Archive for the ‘Jerry Tarkanian’ Category

Words and Phrases that Have Actually Become Part of Our (Basketball) Vocabulary

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

It’s only been a year but, because this new hoops jargon has hit epidemic proportions, I felt a duty to reprint a blog from last year (which I originally posted, albeit a somewhat edited version, way back in 2009). You should enjoy the humor, as well as recognize the increased widespread use of these words as entertainment.

The game of basketball is relatively simple, i.e. put the ball in the basket and keep your opponent from putting it in his (or hers). Today’s coaches, analysts and talking heads, presumably in an attempt to create more of a mystique about the game (or sound smarter), have expanded the dictionary of basketball terms. Why people feel this is necessary could be due to the popularity of Dick Vitale (“diaper dandy,” “PTPer”) or Clark Kellogg (“stat sheet stuffer,” “squeeze the orange”). Or maybe it started when Hubie Brown, lecturing at a clinic in the South in the late ’70’s, spoke about “sticking the J.” I was actually at that particular clinic, in which Hubie was interrupted by a coach in attendance who asked the question, “What’s a ‘J’?”

It was kind of funny at that time seeing Hubie try to conceal, unsuccessfully, a smirk at the question. Earlier in his career, Hubie’s retort might have been, “How the f… can you coach basketball & not know what a ‘J’ is?” but he’d mellowed somewhat by then. I have to admit the guys in my group felt bad for the coach who asked the question, but felt relieved – although not as relieved as the coach should have been – had Hubie answered with the response we anticipated.

Players in this era have so many terms running through their heads, the only two groups that can be effective are the “thinkers who can play” and the “players who can think (some),” i.e. something along the lines of the NCAA’s sliding scale. To some coaches, namely my late Hall of Fame boss, Jerry Tarkanian, thinking was a detrimental skill when it came to being a basketball player. Tark’s mantra always was, “The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.” While today’s game is quite similar that of Tark’s day, the “lingo” has certainly changed.

For example, players now “score the ball.” The first time I heard that phrase, an immediate question came to mind. “What the hell else can you score?” I mean, have you ever heard, “Manny is really having a tough time scoring the ball tonight, but he’s been on fire finding the bottom of the net with several pairs of socks, a few rolls of athletic tape and three Gatorade cups he found lying around.” For the more sophisticated announcer, the term has recently morphed into, “score the basketball.” They must think listeners had to pause for a moment to recall exactly which sport they were viewing – and, of course, to ponder their brilliance.

Today’s players are no longer accomplished dribblers. They have great handles. I thought for a minute I might be able to make a comeback as a point guard because my wife keeps telling me I have great handles, but as it turns out anybody can get those – as long as a person has enough discipline to overeat on a daily basis. Another new term is touches, meaning how many times a player gets the ball in scoring position. Coaches now talk about the need to get their best player “touches.” Players, often not the best ones, have been heard to complain they don’t get enough touches. Usually the reason is because, when they do, they don’t score the ball.

In the past, when players used dribbling to score the ball, they were very good at “driving” it. Today, when a player’s strength is driving, the scouting report will tell the team he can really put the ball on the floor or, if a coach wants to show off his knowledge of the absolute latest verbiage, he can really deck it. When I was in college I saw one of my friends “deck it,” but it was right after some guy insulted his girlfriend at a bar. “Deck it” was the phrase used, but “it” was the guy who unwisely opened his mouth about my buddy’s girl. Seemed like my buddy objected to him trying to get too many “touches.”

Also, guys who used to be great shooters are now considered wet. In years past those same shooters were called “silky smooth.” Apparently, silky smooth has been replaced by wet although you’d think a player would rather be smooth, especially of the silky variety, than wet but, with more and more announcers and people in the studio attempting to carve their own niche, it’s become a way to separate one personality from another. It’s certainly easier than actual studying to become more knowledgeable about what they’re covering – for a living.

When a shot goes up, the coach no longer tells players to “rebound” but to board it. Playmakers don’t get “assists” for passes that lead to scores, they drop dimes. The more dimes you have, the more guys want to play with you – especially wet guys. It’s evidently the same story in the inner city, i.e. people want to hang with the guy who has the most dimes, but they’re of a different variety. And when that guy gets his picture taken, there’s a better than even chance it’s going to be both front and side views.

There are those who wonder how anyone understands anyone else. No one is clear when they speak today. That wasn’t the case, however, when Harry Truman was asked why he felt that Dwight Eisenhower was struggling when he switched careers from the army to politics. Harry did his best “Give ‘em hell” answer to a question most politicians would have waxed poetic or sidestepped altogether. Instead, Truman’s response was:

“Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t used to being criticized and he never did get it through his head that’s what politics is all about. He was used to getting his ass kissed.”

