Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Thoughts on the Fab Five, Bob Knight, Dean Smith, and basketball coaching

Obviously I’ve been very uninspired to write in this blog for at least the past couple of years.   I’m still uninspired for the most part.  However, two things that have to do with sports, specifically college basketball, from last night have inspired me to write something...

As I was killing time before the MU-KU game, I was flipping through the channels when I came across the program, Beyond the Glory.  Last night’s segment was on Michigan’s Fab Five.  I grew up a die-hard U of M sports fan, and there’s still a part of me that pulls for the school because I gave so much of my youth’s heart rooting for its football and basketball teams.  Although I’m now a North Carolina and Missouri supporter (despite my interest in MU’s basketball program having took a huge hit after the Quin Snyder debacle and I’m still recovering to find interest in that program which is a whole 'nother story), the Fab Five remains my favorite sports team of all time (with UNC’s 2004-05 basketball team a distant second followed by the 90’s era Detroit Red Wings).  Watching that program last night brought back some really great memories, and despite Chris Webber’s violations of NCAA rules, I can’t help but feel anything but love towards that team.  Like I said, they still remain my favorite sports team of all time, despite the fact that my (now beloved) Tar Heels basketball program under my favorite coach ever, Dean Smith, beat them.

Which nicely segues into the second thing from last night that is inspiring me to actually write something in this blog: Bob Knight’s retirement.  Like many people, I’m shocked - not so much that I wouldn’t expect this from him, but anytime there’s big news like this, it’s somewhat unexpected.

I have some mixed feelings towards Bob Knight.  He’s obviously an asshole who really doesn’t care what others think about him.  While I find it sort of admirable that he doesn’t care what people think of him, what’s not admirable is that he’s such an asshole.  If I had a kid who was good enough to play Division I basketball, I wouldn’t want him playing for Knight.  But there’s actually a part of me that likes him - and it has nothing to do with his skills as a coach.  In his asshole sort of way, the man’s hilarious.  The very asshole quality about him absolutely cracks me up.

Anyway, because of his retirement, of course, there’s going to be debate on where Knight stands as one of the greats in basketball coaching (and coaching in general).  Of course I have my own opinion which I will share.  Before I share my opinions, like 99% of the population (and I’m including most of the media), I have never coached (or played organized) basketball.  So my opinions (and most of the media’s) are based on sheer observations.  Unlike coaches and ex-coaches and ex-players who analyze basketball on TV, I don’t know specific details like exactly what play is being called, specific name of the defense, etc.  I have to use my own observation and also what I read, too.  So I have to admit that some of my opinions have also been shaped by what the media has written and said.  However, without being too egotistical, I have enough confidence in my intellect that I can pick out quality and various levels of quality and excellence.  For example, I can tell when watching the Michigan-Carolina championship game from 1993 that the Tar Heels were very well coached and taught and were fundamentally sound.

So based on my own observations and what I’ve read and heard, in the modern era (~70s to today), I’d have to rank Bob Knight and Dean Smith as 1A and 1B (or vice-versa) as the best pure college basketball coaches.  (Even if I were to include John Wooden, I’d keep Knight and Smith as 1A and 1B, but that topic is for a different time.)  Dean Smith and Bob Knight were not only successful, they were innovators in basketball, and their principles have been used and stolen by so many successful coaches today.  I read a quote from John Wooden saying, “I don’t think there’s ever been a better teacher of the game of basketball than [Knight].”  Well, Wooden said the exact same thing about Dean Smith.  Roy Williams, who seems to credit Smith for his success even more than Larry Brown does (which is a lot), has said on numerous occasions that 95% of the things he does in coaching he’s stolen from Dean Smith while the remaining 5% were stolen from Knight.  I think that’s pretty high praise given that he was really exclusively trained by Smith and has and should have no allegiance towards Knight.

Although Smith and Knight (rightfully so) get compared to each other, one thing that bothers me is when I read and hear people saying that Smith had all the All-American, future pros while Knight had a bunch of scrubs that he managed to turn into winners.  That’s bullshit.  If that were the case, Knight would’ve had just as much success at Texas Tech as he had at Indiana.  Although Knight didn’t have as many future pros as Smith, he did have very highly touted recruits come play for him at IU.   Just because they weren’t athletic enough to be All-Pros at the next level doesn’t mean they weren’t great high school players that became great college players under Knight.  This leads me to another point that’s broader in scope than Knight versus Smith...

The quality of a coach (in basketball) is not and should not be exclusively linked to wins, losses, how many (future) pros he coaches, etc.  Wins and losses DO help define the quality, but sheer wins and losses (and win percentages) are overrated.

Although I love college basketball, one thing I don’t like is that it seems to me that at least 75% (probably more) of the health of programs is just based on recruiting.   Recruiting overshadows everything in college basketball and clouds the inferiority and superiority of pure coaching.  If you have less overall talent on your team, you’re probably going to lose.  If Coach K had a month to prepare with the University of Maine’s roster and Maine’s coach had a month to prepare with Duke’s roster, Coach K would lose (big) to the Maine coach.  Although I love Carolina basketball and I think Roy Williams is one of the better college coaches out there, just his wins and losses do not tell me that he’s a great coach.  Things that suggest that he’s a great coach include testimonials from other coaches, the fact that he’s taken what he’s learned from Smith and applied it with his own flavoring to work extremely well within the team concept, etc.  But does that make him the best pure coach today?   I don’t know.  (With his coaching skills plus his recruiting skills and program management (and my own Carolina bias), I’d personally take him over any other coach.)  But in reading things, such as testimonials, and watching other teams in the past and this year, you could make a case for Williams or K or Izzo or Howland...etc. etc. etc.  I tend to read a lot into peer reviews, i.e., testimonials from other coaches because I presume they know who really is a good coach or who is just a really good schmoozer/recruiter and/or maybe a shitty coach who doesn’t contribute much and just lets the very talented players just play.  So based on this (and also seeing team preparedness regardless of whether they win or lose), I’d have to say, in no particular order, that these D-I coaches are the best pure coaches: Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Majerus, John Beilein, Ben Howland, Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, Jim Calhoun, John Thompson, and Bruce Pearl.  I’m sure I’m leaving out many...but that sort of makes my point.  I truly believe that you can’t truly measure how good one is as a pure coach mostly based on wins and losses because basketball, more than most other team sports, places a higher premium on the innate talent of the players.  Others (I’m sure) will disagree, but that’s how I view it.  I refuse to believe that John Calipari is and has been a better coach than Knight just because he has a better record in the past few years. Just like I refuse to believe that Phil Jackson is a better coach than Larry Brown.  Just like I refuse to believe Doc Rivers is a better coach than Pat Riley.

I guess what I’m also trying to get at is this: basketball “coaching” is overrated.  They often get too much credit for merely being really good recruiters (or in the Pros, having a GM/owner that signs and drafts the best players). As long as they have a good collection of talent and don’t fuck shit up (like Snyder at MU), they may actually look like really good or great coaches when they’re actually not.  Coaches like Dean Smith and Bob Knight are, however, truly great coaches.  They’re on the “Mount Rushmore” of basketball coaching.


Anonymous Reyna said...

Thanks for writing this.

11/11/2008 03:42:00 AM  

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