A tale of two coaches

A couple weeks ago I had occasion to interview the new head coaches of both the Indiana and Purdue football programs. I can’t claim any keen insight into either man. Both interviews were by phone and neither lasted more than fifteen minutes. My talk with Purdue’s Jeff Brohm took place while he was driving, and I spoke to Coach Allen of IU as I sat in my car during a driving rainstorm.

I think I’ve improved at interviewing people over the last twenty years, but I have very little experience at telephone interviews. I’m uncomfortable with it, and I’m pretty sure my discomfort registers with the subjects. Which makes them more uncomfortable. Which makes me even more uncomfortable.

Anyway, as often happens with athletes and other people who interact with media-types on a regular basis, what I mostly got from Allen and Brohm was coach speak. It’s stuff that reads OK in an article because somebody semi-famous said it. But if you have to listen to it live or type it, it’s…..uh…..boring.   

But there were points in each discussion when the wall got a little chipped and a bit of light broke through.

Coach Allen’s son is a freshman on the team, signing with the Hoosiers after his Dad got the job. I don’t think it was nepotism. The kid had received offers from several Division I schools including Rutgers and South Florida. Neither of which are Ohio State or Alabama; but neither is IU. He was also ranked as one of the top 100 high school linebackers in the country by ESPN.  

I asked Allen about coaching his son, and he sounded like he got a little emotional. He talked about how hard it is to be both Dad and coach to a kid.

“It can be hard to separate,” he said. “I mean, he’s still your son, and you find your eyes going to him all the time. So that’s something you just have to focus on.”

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I came away from our talk liking Coach Allen. He sounded like a man determined to make Indiana’s program better, but I don’t get the impression he’s the kind of guy who’d endanger kids’ health to win (as his predecessor allegedly did).

I remember watching Jeff Brohm play for the University of Louisville. He was the ultimate Louisville guy. He grew up there and his Dad played for the Cardinals, as did two of his brothers. Brohm sounded to me like a very focused, ambitious man.

He gave me a lot of “We want to field a team that’s competitive and fights to win every game”.

“Purdue is a place with great academics, and West Lafayette is a great college town.” (Wait, what was that last part?)

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The most recent Purdue team that was fun to watch.

“People are starving for success, and they want to see the football program step up and do well. We need to deliver.”

All of which are perfectly acceptable, standard-type quotes for somebody coming into a job where the prior coach won like two games per year. Then I asked him whether it was hard to recruit at Purdue, considering their recent futility.

“We have a lot to offer at Purdue,” he says. “The academic reputation, the Big Ten conference and the opportunity to play against the best teams in the country. And, to be honest, playing time. We don’t have the depth we’d like, so a guy can come in and be a difference-maker.”

I thought the last part was a pretty candid statement. He’s all but admitting that it’s lean times in the Purdue football cupboard, and that he can get good athletes because last year’s starters may not be as good as incoming freshman or transfers.

After we wrapped up the interview, I told him that I was a Louisville alum and enjoyed watching him play. He sounded like he was happy to hear that. (Which is kind of a Louisville thing. If you meet somebody out of town and find you’re both from Indianapolis, it’s like, “so what?”  But if you’re both from Louisville, you immediately talk about 1) what neighborhood did you grow up in, 2) what Catholic parish did you attend, and 3) do you have access to Derby tickets.)

Then he said “Oh, yeah? When did you graduate?”

“1980. So, like, a long time ago.”

“Oh…….okay….”. After a bit of awkward silence, we ended the call.

I guess I sound younger than I am.  

       

 

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.

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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.

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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. 

 

Marketing 101 and Gambling 43.7

Last week I drove over to New Castle, Indiana to sell books at the City Securities Hall of Fame Classic. The four-team tournament is held in New Castle’s Chrysler Arena every year, hosted by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. The HOF is selling copies of Thirty-Two Minutes in March at their gift shop, and I asked if I could sell copies during the game.

As I’ve written before, Chrysler Arena is the largest high school gym in the U.S. Maybe in the world. It’s a classic fieldhouse structure, with one large seating area arranged in a bowl around the playing surface. The floor is below ground level, and the place seems dark as you enter and descend the stairs to your seat. The parquet floor trimmed in green reminds me of Boston Garden. When I entered the gym at about thirty minutes before tipoff of the the first game, about half the 9,000 seats were already occupied.

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The tournament featured the New Albany Bulldogs against the Warsaw Tigers, and the Lawrence North Wildcats against the Logansport Berries in the morning session. (Berries. Get it? Like, Loganberries? Maybe it’s an Indiana thing.) The consolation and championship games were scheduled to follow that evening. I’d guess that about half the people in attendance were New Albany supporters, with a significant number of non-partisan fans mostly there to watch the Bulldogs’ Romeo Langford.

