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A Coach's Decision

Xs and Os come easy. It's whether to ply their trade in the college or professional ranks that wrangles the country's top coaches
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

(continued from page 1)

Professional experience also helps with recruiting. Nearly every high school football or basketball player and his mother harbor secret (or not-so-secret) hopes of playing in the NFL or NBA. "It's probably my biggest recruiting pitch," says Pitino.

"There's an allure that gets us in the home," Calipari says. "Doesn't mean we're going to get every kid, because we don't. But we do get inside most homes."

College coaches gone pro, however, have to earn their credibility all over again. The fact that you've won at Florida or Miami or Kentucky means little when your pro team starts out 1-5. "A college coach comes in, and there are so many things that are different, and the players know that," says John MacLeod, an assistant coach under Montgomery with the Warriors, whose head coaching career spanned four decades with stops at Oklahoma, the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks, the Knicks and the University of Notre Dame. "Whether it was John [Calipari] or Rick [Pitino] or P. J. [Carlesimo] or whomever, they know that these are college coaches. And their attitude is, 'We're pro players in this league, and they're just coming in.'"

"If you don't have success early, you lose credibility," says UNLV's Kruger. "In the eyes of a professional player, only winning affirms and reinforces what you're doing. Nothing else will."

Even the youngest, greenest pro players are not like college players. Playing for pay gives a childhood game a different orientation, especially when the pay is hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. "Not better or worse," Pitino cautions. "Just different." Pitino coached Antoine Walker at Kentucky, then drafted him to play for the Celtics. "When I had him in Boston, Antoine Walker did not want Rick Pitino, his college coach whom he loved, to be his pro coach," he says. "He didn't need a mentor. He wanted a different relationship."

"They went out at night," Montgomery says, "and I didn't. They had a different way of living their lives. They didn't want you to be responsible for them. And that was OK with me."

Current Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton called Calipari for advice when he was offered the Washington Wizards job by Michael Jordan in 2000, after a decade coaching the Miami Hurricanes. "I told him, 'First of all, you're not going to be their father,'" Calipari says. "That stuff in college where you try to be their father figure, that's not how you're going to gain their respect. They don't need you to be that. They've got everybody they need.'"

Hamilton went anyway. And that's where personalities come in. Coaches with a college mentality—Lute Olson, Dean Smith—love getting involved in their players' lives. Others who have made their career in the pros, such as Jon Gruden and Pat Riley, Mike Holmgren and Mike Fratello, might consider all that a glorified form of babysitting. They're in the profession to win games. The more they can factor out the distractions, the better. "You don't have to deal with recruiting," says Calipari. "You don't have to deal with alums. Everything at the pro level is strictly basketball. If a kid in college gets in trouble, my name is in the second paragraph. If a kid gets in trouble in the NBA, I'm not in the story."

On the other hand, Calipari notes, he had his entire Memphis team at his house for pizzas after the loss to Texas. They commiserated, bonded and came away stronger. "And that's something that in the NBA you just don't get to do," he says.

Such are the rewards of coaching in college. Yet despite making a long-term commitment to Memphis—he agreed to a five-year contract extension this spring—Calipari still seems an ideal candidate for an NBA position. In his brief tenure in New Jersey, he made the team measurably better. Though he likes to bond with his players, he's at heart an X-and-O coach who enjoys nothing better than working out a way for his team to beat yours. "They say, 'Is college or pro better?'" Calipari says. "I'll tell you, if you could win at both, really win at the highest level, you should be in the NBA. The lifestyle is fun. You have professionals—you don't have jack-offs or you wouldn't be winning—and it's all about basketball.

"But to lose? Be a skydiver, be a stuntman, do anything else," he adds. "Because there's nothing in the world worse than being the coach of a losing NBA team. As a college coach, you're trying to turn it around and you go out and recruit, and maybe it happens. In the NBA, it's hellish. The players stop talking to you. Even the assistants don't want to know you. And there you are, walking down the hallway, all alone."