Should Fans Stop Rushing the Court?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

After witnessing the irresponsible scene in Manhattan following Kansas State’s upset of intrastate rival Kansas – yet before the wild (but) civil display the Maryland fans exhibited when they knocked off Wisconsin – talk radio was absolutely buzzing on the issue of storming the court. Mark “Chicken Little” Packer led the charge, condemning the actions of the Wildcats’ students (assuming they were students). He claimed rushing the court should be outlawed in arenas and that there is no place for that in college basketball. For the record, surprisingly, his partner, former Vermont coach and, for my money, the best basketball talk show guy there is, Tom Brennen, concurred with him. With all the years in college hoops Tom put in, I can’t believe he’d be anti fans storming the court. All I can say is he was caught up with the picture of K-State fans not allowing KU’s team and coaches off the floor peacefully. Their anger at the situation certainly was justified. The problem was they painted what happened with too broad a brush.

What precipitated the outrage was the fact that several of the Jayhawk players were bumped (intentionally or not) by Wildcat fans as they rushed onto the court. True, there always is that jackass factor, i.e. the loudmouth who’s been razzing an opponent (who may or may not be showboating) and, in the aftermath of the game (in all likelihood due to either the “strength in numbers” or “liquid courage” theories), the fan comes face-to-face-back with the opponent who’s been torching his beloved team, so, hey . . . why not take a (cheap) shot? Things like that (or getting a beer poured on a player’s head as he goes into the locker room) have been known to happen. I’ve witnessed the latter up close.

KU coach Bill Self, who is an expert on court stormings since his teams have always been Top 10 (or better) caliber and, as such, are targets for lesser programs who, on infrequent occasions, manage to beat them. As an aside: I was at one of those when I was on the staff at Fresno State and we beat Bill’s Tulsa team in the finals of the WAC Tournament (which just so happened to be hosted by Fresno that year), giving us the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. At that time, Tulsa had lost four games, three of them to us – the first one by a single point at Tulsa, the next by two on a buzzer-beater in Fresno and the third in the conference tourney final by three (a late three-pointer accounting for the game’s final points). After the last nail-biter (in which their team and staff got off the floor completely unscathed), our coach, Jerry Tarkanian, went into their locker room and told Bill’s team how much he admired them and wished he could get his guys to play as hard as they did. Bill Self has retold that story on several occasions.

As far as the Kansas State game, Self had this to say, “It’s fine if you want to celebrate when you beat us, that’s your business. That’s fine. But at least it shouldn’t put anybody at risk from a safety standpoint. Somebody is going to hit a player, the player is going to retaliate, you’re going to have lawsuits—it’s not right.” Storm the court, he’s saying, just do it responsibly and, for goodness sakes, the school needs to have protective measures in place!

There is little doubt that what happened two nights ago was a complete bungling by the security people at Bramlage Coliseum. It’s not like the game ended on a miracle half court shot, with the home team behind at the time (the final score was 70-63). Why there weren’t more security – and why they weren’t in better position for the possibility of an upset – boggles the mind. K-State is having a less than their typical success from a wins and losses standpoint. Kansas came into Manhattan firmly planted in the Top 10. And it was Kansas vs. Kansas State for cryin’ out loud! How many warning signs did they need? The bottom line is that things got a little too rambunctious at K-State and it never should have escalated to those heights.

K-State AD John Currie, for whom Packer has tremendous respect, having interviewed him “a gazillion times,” apologized to Kansas for what occurred. He covered for his security people but you can rest assured, they got more than an earful from him behind closed doors. By the way, Packer admitted that, as a student at Clemson, he was part of a court storming. He stated when they got out there, it was like “what do we do now?” He referred to him and his friends as idiots and his advice to college kids was not to do as he did. Easy to say now. Packer’s actions at Clemson were what college kids do. His advice now is what adults do. Why don’t kids listen to their elders when they are so much older and wiser? Because they’re kids – and college students do stupid things. Then, we hope, they mature – as we did (at least most of us).

Dan Graca, also of Sirius XM, cleverly played the ESPN card. He blamed them – and every television station that played and re-played the incident, for continually showing such raucous behavior – as if the kids who storm the floor are doing it to get on TV – as opposed to displaying unbridled emotion at their school having done what no one but their own gave they a chance to do. Somehow, if Graca were offered a job doing TV, I imagine he’d be able to justify moving over to the evil side – of more money, visibility and fame.

Look, of course there needs to better security than the travesty that took place at Kansas State. The safety of the visiting players, coaches and traveling party on the floor must be first and foremost in the minds of the security team. It’s not that difficult. First of all, is there a possibility of a court storming? Examples: Is the home team a big underdog or the visiting team a massive favorite? Is the visiting team #1 or (as in the case two nights ago, a big rival)? Is there something special at stake – a milestone victory, a spot in the NCAA Tournament? Finally, and the one that’s the hardest to predict, is there a possibility of a game-winning shot that will evoke that much emotion by the crowd?

