The NCAA, Tom Crean, and High School Basketball: Why Coaching Matters

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“DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE!”

-Random guy at all of my home high school basketball games

 

It was a spectacular Friday afternoon about a month ago, and we had just finished our big exam for the week; about 15 of my fellow classmates were in the upstairs part of Nick’s, enjoying a much-needed beer and food. A few of us had got into a discussion about IU basketball, which is a popular topic among us, and discussing Tom Crean’s recent coaching and overall career. It’s no secret that, as of late, Crean has been taking a lot of flak for how the eam has been doing. Long gone are the days when we sat, starry eyed, as Crean wooed the entire state of Indiana, bringing us to a fiery resurgence as a legitimate team. Now, we see failures and a lack of capitalizing on the incredible amount of talent we’ve had the last few years. We were debating the ins and outs of coaching, pointing out what we thought were Crean’s mistakes, and I made the point that we really don’t know the whole story as far as a coach, any coach, is concerned. One of my classmates responded with something along the lines of, “I might not know the finer points of coaching or what it feels like, but I know it in my heart that with a different coach, things could have gone a lot better and will go a lot better. I can’t justify it concretely, but I just know it to be true.”

The thing is, I agree with him. But man, it must be hard to be a coach. In pretty much every team sport under the sun, the coach takes a gigantic responsibility for the overall failure or success of his or her team. I’m not sure if that responsibility is taken so much as thrust upon them. When a team is doing poorly, the coach is usually the first person whose head is called for. IU has been a startling example of that across the board, even in my 6 years in Bloomington. Bill Lynch took it straight to the dome when IU was doing poorly (spoiler alert: IU football is always doing poorly) and it felt like he barely lasted a season (he lasted 3). The merry-go-round of IU basketball coaching since the reign of Bob Knight has had the same story. That one person takes on an entire team of individuals, different in their ability, demeanor, attitude, and skill, and attempts to make them work together as a unit. The only thing is that coaches can’t control every individual. Is it fair to them to take full responsibility for the team? Or should fans be calling for the players to get axed instead? If a team wins, should credit go almost entirely to the coach and not the players? That would seem to be the reciprocal of the blame coaches get for losing, no? At the end of the day, a coach can’t control whether a player makes a single dumb decision in a game. They can’t control how high of a percentage a team shoots. They can’t control how many turnovers a player makes…

Or can they?

I have played basketball since I was about 5 years old, so you can say that even as a kid, I had a lot of experience with the game. I remember walking through the seemingly giant corridors of Carmel High School when I was still in middle school. My mom and I were there for some reason or another, and I was looking around, starry-eyed at the thought of high school basketball. We walked into the gym, where I saw pictures and plaques of players galore, some who I had watched play. They seemed like gods. I remember turning to my mother and saying, “I’m going to play basketball here”. I remember her laughing a little bit, and as most mothers are apt to do, she told me that she knew I could. Years later, I remember talking to her about that exact moment in time, after I had successfully made the team in high school. She said that she always believed in me, but the idea was a bit farfetched for one reason: when it came to basketball, I was lazy.

I was pure, straight lazy as a kid during basketball. I never wanted to practice, never wanted to shoot a bunch of shots at home, I just wanted to go out and play. Sure, I was good because I was always at least a little bit taller than the other little munchkins in elementary school, but it never went beyond that. After my growth spurt hit, I actually became hungry to play and improve. That story is a long one, but for now the important part was that I made the high school team. After a fairly successful freshmen basketball season, it was time that I hit the big leagues. I started having to deal with the varsity coach. He will become my linchpin for my argument that coaching, and specifically the coach, matters greatly for sports in general, but not always for factors that you might think.

A school such as Carmel (now somewhere near 5,000 students today) has a wealth of basketball talent to pool from. It was the old stomping grounds of NBA player Josh McRoberts, who was a high school legend in my hometown, and a wealth of great basketball players that I’d seen come and go. However, even with McRoberts, we failed to win a state championship, or even come close, for about 30 years if I remember correctly. We had some great teams when I was there that never amounted to deep post-season runs. The team my senior year was probably the worst we’d been since I’d been at Carmel. Still, how could we have failed to utilize all of that talent? I think it’s no coincidence that Carmel won not one, but two state championships in basketball mere seasons after my coach was fired. A change of coaching in Carmel football transformed them into a powerhouse program, producing phenomenal results during my four years there. There’s something to this coaching business.

