About thirty years ago, when he was the basketball coach at the University of Virginia, Terry Holland was at a party one night in Charlottesville.
Holland had coached the Cavaliers to two Final Fours at that point and had made Virginia a perennial NCAA contender both before, during and after recruiting Ralph Sampson.
A guy Holland knew, a local surgeon, walked up to him and said, “Terry, you mind if I give you some advice about your basketball team?”
Holland looked at the man and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do mind.”
The man was taken aback. He had no doubt figured Holland would at least listen to him and might even take one of his pearls of wisdom home with him since he was a ‘Hoos hoops expert—having courtside seats at University Hall.
“What did you say?” the man said, stunned. “Why wouldn’t you want to at least listen to what I have to say?”
Holland shrugged. “If I walked in when you were in surgery and said, ‘hey doc, mind if I give you some advice on what you’re doing there?’ how would you react?”
The man laughed. “Terry, I trained for years to do what I do, I have an expertise you can’t possibly have…”
“SO DO I,” Holland said.
Years later, Holland laughed re-telling the story. “What people don’t understand—what most fans don’t understand—is that not only have I trained for years to be a coach but I know my team and my players in ways he can’t possibly know them. I know who’s sick; I know who’s depressed because he broke up with his girlfriend; I know who’s struggling in school. I know who gets along and who doesn’t get along off the court. I know things they can’t possibly know, which is why it’s absolutely ridiculous for someone who sits and watches games to think he can tell me something about my team I don’t already know.”
I thought about Holland on Tuesday night watching Tom Izzo talk to the media after his Michigan State team lost to Purdue to drop to 4-4 in the Big Ten and 12-9 overall. Michigan State last missed the NCAA Tournament in 1997—Izzo’s second season as coach. There are whispers the Spartans might not make it this year although I believe that Izzo—being Izzo—will find a way to get his team going in February and make a 20th straight NCAA appearance.
What got my attention on Tuesday was a question someone asked Izzo about, ‘the fan base.’ The point of the question was that Izzo has been saying he sees improvement in his young team—he’s playing four freshmen extensively—and the reporter wondered if Izzo was concerned that the fan base might be starting to doubt him and his team just a little.
“I don’t care about the fan base,” Izzo snapped.
He wasn’t saying he didn’t care about his fans. He does. What he was saying was that he doesn’t care what they THINK.
As with Holland and Virginia all those years ago, Izzo really doesn’t need anyone in his fan base—or anyone else–telling him what’s wrong with his team or how he might get the freshmen to play like juniors with a snap of his fingers.
Izzo knows what he’s doing. He knows what’s wrong with his team and IF there’s an answer, he’ll find it. Period.
Because I’ve been fortunate enough to know as many coaches as I have through the years; because I’ve been granted access not just to practices and coach’s meetings but to the thoughts of many of them, I often understand what’s going on inside a team in ways that fans don’t. Actually, part of my job is to try to use that information to help fans understand better why a team is playing well or playing poorly and why a coach is doing the things he does.
I get very frustrated with reporters who like to tell people that a coach or an athlete told them something but they can’t share it. Why bring it up then? My old boss George Solomon, who I fought with constantly, had a saying I’ve always tried to keep in mind: “Why don’t you share that information with our readers?”
My brother Bobby is, in many ways typical of most fans: he knows just enough to think he actually knows something. He’s a Duke graduate and he will often call me to tell me what Mike Krzyzewski is doing wrong. I will offer him Krzyzewski’s phone numbers and suggest he give him a call and tell him directly how he can fix his team. That usually backs him down. But it doesn’t prevent the next phone call.
Of course Bobby will claim he WAS directly responsible for Duke’s 2001 championship. In November of 2000, he was diagnosed with cancer. While he was undergoing radiation treatments, Krzyzewski called cheer him up and see how he was doing. Rather than just thanking him for the call, Bobby said, “Coach, can I give you some advice about your team?”
Mike’s a very tolerant person and he didn’t want to be rude to someone dealing with the absolute hell of radiation treatments. So, he said, “sure.”
Bobby told him he needed to play Casey Saunders, an athletic though offensively challenged center, more often. Mike thanked him for the advice. When Carlos Boozer got hurt in late February, Saunders replaced him in the starting lineup. Duke won 10 straight games and the national championship. Coincidence? Probably. But Bobby didn’t see it that way. He made a complete recovery from the cancer and is still waiting for his ring.
And, he’s still calling to tell me to pass on messages to Krzyzewski in the hope that he can help him win another title.
I would guess that most fans understand—deep down at least—that their coach knows more about what’s going on with his team than they do. That doesn’t prevent them from second-guessing and doubting and honestly believing at times that they know what’s best for the team.
That’s why the backup quarterback is almost always the most popular guy in town: the fans just KNOW he’s better than the guy who is starting. Fans also tend to forget what Dean Smith often told his players: “the other team gives scholarships too.” Any loss is because their team or their coach failed. Or—often—because the referees stole the game.
When I do color on games on TV, part of my job is to first-guess—not second-guess—what coaches are doing in game. I might say, “he needs to get Smith back in the game now even if he has four fouls because this is becoming a blowout.” Or, “I think Coach Jones needs a time out right now.”
Sometimes, the coaches agree with me. Other times, they don’t. I was doing the VCU-Fordham game last week and, early in the second half, I suggested that VCU—down 14 at the time—needed a time out. Will Wade didn’t call time and the Rams went on a 10-0 run.
“Well,” I said, “that’s why he’s there and I’m here.”
I think I know basketball pretty well. I’ve been around every great coach of the last 40 years, often for lengthy periods of time. I spent an entire season with Bob Knight—every practice; every team meeting; every shootaround; every game. Unless I’m a complete idiot, I’d have to pick up SOMETHING about the game wouldn’t I?
On Tuesday night, Michigan State lost to a very good Purdue team. Izzo thought his team played well; just not well enough. He thought he saw progress. No doubt many in his fan base disagreed. No doubt many had ideas on how the Spartans can get better.
Trust me, the only person who KNOWS how to make that team better is Tom Izzo. And he won’t be listening to advice from any outsider anytime soon.
John Feinstein’s latest book, ‘The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,’ spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list. It will be published in paperback on March 1. His latest young adult mystery, ‘The DH,’ is the third in his ‘Triple-Threat,’ series. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com and he tweets at @JFeinsteinbooks.