To say storming the court should be outlawed is like saying no fan of a visiting team should wear that team’s gear to the game (hasn’t that caused problems in the past – in professional stadiums). But we can’t – and shouldn’t – live our lives in fear. Then, in the words of Mark Packer, “the idiots” win. Implement stronger security measures, install more cameras, but don’t think fans are going to cheer and scream and go crazy – especially when they hear from their head coach (as so, so many of them do after big wins and championships), “Thanks to the greatest fans in the world!” – and then, after a major upset or huge win, expect them to orderly file out of the building.

The people we’re discussing are passionate, emotional kids. A caller to one of the shows made the statement that we never see storming the court at professional games. This is not the pros. The players are their friends, guys they see in class, maybe fellow athletes or fraternity brothers. Possibly, some recent grads are in the stands cheering for their alma mater, hoping to see something they were deprived of during their undergrad years.

It’s simple. As Bear Bryant said:

“Win with dignity; lose with class.”

A Final Tribute for Tark that Places Him in Some Exclusive Company

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Jerry Tarkanian’s final coaching job was at Fresno State and, while he had a majority of supporters in the Central Valley, he also had some vocal critics. One, in particular, was a professor who wrote a letter and had it published by the local newspaper. It’s believed to be the only time that professor had any of his work published. Or at least the first time any of it was read. To my knowledge – and I was with him in Fresno from the beginning until the end – none of Jerry’s critics ever took the time to actually meet him.

Pat Hill took over a football program that had struggled for a while, both on the field and in the classroom. He brought in a new philosophy, scheduling any team in the country – even if it meant playing them on the road with no return game. His assistant (and right hand man), John Baxter, implemented his brainchild, The Academic Game Plan, a rigorous program that taught kids how to have academic success, including but not limited to: how act in class (show up on time, sit in the front two rows, sit up, stay awake and pay attention) and how to study (first and foremost how to take notes). The team’s record, GPA and graduation rates all improved.

Pat also had his critics, especially after league rival, Boise State, attained greater national success, using a system different than Fresno State did. Many Fresno State fans were unaware that their football program had a much better reputation nationally than it did locally. Pat’s biggest mistake was a problem few coaches ever face – he stayed too long. After 15 years, he was shown the door.

On the question of having a better image outside the area than in it, Pat’s successor, Tim DeRuyter, agrees. Be it in the paper or the barber shop, on the radio or social media, several local fans have criticized the new head coach regarding, among other complaints, not recruiting almost exclusively in California, specifically the San Joaquin Valley (ironically, like Pat Hill used to do). DeRuyter coached at Texas A&M prior to making the move to Fresno. Quite logically, he has leaned on the numerous contacts he made with high school coaches in that fertile recruiting state. Because of those relationships, next year’s Bulldogs’ roster will include some players from Texas. Not nearly as many players as hail from California, but a more diversified make up than his predecessor. When questioned about bringing in out-of-area prospects, DeRuyter remarked that one reason was the national perception of the program is so much more positive than it is in and around Fresno.

Last night, following the UNLV-Boise State basketball game, a tribute was paid to the guy many knew as Tark. For only the eighth time in history, casinos along the Las Vegas Strip turned off their non-essential lights in appreciation of the life of, and contributions made by, an individual. A darkened Strip has honored the legacies of Las Vegas entertainers Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, George Burns and Frank Sinatra after their deaths, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. This tribute was also held after the deaths of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (in addition, lights were dimmed following the 9/11 attacks).

A valuable lesson several people from Fresno can learn is a line, quite similar to that from Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi:

“You don’t know what you got ’til (he’s) gone.”

The Case for Tark As the Best Coach Ever

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Extended road trip with the sisters-in-law to LA to watch Monterey Bay play a couple of games and, as an added bonus, to see older son (and nephew), Andy, in Orange County. This blog will return Wednesday, Feb. 18.

Everyone has a favorite coach. Because I worked for Jerry Tarkanian (who passed away yesterday), I admit to being somewhat biased. The following anecdote illustrates why I feel Jerry was the best ever.

His last year at UNLV the program was on probation and couldn’t play in the postseason – NCAA, NIT or even the Big West Conference tourney. So, basically, his guys had nothing to play for but pride. For a group of guys who were NCAA tourney regulars, this had to sting. A lot.

When Jerry told me the story, either he didn’t remember correctly or I misheard him because I am certain he said they lost at Rutgers, putting their record at 2-2 when, checking the UNLV archives, the Rutgers’ loss made them 2-1 and it was the following game – at Missouri – which they also lost that gave them the 2-2 record. In any case, it was on the plane trip back to Las Vegas that Tark turned to one of his assistants and said, “We can’t play man-to-man defense anymore.” Such talk bordered on blasphemy in the Rebel program.

