of the first four employees of the expansion Orlando franchise. David was the sports anchor at WLOS-TV in Asheville, NC when I was an assistant coach at Western Carolina University in the late ’70s and we connected immediately. After I left for a similar position at the University of Tennessee, David became the “voice of the WCU Catamounts.” A few years later, David also “moved up” in the business, becoming the “voice of the Florida Gators.”

One of the SEC teams I scouted was UF (this was a period when off-campus scouting was permissible by the NCAA). It seemed like at least twice a year I’d be in Gainesville to scout either Florida or their opponent who, coincidentally, happened to be one of my scouting assignments. On each occasion David would have me as a guest on his pregame radio show. I called him and asked if he could set up a meeting with the Magic’s head man. He came through like a champ and I booked a flight from Fresno to Orlando for a dinner engagement with Doc.

After a tour of the Magic’s facility with David (who was treated like royalty because he’d been there from the franchise’s inception – sort of a “founding father” image), I showed up for dinner with Doc. Naturally, I got to the restaurant early. The reservations were in Doc’s name (since it would be easier for me to recognize him than the other way around). Shortly after I arrived, Doc’s wife, Chris, and his agent (whose name I can’t recall) showed up, apologizing that Doc would be a little late because he played in a charity golf tournament. About 15 minutes later, still in golfing attire, Doc walked in and apologized for being late. I got up and walked out!

No I didn’t. I might be crazy but I’m not stupid. I told him no problem, that I’d enjoyed speaking with Chris and his agent and appreciated his taking time to meet with me. The four of us were outdoors at the restaurant, having a pre-dinner cocktail and making small talk, when the maitre d’ came out to let us know our table was ready. As she got up, Chris, unintentionally of course, knocked her drink over. It spilled in Doc’s lap.

She began to apologize profusely when Doc said, “That’s OK. No problem,” as he picked up a napkin wiping his shirt and pants. It was his immediate reaction that absolutely astounded me. Maybe you had to be there to actually witness it, or maybe you run with a different crowd, but the first impulse of nearly everyone I know would have been to say something profane – at the very least, be annoyed – not necessarily at the person who spilled the drink (especially because it was the spouse), just at the situation of having to “wear” an alcoholic drink. Throughout dinner. Yet, his initial response was, no worries, everything’s fine.

This past Monday I watched the Clippers’ training camp. Near the end of the workout, at a break in the action, Doc came over to greet those of us in attendance. When he got to me, I reintroduced myself to him (he remembered the Notes) and told him of that encounter over 15 years ago. The comment I made to him was how shocked I was at his attitude at the moment – that few, if any, other people I know would have reacted in such a manner. He sincerely thanked me after I remarked on my assessment of his chivalry. I said:

“Doc, how you reacted couldn’t have been faked.”

Buzz Williams Is His Definitely Own Guy

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

One of the nine collegiate head coaches I worked for used to say that “coaches are a different breed of cat.” Buzz Williams is living proof. Virginia Tech’s head man was one of ten speakers at recently Hall of Fame inductee George Raveling’s coaching clinic in Los Angeles. One aspect that sets him apart from his peers is his dislike for speaking at coaching clinics.

The only reason he agreed to speak at Rav’s clinic is his admiration for his mentor. While George had a solid winning percentage at Washington, Iowa and USC, including leading each to two NCAA Tournament appearances apiece, the reason he was enshrined in the HOF was because of how much he gave back to the game – mainly to so many other coaches at every level of the game (from elementary school to the NBA). Buzz Williams was a major recipient of George’s wisdom.

I first met Buzz at the Hall of Fame induction weekend two years ago when Rav received the John Bunn Leadership Award (and my last boss, Jerry Tarkanian) was enshrined. A few of us had eaten with George (as always, he picked up the check) when he said he was looking for Buzz. I had to attend a function with Tark’s family. As I was leaving the Hall, I saw Buzz coming through the door. Since we’d never met, I introduced myself to him and mentioned Rav was looking for him. He stopped and said to me, incredulously, “You’re Jack Fertig?” Somehow, at no time did I think he was putting me on – even though no one had ever greeted me in such a manner. In a subsequent meeting with him, he explained that George had spoken highly of me when the subject of assistant coaches came up during one of their conversations.

