Pass the clipboard

I may have mentioned that I grew up in Kentucky. Consequently, when our family gathers for the holidays, we don’t usually argue about politics; we argue about basketball. Which recently led to another argument about the University of Louisville and its recent troubles.

After finally firing Rick Pitino, UL hired assistant coach David Padgett to run the program as interim coach. For $800,00 per year. I’ve said that my preference as an alum is that the University shut down basketball completely for 3-5 years and then start over. I understand that’s probably unrealistic. But I do think the university should at least wipe away all traces of the Jurich/Pitino regime until a new, squeaky clean coach can be found. Not that there’s any evidence that Padgett was involved in all the skullduggery; but the program needs a completely clean sweep.   News reports indicated that the University president said (paraphrasing here) that they wanted to appoint somebody who was already familiar with the players because UL expected to be good this year.

The points presented to me were that UL went as far as it should go in house-cleaning, and bringing in an interim coach from outside the program would penalize the current players who – so far –  have not been accused of any wrongdoing. And that a coach unfamiliar with the players and their program would have little chance to effectively lead the team.

Regarding the last observation, I countered that it’s just basketball. Nobody has invented new plays or defenses in a long time. Most teams run pretty much the same stuff. Danville coach Brian Barber told me that his team runs one out-of-bounds play called “America”.

“We call it that ‘cause everybody in America runs it,” he said.

All of which started me thinking about the relative importance of coaching in basketball. I’ve been playing, watching, coaching, and refereeing basketball my whole life (though, obviously, well below the major college level).   Robert_Timmons_(basketball_coach)

What are the major recent innovations in the game? The Pack Line Defense? Land sakes, it’s so complex. You have to play off your man to within 16 feet of the basket unless he has the ball. That’s it.

The VCU “Havoc” defense? Um, it’s a press. You play defense for 90 feet instead of 45. Thirty years ago Arkansas ran the same thing, but they called it “Forty Minutes of Hell”. Quick, somebody run some computer simulations!

The Triangle and Motion offenses are like fifty years old. They’ve been running the pick and roll for about a hundred years, and, when executed properly, it still works.

One time I asked veteran Indiana high school coach Ron Hecklinski how you tell the difference between a good basketball coach and a bad one. He said it basically comes down to who can get his team to play harder. Whether it’s through fear of running sprints after practice or adoration of the coach doesn’t matter. If two teams are equal in talent, the team that plays harder usually wins. If they’re not equal in talent, then the lesser team has to play a LOT harder to win.  

I’ll concede that some coaches make better in-game adjustments than others, but I also think it’s really hard for an outsider to make that assessment. Just judging the effectiveness of a strategy move based on results is dicey. It’s awfully tough to isolate the variable. Did the coach change defenses? If so, was the other team ready for it? How did they adjust? If it was such a stroke of genius, why didn’t the team start out in that defense?  

I think coaching has a much greater impact on football and baseball. In the latter, the manager is potentially making decisions prior to every single pitch. Moving fielders, calling pitches, considering pinch hitters on both his or her own team as well as the opposition. In football, the playbooks run to hundreds of pages, with blocking schemes changing every play.

None of which necessarily makes these games more compelling to watch than basketball. It’s not that much fun to watch somebody think. I do believe that basketball coaches in particular get too much credit and too much blame for team performance. The game just moves too quickly for coaches to make the micro-changes during each play that might accumulate over the course of the game.   



One coach enters, another leaves

I went to Jeffersonville High School over the holidays to sell books at the First Annual Ted Throckmorton tournament. The event featured a pretty good lineup with Northeastern entering play at 7-1, Indianapolis Scecina (6-1), under-performing-but-always dangerous Indianapolis Cathedral, and undefeated Danville. Regular readers will note that Danville was one of the four teams featured in Thirty-Two Minutes in March. Coach Brian Barber had told me last spring that they were scheduled to play in a tournament in Jeffersonville over the holidays, and that I should drive down and sell some books.


On the first day, most of the Indiana teams played schools from Kentucky. In the earliest game, Northeastern swamped Fox Creek Christian (KY) 85-45. Fox Creek had only six players, and one of them fouled out….in the first quarter. I didn’t get to see much of the game since my table was in the hallway just outside the gym, but when I peered around the corner I saw a lot of gassed, dejected players. When the team left, I saw their frustrated coach lead them out to the parking lot and slump into the driver’s seat of the school van. I tried to look the team up online, but since Kentucky doesn’t seem to have their own John Harrell, I didn’t learn much. According to MaxPreps (which varies wildly in accuracy since it’s updated by fans), Fox Creek has won only once this season.

Later that morning, the Danville Warriors bested 7-1 Henryville in double overtime. I’d spoken via text to Coach Barber before the season after seeing a number of references to his hospitalization on Twitter. He’d told me he had a serious medical issue, and that the Throckmorton would be his first game back. I looked in on the Danville game as much as possible, and, as the score indicates, it was a tight, hard-fought contest. When Danville was leaving for their hotel, I caught up with Coach Barber at the door to see how he was doing. He looked drained and had obviously lost some weight.

But, as usual, Barber was friendly and jovial. I said “Ho-hum, another easy Danville win.” He laughed and shook his head, talked about how exhausting it was as his first game back. I didn’t stay for the rest of the tournament, but the Warriors apparently responded to their coach’s return. They ran the table over the next two days, beating Scecina by twenty and Northeastern by four, then winning the championship 56-55 over Cathedral.

Danville is now 11-4, and Barber is headed to yet another winning season there, his seventeenth in 18 years. In their other two games in Jeffersonville, Fox Creek lost to Henryville by 55 and to 4-5 Forest Park by 36. Lawrenceburg, KY is only 53 miles from Jeffersonville, but I can only imagine how long the ride seemed.