He went on to explain that their big center was too slow for the guys he had to match up with and that his lack of foot quickness precluded the Rebs from playing the amoeba defense they’d made famous – because he wasn’t quick enough to cover the corner on the pass there from the wing (for you coaches out there). “I’m going to put in the 1-2-2 zone defense I used 20 years ago at Long Beach State.”

This defense violated the one rule Jerry had been adamant about for two decades – place maximum pressure on the ball. What the team would get by changing to this defense would be what the legendary coach wanted even more than ball pressure. It was the number one reason he coached – and why score is kept. It gave his team a chance to win.

The following practice the 1-2-2 defense was dusted off. And taught. In coaching, it’s not about what a coach knows as it is what the players understand and can properly execute. In order to accomplish this, the staff must get the players to believe in what they’re teaching – and believe in it as strongly as the coaches do. Any coach who can accomplish that has a sure winner. The task Jerry Tarkanian faced was monumental – abandon what he’d been preaching was “the Rebel way to play defense” (all-out, man-to-man pressure) – and play zone. And to do it to a group of guys who had no postseason to look forward to.

The result? UNLV ripped off 23 straight wins to finish the season at 25-2.

“That, my friends, is coaching.”

The Alpha and the Omega of Championship Coaches

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

This past Saturday Dean Smith passed away. During his final years, poor health denied both he and his adoring public of the relationship each desired. He’s been fondly remembered by nearly everyone, inside and out, of college basketball, including this site (see yesterday’s blog).

Now the news is another basketball coaching icon, Jerry Tarkanian, is near the end. Jerry, also, has been in failing health for some time. Last April he was hospitalized for, what at the time was believed to be a stroke. Whether it was a stroke, heart attack or pneumonia, the setback took its toll on the 84-year old championship coach, husband, father of four and grandfather of 10. As with others who experience such a shock to their system, his life was never the same. Gone was the outgoing, fun-loving guy who constantly needed to be around people.

Seldom, if ever, has anyone possessed the number one people skill as well as Jerry Tarkanian: the ability to make people feel important. I recall the day I saw him sitting in his office, listening to someone who was standing, out of my sight, diagramming plays at the white board on his office wall. When the guy left, I asked Jerry who he was. He told me that he had simply walked in (our secretary was on her break), knocked on his door (which was open) and introduced himself.

In classic Tark fashion, he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. They began talking and when Tark’s new best friend mentioned he, too, was a basketball coach, Jerry asked him what he did against a 1-2-2 zone. That’s what led to the scene I had witnessed.

Later on, I found out from the person this guy was actually there to see that, when he saw the basketball office door open, he walked in. Then, he noticed Jerry’s door was open and felt he’d take a chance on meeting his coaching idol. Who then, naturally, requested the mini-clinic, because he thought he might learn something. In no way was he putting this guy on.

Three weeks ago I visited the last of my bosses from a 30-year college coaching career. Jerry couldn’t walk, talk, had a feeding tube in his stomach and he was on oxygen. Yet, when his son, Danny, his daughter, Jodi, and I stated telling stories from our Fresno State days, a glimmer in his eye appeared and a smile began to curl up the corners of his mouth. It was sad that his health had deteriorated so badly but rewarding (although not surprising) to see that he was still battling – because one of his defining traits is he hated losing.

Dean Smith won 879 Division I games, with a .776 winning percentage. Jerry Tarkanian won 784, with a .795 percentage. Each respected the other’s ability to get his players to compete to their maximum potential. Dean’s University of North Carolina guys, for the most part, were clean cut, McDonald’s All-Americans. Jerry’s, for the most part (independent of which school he was coaching), were kids who needed a second (and, occasionally, an additional) chance and the only McDonald’s they knew had arches. Yet, these two giants of college coaching put up such gaudy numbers because they were innovators who cared deeply about the young guys they coached. In addition, there was a shared loyalty that existed between coach and player.

Since Coach Smith’s passing, people who didn’t realize all he’d accomplished regarding civil rights have been educated of his courageous actions – while doing it in the South at a time it wasn’t very popular. What just as many people aren’t aware of is Tark’s stand during the 1968 Olympic Trials. The story shows there is a connection between Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian and their views against racial prejudice.

It was 1968 and the Olympic Trials consisted of three NCAA all-star teams, one NCAA college all-star team, and separate all-star squads representing the AAU, NJCAA, NAIA, and U.S. Armed Forces. Jerry coached the junior college (NJCAA) all-stars, selected in large part because he had previously won four straight California junior college championships. It was a round robin event, won by Tark’s JC guys.

At the press conference which followed the championship game, a reporter asked Jerry if he was making a statement by starting five black players, a first for any team competing in the Trials. Jerry gave a response that people who know truly him only can laugh and shake their heads:

“I did?”