 

 

I’m going to omit any tales of basketball before my junior year, as that’s when this coach becomes important. Part of this will be venting my feelings about him, and I’m fully aware that my feelings on this matter are emotionally charged. The main thing to remember here is that this head coach was not well-liked by his players, and it was evident all throughout the locker room and in practice. We all did what we were told, but there was a general air of being disgruntled among us. One thing that I think gets so often lost in coaching is that not only does a player have to earn a coach’s respect, but a coach must earn their players’ respect if they ever intend to have a successful and meaningful team. Now that might seem silly for a high school coach, why should a band of 14-18 year old teenagers have to earn the respect of a grown man?

The thing is, teenagers aren’t dumb. They can recognize when they’re being manipulated, subverted, or treated badly. Admittedly, there is often a sense of drama and heightened awareness of insignificant details, but as a whole, they know what’s going on. There’s a reason why a 14 year old kid speaking passionately on an issue has an impact that no adult can have. A kid that age speaking about the societal pressure on women’s body image, or the crippling effects of a parent’s alcoholism, or the sting of divorce has a kind of clear sincerity and honesty. As such, even a 16 year old can see through the kind of crap that adults can pull, that coaches can pull. That makes them mad. That makes them not want to leave all their effort out on a basketball court. This is what a lack of respect for a coach can do.

Coaches do a number of things to help foster an atmosphere of teamwork, productivity, and dedication to a common cause. They set rules, settle disputes, provide direction, mentoring, and care that transcend a sport. They have an immense ability (especially with young athletes) to impact lives. They need to earn their players’ respect by showing that they care about individuals, and not be overly preferential to the top players of a team. Above all, they need to give off the vibe of, “You belong. You are important.” It’s the same for bosses, managers, supervisors, captains, and leaders: if your people don’t respect you, you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t care about your goals. About the team’s goals. Employees being treated like crap obviously don’t feel good, but from a practical standpoint they don’t perform well, just like athletes.

I played junior varsity my sophomore and junior years, along with some varsity my junior year and entirely varsity my senior year. I remember being like a kid in a candy store when we got our practice gear for JV; our practice jerseys had numbers on them! No longer were we nameless or numberless players, we were real ballers now. Our practice jerseys were supposed to match our real jersey numbers, but mine was one of the few that didn’t. I understood that we had limited jerseys and all of that, but a lot of my teammates had numbers that matched. I was kind of let down by that, and I remember asking if they had a set that would match. They didn’t. It was okay, I told myself, they’d get it right next year when I was more than just a bottom-barrel JV player. The next year was no different. I don’t think I got a matching set until my senior year. The thing was, I was one of the few that were overlooked on this matter. In another instance, when it came to getting our famed “second pair” of shoes during the season, I didn’t get my pair until the end of the season my junior year. I’m pretty sure some of my teammates had 3 pairs before I even got the second.

I know what you might be thinking: “jeez, spoiled Carmel kid didn’t get his second pair of shoes. wahhh”. Maybe you’re right. However, I think that all that mattered here was that I just wanted to be included with my teammates. I wanted to get the gear they got and not be treated like some afterthought. I had no illusions about my ability as a basketball player, let me make that clear. I knew that my main function was to boost GPA, and that at 6’3″ (roster height: 6’5″) I wouldn’t even have made a decent post player at a division III school. Darn my early growth spurt. So I knew I wasn’t going anywhere, but I could make at least a good high school player. I worked hard. I put on 40 lbs of muscle over my 4 years at Carmel. I started putting up extra shots outside of practice, worked like hell to run and get in shape during the off-season, and constantly worked on trying to jump higher and be more explosive. I couldn’t add inches to my height, but I could to my vertical. I was never a great free throw shooter, never an amazing shooter, but nobody who watched me play could say I didn’t work hard, rebound, play defense, make smart plays, and try to rally my teammates together. All I wanted was to be treated the same, and early on I learned that things weren’t equal. I mentioned lightly to my head coach about the shoes, gear, whatever, and got a, “I’ll take care of it”. It never happened.

We never had rules about what to wear to practice, short of making sure we wore our team shoes, jersey, and shorts. One of my fellow post players and I decided we would start wearing wacky colored undershirts, which was fine until the news came to our practice one day. Our coach made us take them off. No big deal. He decided that only certain color undershirts were fine for practice. Fine, I never broke that rule again. At some point our junior year, he also decided that only white socks were allowed for practice (and I think games too, but I can’t remember). He might have been racist towards black socks, I’m not sure. Regardless, that was fine, no black socks. Thing was, a few of our more “star players” started wearing black socks intermittently shortly thereafter. Nothing was ever said about that. I can guarantee you that if I had worn them to practice, I would have immediately been told to change. The rules didn’t apply to everyone the same. Small hits in the respect department yet again.