Over the past weekend I ejected a coach from a basketball game for the first time. It was a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) game. For fourth graders. I won’t identify the school, but here’s what happened:

From the tip-off, the coach was shouting “FOUL!”, “TRAVELING!”, “DOUBLE DRIBBLE!”, etc., every time he saw (or imagined) a foul or violation. Late in the second quarter during a dead ball I said, “Coach, I’ve heard enough. We will make the calls.” He said, “I’m just coaching my team.” (I don’t understand how calling out your opinions on calls qualifies as coaching your team, but, OK.) I said “That’s fine, but you need to stop officiating from the sideline.” He said “OK, OK”, and, for the most part, complied.


Late in the third quarter, there was scramble on the floor for a loose ball, and my partner and I both immediately stopped play and signaled for a jump ball. One of the players was lying on the floor crying, and the coach stormed out across the floor, screaming at me, “MY PLAYER GETS HIT IN THE FACE AND YOU DON’T CALL A FOUL?” I immediately whistled a technical foul, and then walked over to the player and coach. The coach then looked up at me and yelled, “YOU GIVE ME A TECH FOR CHECKING ON AN INJURED PLAYER?” I said “No, I gave you a technical for your behavior. Do you want another one?”

(In hindsight, I should have phrased the last part differently. I realize it may have sounded like I was baiting him. I should have said something like “You need to calm down if you don’t want another one”. Having warned him in the first half and seeing him come onto the floor without being summoned, he probably deserved ejection anyway. But, I digress.)

He answered, “I don’t care”, so I called the second technical and ejected him. After the game, he came back into the gym (in violation of CYO rules), saying he wanted to “congratulate the other team”. The gym manager warned him to restrict his comments to congratulations, and we moved on to the second game of the day.

I’d be interested to hear any other perspectives on this, especially if you don’t think the ejection was warranted. 


Return to Center Grove

One of the teams that I focused on in Thirty-Two Minutes in March was Center Grove High School and their first-year coach, Zach Hahn. He was a head coach in one of the largest    schools in Indiana, and only three years removed from playing in the NCAA championship game for Butler University.              1478887301___coachhahnwatchesthetrojansatpractice                                                

Whenever we spoke, two things stood  out. First, that he was a very intense young man. Second, that he was totally committed to building the Center Grove program for long-term success.

A few weeks ago I interviewed him again during an early pre-season practice for 2016-2017. Neither of my previous impressions have changed. Hahn is still all in on growing Center Grove basketball, and unrelenting in his belief that the Trojans can compete with anybody. But even Hoosier-state legends age over a couple of years, get a little older, a bit wiser, and more introspective.

“I’m working harder on reflecting more after games,” he said, with the sound of bouncing basketballs echoing off the rolled-up bleachers in cavernous Vandermeer Gym.”They all say ‘Coach, don’t criticize’, and there have been some times when I criticized more than coached. I need to do a better job of that.”

As I watch practice, I notice that the assistants are a lot more involved in the drills, instructing players, making their voices heard. Two years ago, Hahn never would have walked away to talk during a practice. Now he mostly stands or squats on the side, watching intently, only jumping in periodically to emphasize points or make observations. He’s only lost one assistant coach over the first two years, so they all understand what he wants.

As we stood on the sideline, Hahn spoke at length about the season and his players, but his eyes rarely left the court. “I can come over here now,” Hahn says. “I can watch the big picture while the assistants run the drills.”                      coach-hahn-makes-a-point-during-practice

He’s also made wholesale changes in the Center Grove youth league, binding it more tightly to the high school program.  

“We run the evaluations for the youth teams now, and we pick the travel teams. Those guys are all a big part of what we do. The middle schools are much more involved now. Last year we hired a middle school liaison to help teach them our systems. I think people are excited about our program, because they see not only me, but our players and coaches out in the community, doing things like going out and watching youth league games.”

In his first year, Hahn said there were times when he thought referees were trying to set a tone and let a young coach know that he couldn’t get calls by being loud and assertive. He was consistently vocal with referees, but got only one technical foul all year. I asked him whether he noticed any difference last year with a full season under his belt.

“I’d say it was the same,” he said drily. “A lot of guys just want to come in and make sure I understand it’s gonna be what they want and not what I want. That I’m not going to dominate the game vocally. And that’s another thing I’m working on as a young coach who’s fiery and pretty passionate. I’ve got to adjust my coaching a little bit when I deal with referees.

“But I think the players this year have done a really good job of adjusting to me. It hasn’t always been that way. I think these guys are a little more tough-minded.

“It’s their third year with me now. After my first year I lost seven seniors, and we only had a couple of guys coming back with any varsity experience. We had three freshmen in our top eight last year. This year we have six guys coming back that will play in our top ten. So they have a better understanding of the process and how things work day in and day out.”

In that first season, Hahn was concerned about scheduling, especially on weekends with games on both Friday and Saturday nights. He couldn’t eliminate all of those scenarios due to the five-year lead time needed to change conference schedules. He’s got three weekends of Friday/Saturday games in December. And in January he’s got two very good teams – Ben Davis and Roncalli – on back-to-back nights.

Hahn shakes his head. “That’ll be a bloodbath weekend. That’s a very physical weekend for us.”

But he has had some effect on the schedule.

“We got rid of New Palestine and picked up Avon, who is more like a sectional opponent. We picked up Southport and got rid of Cathedral to try to create a south side rivalry. We didn’t make the schedule any easier, but we’ve created a level of play that we want to maintain all year.”

Hahn won’t project an expected number of wins. But he thinks Center Grove can compete in the powerful Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference. And as Assistant Coach Brian Keeton once said, “If you can compete in the MIC, you can compete with anybody in the state.”