D.A.: Why Are Football And Basketball Coaches Wired So Differently?

When you’re around a football coach you are always keenly aware you’re around one. The conversations are usually an unrelenting firehose of gridiron, all scheme and personnel. There is a very insular football community which probably stems from the inordinate amount of time spent watching film of the sport, and the tactical minutiae that is obsessed over. A “tell” here, a “look” there, and that could be the difference in beating your rival, which could be the difference in your season, your life, your career. Football is so all-consuming for so many coaches it’s impossible for them to peer out from under their General Patton helmets.

There’s a few exceptions, like Pete Carroll or Marv Levy, but usually a football coach’s world is seen only through the prism of the game. Bill Belichick may have thoughts on the afterlife, but the only thing he’s willing to offer is how the tight end needs to block on a sweep play. Nick Saban is one of the greats of all-time, but if he’s not talking about satellite camps or Mississippi State’s special teams it’s a minor miracle. Jim Harbaugh’s mind seems to be swimming with the ideas an 8-year-old assumes football coaches think about. Drinking milk. Eating steak. Drawing plays.

Basketball coaches are wired differently. Phil Jackson practices his down dog yoga poses in the mountains of Montana. Gregg Popovich hates talking basketball, but loves discussing politics. Coach K will hold court on life lessons. There isn’t an undying and relentless focus on hours in the film room, or the militaristic scheduling of different units and position groupings, so hoops minds may be allowed to think more about life outside their sport. There’s a few exceptions, like crazy Bobby Knight or cranky Jim Calhoun, but usually their worldview is allowed to explore other dynamics.

Which makes interviewing coaches here in Phoenix at the Final Four so fascinating. Basketball has been infiltrated by analytics and statistical study, but the game’s free-flowing nature allows its participants to breathe. In football, the idea is control the chaos. Assess the opponent. Call the play. Execute the plan. Basketball has its sets out of timeouts, and coaches screaming at players from the sidelines, but it’s a much more intuitive existence for its participants. If LeBron grabs a rebound and turns up court with a head of steam, coaches have to sit back and watch the horror unfold.

On Thursday’s show we invited a half dozen coaches to jump on set with us from Radio Row. The far-reaching conversations from all of them left me intellectually stimulated and enjoying the expanse of topics.

Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams admitted he has read three chapters a day from three different books (9 chapters total) every day for twenty years. “I haven’t spent much time in my career learning how to draw another play. I think that’s somewhat overrated. What I’ve tried to do is figure out how to lead better and figure out how to help people more and be efficient in all of that. Along the way, there’s been so many people that have poured their wisdom into me, and I think that a byproduct of that is I just want to pour that wisdom that I’ve learned and try to help others.”

FGCU’s Joe Dooley was a longtime assistant at Kansas and remarked about playing and practicing inside the ancient Phog Allen Fieldhouse. “A thing that you’ll never forget in your coaching career. You’ll never forget coming back at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and the lights would be on the Fieldhouse. You’d look around and see the retired jerseys and the banners hanging and say ‘This is why you coach at Kansas.’ You’d see the faces, hear the voices… (For games) when the (introduction) video pops up on the board, you get chills every time. It’s just the best.”

Princeton’s Mitch Henderson discussed with me the most important lesson legendary coach Pete Carril passed down to him: “Nothing else matters more than the moment that you’re in, and being the very best you can right then… If I can be anywhere close to simplifying things for my guys I’d be happy… Your phone? We went to Italy as a team in August. The phone’s were off. We had these long dinners. The guys said, ‘This is amazing. We are talking all the time’ I said, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do, talk to each other!’ I think trying to have meaningful interactions with each other helps everything.”

Meaningful interactions. That’s the nut of it. How meaningful is it when you’re chopping up the zone blitz or the definition of a catch? To be fair, it’s also tough to come by in basketball when you’re asked about the last-second loss on a deep three at the postgame podium. Much easier to find when you have some time for these hoops minds to reflect. There’s plenty to mine if you dig enough, and here at the Final Four there’s a pinch of wisdom in some of the most unlikely places.

D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.

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