In praise of former coaches

In my career I’ve probably written more than 50 stories involving coaching changes, with many of them not involving USD, or even college sports.

Many have not involved one person wanting to keep a job and his/her boss not making that possible, either. Some have been about moving on to a better job, some involved genuinely wanting to do something else; and then there have been family issues, location issues, personality issues – the list is a long one for why people stop coaching a particular team.

Not enough wins and too many losses, though, is always going to be No. 1 on the hit list.

I have to say my professional treatment – I’m not implying any level of expertise here, just saying I’ve paid bills with the fruits of my labors – of coaching changes has changed over the years.

When you ask athletes how things are going, they’re going to be extremely positive about coaches and teammates. This does not depend on the situation, it’s just the way college sports teams and college kids are expected to do things. At the pro level it can be different with stature and long-term contracts giving athletes the confidence to cross that line, but even then it’s an odd occurrence when someone other than an NFL wide receiver goes off on a rant that includes indictments of coaches and teammates.

When a sportswriter covering a coaching change asks the innocent question “How are things different now?”, the answer from the player will inevitably sound as if the question is “How are things better now?” because of the way sports work.

In most instances the first time this question is asked, it comes before the team has played a game for its new coach, and in some instances, athletes are being asked to answer that question before they’ve even practiced. Hell, I asked Casey Kasperbauer on Monday to talk knowledgeably about his impressions of Craig Smith — which he did very capably — even though I was well aware that the two had not even met yet.

I’m not criticizing here. If I’m on the other side of this, I don’t know how else you can approach it. It is ingrained in the competitive fabric of teams to project optimism about next games and about the next season and, in some instances, about the next coach. And it is nothing short of a college athlete’s job to speak of these things with a good attitude, just as they’re asked to show up for weightlifting, or get good enough grades to stay eligible. I do think, however, that in some ways the manner in which we ask these “new regime” questions — and the context in which we place the answers in our stories — can often give people the wrong impression about how bad things were before and how good they are now. So I try not to do it that way anymore.

I’m quite confident that when Gene Bartow replaced John Wooden at UCLA that there were players who paid their verbal respect to the legend but also spoke glowingly of Wooden’s replacement and his new way of doing things — while optimistic boosters stood by nodding their heads in agreement. I would also guess there was a part of this inevitable changing-of-the-guard public ritual that made John Wooden uncomfortable.

On Monday, athletic director David Herbster was wise to publicly credit the contributions to the program made by Craig Smith’s predecessor Joey James and – by extension – Dave Boots.

The days following Boots’ sudden departure last September were strange, no doubt about that. Regardless of circumstances, basketball coaches don’t often retire the day after Labor Day, and it would be safe to say there were hard feelings then and hard feelings now about how it all went down.

But it put James, the former USD player and longtime assistant coach, in the top spot and the new coach and his staff moved forward positively, as coaches and players are trained to do. It remains unclear as to what kind of target James was going to have to hit to keep the job permanently, or even if there was any target to hit at all. The season wasn’t a train wreck, however. They won the most games any USD team has ever won in the Summit League and the league mark was very close to being much better than it was. 

Watching the team consistently underwhelm outside the Dome was a persistent issue, however, especially over the last weekend of the regular season. The Coyotes lost one-sided games in Fargo and Brookings that weekend, places where almost nobody wins these days,  but the daunting road swing represented an opportunity at that juncture in the season for USD to play tough in tough spots. A pair of competitive games would have shown that they were indeed ready to be considered a strong contender in the upcoming conference tournament.

In the end, Smith’s hiring on Monday showed that the Boots regime came very, very close to surviving the competitive inconveniences of the transition to Division I in men’s college basketball but, in the eyes of the administration, didn’t quite pull it off. Not much was mentioned about the transition years on Monday at the podium but later Herbster said that Boots/James contributions made it possible for USD to attract a coach of Smith’s caliber to take over. It’s probably of little consolation to James, but it’s also probably true.

I remember my first conversation with Joey James. He was sitting at Pro’s along with family members who were either waiting to eat or just getting done. I recognized him – this was early in the season and he was a new juco on the roster – and I introduced myself. He was polite and confident. It was easy to see that this son of a military man had been set straight on how you deal with adults.

And that was always the way it was in my dealings with him. Polite and confident. As I got to know him better, I could add funny to the list. I could also add he was a blast to talk basketball with.

When Smith begin talking to the crowd on Monday about the academic efforts expected of the Coyotes, he was saying what coaches need to say. He has a great history – even at Mayville State – of delivering on the claims he made on Monday on that count, so that’s very likely the way things are going to be at USD.

There were likely people in the crowd who heard this and assumed that this was meant as a “crackdown” – that the clowning around was going to end with the new sheriff in town. I do not think Smith meant it that way and I know for a fact that the Boots/James regime did not build the program that way. Whether or not Smith is inheriting a core group of young players who can win a conference title remains to be seen, but it’s not like this is a ragtag group of academic misfits, or an impolite group, or a group that looks for and finds trouble. The reason this is the case is because  Boots, James and staffers Chris Kassin, Lloyd Williams and Eric Johnson wanted a team made up of good guys.

Of the transitions to Division I endured at USD, the transition to Division I men’s college basketball was obviously the toughest. This is something that bears itself out at most of the other places that undertake the project, not just an idle opinion directed at how it worked with the Coyotes.

Respecting the difficulty of that challenge and the classy way the previous staff addressed that challenge is something USD fans should try to appreciate now that a new coach is in place. I’m guessing that as Craig Smith gets more entrenched in working with the team the previous coaches left behind, he’ll understand that as well as anybody.