After hearing George tell me he’d been mentoring Williams for years, I wondered how the two of them had gotten together. Apparently, young Buzz, to use the word George did, stalked him. It seemed that there were “too many” chance meetings, e.g. Williams would be where Raveling was – and would always be going up asking for advice. Sometimes the questions would be about coaching, sometimes about recruiting, sometimes about “connecting” with people – be they recruits, players, parents, administrators, whoever. There would be frequent notes, emails and calls from Fort Collins (Williams was an assistant at Colorado State). During recruiting trips of his own, Raveling would hear from recruits and coaches about this young coach from CSU who was an incredible hustler who seemed more sincere than others.

The two coaches just bonded, each with a genuine admiration for the other’s skills. During each of the three occasions I was at George’s house to film the JackAndCoach segments for the CoachGeorgeRaveling.com website (check them out if you haven’t already), George would get a call from Buzz Williams. One of them was after he’d decided to leave Marquette – without a job. He had his reasons (which will not be shared here) but, suffice to say, it was a move few coaches would make.

At last weekend’s clinic Buzz explained that he intensely dislikes speaking at clinics – not because he doesn’t enjoy sharing information, quite the contrary, but that his distaste for that type of venue has to do with how impersonal it is. His speech was enthusiastic, which will surprise no one who knows him. He’s not the slick recruiter most big-time coaches are but there’s no doubt that if your child (or player) went to VT, he’d be with someone who cared about him as if he was his own son. If you don’t believe he’s a different breed of cat, his final line was something I’ve never heard any other college coach do. He concluded with:

“Here’s my cell phone number.”

And then he actually gave it to the 200 or so coaches in attendance.

 

 

A Sobering Experience

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

As readers of this blog know, I recently attended the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Springfield, MA, invited by 2015 honoree George Raveling. Two years ago I made the identical trip when another of my bosses, Jerry Tarkanian, extended an invitation for his enshrinement. The ceremonies cover a span of three days – a press conference on Thursday, a gala reception followed by the TV show on Friday (check out NBA.com to view it) and an event at the Mohegan Sun when the inductees receive their HOF rings.

The Friday affair, which begins at 4:30 pm, is held at the Mass Mutual Convention Center, a gigantic ballroom with a buffet in the center, bars in a couple corners, a dessert table in another and hors d’oevres constantly being served by strolling waiters. Not only are the new inductees present but every member of the Hall of Fame is invited back to the festivities (a majority of whom make it). Of all the events held HOF weekend, this reception is the one in which the “fan” finds it easiest to mingle with the stars from the past.

In order to allow the guests and Hall of Famers as much free flow as possible, the floor has very few tables – some which seat two people and a very limited number of bigger tables. Because I had been present in 2013 – and because standing is one activity my back finds excruciating – I told a couple friends of mine who were also going to the affair that we needed to get there early so we could find a table. They agreed to appease me and we got to the place 15 minutes before the doors opened. As we entered – the first three people to invade the room – Norm Persin (the third winningest high school coach in the state of Ohio) and one of the guys in our party spotted a table for eight which we immediately claimed. The third member of our “George Raveling group” was Mark Edwards whose claims to fame are numerous: 1) 35-year head coach at Washington U in St. Louis who’s won two Division III National Championships, 2) as of this past Thursday night, an inductee of the 2015 class of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame and, not to be diminished by those massive accomplishments, 3) the other graduate assistant at Washington State during my two-year stay at Wazzou (1973-75) and 4) the subject of two of my best blogs (12/15/09 and 2/9/14). Both are well worth reading.

Quickly joining us at “our” table were Sam Jankovich (AD at WSU when Mark and I were there, who later moved on to the same job with the U of Miami before accepting the position of president of the New England Patriots) and his lady friend, Margaret, and one of our former managers at USC, now an executive with Time Warner, Dennis Johnson. I was speaking with Mark when I heard Norm, who has a voice that can certainly be heard above most crowds, bellow, “Hey, Bernard, there’s an open chair here.”

