LONGSHOTS: Winning and what else matters in college coaching?
by Dave Long
Now that the Patriots are out, letís get to something I havenít been able to get to: the recent milestones reached in college basketball, where Keith Dickson won his 400th game, UConnís Geno Auriemma won number 600 and Bobby Knight passed Dean Smith for the most wins in NCAA history. Those accomplishments got me thinking about what a coach is supposed to be and how the job each holds differs from the other.
First, pretty much everyone sees winning as important, though there are different ways to make that happen. For instance, when Houston was a factor in college basketball I had a running argument with a coaching friend. Guy Lewis ran an, ahem, loose program and wasnít exactly an Xís and Oís maven and since he didnít practice that science my friend looked on him with contempt. I asked, who else went to the Final Four three straight years as he did in the Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler years and came close with Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney earlier?
My point was, whatís his job? Running a practice that impresses peers or getting to the finals three years in a row even if he didnít know an X from an O? Iíll tell you what the boosters and CFOís want ó trips to the Final Four and the money that comes with them. So ďcoachĒ has a double meaning. At the highest level, it first means running the program in a way that puts fannies in seats and gets you into the tournament any way you can do it legally. Then comes practice, where my friendís definition kicks in.
As the numbers show, all those mentioned previously are accomplished at winning, although theyíve done it in ways that mean more than having just the highest score at the end of the game. For instance, even though heís won three national titles, Auriemmaís ultimate impact relates more to societyís big picture. If you donít believe me, go see them play. That is, if you can a ticket. Itís a fabulous experience with the most engaged crowd Iíve ever seen. So, along with some social forces already underway and a few others like Tennessee, Auriemmaís UConn has been a catalyst for the explosive growth of womenís basketball all over the country. Itís led to more opportunities for young girls to participate and earn college scholarships. Iím not sure thatís what he had in mind when he started, but thatís what happened.
Dean Smith integrated basketball in North Carolina and invented concepts like the Four Corners in building the nationís premier program. Despite being contrasting figures he and Knight were the giants when I aspired to be a coach. Knight of course has a rap sheet of controversies that stretches from here to the Bedford Toll booth. And thanks to boorish and bullying tactics most seem truly earned. And while you can make a case for not wanting your children to play for him (which I wouldnít) I believe he got more out of what he had than any coach Iíve seen. Certainly more than Smith, who went to 10 Final Fours with an astonishing parade of future NBA stars, like Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Vince Carter, Bob McAdoo, Billy Cunningham and many others. Knight won more titles and dominated the Big Ten for much of his tenure when Isiah Thomas was his only player with the talent to be a NBA star. Itís not that that I donít think Smith was great. He was, as he got all that talent to play as a team and thatís a lot harder than you might think. But Knight won as often with less and that is the sign of great coaching. At least in the smaller version of the word. As far as running a program, teaching and being a role model thatís another story.
The word education leaks into most coaching conversations, but many times itís lip service or a slogan in a PSA at tournament time. It meant something for Smith and appears to be the case for gold standard of todayís coaches in Dukeís Coach K and his mentor Knight. But in some jobs like many on Dicksonís level, ďeducatorĒ is higher up in the job description than for those in D-I with graduation rates lower than the presidentĎs approval rating.
Make no mistake, winning is important at St. Aís. Just ask Tom Gotsill, who was out after a few miserable seasons in the í80s. But Dicksonís job is to help his kids get the most out of the experience, while winning games along the way. And in winning 400 plus, heís done a spectacular job, where each new team is remarkably similar. It has an excellent defensive point guard to disrupt offenses from starting, wing players who kill you with threes and bangers down low who know the job is not to be some sissy big man who wants to go outside and shoot threes. Plus theyíre always better as the season goes on.
As you can see the word ďcoachĒ has many definitions. So how do you judge success in the end? Probably in those you touch. After his firing at Indiana for repeated behavioral breaches, Knight sadly got his record in a wayward Texas outpost giving ticket discounts to fill the place that day, while the team Smith once coached plays in a building named for him. You tell me which is a better ending. As for the only coach I really know in the group, if my son wanted to play for Keith Dickson Iíd be happy, because I know heíd make him work hard, be a better player in the end and care about what he did off the court.
To me, thatís a far greater legacy than the wins, no matter how many one racks up.
Dave Long can be heard on Sports Night with Dave Long nightly from 6 to 7 p.m. on 610 WGIR-AM