I’m not mad at my old teammates at all for any of this, and who knows, maybe one of them will even read this. I was mad at the inherent inequality of things. How one player could be late to practice but I couldn’t. How we would run sprints until everyone made the times, except for our one lazy player who never made them despite having more than enough athleticism. How I’m not even sure everyone made grades my senior year and still played (and seriously, those grade cutoffs were so low, you’d have to actively try to not make them). This started eroding the fabric of our team’s respect for our coach, which was honestly probably gone by that time. The double standards pointed towards, “I care about you, but not about you” sort of mentality, a schism between the great players and the good ones. Well, problem is, what happens when those players that you didn’t care about suddenly became your best options after the seniors graduate? That situation was looming on the horizon for me.

The biggest slap in the face that I directly received from my coach was during our end of the year banquet my junior year. During that time, I played JV, but also dressed for all the varsity games, and I even got a few minutes of playing time across maybe a dozen games. Some of you may be familiar with the concept known as “lettering” or “getting a varsity letter”. If you got two, you could get your fancy letterman jacket, which was a big deal. When it came time to read off awards, I didn’t get the award for highest player GPA. I was a little bit confused. I should have gotten that. I didn’t put two and two together until when they handed out the varsity letters, and I didn’t receive one. I was crushed. How could I not have lettered? I might have been a mature 16 year old, but to me that stuff mattered. It was high school, after all. I wanted to letter again my senior year to get a jacket. What had happened?

I went to see my coach shortly after this banquet and point-blank asked him why I didn’t letter. Here’s how the conversation went, as well as I can remember:

Me: “Why didn’t I letter this year? I’m not sure what the requirements are.”

Coach: “Well, it comes down to three things: varsity status, number of quarters played, and coaches discretion. You need 2 of the 3 things”

Me: “What was the quarter requirement? I’m guessing I fell short.” (I was short maybe 2 or 3 out of the required 20 quarters)

Coach: “It was 20”

Me: “And what is coach’s discretion?”

Coach: “Basically it comes down to my decision as to if I want people to letter or not.”

Me: “So…that’s why I didn’t letter?”

Coach: “Yup”

Me: “Okay…”

With that, I left his office. I was pissed, upset, and just hurt. It’s not like a school got a certain number of varsity letters to hand out per team. It’s not like it would have hurt him to letter a kid who did nothing but give everything he had on the court. Maybe I was in the wrong, but that was the equivalent of him telling me, “I decided you don’t matter”.

A lot of my teammates felt the same way. We’d notice the way our coach would curl up when things were going badly in a game, seldom able to offer suggestions or a new plan of attack. We saw him pull out players for making a mistake that a more favored player would make twice as much. We saw how he didn’t even care about the class he taught, frequently coming out to start class late because he was in his office. We saw the lack of professionalism. We saw how he’d get angry when players would make stupid mistakes in games that were easily attributable to lessons in practice. I saw that these players never got reprimanded in practice, or never received the right motivation to change these habits. They never got pulled out of games for making these mistakes.

You can view this story as being through the salty eyes of a player who lost his starting spot his senior year to a 6’11” convenient freshman move-in who, in my eyes, hurt the team more than he helped. Even though he was 16 as a freshmen, he was immature, lazy, and walked all over our coach. I’d be lying if I said my opinion of my coach wasn’t affected by this. There were many other incidents that I could talk about here, but I think I’ve made my point. Or maybe this story is through the eyes of a senior who wasn’t blinded, and saw all the crap that was truly going on. I wasn’t dumb at the age of 17. I still gave everything my all, put in loads of work before that off-season, and did everything I could.

 

We ended that season in a very mediocre manner. I was actually happy that my high school basketball career was done. I was fed up. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed as much of it as I could. I loved my friends who came out to support me every game, with the “W O Check” signs in the front row. I loved being able to go out there with my teammates and fight to win. I loved the game of basketball and the sense of competition that came with it. I loved representing my school and the history of the players that came before me. I didn’t love my coach, and I certainly didn’t love how he was the major factor in me coming to hate a game that I had loved so much. I left my final two cents when we filled out our end of the year evaluations. This was the very last time I was required to have anything in connection with Carmel Basketball. The past few years, I had held back. I wasn’t dumb. I wasn’t about to totally unload when I still had years to play. As seniors, we got to fill out the form and leave, while the rest of the team talked about next season. I was the last of the seniors to finish writing, penning what felt like a novel. I set it down in front of my coach’s table and walked out. I later heard stories of how the facial expression of all my coaches changed as they turned page after page of my paper. I left nothing out. I was blunt. I was honest. And I let my feelings show. Some of the younger players said they were glad for what I did, for saying what we were all thinking. They said the reaction to it was priceless. I never meant for it to be malicious, but even at 17, I knew when I had a right to be mad.

