Saturday, February 11, 2012

College Basketball Coaches: Reputation Versus Reality

Recruiter, or wizard? Program builder, or late-game maestro? Collector of superior talent, or supreme strategist in evenly-matched games? These are the questions and tension points that apply to big-ticket college football and basketball coaches, and they're the stuff of all-night debates that make sports so contentiously fun. It's worth taking some time to explore what it means to be an elite X-and-O coach, as opposed to "just" a recruiter or program-builder.

Our story begins this past Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

When Tyler Zeller failed to close down the shooting hand of Duke's Austin Rivers on that last-second three-pointer which gave the Blue Devils a win at North Carolina, a respected tweep with a substantially nuanced and granular knowledge of the game of basketball ripped UNC coach Roy Williams for the final, fatal, fateful play. This astute commentator said, quite understandably, that Williams needed to tell Zeller (and his teammates) to shut off the three at all costs. Coaching is partly a craft built on reminding players, and based on Zeller's response to the final six seconds of the Duke-Carolina game, it's fair to wonder if Williams did impress upon his team the importance of denying a Duke three. Williams has established a reputation for being more of a recruiter than a coach in some circles. He is seen by many commentators as a "roll-the-ball-out-on-the-floor" kind of guy, primarily because he insists on winning games with a breakneck pace rather than halfcourt-oriented structure. However, the question is worth asking: If Mike Krzyzewski, and not Williams, had been victimized by that sequence, would there have been the same outcry about deficient coaching? Probably not.

It's very clear that coaches enjoy (or suffer from) reputations that have become entrenched and encrusted over time. These reputations might not be universal or even overwhelmingly unanimous, but the human mind can and does form strong opinions of coaches based on decades of evidence, so let's dive into this subject, including Williams and some other case studies, especially longtime Arizona coach Lute Olson.

Williams and Olson both own national titles, but they also absorbed many really bad - and early - losses in the NCAA Tournament. Williams lost to UTEP on the first weekend in 1992 and to Rhode Island in 1998. He lost as a top seed in the Sweet 16 to Virginia in 1995, made worse by the fact that that game was at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, a kind of second home for the Jayhawks. KU lost as a top seed in the Sweet 16 to Arizona in 1997, with what was probably Roy Boy's most loaded team during his stay in Lawrence. The Elite Eight loss to Syracuse in 1996 was a wound of a different sort, but it still cut deep. Williams then let a big fish get away at North Carolina when his Tar Heels faltered against Georgetown in the 2007 regional finals. Williams has ridden a lot of thoroughbred teams in his career, yet failed to steer those horses into the winner's circle. When these events happen repeatedly, it's possible to make a case that a coach is more successful because of the players he draws into the program, not the plays he draws up on the bench with 30 seconds left in regulation.

A similar verdict can be rendered against Olson, the Arizona coach who lost before the Elite Eight as a top seed in 1989 (versus UNLV) and 2000 (Wisconsin) and was bounced out in the first round as a top-4 seed  in 1992 (East Tennessee State), 1993 (Santa Clara), and 1999 (Oklahoma). Olson looked very helpless on the sidelines in four of those games (in the fifth game, the 1989 West Regional semifinal against UNLV, Arizona's Kenny Lofton drew a charge on Vegas's Anderson Hunt in the final minute, but the officials saw things differently; que sera sera). Moreover, Olson had his shirt handed to him by Utah's Rick Majerus in the 1998 West Regional final, probably the single poorest coaching performance of a decorated career. The 2005 collapse to Illinois in the final 68 seconds of the Chicago Regional final represented the kind of stomach punch that makes it hard for a coach to sleep at night. It's true that Olson, like Williams, fell short on many occasions. It's also quite true that having a national title or even a stack of Final Fours doesn't automatically equate to greatness as an X-and-O coach.

Jim Harrick won a national title, and few would say he was a great X-and-O man.

Dale Brown reached multiple Final Fours, and he was not seen as a wise strategist in his time on the bench for LSU.

As has been mentioned on Twitter this past week, Syracuse has been as far as the Elite Eight only once in the past 15 seasons under Jim Boeheim. That's a pretty interesting case study right there.

Mike Montgomery, Olson's contemporary during the days of the red-hot Stanford-Arizona rivalry in the old Pac-10, made just one Final Four, and he did so because of a Rhode Island (under the aforementioned Mr. Harrick) collapse in the Midwest Regional final.

Gene Keady never made a Final Four. Neither did John Chaney of Temple. Yet, those two men won piles of games and - especially in Chaney's case - were usually coaching against superior teams in the NCAA Tournament (1994 being the exception for Keady when his Purdue team was a top seed).

The bottom line about coaching over the past 25 years in college basketball is that if you're not Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, or Dean Smith, making the Final Four an average of once every three years over a 10- or 15-year period is really hard to do. College basketball's one-and-done world makes it very hard to run the table. Coach K is a god in this business, the best achiever after Wooden and one of the best practitioners of the craft along with guys like Pete Newell and Bob Knight. (Speaking of Knight, how many times did HE flop in the NCAA Tournament with Indiana?) He has four national titles in over 30 years of coaching. That means he wins roughly once every eight years. That means he fails to win the national title seven out of every eight years he's been at Duke.

It changes the discussion's trajectory, doesn't it?

It's true that making Final Fours and winning a title don't automatically bestow X-and-O greatness on a coach. I can see how and why a commentator would look at Roy Williams or Lute Olson and say, "Hmmmm... he didn't really maximize talent, did he?"

For me, then - just me; others will form their own opinions - what makes Williams and Olson worthy (though not excellent) X-and-O coaches is that they've won as underdogs or as pick-'ems, winning games when the talent on the other side of the court was equal or superior. Williams did this in his 1991 and 1993 tournament runs at Kansas, and he led other Jayhawk teams into the Sweet 16 in 1994 and 2001 before losing hard-fought regional semifinals against No. 1 seeds from the Big Ten (Purdue in '94 and Illinois in '01). Williams then capped his Kansas career with a fantastic tournament performance, beating Coach K and Duke in the Sweet 16, Olson and Arizona in the Elite Eight, and Marquette in the Final Four before losing to Syracuse in the final... only because Nick Collison couldn't hit a foul shot to save his life. Williams has squandered great talent, but he's also made the most of teams that weren't "best in show" from a purely athletic standpoint. That earns him enough credibility on an X-and-O level.

The same pretty much holds true with Olson. In 1980 with Iowa, he beat a higher-seeded Georgetown team to make his first Final Four. In 1994, after the flameouts of '92 and '93, he regathered his troops and made a run to the Final Four. Then came his magnum opus, the felling of three top seeds (Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky) en route to his one championship in 1997. Olson's work in 2001 was also particularly special, getting his team to beat top seeds Illinois and Michigan State before losing to a third No. 1 - Duke - in the title game. The Elite Eight loss to Utah in 1998 was brutal - as said above - but the Elite Eight loss to Kansas in 2003 was much more a product of one simple fact: Channing Frye wet the bed in an absolutely abysmal performance. Olson took his blows, but he landed enough blows to be seen as a credible X-and-O coach.

Yes, Rick Majerus and John Chaney made more with what they had, even though they didn't win titles or march to a parade of Final Fours. They are better X-and-O coaches than Roy Williams and Lute Olson. However, does that make Roy and Lute "bad" coaches? Not quite. It's a debate, but a debate that ultimately leads me to defend the records Williams and Olson assembled in their careers.

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