Who should sit down in the empty seat next to me but Bernard King, former Tennessee and NBA great who was enshrined two years prior in the same class as Tark. I mentioned I attended his induction, as well as the fact I was an assistant coach at his alma mater shortly after he left for the NBA. He became a little more animated when I told him I was leaving Sunday for Knoxville to meet with a few former players and coaches. My wife, Jane’s 50th high school reunion was the following Saturday and it would have been foolish (and painful) to fly back to California on Sunday, only to turn around a few days later and fly to Nashville. He mentioned he’d been back (although he admitted it took quite a while before he felt comfortable returning) and we tossed around a few names of mutual acquaintances.

Just about that time, a huge man taps Bernard on the shoulder and asks if that last seat was taken. Bernard jumps up and gives his former teammate, Moses Malone, a bear hug. After they chatted for a while, there were introductions made around the table. I asked Moses if he remembered when he visited us at WSU. Mark added, “Moses, I picked you up at the airport.” Shockingly, to Mark and me anyway, he said he didn’t recall the trip. Back then, however, schools were allowed to offer official visits to as many prospects as they wanted and kids could take as many paid visits as they desired. Moses was, literally, gone every weekend of his senior year.

After a while, he got up and went to get something to drink. I told King that I saw Moses, when he was senior in high school, at the Five-Star Camp, which had the best high school players in the country and how he dominated everybody at the camp, like they were junior high kids. “He just toyed with them,” I said.

King turned to me and said, “I was at that camp. Moses and I graduated from high school the same year.” My first thought was “open mouth, insert foot,” until he said, “You’re exactly right. He did what he wanted to all of us. But let me tell you something about him. That guy was the most unselfish teammate I ever played with. I’d tell him to post up and I’d get him the ball. He’d just say, ‘Nah, B, you just shoot it.’ Never played with anybody like that.”

By now, you can see where this story is headed. On Sunday morning I got to the airport and heard a familiar voice. It was Fran Frascilla of ESPN. Franny and I go way back – to the ’80s when we were both assistants, he at Ohio U, then Ohio State and I was at UT. He was on his cell phone and when he got off, he turned to me and said, “Hey, Jack, did you hear? Moses Malone died.”

Talk about a slap in the face. I was stunned, saying something idiotic like, “What, I had dinner with him 36 hours ago!” as if that would render what he told me as untrue. Franny and I sat next to each other on the trip to Washington, DC where he was connecting to a flight to Dallas (his home) while I went to the gate for my flight to Knoxville. We had about 45 more minutes to catch up but no matter what we talked about, the conversation kept coming back to the fact Moses Malone – who, by the way, looked great at the reception – had passed away.

When I read or hear memorable quotes, I write them down or put them in my phone, whichever is more convenient at the time. Earlier that week I had come across a passage by Virginia Satir which seemed rather poignant:

“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.”

 

A Humorous Moment at Hall of Fame Weekend

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Back pain mandating a visit to Stanford tomorrow. This blog will be back Thursday, Sept. 24.

For the second time in the past three years, I made the trip to Springfield, MA for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony. Three years ago, the inductee was Jerry Tarkanian, the ninth – and last – head coach I assisted (at Fresno State). This year’s honoree was George Raveling, the head man I worked with (at USC) – just prior to my tenure with Tark. I also had a two-year stint for Rav as a graduate assistant at Washington State in the early ’70s.

There will be future blogs about the 2015 Naismith Basketball HOF but, for starters, I thought I’d start with a funny, spontaneous encounter I had with one of the other coaches who was enshrined a couple weekends ago. Because of my back issues, I saw no reason to fly to California after the festivities, only to fly back across the country (to Nashville for my wife’s 50th high school reunion the following Saturday). So I remained east of the Mississippi for another week and am just getting back to blogging.