I liked hearing the Southern Indiana accent that reminded me of my hometown just across the river, and several Bulldog fans came up to thumb through the book and talk about basketball. I sold several copies, but not everybody was in a spending mood. One guy came up and talked for a while, showing me pictures of all the Indiana basketball memorabilia and baseball artifacts in his “museum”. After a few minutes, he offered me an opportunity to donate a copy of my book, promising me that he’d also give out my business card to anybody who visited. I asked him if his museum was open to the public, and he shook his head, saying he only lets people in that he trusts. Which makes it sound less like a museum and more like a private collection. But, being in sales mode, I kept this observation to myself.

Another man came up with his adult son, and we talked high school hoops, New Albany basketball, and the Louisville Cardinals. He told me that Langford wasn’t even among the best five players to come out of New Albany. I can’t think of five better players to come out of New Albany. I’d be open to his argument, but I didn’t want to come across as challenging his opinion, so I didn’t ask him to name those players. Again, sales mode. Always be closing.  

Then there were the people who just walked up, said “How much for the book?”, and handed over a twenty without even browsing the cover. Which startled me. It’s not that I need the interaction; hell, I’m borderline sociophobic. I guess it’s just so different from how I’d purchase a book that it surprised me.

In the morning session Logansport and New Albany both advanced, with New Albany claiming the trophy by a score of 58-33. Langford was named tournament MVP, of course. But by then I was almost back home, driving west past frosted Indiana cornfields.

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I’m making a comeback in the NCAA handicapping contest. As I’ve mentioned, nine of us created a pool to pick five NCAA games per week against the spread for fun and prizes. After a dismal start, I began this week at 2-0 after Canisius won by three and Evansville easily covered a two point spread against Northern Iowa.

I stumbled a bit last night, taking Western MIchigan plus 10.5 against Ohio. (I think Western lost by around 160 points), but my handicapping was solid. (“Solid handicapping” being the last refuge of a losing bettor.)

In general, I’m focusing on mid-major conferences, in the hope that the point spreads will be softer than for games that people actually watch. Since they’re not generally on TV, I often can’t even see the teams I’m betting on. Which may end up being a good thing. I tend to imagine I’m gaining a special insight when I watch teams carefully, and that conceit has cost me dearly in the past.

So, if you’re scoring at home, I’m 2-1 so far this week. Tonight (Wednesday) I’m on Southern Illinois minus one against Indiana State. The Sycamores can’t shoot a lick (why am I suddenly channeling Slick Leonard?), and I thought it would be a good bet even laying four points, so I jumped on the number as soon as it came out.

I’m not as confident in my other wager, taking the Missouri State Bears plus 9 points on the road at Illinois State. In this game, I’m really betting more on the expected pace of play rather than the teams’ relative quality. The Bears rank 248th in possessions per forty minutes, and the Redbirds are 256th. Illinois State also shoots a horrendous 67% at the free throw line (247th in NCAA Division I), so I think it’ll be hard for them to cover a large spread.

I’d rather be getting ten or eleven points, but, hey….it’s gambling.

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Miscellany

I can’t in good conscience say that Savannah State played the role of giant-killer last weekend when they upset Oregon State in overtime. After all, the Oregon State Beavers staggered into the game dragging a record of 3-6 with losses to such luminaries as Lamar, Tulsa, and Fresno State. So maybe the Tigers were “moderately-tall-troll” killers? “Heavier-than -average- ogre” killers?  

Either way, they made 15 of 34 three-point shots en route to a 93-90 overtime win. According to a report in Oregon Live, the Beavers were so stunned by the loss that the coaches held a two-and-a-half hour film session on Monday, followed by the traditional team meeting where players yell at each other.

It’s hard to know Coach Broadnax’ tone from a printed quote (he’s still not returning my calls), but it sounds like he’s moved off his early season stance that he was just experimenting with the high shot volume approach. Quoted in Associated Press, Broadnax said “We want to play fast. If people want to play fast with us, that’s great.”

                                                                              *****

I spent some time signing copies of Thirty-Two Minutes in March at the Southport Shootout last weekend. The main attraction at the event was the 2 PM game between Indianapolis North Central and New Albany. Two of the best players in the state were on the floor in North Central senior Kris Wilkes (headed to UCLA) and New Albany junior Romeo Langford.

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Almost all of the 7,000 seats in Southport Fieldhouse were filled, with a significant number of people standing in the open concourse that encircles the seating area. Fortunately, Southport set up a table for me in a corner of the concourse, so I could watch some of the game action.

After that, the crowd thinned out considerably for the next four games on the schedule. Still, the fact that over seven thousand people showed up for an afternoon high school game in December just confirms what I’ve thought all along. High school basketball is still really important to Hoosiers, and there are still many fans who follow teams other than the ones they root for. One couple I talked to drove all the way from Madison, Indiana just to watch a day of high school hoops. Wearing Shawe High School sweatshirts, they said they make the trip every year, even though their school isn’t invited.

