Men of March: A Season Inside the Lives of College Basketball Coachesby Brian Curtis
The Men of March: A Season Inside the Lives of College Basketball Coaches is a one-of-a kind look at what it means, and what it takes to be a head coach in the college arena of the new millennium. Granted extensive access to the locker rooms, practices, offices, sidelines and homes of four of the nations leading coaches and their programs (Mike Brey, Notre Dame; Steve Lavin, UCLA; Bill Self, Illinois and Steve Alford, Iowa), the author lays bare the forces that make coaches tick. From upset losses and recruiting wars, to the mounting frenzy of March Madness and the fierce rivalries played out through long winters under the brightest, hottest spotlight in college sports, readers gain a true respect for men who choose, and excel at, this roller coaster ride profession. With candid comments from over fifty college coaches, including Lute Olson, Roy Williams and John Chaney, in addition to perspectives from Dick Vitale, John Wooden, John Feinstein and many others, The Men of March provides an in-depth look at some of the major issues facing coaches in the game today. Among the many considerations of the college basketball pressure cooker are recruiting, graduation rates, hirings and firings, media relations and the influence of volatile social issues such as race and religion on the game's participants and leaders.
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Read an Excerpt
I WAS SITTING AT A TABLE IN THE BUDWEISER BREWHOUSE AT THE INDIANAPOLIS International Airport on Selection Sunday, March 10, adhering to my strict diet of a plate of nachos—no peppers—and a bottle of water. I watched a television set mounted on a wall with no sound, trying to read the lips of Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg as they analyzed the just-released brackets on the CBS Selection Show. As I feverishly scribbled incomprehensible pen marks on a note pad, tryingto write the names of the Tournament-bound on the paper, two guys at another table noticed what I was doing. "So what are you doing? Getting ready to make your picks?" asked one of the men, a college-age looking fellow with an Indiana University baseball cap.
"Not really," I responded. With further probing by my two new friends, I proceeded to fill them in on my six-month odyssey in the college basketball world, a story that seemed to both impress and perplex them. "That’s a hell of a lot of flying," said the IU guy’s buddy. Well, yes, it is. And then came the inevitable question. The one that I have heard many times throughout my journeys around America: "So which coach was the most interesting?"
If by interesting the curious man implied funny, probably Steve Lavin, Pete Strickland, or Mike Brey fit the mold. If by interesting he meant candid, then the answer could have been Bill Self, Bob Huggins, Mike Davis, Tim Carter, or John Chaney. If by interesting he meant full-throttle, then surely Tom Crean andBobby Gonzalez come to mind. Classy? Lute Olson, John Wooden, and Paul Hewitt. Outgoing? Phil Martelli, Tim O’Shea, Billy Bayno (really, all coaches). Basketball smarts? Steve Alford, Dave Faucher, and John Beilein. I guess I could have answered the question in a hundred different ways, because every coach is interesting.
They are lawyers and bankers. High school teachers, Domino’s pizza deliverymen, and engineers. Some majored in business and labor relations, others in phys ed. Most have a master’s degree and a few have PhDs. Some have recorded CDs. Many played college ball; some simply watched as team managers. There are professional baseball players among them and decorated war veterans. Some were born in the cornfields of Iowa while others come from the blacktops of Harlem or the summer heat of Louisiana. Many remember the days of Reagan, a few remember the days of Eisenhower. They are black, they are white. They are separated by wins and losses.
There are 321 Division I schools that play college basketball, and with an average coaching staff size of four, there are 1,300 men whose lives revolve around the game, and whose futures are dictated by the talents, work ethics, and moods of 18-year-olds. Some are better known than others, referred to as Coach K, Roy, Tark, Bobby, and Lute. There is a new crop of coaches, whose names are becoming just as familiar: Quin, Matt, Rick, Tommy, and Steve(s). You can blame the media, the money, the NCAA, the players, coaches, parents, fans, and just about everyone else for our inaccurate perceptions about coaches.
