Be thankful for coaches

November 26, 2008 | Drew Forrester

We always start talking about being thankful for things in our life at this point in the year.  The Thanksgiving holiday starts a month of family get-togethers, meeting up with friends and remembering how fortunate we all are to have good health and love in our lives.

So, I won’t bore you with all of my personal “thanks”.  I have a great family, a job I enjoy, a house with a roof, a pretty decent golf game and, more importantly, good health (and new glasses…I can see again!). Enough said on that subject.  

Yesterday, though, I started to think about sports and what – in sports, particularly – I’m thankful for during this Thanksgiving week.  Sports has always been a major part of my life.  I worked in the soccer business from 1981 through 1998 and, for the most part, have spent nearly all of my adult life surrounded by sports either via business or participation.

The more I follow, watch and report on sports, the more thankful I am for one element of the industry that a lot of people don’t understand.

I’m thankful for coaches.

Coaches are my favorite thing about sports.  Winning is cool.  Championships are great.  Players are special.

But coaches are the best thing about sports. 

Without them, sports changes dramatically.  Without them, the games don’t happen.

No one knows how much coaches care.  Except coaches.

Quick, what’s Todd Heap’s career won/loss record?  Answer:  He doesn’t have one.  He has 362 career catches and 29 TD’s in the NFL.  But career record?  Not applicable.

Jon Gruden has a career record.  It’s 94-77.

Roy Williams has a career record: 529-131

Those are just two names I thought of right away.  Think of any other coach you like (or don’t).  They all have a record.  Every win stays with them forever and every loss is linked to them as well.

Last night, Davidson beat Loyola in college basketball, 78-48.  Jimmy Patsos has caught some heat today for employing a defensive formation that called for double-teaming Davidson’s Stephen Curry.  Curry wound up basically NOT participating in the action, taking only three shots on the night, scoring no points — and yet, Loyola still lost by 30.  Patsos gets the heat for all of it.  Forget that his players turned the ball over 21 times.  Patsos has to answer to the media after the game.  Then, when the game ends, his Greyhounds pile on the bus and head to the hotel.  While Patsos and his staff sit in the front of the bus and start thinking “how are we going to win in Vermont this weekend?”, his players sit in the back of the bus and text their friends back home…or listen to their iPod…or talk about how they weren’t used right in the game against Davidson.

The coaches go back to the hotel and watch game film.  The players watch David Letterman.  

The coaches get four hours of sleep and get up at 7:00am to have breakfast and talk about the loss again. 

The players sleep in until a 10:00am meeting and stretching session — and when they eventually all trickle in, maybe three of them are actually awake.  

The coaches, meanwhile, can NEVER afford to have a bad day or an off day.  If they do, who runs the team?

I had one of the best coaching experiences in my life last December.  I was invited by Towson basketball coach Pat Kennedy to join the team for their game at Temple.  It was a Thursday night and the team did the “up and back” trip because of finals.  Pat and his staff assembled in his office at 1:00 pm that day.  I was there.  They watched game film and each coach (at the time, Jim Meil, Jay Eck and Eric Skeeters) was allowed to offer his analysis of how Towson could game plan for Temple later that night.  It was a very intense 75 minutes.  Meil “controlled” the remote and plays and players (from Towson and Temple) were reviewed and insights were offered on how the Tigers should play against certain players.  There was a brief walk-through with the players on the court at 2:15pm.  The defensive strategies were discussed and every single player participated in the walk-through to make sure the strategy for the game was understood.

Once the bus pulled out at 3:00pm from the Towson Center, more work was in store for the players.  Hats and iPods came off of every player and the video/DVD player displayed a 45-minute in-depth overview of Temple, with player’s tendencies on the screen (“goes to his right anytime he cuts to the basket” — “watch out for a power move that starts with a dip of the left shoulder when he gets the ball”, etc.).  Every player on Temple was highlighted with their specific skill set flashed on the screen (“has great speed” — “likes to move without the ball” — “dangerous shooter from the corner”).  Pat Kennedy added comments as the video played and the players were all in tune with what was expected from them.

At the arena in Temple, each player received a 16-page “preview” of the game.  Every stat known to man was there.  Every player from Temple was given a page — everything the coaches had talked about – everything the video showed – it was all there in black and white.  Players were asked to read a page OUT LOUD…Kennedy and his staff had that Towson Tigers’ team fully prepared for Temple.  There was no way, no way humanly possible, that any player from Towson didn’t know his role for the game or the tendencies of the players from Temple.

I was in on everything.  I was in the locker room before the game listening to Kennedy and Meil speak.  I was on the bench during warm-ups.  I was in the coaches locker room before the game.  I was a coach, without the sportcoat and without the record.  And, of course, I didn’t say anything!

Towson was prepared.  I thought to myself, “wow, this is going to be a helluva basketball game tonight and I have a courtside seat.  I’m part of the team.”

The Tigers got run out of the gym by Temple.  They lost by 28 (or something like that…) and it was a terrible performance from start to finish.  

As the clock ticked off the final seconds, I wondered to myself, “What’s Pat going to say to them afterwards? What can you say to your team when they just lost by a million?”

After a 10-minute cooling off period and coaches consultation session out in the hallway, Kennedy said, “let’s go talk with them and see where they’re at…”

He walked in to the locker room.  No one was saying a word.  Pat said, “Guys, I have to tell you that I let you all down tonight.  We, as coaches, came up with the wrong game plan.  You all wanted to run with this team tonight.  You wanted to play basketball with them.  We thought slowing the game down was the way to go but it obviously wasn’t.  We would have been much better off running the floor with them.  We’ll take the blame for this one.”

That was all complete b.s., of course…maybe it WAS the wrong game-plan, but the fact of the matter was that the players didn’t even execute the game-plan they were given in the first place.  They tried for about 8 minutes or so until it was obvious that Temple was much better on that night.  And after that, they lost interest in everything except “what time does the bus leave?”.

And afterwards, even though his players let him down, Pat Kennedy took the blame.

That’s why I love coaches.

They get the heat, take the blame and work the hardest.

Sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.