Somebody should write a book about this stuff.

                                                                             *****

Fantasy football is over for another year. At least for me and the other teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Several of us started a weekly NFL pool picking five games each week against the spread for fun and prizes, so I’m down to one reason left to follow pro football.

We’ve also started a weekly NCAA basketball contest, again picking five games against the spread. My initial performance has been unimpressive. Despite my obvious gambling expertise, basketball knowledge, and subscriptions to kenpom and College Basketball Blue Book, I’ve stumbled to an 0-3 start. The worst part is that I’m currently trailing Charlie, who hasn’t paid much attention to college hoops for years.

Since I always want to be transparent (if not invisible), I have to admit that I did in fact bet against Savannah State in the Oregon State game. In my defense, the Tigers were returning from the east coast to the west coast a week after getting destroyed by Oregon 128-59.

There’s an old gambler’s axiom: The race is not always to the swift, and the battle not always to the strong. But that’s the way to bet. Unfortunately, that old saw doesn’t take karma into account. I may not always bet the Tigers to cover, but I’m not betting against them anymore. At least not this week.    

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.”

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Ref for life

Bob White is no longer a licensed referee in Indiana. A car crash robbed him of his mobility and cost him years of pain and physical and mental rehabilitation.

But as he sits in his wheelchair at the center line of a basketball court at the Keenan-Stahl Boys and Girls Club on the near south side of Indianapolis, he looks happy, like he’s in his element. He’s refereeing a basketball game, with several excited eight-year-olds running up and down the court.

“That’s the first time I’ve refereed since the wreck,” he says. “It was fun. Even though it’s just little kids, it’s the first time I’ve put the (striped) shirt back on.”

He laughs. “That shirt is from 1998. It’s the only one I still have.”

Bob officiated for over twenty years, working high school, college, and semi-pro football, along with high school basketball and baseball. He was a founding member of the Crossroads Officials Association, and actively worked to mentor new referees. Even after he was a seasoned varsity official, he’d occasionally work freshman and JV games alongside novice referees to help them develop.

But eleven years ago, that all ended suddenly when he was in a car crash in Indianapolis. Right after umpiring a baseball game.

“I had just gotten married about six months before the wreck,” he says. “I was working in the pharmacy at Community North Hospital, but I sold my house and we moved to West Lafayette.

“I found out a week before the wreck that my wife was pregnant. A friend of mine in Whiteland was having a cookout. My wife was in the car behind me and witnessed the whole thing. A lady T-boned me who was texting, and she didn’t have any insurance.”

Bob was in the hospital for months with traumatic brain injury, almost died a few times. After that it was years of rehab.

“After I got home, I was still doing rehab three times a day. I had to re-learn how to talk, how to eat, everything.

“And then, five years ago, my wife divorced me.”

Bob is 100% disabled from the crash. He says he was angry for a long time, but he gradually decided not to spend the rest of his life in self-pity. He threw himself into service to the community, accepting presidency of the Boys and Girls Club, working at the food pantry, and organizing sports and activities at the club. Making other people happier, healthier, and safer.

“I just try to be positive every day when I wake up and think about the things I can do rather than the things I can’t.

“It makes you feel good to help out. Some of the kids appreciate it and some don’t. But I went to the club as a kid. Sometimes we forget where we came from.

“I really miss being around kids and refereeing. At least at the club, I’m around the kids.”

“(Referees) get yelled and screamed at, but we’re going to protect each other. We’re the only ones that have each other’s back.

“And what better place to be on a Friday night than Southport Fieldhouse in front of five thousand fans, smelling the popcorn, hearing the band play, and you’re in the referee’s dressing room, all fired up like you’re going out there to play.”

During his convalescence, Bob got a lot of support from his officiating crew and other referees.

“People don’t realize that referees are a small fraternity. The ref community came together for me. They bought me an accessible van, really stepped up and took care of me and my family. It was pretty eye-opening.”

As I sit with Bob in the bleachers at the Club, he’s a bit annoyed. He scheduled a basketball tournament for this Saturday morning and got eight outside teams to commit to playing. He even verified the schedule with the coaches over the last few days, or at least attempted to with some who didn’t return his calls. Not one of them showed up. He’s left with two half-court games for the Club kids. They have to play short-sided to keep the age range reasonable. Next to the court sits a pile of prizes donated by local merchants. Bob spent a lot of hours driving around to various businesses, hustling donations for the Club and promotional items for giveaways.    

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An empty gym. In Indiana. In November.

I’m not sure how I’d deal with this kind of frustration. But I can’t help but admire how Bob does. He says he’s going to start on next year’s event earlier, find some way to get other teams to show up. He plans to start making contacts this month.

As I stand to leave, he asks me whether I’m busy the day before Thanksgiving. He’s looking for more volunteers to work at a community dinner that day at the food pantry.