Just before noon on Saturday, with most of the people I knew, i.e. “George’s group,” having flown out that morning, I went down to the lobby to hang out before lunch, hoping to see a familiar face. Little did I know but there had been an autograph session at the Marriott, located directly across the street from the Sheraton, the hotel where I, and the inductees, were staying (about the only thing I had in common with that bunch). One by one, into the hotel marched the Naismith HOF Class of 2015. I had a chance to chat it up with John Calipari whom I’ve known since he was a senior at Moon Township (PA) High School, whose campus nearly backed up to ours at Robert Morris College (my first full-time college gig).

Shortly after my conversation with Cal, sure enough, here came George with, as usual, a meal invitation – this time for lunch. He told me to wait for him while he showered and then join him and a few others who weren’t flying out until Sunday. As I sat down, out of the corner of my eye, I could see (and feel) a massive individual about to sit in the chair next to mine.

Tommy Heinsohn was inducted as a player in 1986. This time he was honored for his coaching ability, having led the Boston Celtics to four conference finals and two NBA Championships. Whether he pulls off the trifecta and makes it as an announcer is unknown but history would suggest not to bet against the big fella. As he sat, I turned to him and said, “Tom,” extending my hand which he swallowed up in his, “I’m Jack Fertig. When I was an assistant coach at the University of Toledo, I emceed an event in which you were the guest speaker.”

He looked at me and said pleasantly enough, “I don’t remember that.”

“It was in the late ’80s or early 90s,” I said. I knew because I was at Toledo from 1987-91. I continued to paint the picture. “It was in a small town in rural Northwest Ohio – I can’t remember the name of it – but it was a speech you gave to about 150-200 parents and kids.”

“Jeez, I can’t recall that,” he remarked.

“It was in a big Quonset hut, with rows and rows of picnic tables and a makeshift dais for you, me and the event coordinator,” I said, trying to jog his memory.

“Nah, that just doesn’t ring a bell at all,” he maintained.

Realizing he just got enshrined in the Hall of Fame – again – I relented. “Well, it’s not as though it was a highlight of your career.” He smiled. Anyone who heard his speech understands he has a terrific sense of humor. Then, as often is the case with me, a funny line popped into my head which made him laugh out loud.

“Hell, it wasn’t even a highlight of mine!”

 

 

The One Time George Raveling’s Generosity Did Nothing for Me

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

As I posted 10 days ago (8/27/15), this Friday George Raveling will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, meaning that my last two bosses will have been enshrined in the HOF (the late Jerry Tarkanian gained admittance two years ago). Most everyone who knows George can tell a story about his passion for clothes shopping. He’s an immaculate dresser and has got to love clothes shopping (buying is the more accurate term) as much as anyone who’s ever stepped into a store – females included. I can attest that his admiration of clothes goes back at least 42 years (although I know the actual number is even greater). What follows is proof in the form of a story from my book, Life’s A Joke.

Of all the coaches I’ve ever worked for, by far the sharpest dresser was George Raveling. George was known not only for the expensive clothes he wore but the manner, and frequency, he bought them. I was witness to one such escapade during my time with him as his associate head coach at USC (early ’90s). We entered one of his favorite exclusive men’s shops (I’m sure the only reason I was allowed in was because I was with him). First he looks, then feels a denim fabric. The salesman made a comment regarding the quality of his selection. George asked the guy if they could make jeans from the cloth, to which the man, naturally, said they could.

“OK, make me six pair,” George casually said. My jaw dropped and so did the salesman’s – who had just met his new best friend.

Allow me to flash back to the day in 1973 when George walked into the WSU basketball office with a massive armload of clothes, some of them with the tags still on them. He said to the staff, “I cleaned out my closet last night.  If you guys want any of these clothes, there yours.”

Even the ones without the tags were almost brand new. Our staff at that time was composed of full time assistants Steve Cottrell, who is 6’4″, John Heft, who is 6’6″ and, along with me, our other graduate assistant Mark Edwards, who is 6’7″ (and, by the way, has won two Division III National Championships at his alma mater, Washington U. of St. Louis, in addition to over 600 games – see my 2/9/14 blog).