The Industry Standard
After his tape session, Calipari heads down to The Peabody lobby. There he spots Montgomery, whose Warriors are in town to play the Memphis Grizzlies, in the middle of what will be his last season with Golden State. The Warriors are on a losing streak, but that's no surprise. At the time Montgomery was hired in May 2004, he became the ninth Warriors coach in 10 years.

Calipari and Montgomery shake hands, then do what coaches always do when they get together: they commiserate. "I came in this league, and everybody talked about late-clock situations," Montgomery tells Calipari. "That was the gospel. That's what makes or breaks you in this league, that's how they'll evaluate you. So I said, 'Whoa!' 'Cause my thing was always preparing my team to win, not necessarily game coaching. And then I ran into [former NBA coach] Doug Collins, and he said, 'Mike, get the ball to your best player where he wants it. The rest is on him. End of story. You get the wrong guy, you can't do anything, anyway.'"

"Yeah, I know," Calipari says. "The play is perfect, he pops out, he gets the ball, he misses the shot—and you lose, anyway."

Calipari leaves and Montgomery sits down and evaluates his first year and a half in the NBA. He came to the job full of innovative ideas that he'd developed while in Palo Alto, teaching true student-athletes how to win in the highly competitive Pac-10 Conference. What he found in the NBA was an entirely different culture, with its own vocabulary, behavioral patterns, traditions and techniques.

"It's a very small group that keeps churning through the NBA," he says. "They've been in the league for a long time, and they use the same terminology and have the same understanding of everything. And you come into it, and you don't use the same terms, and you don't think the same way. And you're almost forced into doing what you see being successful for others, because you're not going to have enough time to do something different, even if you thought you could or wanted to.

"I may have been naive," he adds. "You can't explain it to anybody. The guys who did try to explain it to me, bits and pieces of what they said started to make sense to me over time. It's not the game, it's not the coaching, it's not the Xs-and-Os. It's all the stuff that you don't know when you get there—that you can't possibly know."

One dirty secret is how ill-prepared most players are. Montgomery was shocked to discover what his well-paid NBA players couldn't do. "We were running some pretty good stuff that I thought would work," he says. "And it did for some of our players. But as we got into it, I found that some guys couldn't dribble to their right, couldn't pass to their left, couldn't catch a pass and dribble. So I eliminated a lot and made it very simple."

Nevertheless, the Warriors didn't start winning until guard Baron Davis arrived in early 2005, in the middle of Montgomery's first season. "When Baron came, we kind of threw everything out the window," he says. "We were losing, we didn't have time for practice. Baron had been hurt. So we just ran Baron off the pick-and-roll. We just said, 'Baron, if you come down the right side, we'll run the pick from there. If you come down the left side, we'll just run it from there. We'll just play off you.' And boom! It worked and it worked."

In college, coaches lead. But in the NFL and NBA, having a coach on the floor or the field is more than just a sportswriter's cliché, it's an essential component of winning teams. "Any NBA team that wins has a great player or players leading the team in a positive way," says Bzdelik. "When I was with the Heat, I saw Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and Dan Majerle take a rookie, put him in a corner, and say, 'You know what? We don't do this here.' He was acting like a fool, not getting a good night's sleep, not real serious in the locker room. And they took charge of the situation."

"If you have somebody who is a leader in the locker room, somebody you can say something to and he's not going to react badly, that's the difference," says Golden State forward Mike Dunleavy Jr., the son of Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. "If you don't have somebody like that, it gets tough. Because then you're picking your spots. Who you're calling out, who you're not. In college, you can get on everybody. Nobody's older than 23. You can jump guys, whatever. This level, guys have guaranteed contracts. People are going to say something back to you. I don't think Coach Montgomery anticipated that. It was a big adjustment for him. I think he thought it would be a little easier than it was."