How Negatives Can Become Positives

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

Many people have seen the ESPN 30 for 30 Unguarded show about Chris Herren, the basketball player from Fresno State who fell deeply into the drug world, only to escape with a second chance, one he worked hard for and nearly didn’t get.

Yesterday Chris spoke to my last place of employment, Buchanan High School. He spoke in the afternoon to the BHS students and again last night to another packed house of 2600 in the Bears’ gymnasium. I witnessed both. Earlier in the day, I had lunch with Chris who got to Fresno State a couple months after I was hired as director of basketball operations by its new head coach, Jerry Tarkanian. Truth be told, Chris came to us after having to leave Boston College for failing drug tests.

When Chris came to Fresno, I hadn’t seen anyone with that kind of charisma since I was 12 years old and John F. Kennedy came through my little hometown (seriously). It wasn’t just the players and coaches who loved him but the other college students, little kids who attended games, adults around town and even the boosters (who bought tickets on the plane, enabling us to charter to away games). Some of them were in their 70s and 80s. As the old saying goes, “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him.” He was Fresno’s version of James Bond.

On the court, no one could guard Chris, whether conference foes or players on some of the best teams in the nation (and we played some of the best – I know because I was in charge of scheduling). Although we played teams from the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-10 (before the Pac-12 and Big East), we had a home-and-home series with UMass which meant so much to Chris because that was the state university of his state. In Amherst he scored a (then) career-high 25 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 102-81 win. It was the most points put up by an opponent in the Mullins Center and we became the first non-conference opponent to win in the building since it opened during the 1992-93 season.

The revenge game was the following year in Fresno and Chris was stoked. His mother and grandfather had flown cross country to see him play. Although he scored only 19 points, he controlled the game and Fresno State won, 82-64. Life was great – until our trainer came in the next day and told Jerry that Chris had tested positive. We were stunned. Deep down, Chris wasn’t.

While Chris could hold his own with anybody on the court, there was another battle he was losing. It was against his demons – and he had no idea how badly he was being beaten. Drugs will do that to a person.

A family friend of his came to me and said Chris and his mom respected me because I was honest and level-headed. He was getting getting bad advice regarding how to deal with his current problem. One idea was to claim he was being suspended for academics and that was why he would no longer be with the team. I told them I had an idea, stating it was only advice and if they didn’t take it, I’d have no problem with their decision. They wanted to hear it.

“Chris,” I said, “if it was any other player, we’d just send out a press release but, because you’re so good with the media, I think we should hold a press conference. But . . . here are the ground rules. Number one, you have to write it. You like to “wing it” when you’re with the media. There will be no winging it. Number two, you have to practice it. You don’t have to memorize it but it’s going to be hard so you need to understand what you’re saying to get through it as smoothly as possible. Number three, you have to read it. You know you’re going to become emotional. Keep your head down until you get to the end. Number four, when you’re done, get up and get out. Let Coach Tark handle the questions.” They were in agreement.

The evening of the press conference, as expected, the room was packed. Everything went off as planned and, when Chris completed his “speech,” there were few, if any, dry eyes in the room. Only the most reproachful and heartless person couldn’t be affected by a 21 year old kid, telling a national television audience, he was a junkie and needed to go away to “dry out.” Jerry was also emotional answering the media’s questions, stopping several times for water, his way of controlling himself.

At the end of the presser, my cell phone vibrated. I looked down and saw a 203 area code. Since I’d recruited for so many years (and was a “numbers guy,” having majored in math), I knew most of the country’s area codes. “203,” I thought, “that’s Connecticut. Who can be calling me from there?” I answered, only to hear a concerned voice on the other end.

“Jack, it’s Digger.” Earlier in the season, Digger Phelps had done the color commentary for one of our games and he and Chris really hit it off. “What happened?” he asked. I explained the situation and could tell he truly sorry he felt – for a kid he’d met once. Like I said, Chris had charisma.

The next day, our office as flooded with faxes and emails. All our phones had texts and we were receiving calls from all over the country. As days went by, we began getting a torrent of mail, all addressed to Chris Herren. Most carried the same message. “You are so brave. My father/mother/brother/sister/friend has addiction problems and . . .”

After Chris got back from the 30-day stay in the Utah facility, he received a call from Chris Mullin who had battled alcohol dependency. “I’d like for you to come and live in my house as you prepare for the upcoming draft.” It was the greatest example of turning a negative into a positive I had ever seen.

Until I witnessed Chris Herren speak. For the afternoon session, the high school kids were shown the 30 for 30 in its entirety, since none of them were born when he played at Fresno State. I wondered how Chris could hold their attention after so long a video. Was I ever wrong! The 2600 students were mesmerized and he held their attention for over an hour. Then, held a Q&A. During the evening session, the video was condensed but the audience’s reaction was identical.