The reality is that we get most of our information from the media, and the media shows us what they think we want to see, hear, or read. Most Americans would prefer to see a matchup between Duke and Maryland than a tough Southland Conference meeting between Northwestern State and Texas-San Antonio. SportsCenter would rather show you Rick Pitino in an Armani suit than Grambling’s Larry Wright. You can’t really blame the television guys. They are showing the best teams in the country with arguably the best players who are perceived to be coached by the best coaches.
Imagine that you are a college basketball coach for a moment. You have probably moved five times by the time you are 42.You may make a tremendous amount of money, but can rarely take off a few days to enjoy it or the upscale home your wife designed. You are in the office by 9:00 A.M. and don’t leave until the games you are watching on Direct TV have finished. And when you finally do get home, your kids are asleep and your wife is busy paying bills. You eat dinner alone as you pop in a tape of your next opponent and fall asleep somewhere around 1:00 A.M. During the day, you make and receive close to 100 calls and write letters to kids encouraging them that you and your school are for them. You pick up the papers, read about how awful you are at your chosen profession, and listen to the talk radio guys rip your last coaching move. In the midst of the mayhem, you plan for the future, talk to the trainer bearing bad news, field questions from an often unfriendly media, speak to booster clubs, deal with academics and, of course, breathe.
There is so much to coaching and to the men who coach that the public never sees. In the past six months, I have been in the locker rooms at halftime during heated and crucial conference games; in the 8:00 A.M. coaches’ meetings breaking down film of an opponent; in the extravagant homes of coaches eating the rare meal as a family; on the set of the weekly television coach’s show; in the postgame press conferences; sitting courtside at practices and games watching these men orchestrate; listening in during timeouts and locker-room speeches; spending time in the offices as coaches write letter upon letter to prospective players.
I have seen them at their best, and perhaps at their worst, and I have watched some of the game’s greats struggle in their vocation. I have traveled the nation, watched more games than I can remember and talked to hundreds of coaches, players, athletic directors, conference commissioners, television analysts, family members, and, of course, the men themselves. What has emerged from my time with these men is a rather complicated picture of their role as a coach. Today’s college coaches are CEOs running a business—a big business. They are cordial with their competitors, but are willing to rip their hearts out to get ahead. They are held accountable for their players graduating, for fund-raising and for garnering community support, yet they are put to the test by the bottom line—wins. For these responsibilities, most are compensated handsomely, often with performance incentives. They are as different in their backgrounds as they are in their methods. They teach differently, talk to the media in varying tones, recruit in many ways unique to their personalities, and treat education with different degrees of seriousness. The game of college basketball has changed, as coaches now are defined by success and failure in March. Indeed, everything they do during the year is geared toward peaking when it counts—in March.
There is an underlying paradox in everything that coaches do, and all that they are about. They work incredible hours but they make a great deal of money. They are chastised by the media but that same spotlight makes them into stars. There is great whining when they are fired but they give little sympathy to their colleagues who are. They are "clean" and ethical in recruiting but there are others that cheat. The university and community demand so much of them but that same community endorses them with dollars.
My goal in researching and writing this book was to take a look at the lives of college coaches to find out who they are, what they do and perhaps, most importantly, why they do it. I figured the best way to understand life as a college coach was to experience a season with one—or better yet, four. A quartet of remarkable coaches granted me access to their programs and lives throughout the 2001–2002 season: Steve Alford at Iowa, Mike Brey at Notre Dame, Steve Lavin at UCLA, and Bill Self at Illinois. Beginning with the preseason and ending at the Final Four, these coaches gave me unprecedented access to their offices, locker rooms, practices, staff meetings, and homes. They accepted me into their lives graciously, and answered my questions even when they didn’t want to. The result is a story of one season with four men and four teams, the jubilant upsets and the crushing defeats, the daily crises, and the sacrifices of families. The profiles presented here are but a sliver of each man’s life. My approach was intense and in-depth but it did not permit me the scope with which to write complete biographies of these coaches. My intent was to capture the moments in a season that make up coaching, and I have tried my best to provide the details. But this book is more than a narrative of one season in college basketball. It takes a look at some key issues involving coaches: recruiting, media, fund-raising, education, hirings and firings, race, religion, and age among others. These discussions are enhanced by contributions from interviews with coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, players, and other key people in the college basketball world. Because of the limitations of travel and time, it was impossible to witness firsthand every game played by the four teams. But through frequent phone conversations with the coaches, interviews with assistants and players, and some diligent research, I felt like I was at every game.