I ran into my coach for the last time a few weeks before graduation. It was the first time I had seen him since the evaluation. He said something to the effect of me not knowing the depth of what went on with the program. I’m sure he was hinting at unseen pressures, other life factors, whatever. I didn’t care. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what goes on behind the scenes, because in life, what matters is the end result. When I’m a physician, nobody is going to care about how the hospital is breathing down my neck, or how tough things are in my life, or whatever. They’re going to care if I do my job well and if my patients can feel my compassion, and they feel safe and cared for when I am taking care of them. That’s it.

 

 

The environment that a coach creates goes beyond X’s and O’s, into a realm of how players think, feel, and are willing to lay themselves out for their team. A coach can’t control every little thing a player does, but they can nurture them so that they always do the little things, like boxing out an opponent or not throwing soft, easily stolen passes. They can make the players aware of these tendencies, and make them want to change. Force them to change. The fabric that underlies this is that the coach can give create an environment from which the players want to do everything they can to become better. Where they want to make the team as successful as they can be. Not where players want to make jokes about the coach and constantly complain about all the stupid little things. My coach didn’t make that environment great. Not a lot of coaches do.

I think that’s the difference between decent coaches and great coaches. It’s incredible how, year after year, coaches like Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, Mike Kzyzewski (jeez, that’s a hard name), Brad Stevens, Phil Jackson, Bob Knight, and many others have had (and do have) amazing teams year after year. Sure, they attract some of the best talent in the game. But they know how to make something special happen. Butler hired coaches for years that had the same attitude, able to get some of the most dedicated, hardworking, and overall gentlemanly players that college basketball saw. Brad Stevens was able to elevate them to an entirely different level, and nearly brought them to national title games. These kinds of coaches, I believe, create atmospheres where their players become the best they can be. That’s the intangible that Crean is missing. He’s had some of the most talented teams in recent IU memory, and even throughout all the NCAA during the Oladipo/Zeller years. But for some reason, he was unable to capitalize on that. Do I think Tom Izzo would have? Absolutely. There’s a reason MSU is always making deep postseason runs.

I’d say very rarely does a coach come in with some new idea that revolutionizes the game of basketball. After how long it’s been played, no amazing super-play or super-concept is going to give some team an amazing advantage. I think it’s in how that coach is able to mold the players into not only great basketball players, but great people. I’m sure the Badgers and Blue Devils have learned a lot from Bo Ryan and Coach K, respectively, over the course of this season. As much as I hate John Calipari, I have to admit he does something special to make a group like that work that well together; they were able to put aside their egos and play as a team. The Badgers were amazing under pressure all season long. To contrast, the Hoosiers struggled a lot in tough scenarios this season. We were only even clinging to that tournament game by our absurd 3 point percentage, not due to discipline or anything else.

There’s something to be said for attention to detail, from the top of the team to the bottom. I wonder if there’s a difference in even how walk-on players are treated at a wildly successful school like MSU versus somewhere like IU. I wonder what the IU players think of Crean. As much hate as he might be getting lately, he has done a phenomenal job with the students, with the campus, and in general doing the best he can. I can’t put my finger on what the intangible thing it is that he doesn’t have, but I feel like something is missing. We can all feel that. Let’s not knock the guy for doing his best and taking over an essentially sunken ship here at IU. Let’s never forget that.

Tonight we are going to see two amazing teams and two amazing coaches go head-to-head in the NCAA championship. It is something special to watch a game at nearly the highest level. Let’s not forget the work of the players, trainers, staff, and everyone involved in making this game possible. Let’s not forget that these two coaches have found a way to mold these amazing athletes into an amazing team.

The year after I graduated, my coach was fired after that giant Carmel Basketball incident that made national news. I don’t know what happened, but again, I think that the environment that he created not only allowed for subpar play, but for something as dumb as that to happen under his watch. State championships were won after he left. Anecdotal evidence isn’t very strong, but something tells me that there’s a relationship between it all after all. I think my classmate was more than right.

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