For those readers who may not know, George is 6’5″. These guys took to this pile of clothes as starving lions to raw meat. It was Christmas for them. My problem (which I hadn’t thought of as a problem until that day) is I’m 5’10”. I just looked at the fire sale that was going on and asked George:

“Are there any socks in there?”

A Lifetime Bridesmaid Finds a Silver Lining

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Loyal readers know that my career in Division I college hoops lasted 30 years and that, while my goal was to land a head coaching position at that level, I never did realize it. Some guys (although not too many) are completely satisfied as career assistants. Not me. I wanted to run my own show – and had been preparing for the challenge nearly that entire time. For example, in 1976 I saw a continuity offense a high school coach from Tacoma, Wash. was running and for 30 years I tinkered with it, tweaked it, expanded on it and, to this day, I still feel it is indefensible – a combination of continuity, motion and set plays.

So, truth be told, not accomplishing my dream has always been my biggest professional disappointment. While in no way does it diminish the sting, this September I will join a rather prestigious club, albeit one whose members are unknown to anyone but themselves. Two years ago, my last boss, Jerry Tarkanian (for whom I worked at Fresno State for each of his seven years there), was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor that was long overdue.

During festivities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Sept. 10-12), the Springfield, Mass. institution will induct its class of 2015. One member of that class is George Raveling, who will be enshrined in the “contributor” category. Prior to my employment as director of basketball operations at Fresno State, I served as George’s associate head coach at USC for four years, meaning the last two guys I worked for are members of the Hall of Fame. That is the exclusive club I was referring to - guys who were assistant coaches for multiple Hall of Famers.

In fact, I was a graduate assistant for two years at Washington State (1973-75) while George was head coach for the Cougars. Throw in two other incredibly successful, elite coaches I assisted, (the late) Dick Harter (at Oregon) and Don DeVoe (at Tennessee), and 70% of my career (21 of the 30 seasons) was spent serving upper echelon coaches.

As far as the two Hall of Famers, most everyone is aware of Tark’s accomplishments, especially his four Final 4 appearances, including the 1990 National Championship squad from UNLV. Yet, Jerry actually took over three Division I schools, all of them having fallen on hard times, and resurrected each one, i.e. turned them into clubs that participated in post season play – immediately after he got there. Yet, few fans know the story of a young Tark growing up in Euclid, Ohio, a working class town. At an NCAA Tournament post game press conference, Jerry mentioned that as a youngster, he would watch his father and most of the men in the neighborhood leave for work carrying their lunch pails. His goal, at such a young age, was “to have a job where I didn’t have to carry a lunch pail.”

The story of George Raveling and how he came to obtain the original notes from Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech has been told and retold so many times, it might be what brings the most fame to Rave. Yet, he also led the three teams he coached (Iowa was the other) to NCAA Tournament play and, like Jerry, George was raised in humble surroundings in the Washington, DC area. Following his enshrinement, more will be known about his upbringing so there’s no need to go on any further about it in this space.

Suffice to say, as poet Vaibhav Shah so eloquently put it, that, when seeing highly decorated people:

“Whenever you see a successful person, you only see the public glories, never the private sacrifices to reach them.” 

Every Sport Has Different Levels at Which It’s Played

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

When I was an assistant basketball coach at Tennessee, one of my closest friends – and mentor – was UT’s tennis coach Mike DePalmer (a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame). Mike, as good a friend and giving a person as there is, and I played many tennis matches at 7:00 am – for seven years! One morning, I showed up to play and he had already given a lesson to a local youngster at 6. We began to warm up when his manager came out, telling him he had a recruiting call from South America. “Jack, I gotta take this call. I’m already warmed up from the lesson, why don’t you warm up with Paul?”

“Paul” was Paul Annacone, his #1 singles player at the time. For those of you who aren’t tennis fans, in 1984 (the year he and I “warmed up”), Paul proceeded to go 51-3 in singles and was the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Player of the Year (I steadfastly refuse to take any credit for helping him achieve that award). Following a successful professional tennis career (in which his highest ranking was #12 in the world), he turned to coaching. Among his pupils were Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

One interesting aspect of working at a major university is the number of world class athletes you encounter, not only the players you coach, but those in other sports. In my time at UT the coaches and players ate together in the dining hall of the athletic dorm, so I got to know some kids with amazing skills. That day, Paul walked to the opposite side of the court and we began to rally. After he and I hit the ball about 4-5 times a piece, I stopped and walked toward the net.