The biggest obstacle in attempting a project of this magnitude was travel. I logged over 60,000 flight miles, staying nights at Marriotts and Red Roofs from Maui to New York City. I almost ended the book—and my life—on a snowy Interstate 94 outside of Milwaukee en route to interview Marquette coach Tom Crean. Two months earlier I landed in Indianapolis in November, but could not rent a car—my driver’s license had expired two days prior and no rental car company would rent to me. It was only after numerous phone calls, while sitting on my luggage in a parking lot at the airport, that a very nice woman in the California Department of Motor Vehicles pulled some strings for me. Then there were the crazy 96 hours during conference tournament play in March when I went from Los Angeles to New York to Indianapolis and back to L.A., via taxis, trains, subways, and planes.
Every coach has his own story about when he first knew he wanted to coach. Some knew in elementary school while others did not find their calling until they had careers in other professions. Their stories of how they got their first job are as different as their personalities. But almost universally, every coach loves working with kids, enjoys teaching and probably would be doing this even if there weren’t large sums of money involved.
"I’d never really thought about doing anything other than coaching and teaching," Arizona coach Lute Olson explains. "I had made that decision by the time I was a sophomore in high school. It never changed. I’ve never even thought about what I would do if I weren’t coaching." Olson speaks from experience, having been in the game for over 40 years and having earned the respect of his peers. He started out coaching seven years at the high school level making $3,200 and teaching six classes a day, coaching basketball, baseball, and even assisting with football.
Many coaches were drawn to the profession by a parent or a former coach or teacher. For Marquette’s Tom Crean it was a high school coach; for Pepperdine’s Paul Westphal it was an elementary school gym teacher. Drexel’s Bruiser Flint got into the game by accident. His father worked as a commissioner in the famed Sonny Hill League in Philadelphia, and one day as a freshman at nearby St. Joe’s, Flint’s father asked him to drive some kids over to a gym for a game. "The other team’s coach didn’t show up so I coached the team and I loved it." He has never stopped coaching.
Arizona State coach Rob Evans has seen his share of players through the years, but keeps it all in perspective. "I love the camaraderie with the kids. Seeing them be successful off of the court. Look, coaching to me is fun. If I ever got to be where it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. My degree is in English. I thought I was going to teach English in high school."
A coach is driven by a love for the game, a passion for teaching, and the challenge of sport. The material rewards are obvious, but coaches also gain self-satisfaction and the comfort of knowing they are shaping lives.
ESPN analyst and former Duke player Jay Bilas sees a disheartening trend growing in the game. "The good coaches really love the game and respect the game. That’s the common thread that I see. Now you see some coaches getting into it for the money, because there is a lot of money available. You can spot those guys." Bilas poses a good question: Would many of these coaches be coaching if the money wasn’t good? Every coach will tell you yes, that the love of teaching is more motivation than money. In reality, however, it seems there are some coaches who get into the profession because the lure of the fame and fortune is great. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has been an outspoken critic of college basketball but has a certain level of respect for the men coaching. The lucrative coaching profession drives many young teachers and coaches into the game, but that isn’t so bad according to the former North Carolina player. If there are more people wanting to get in, just like in the college admissions process, then the quality of candidates will be better. Delany also understands that coaching today is not like it used to be. "The coach has three parts to him. He is part teacher, part coach, and part marketer. I think in the old days they were more the teacher, coach, then marketer. Now they are more marketers than anything else. Everybody is selling something," he continues. "None of these guys would trade $750,000, five-year contracts for a seven-year, $57,000 a year contract. The guys that I am more concerned about are the guys who are making $50,000 a year and getting fired after three years. I’m not very concerned much about a guy making a half a million or a million dollars a year who is having to produce on a regular basis. By that I mean multitask production, not just winning. Graduation compliance, being a spokesman. If you are going to make that kind of money, it is not unusual to expect a person to deliver on a number of levels. If they do, it’s not unusual for them to be rewarded." When Purdue assistant Jay Price was a single man, coaching at the University of Oklahoma, he met a woman one day and asked her out to lunch in the middle of the season. She agreed to the date and asked Price when. "Whenever I can find the time," he responded. "What do you mean, you’ve got to find the time? All you do is sit in your office and draw up plays," the woman retorted. And so the perception of the public, from the movies, from television, and from not-so-great representatives of the coaching world, is that coaches don’t do much but draw up plays on a chalkboard. They go to practice; then go home. Many coaches will tell you that in today’s game, of all of their duties as the CEO, diagramming plays, conducting practices, and coaching in games are the least of what they do. Most coaches assert that only 20 to 30% of their time is now spent on practice, scouting, or game coaching. So what about the rest of their time? There is the time-consuming recruiting, fund-raising, media commitments, office management, speaking engagements, and so much more.