Chris says he speaks 250 times a year and enjoys the high school groups best because he feels he has the greatest impact on them. However, he has spoken before both of the Super Bowl teams, each of the “final four” teams from this year’s College Football Playoff and, yearly, speaks to the NFL and NBA rookies. He has started Project Purple (to bring awareness to the dangers of substance abuse) and that has become his passion now – in addition to his speaking.

No matter how many times he tells his story, he genuinely struggles sharing it. It’s not easy baring your soul in front of, mostly, strangers – especially when he has to relive so many years of what was such a dreadful life. Far and away the best word to describe his message is powerful.

The best quote I’ve seen to explain Chris’ talks is by Jaeda DeWalt:

“I don’t like and even resist, being broken wide-open. But, when the contents of my unconscious self spill out of me and I sift through all the disowned parts of who I am… it’s an uncomfortably enlightening and eye-opening experience. It feels a bit like emotional bloodletting. I guess every now and then, I need that release valve to open all the way…”



Should Cardale Jones Go Pro If Ohio State Wins It All?

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Weekend hoops in Monterey. This blog will return on Tuesday, Jan. 13.

There was actually an article on this exact question on the site The Front Office News, but there was no byline and I couldn’t find a name anywhere – possibly because whoever wrote it didn’t want his (it had to be a man, women sportswriters are too intelligent) name getting out. His initial analysis is that “(Jones) has prototypical size standing at 6’5 250lbs, he has a cannon for an arm, and he is more mobile than what he is given credit for.”

Later on in this post, the writer states, “Talent has never been an issue with Jones. Attitude and immaturity has been, but in his case all he needed was an opportunity and he is flourishing as the starting QB.” Using this hypothesis, the conclusion would be that Jones should not only be drafted but, in order for the team to get the maximum value out of its pick, Jones should immediately be named the franchise’s starting QB. His thinking is that, while NFL QB might be the most difficult position, in all of sports, to master, Jones has proven – in what would be three starts (albeit three big ones) – that due to his immense talent (a cannon for an arm and having more mobility than what he is given credit for), opportunity is the main ingredient for him to achieve stardom.

The “attitude and immaturity” issues needn’t worry a franchise, especially its head coach who would be the first casualty in case this theory might, for some reason, be flawed. How did he get a bad attitude rap anyway? Begin with his now infamous October, 2012 tweet, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.” Following that dumb remark, Urban Meyer called Jones a “changed man” and one who is “making progress in the classroom.” Which means, what, that he found the classroom? That a guy like that would be kept around and remain in good graces just shows how coaches can be blinded by talent. I’m certainly not naive to this type of action (I mean, I did work for Tark). An example of his immaturity could be the time Jones visited a kid in the hospital and they played an NCAA Football video game. The last picture posted of the visit showed Jones beating him 91-25 (although the kid was smiling).

Anyway, how much do a good attitude and maturity have to do with being an NFL quarterback? If Ryan Leaf and Johnny Manziel come to mind, dismiss those negative thoughts.

The author’s true premise was disclosed in the line, “It would honestly suck to be a backup to a team that you led to a championship.” So, following this writer’s logic, Jones – a young kid who had displayed a horrible work ethic as well as massive signs of immaturity – should take all of his skills and baggage to a professional team because he would have to compete for the starting spot and might not be good enough to win it.

This writer, and any and every other person who as much mentions the idea of Cardale Jones making himself eligible for the NFL draft, ought to be escorted into a roomful of NFL QBs – starters, back ups, practice squad guys – doesn’t matter – and look them in the eye and present those men with that thought. Throw OCs into that group as well. Then, they must submit the name of their sports editor, producer or boss and have as many of the QBs or OCs who would like, call and ask exactly how someone with such a limited understanding of what being an NFL QB is all about, could be employed to write about football. That is, that a football writer would go so far as to put in print that an NFL team should draft – and pay – a quarterback who had an entire career (in terms of meaningful competition) of being the winning QB in a Big 10 championship, a Sugar Bowl and a National Championship game, yet doesn’t feel confident enough or understand the need to compete the following season to earn the starting QB job.

Their picture and name should be displayed on every team’s Jumbotron, so they can be held accountable for posing what has to be the most asinine question since that jackass asked Marshall Faulk, “Marshall, if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

For his part, Cardale Jones has stated that he is returning to Ohio State for next season. Based on the writer’s suppositions, a  better question for him to have asked would be:

“Why not have Jones fake an injury and have the Buckeyes’ training staff apply for a medical redshirt?”





Don Quixote Loses – Again

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

After my boss, Jerry Tarkanian, retired in 2002, I was faced with a decision. Where was I going to work? I had been in college basketball nearly my entire adult life – 4 as a graduate assistant at three different schools, 11 as an assistant at three other institutions, 8 as an associate head coach at two others and 7 as Tark’s director of basketball operations – for a grand total of 30 years at nine Division I universities. Working in the field that long, I had made friends and gained the respect of some, if not many, of my peers. I had two or three options to continue doing so.