Montgomery is clearly struggling. After two losing seasons, he is on all the lists as one of the coaches who might be fired at any time. And because familiarity breeds contempt, some of his players already have tuned out his exhortations. They figure he'll be gone before they are. Yet he stills gets calls from college coaches asking about opportunities in the NBA. "Guys who are discouraged, disgusted with recruiting," he says.

He tells them to be careful. "You probably should be ready to say, 'I've done that. Now, what else is there?'" he says. "And don't think you're going to go in and revolutionize the league. You're not. You're not going to revolutionize anything. What you're going to do is take some hits."

In August, Montgomery was fired by the Warriors and replaced by Don Nelson, who has coached more than 2,000 regular-season games in the NBA.

The College Try
Jeff Bzdelik sits at the rear of a gym on the Air Force Academy campus, watching the Falcons women's basketball team play Army. It's a show of support, but it also represents Bzdelik's affinity for college coaching. At Air Force, he's part of something larger than his team.

He'd been a career NBA guy for 15 years since serving as a small-college coach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the mid-1980s. He worked under Pat Riley, watched, waited. With Denver, he finally had a chance to run his own team. He coached two full seasons and part of a third, winning 73 games and losing 119.

He landed several months later in nearby Colorado Springs, but about as far away from the NBA as a college job can be. Of the Top 100 high schoolers, the future professionals, Bzdelik gets none. His kids are part-timers, students and soldiers first, and players third. Bzdelik loves it. "One of the reasons I'm in coaching is to have a positive impact on young men," he says. "You get to the NBA and you absolutely lose that. The bottom line in the NBA is to win, period. If a player gets in trouble, it's usually swept under the rug. But do you do a young player justice by bailing him out every time? No, you're setting him up for failure."

Bzdelik had some success in Denver. He engineered a remarkable turnaround, becoming the first coach in league history since the advent of the 82-game schedule in the 1976—77 season to make the playoffs with a team that had won fewer than 20 games the previous season. That belies conventional wisdom that such reversals of fortune can only happen in college sports. "In a college situation, if they have some players there, you can go in and change their thoughts about themselves and you can win where you haven't won before," says Erickson, who in 1999 inherited an Oregon State team that hadn't managed a winning season since 1970 and a year later had the Beavers 11-1, including a trouncing of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. "But you still need to have the players."

Both the NBA and NFL are governed by a salary cap that keeps even the worst teams only a few players away from being competitive. "The difference with most teams is about four or five guys," says Carroll of the NFL. "The rest of them, you could just trade those guys around and it would be pretty much the same. Because the talent is so even."

It's getting those difference-makers that provides the challenge. "Jack Ramsay went to Portland and got Bill Walton," Pitino says. "Then he goes to Indiana and he doesn't have success because he has Steve Stipanovich and Clark Kellogg. Same coach, but he didn't have that dominant player."

To a far greater extent, a college coach controls his destiny. He can go out and get exactly those talented players who fit his system. If he can't, it's his failing. Some recruiting-oriented coaches, who attract top prep players year after year, have little knowledge of the intricate strategies of their sport. It usually doesn't hurt them, just as not knowing how to read music never hurt Paul McCartney and John Lennon. "Recruiting is your lifeblood," says Carroll.

As he talks, Carroll is sitting on a stone wall on the USC campus. A high school coach whom he knows approaches with two teenagers and introduces them as area standouts eager to play for USC. One is a running back, the other a receiver. "All I want is to play for you," the receiver says to Carroll. "Just give me a chance. I'll show you how good I can be."

Carroll is touched by his enthusiasm, which matches his own. Whether that high schooler ever plays for him or not, his own decision to remain at Southern Cal has again been reaffirmed. The scholastic coach and his players move on and Carroll looks up with a grin that says that he understands and appreciates an elemental truth that many of his peers do not. "What just happened?" he says. "That does not happen in the NFL."

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


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