"I’m just a teacher and have never worked in business, but I know that being a CEO is all about people management," Mike Brey explains. "I have to deal with people above me, my bosses and AD, and with people below me, my assistants, office staff and, most of all, the players. Attitudes, chemistry, recruiting, putting out fires, PR. People would be shocked at how little basketball is talked about by coaches. Just shocked."
Certainly coaches at lesser-known schools have fewer of these commitments, but then they may have added duties like driving the team van, setting up a gym for games, or doing some of the team laundry. But at the major schools like Kansas, UCLA, Duke, and Michigan, the demands from external sources, the fans, media, and university are a lot greater than those at Niagara, Monmouth, and Texas Southern. The work level is the same for all Division I coaches, but how they spend their time differs.
Perhaps Jay Price had a response to that woman back in Oklahoma who wanted a date, or perhaps he didn’t even know how to begin to respond. Coaches are doing much more than drawing up plays, to their dismay and perhaps to the detriment of the game, but college basketball is no longer just a game. It is a multibillion-dollar business that demands strong personalities, an unrelenting work ethic, and coaches willing to face the pressures and demands. The benefits are great but only a select few are willing, and able, to do what coaches do. The experience of writing this book was a memorable one, and I hope that you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it. My hope is that you come away with a better understanding of college coaches, of what they do, and why they do it, so the next time you are ready to question a substitution, scream an obscenity, or make your NCAA Tournament pool picks, you might just think twice about the men at the center of it all.
About the Author:
As a journalist, coach, educator and fan, Brian Curtis brings considerable experience in television and sports to his latest project. Most recently, Curtis was a sports reporter and broadcaster for Fox Sports Net based in Los Angeles, primarily covering college basketball and college football. He was nominated for two Los Angeles Emmy Awards in 2001 and has received high praise from his peers for his work. Prior to working for Fox Sports Net, Curtis worked as a sports reporter and anchor for a local television station in Ohio, covering basketball and football in the Mid American Conference. He hosted a call-in sports radio talk show, Sports Conversation, in Virginia and covered ACC basketball on radio. In addition to his work in broadcasting, Curtis has been a soccer coach at the collegiate and high school levels, and has worked in the athletic departments at the University of Virginia, University of Delaware and Ohio University. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association as well as other broadcasting and coaching organizations. Curtis gives his time to the Special Olympics. Curtis holds a Master’s degree from Ohio University in Sports Management and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Government. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, Tamara.
Meet the Author
Brian Curtis, an award-winning sports broadcaster, was most recently a sports reporter for Fox Sports Net based in Los Angeles doing features and game reports for The Regional Sports Report and The National Sports Report, primarily covering college basketball including the PAC 10, WAC and Big Sky conferences. In addition to his extensive sports broadcasting experience on network and local television, Curtis has coached at the high school and college levels and has worked in the athletic departments at UVA, UD and OU. He resides in Los Angeles, California.
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