Picking up and leaving wouldn’t be a challenge. After all, I had moved 16 times and lived in nine states since graduating from college. What was another one. It was only when Andy, our older son (who had just completed seventh grade – he was the president of his class), said, “Dad, do we have to move?” did I realize that nearly all of my moves came when I was single and childless. Now it would mean selling a house, buying another – in our price range and in a good school district for our rising 3rd and 8th grade boys, plus getting a job for my wife who had more than two decades of working for the federal government. All to chase the dream of, one day, becoming a head coach – with no guarantee that will happen. It’s not like, “OK, you’ve coached 40 years. Congratulations, here’s a college team where you can be the head coach.”

One of the coaches at Fresno State mentioned to me that, if I wanted to coach on the high school level, he had a great deal of pull at a local school that had recently dismissed its coach. More and more, the NCAA had been limiting practice time for college coaches with their players. What made coaching high school in California attractive was you could coach your team nearly every day of the year. I got that high school job and conducted practices in May and June – before I even started teaching. In late June while I was at my computer, filling out a form to take the team to Los Angeles for a summer tournament, I felt a sharp pain in my mid-back. It turned out to be a herniated disk (my fourth) that required emergency surgery – that kept me from living the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

The remainder of the summer was dedicated to physical therapy. I showed up for orientation walking with a cane. While that was excruciating, it wasn’t nearly as painful as hearing, as I did in each of the three meetings, that “teachers should document everything, as our parents are a very litigious group.” At the time I was also a member of the National Speakers Association and my main topic was “Team Building” – how the number one characteristic of any great team is trust. My new employers were telling me I should document everything while I was getting paid to speak to groups, often quoting Stephen Covey’s line, “In a no-trust culture, you live in memo haven.”

Unwisely, I thought that my diverse experiences throughout the nation, in addition to my membership in NSA, would allow me to enlighten my new colleagues that maybe the trust thing, combined with hiring better lawyers, was a better strategy. Vegas would have given Don Quixote shorter odds against the windmills.

When No Child Left Behind became the new (mainly political) rallying cry, our school district, consisting mostly of upper middle class families, decided that a necessary addendum would be, “Every student should go to college.” Only not every student in our school wanted, needed nor should have gone to college. It was almost as if the district powers were saying that other schools, the ones that didn’t measure up to us in standardized test scores and such, ought to be supplying the cashiers, bank tellers, plumbers, painters, roofers, auto repairmen and all those other vital professions that many of our kids would have been superstars at, if we’d only helped encourage and train them.

That motto was expanded by a new superintendent (who was as egomaniacal as any “leader” I’ve encountered – and, not shockingly, lasted a year). He pompously made the statement that every student was to take at least one Advanced Placement class during his or her four years in high school. Heck, we had some kids who couldn’t even spell “AP.”

What brought on this blog was an article on Albert Einstein I read last night. One of his life lessons was entitled, “We are all born geniuses but life de-geniuses us.” Beneath it read something I wish all the administrators at that school district would highlight and place on their desks, mirrors and refrigerators. In fact, I forwarded it to several of the teachers from the district, with the hope they’ll pass it along. It said:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


The Worst Trait a Coach Can Possess

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

While coaches are leaders, one part of their job differs from that of a traditional executive. The people they’re leading are under their supervision for a limited number of years. Other than the rare Belichick-Brady combo or Popovich and his band of merry Spurs, the maximum amount of time a coach spends with his (using the male pronoun but all of this also applies to the distaff side) team is five years – and that’s only when a college player redshirts and uses all his eligibility. Safe to say, though, the length of time will be less, usually between 1-4 years. And that’s for elementary school coaches all the way to those on the professional level.

Still and all, the coach can have a powerful effect on his charges, as long as he understands the relationship is a two-way street. Each side must be loyal to and trusting of each other. Once guys become professionals, the old saying is, “You can tell pros, but you can’t tell them much.” Those guys have so many other “advisers” in their heads, getting them to play hard and together is about the most a coach can hope for. Getting only one of those could cost him his job.

For the overwhelming number of coaching situations, on any level, there is one negative characteristic a coach must avoid at all costs. In truth, it’s difficult for some coaches, possibly because of their competitive nature. That characteristic is stubbornness.

Having been in the field of coaching for 35 years, I’ve seen some stubborn coaches. One of an assistant coach’s primary responsibilities is scouting opponents. Stubborn coaches are the easiest to scout. They have a style and, come hell or high water, that’s the way their teams are going to play. The open minded coaches always have a wrinkle or two you haven’t seen but worry about because you know, if the situation demands it, they’re prepared to use something you’ve never seen.

