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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 6)

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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