“How do you get the ball to jump off your racket?” I asked him. He was leisurely hitting shots and they were exploding back to me. Being a wise guy New Yorker (which he knew I could relate to), he deadpanned, “It’s called a hitting off the sweet spot. Your racket has one, too.”

Another close friend of mine is Mike Watney, the former golf coach at Fresno State (and a member of the Golf Hall of Fame). Note: My career in intercollegiate athletics was more known for longevity (30 years) and number of Division I schools that employed me (9) than for any personal accomplishments. However, as the reader can see, I was wise enough to form connections with the giants in their respective games (someday I might list all the coaches I worked with, if for no other reason than to show the “coaching education” I was exposed to during my time in the business). In fact, my last two bosses in college hoops are in the Naismith Hall of Fame – or will be soon. Jerry Tarkanian was inducted a couple years ago and George Raveling (I was his graduate assistant at Washington State from 1973-75 and associate head coach at USC from 1991-95)  will be enshrined on September 9.

In an earlier post, I told the story of winning a free golf lesson at the Fresno State Xmas luncheon and how Mike convinced me – someone who’d never really played the game – to take him up on it. I quickly became hooked and while my back surgeries have shelved my golf game (I’m hoping not permanently), our two sons (26 and 21) have been bitten by the bug and play whenever they can.

Mike called me about an opportunity he’d been given and wanted to bounce some ideas off me. When we were catching up with what was going on with our kids, I mentioned how into golf each of our guys were. Being the gracious guy he is (you’ll be hard pressed to find a more genuine, down-to-earth person – anywhere), he offered to give a lesson to the boys when they were in town. Unfortunately for Andy, who lives and works in Newport Beach, he couldn’t take advantage, but his younger brother, Alex, was home for another couple weeks before heading to Cal State Monterey Bay for his senior year – and he jumped at the chance.

My back is such that my pain level will never really get “better” but I do yoga, ride an exercise bike and work with a personal trainer so it doesn’t get worse. I’ve been working out with former Fresno State strength and conditioning coach, Steve Sabonya, since the beginning of July. Although I take the workouts seriously, I still manage to “chat it up” with Steve while he’s putting me through exercises to improve my flexibility and strengthen my core. Since he’s worked with elite athletes throughout his career (present company not in that category), we’ll talk about how good somebody has to be to make it professionally in a chosen sport.

Last week Steve asked me what I thought a 10 handicap golfer would shoot if he were to play in a PGA tournament. I told him how Mike had worked with Alex and, after their session, mentioned that he thought Alex had promise as a golfer – and if he wanted to get really good Mike would give him another lesson. Alex didn’t need to be asked twice. That second lesson was the day after my workout with Steve. When we showed up, I mentioned Steve’s question to Mike.

“With the way they make the course so difficult for PGA events, from growing out the rough to making the greens so fast,” I asked him, “what would a 10 handicap golfer score?” Mike didn’t take long to respond. His answer was a 10 handicap would be fortunate to break 100.

All of this came to mind when I saw an article in which John Wall commented on his chances to make our Olympic team. “I’ll be out of the picture,” said Wall through a laugh and without any noticeable trace of resentment. “I’m just being honest. Chris Paul has already won one (Olympic gold medal). Steph Curry had an amazing last year and just won the World Cup. Kyrie (Irving) just won the World Cup. Russell (Westbrook) will probably be on the team. They’ll use him as a two-guard. So, I probably won’t make it.” Keep in mind that this admission was coming from a basketball player who is universally worshiped by the 21-and-under crowd.

It’s like Mike DePalmer told me after I informed him about Annacone explaining the sweet spot theory:

“The game of tennis” (and really ALL sports) “is played at different levels. There are beginners, you and I play at a better level, then there are additional levels, including college, professional and – the best of the best.”