During my career, I worked for a stubborn coach or two. And I worked for coaches who not only invited outside thoughts but demanded you contribute your ideas. I recall a day at Fresno State when I walked into Jerry Tarkanian’s office, not realizing he had a visitor. The guy was at the white board, showing Tark (who, at the time, was the winningest, by percentage, active college basketball coach in the nation) his zone offense. The previous year he had been a seventh grade coach. We didn’t use the offense but the fact Tark thought he might learn something spoke volumes.

In a brief number of bullet points, here’s why being stubborn leads to a coach’s downfall (which usually translates into losing games and, possibly, his job):

Nobody knows it all.

Everybody can use some help.

There’s a great deal of knowledge out there.

Coaches love to talk X’s and O’s (as well as all things related to the profession).

Tark used to tell stories of how he and Lefty Driesell would sit on the beach, putting sun tan lotion on their bald heads during the annual Nike trip and talk basketball (Nike would take the head coaches of the teams they sponsored on a luxurious cruise or to a lavish resort during the off season – all expenses paid, naturally). I blogged several years ago about how George Raveling, as a young head coach, contacted a handful of coaches he respected and began a self-improvement clinic that lasted 40 years – and how Larry Shyatt and Scott Duncan, currently head and assistant coaches at the University of Wyoming, and I – stole the idea and started one of our own in the 1980s (and that still exists today).

One of today’s most repeated coachspeak words is “share.” Coaches absolutely love it when their teams “share” the ball. It’s the same with knowledge. Over and over you hear that coaching is a copycat profession. One reason is coaches see something one of their colleagues has success with and they incorporate it. Another is more simple. One coach sees something another has done and, unless they’re in the same league (or play each other), he calls the “innovator” and asks about what it is that caught his eye. In nearly every case, sharing is what follows.

Stubborn coaches often have another trait. They’re smug. I mean, why listen to others, including their assistants or players, when they have all the answers. What need is there to be humble. Unfortunately, for those coaches, another characteristic they wind up sharing is getting fired.

Most, if not all, people (coaches included) believe the best coach ever is the late John Wooden. He came up with many prophetic lines during his years leading men. One that he used quite often was:

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”


SI’s Story on Homeless Athletes Brings Back a Memory

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Last week’s Sports Illustrated cover story was about homeless athletes. That subject reminded me of a story I retold in a blog from August, 2013. Due to the timing and impact of the SI story, I felt it might be a good time to re-post it.


Many of Jerry Tarkanian’s critics claimed he gave his players too much leeway, i.e. his disciplinary beliefs were entirely too soft, even non-existent. I’ve always maintained that one thing I particularly liked about working for Jerry was that he let you be yourself. Of the ten head coaches I worked for, he was definitely the best in that regard. (I worked for him at Fresno State). He felt that he hired us to do a job so why not let us do it. That’s not to say he wouldn’t take us to task if our job performance wasn’t up to par.

In the case of players, the standard line Tark would use when one of the guys would get in trouble was, “He’s a good kid.” Where his philosophy might have backfired was several of the players we had shouldn’t have been themselves. Being themselves is what got them where they were. True, many of his players took advantage of his ultra-loyal nature. Many people wondered, “How could an intelligent guy” – which when it came to understanding people, Jerry was as good as anyone – “be duped so often?” A story from his early coaching years sheds evidence on his behavior better than any psychological explanation can.

It was at the beginning of his junior college career and Tark was no different than most budding, young coaches of the time – a fiery leader who wanted to show he was in charge and was going to demand full intensity at every practice. One of his best players had a really bad practice, playing well below his potential. Making matters worse was that it was the young guy’s second subpar practice in a row. If anyone knows Jerry, practice is absolutely sacred time. It’s when teams are made into winners. Or losers. Any great coach feels exactly the same. He told the kid to see him in his office after practice.

Once the player walked in, Jerry immediately lit into him – yelling about how he was letting the team down, that the only chance they had of being a great squad was for this kid to be a leader – that his effort would dictate how practices, and then games, would turn out. He got hit with the full wrath of a young Coach Tark.

Jerry said the player had tears in his eyes and began to apologize. What he said would have as much of an impact on Jerry Tarkanian as any other incident in his long and storied career.  “Coach,” the youngster began, “I know I’ve let you and the team down the past few days. It’s just that I haven’t had anything to eat for the past three days but ketchup and water. We don’t put the water in to make it taste better, just to make it last longer.”

Tark has said he felt about an inch tall. He got a lump in his throat, as he does to this day when he recounts that story. “I never, ever, considered that was the reason the kid was having bad practices. I couldn’t believe anybody had to live like that.” The coach made sure the young man got something to eat from there on out and, sure enough, he became the player Jerry thought he would be.

There are many versions of the following quote but the most pertinent in this case – and the most telling when it comes to explaining Jerry Tarkanian’s feelings toward his players – might be:

“Try walking a mile in my shoes and see how far you get.”