Monday, March 31, 2014

building a Program

They picked the wrong sport to do a video series on.

I think there are two ways, and only two ways, a coach can earn the trust of his players.  Being nice is not one of them.  Being honest isn't even one of them.  (Not being honest can lose you their trust, but players will not follow an honest, incompetent coach.)  So much is made of someone being a player's coach or a disciplinarian and so on, and some players respond better to one style than another, but it's still just style.  If being mean was a deal-breaker, nobody would've ever heard of Bobby Knight.  But nobody ever said he'd lost the trust of his players.

How do you earn their trust, then?  Simple.  If a coach says: do X, and Y will happen, and the player does X, and Y happens, that's how they come to trust him.  That goes for everything.  Maybe Coach says, move your feet a certain way and you can beat that defender.  Maybe Coach says, the next dumbass who misses a class doesn't play.  Maybe Coach says, this is an important concept and the first one of you to pick it up, starts.  Maybe Coach says, this team we're playing is lousy at chasing through screens, so we will get an open shot if we run this play.

Or maybe Coach says, if you come with me and work hard, we will put this place on the map.

And then Akil Mitchell learned how to beat defenders, Sylven Landesberg got parked, Will Sherrill became a starter, Malcolm Brogdon found himself open against Pitt, and Virginia Basketball is on the map.  For five years this team has done X.  And Y happened.

Most coaches get at least some traction this way, or they wouldn't be coaches.  At some level, they can make their players better.  They can teach their players footwork, fundamentals, shooting, they can draw up plays that work more often than not. The more they fail to deliver Y, though, the less their players will want to do X, and that's how most of them eventually get fired.  And the bigger Y gets, the harder it is to deliver.  Uncommon is the coach that can deliver on the biggest of his promises.  Bo Schembechler became a legend at Michigan because he promised, "Those who stay will be champions" and those who stayed literally became champions.  Tony Bennett sold his first recruiting class on a similar theme, and what a feeling of fulfillment it must have been for Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell to watch it coming true around them, first in Charlottesville, and then in Greensboro.

How can anyone see that promise delivered and fail to trust the man after that?  It's impossible.  This is not to say there'll be no more transfers.  (This is not to say there will.)  But if someone leaves the program now, it's not because they don't believe what Tony Bennett is selling.  It'll just be that they want something else more.

Such a person would probably be hard to find on this team.  I said there were two ways for a coach to earn a player's trust.  The second is this: when someone new joins the team and his new peers are hanging on every word Coach says, they'll do the same.  That's what they call a culture.  A guy like Justin Anderson, it's not so much that when Tony Bennett says jump, Anderson asks how high.  It's more that he already knows how high.  A fresh crop of players will arrive in the summer, three of them, and they'll be integrated into team activities and they'll see the Andersons and Brogdons and Perrantes's and everyone else, who don't need to be told stuff, and pretty soon the new guys won't need to be told stuff either.

I'd say, for all that, that we're witnessing the beginning of a new team culture, but that already happened.  We saw it when a former afterthought of a walk-on, whose millions will be made on Wall Street instead of a basketball court, got tossed into the starting lineup because he set better screens than the other guys.  Will Sherrill, if he'd ever tried to guard a Jabari Parker, would've been gooshed like a spider, but he could do one thing better than just about anyone else - that being, "what Tony wanted."

Will Sherrill is just one example; a process like this will have far too many to list and we fans won't see most of them.  But it's telling that when Joe Harris saw his promise slipping away, that a 35-point loss in Knoxville didn't fit with the proposed vision of the program, he didn't call a player's-only meeting or put his head down and sulk or commiserate with his teammates or retreat to an empty gym and shoot angry free throws til his fingers bled.  Tony Bennett had delivered Y every time his players gave him X, so Joe Harris simply asked for another X.

That's a powerful statement of trust.  And Tony delivered again, as he's done for his players without fail for five years.  In doing so, he also delivered the one thing UVA fans have been craving for a long time: relevance.  It's impossible to be upset for very long about exiting the tournament, because this is a built program now.  Not everyone wants to believe that (you'd be surprised, or maybe not, about how many Maryland fans went from "lord I hope they don't win this conference in our last year" to "they're just this year's Miami.")  "This year's Miami" is actually kind of a theme for a lot of people, even ones I've talked to up in my neck of the woods, who in about 11 months will not remember they said that.  This was a great friggin' ride, a phenomenal three months, by far the best months of my roughly 14 years as a Hoo.  And for all the joy and wonder of every single game this team played, it was all the better for the realization that it doesn't have to stop when the dance ends this year.  For the first time in almost six years, I can turn around a favorite lament of mine: we can have nice things.


Anonymous said...

The crazy thing to me is how this almost didn't work. I like you're two points for building a program, but Tony almost didn't have Y happen, remember he promised X and got Tennessee. You yourself had hopes for at best a run at the bubble after that, tops. So for me it's the adjustment that's most impressive, because you know he thought that what he was doing would lead to wins, and when it didn't he had enough humility and common sense to change things up.

BostonHoo said...

I lived through the Sampson era and we all kinda knew that when Ralph was gone so would the magic. I don't think anyone has that feeling about this program. It is built for the long haul and does not turn on the arrival and departure of a single player or even two players. We are not this year's Miami we are next years ... Duke.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for wrapping up all the media coverage on basketball. I read all that I could find and kept reading the same stuff. I'm done now that your article summed up what is good with the program. We'll done!