Adaptability key to coach’s success/Michael Bleach
Coaches are maniacs.
I mean that in the nicest, least backhanded way possible.
I also mean it literally.
The hours college and professional coaches put in each week border the definition of insane. Between practice, planning practice, film, recruiting, games, travel, more recruiting, media obligations, fundraising, coaching clinics, more film, Any Given Sunday speeches and oh yeah, more film, it is a wonder that more don’t burn out the way now-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer did three years back.
Michigan Tech basketball coach Kevin Luke once told me from October through March, he averages somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 hours a week. But that’s OK, because he drops to a chill 40-50 in the offseason.
But we’re getting sidetracked. My point is they are ALL like this.
From graduate assistant on up, it is made clear that the only way to win, the only way to advance your career, is to outwork the other guy. He puts in 15-hour days, you do 16. He texted the recruit in the morning, sent flowers to his mom and emailed his dad, you make sure his sister has a ride to cello lessons. There is a well-known story about former Kansas City Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham calling rival coaches office phones at 3 a.m. and filling with glee if they didn’t pick up.*
*There is no confirmation that this is where Heath Ledger found his inspiration for the Joker.
So in this field, this cauldron of crazy, how does a coach stand out? How do they find a winning edge?
The more time I spend studying college athletics, the more time I talk with coaches, I am convinced that it’s the most flexible coaches who will win every year. It’s the Bum Phillips line – “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Every coach, if given his or her druthers, has a specific way they would prefer to play.
And if you are the men’s basketball coach at Duke, Michigan State or North Carolina, you probably get your wish.
Coach K wants athletes capable of pressuring man-to-man defense, he usually gets them. Tom Izzo wants athletes who can bang at all five positions, grab offensive rebounds and score at the rim, he gets them too. Roy Williams wants burners with length going up and down the floor, whatever genie he sold his soul to usually grants that wish.
But only a handful of coaches fall into that category. The rest have to make do with the randomness of their recruiting ground (or rookie drafts and free agency for professionals) and the compromises that come from less-than-perfect players.
It is here that a good coach makes the difference.
There is a common line color commentators use about struggling NFL quarterbacks. They will note (usually before a game), that if the protection is good, and the pocket is clean, so-and-so (let’s say, Christian Ponder) can deliver a nice, accurate throw.
Well yeah. So?
It is easy to be good when all the pieces fall into place. It’s much harder when you are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or a 6-foot-3 guard into a power forward.
This is why most (begrudgingly) pick Bill Belichick as the coach they would want in the Space Jam scenario.
Aliens come down to challenge Earth for supremacy and we convince them to a battle on the football field. Belichick, possibly unique, can win that game with any grouping of personnel. He has won Super Bowls with conservative teams, aggressive teams, running teams and passing teams. He won 11 games with Matt Cassel.
The Tech basketball programs are graced with two such coaches.
Last season, Luke took a team based around the post-talents of Ali Haidar to the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Huskies are right back on track with a 12-4 record despite no starter over 6-foot-5 and a whirling perimeter offense.
You can see it on a micro and macro level. After several mediocre seasons in the post-Josh Buettner years, Luke changed his recruiting philosophy to emphasize skill over athleticism. Two weeks ago, for the first time in his career, the Huskies played 40 minutes of zone to dominate Grand Valley.
When he needed to, he changed.
Luke put it best himself when talking about Kyle Stankowski, a player with distinct talents and (strength) deficiencies.
“It is my job to get the most out of his talents,” Luke said. “We know what he does best, and I have to put him in a position to do that. That’s on me.”
Women’s basketball coach Kim Cameron follows the same mold.
Each of the first two seasons I covered Tech were marked with a noticeable mid-season change in strategy from Cameron. In 2011-12, what started as an offense with Lynn Giesler playing second banana to Sam Hoyt transformed to one based around the creativity of Taylor Stippel and athleticism of Lindsey Lindstrom by season’s end.
Last year, after Stippel went down with a knee injury, the Huskies turned to true freshman Kylie Moxley’s much more bruising, direct style of post-play.
This flexibility is not apparent in most coaches.
More often than not, you see a system a coach will stick to, no matter the players around them.
Both Husky squads sit perennially in the top half of the GLIAC because Luke and Cameron have proven a willingness to adapt when Plan A goes awry.
To do anything else would be insane.
But in coaching, that still makes Luke and Cameron uncommon.