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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 4)

"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.

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