Is Bzdelik the remedy to coach attrition?

Originally Published: May 18, 2005
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Air Force Academy athletic director Hans Mueh spent the first half of this week avoiding the media ... and now we know why. He was finalizing the hiring of Jeff Bzdelik as his new basketball coach.

Mueh was trying to protect a glass house in a hail storm, working to keep the most fragile winning program in America from cracking. Bzdelik, the former Denver Nuggets coach, is the academy's third coach in the last three years.

There are several reasons to be excited about this hire -- but if he's the wrong choice or chooses to make a quick re-entry to the pro market, the Air Force program could shatter like a backboard under siege from Darryl Dawkins.

Concurrently blessed and cursed by the best two-year run in its inglorious hoops history, the school that had three head coaches in its first 44 years is now caught in a transitional spin cycle.

First, Joe Scott left for his alma mater, Princeton, after authoring a breakthrough season that merely ranks as the finest coaching job this century. Air Force's 22-7 year in 2003-04, which included a Mountain West Conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth, was a completely unforeseen masterpiece, every bit as astonishing as Northwestern's Rose Bowl run of 1995.

To appreciate the accomplishment, you must understand the history: It was the Falcons' first winning season in 25 years, and their first winning record ever in conference play. (In fact, they'd never been better than 6-10 in 23 years of WAC and MWC membership.)

Before that breakthrough, Air Force basketball had exactly two claims to fame: It had a second lieutenant assistant coach named Dean Smith in 1957-58, and its leading scorer in 1969-70 was a guy named Gregg Popovich.

Last year, Scott handed the reins to his top assistant, baby-faced Chris Mooney, who kept the school's Princeton offensive system intact. The transition was smooth enough to result in an 18-12 record. The combined 40 victories from 2003 to 2005 beat the academy's previous best two-year win total by nine.

But then Mooney did what coaches do -- he agreed to a new five-year contract at Air Force on May 1, then left for another job days later. And this time, the jilting was downright insulting.

Losing Scott to the Ivy League stung, but at least he went to his alma mater and a place where he had coached under legendary Pete Carril. Mooney left an experienced roster at the school that gave him his first Division I head coaching job for mid-major Richmond.

This being a military academy, he should be charged with desertion.

When you win 18 games in a solid league and still get snubbed by the NIT, as Air Force was last year, you're lacking respect. When you're losing coaches to Princeton and Richmond, it's a pretty good indication that your program isn't on autopilot. Even with the dramatic recent progress, it's a perpetually slippery slope at Air Force.

"It's always going to be a work in progress," said Reggie Minton, coach of the Falcons from 1984 to 2000 and currently the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "You're never going to be able to sit back in the rocking chair and say, 'We've got it going now. We've got 'em coming in.' You're always going to have to stay energetic, stay on top of everything."

Which brings us to Mueh's current search. He proceeded under the John Wooden maxim: Be quick but don't hurry.

Quickness was important because the summer between cadets' sophomore and junior seasons is a major attrition point at Air Force. When they begin their junior year, they make a five-year military commitment. Having a coach in place probably will help the player retention rate.

Speed, though, was secondary to stability. The most important task was to find the right guy for a job that he actually wants to keep for a while. Only time will tell whether a former NBA coach can find long-term happiness at a military academy.

"I'm sure they're disappointed [by the coaching turnover]," Minton said. "Unfortunately, sometimes that's the nature of the business. Now they have to figure out: If they hire another guy and he has an outstanding year, is he going to leave in a short period of time?

"If it were me, I would make sure that I felt there was some kind of connection beyond the basketball part of it."

To help cement that connection, Mueh has said he wants to write a buyout into the new coach's contract. He also said Bzdelik will maintain the Princeton scheme, which has done for Air Force basketball what the option has done for Air Force football. Both give a less-talented team its best chance to win by monopolizing the ball with an offense that is difficult for opponents to simulate in practice

Beyond Xs and Os, Bzdelik will need to come into the job with his eyes wide open to the bigger picture.

"At the Air Force Academy, because of the uniqueness of it, you need a pretty good understanding of what you're getting into and how business is conducted there," said Minton, whose best record was 14-14 in 1988-89. "If you go in thinking it's simply another coaching job, it is a disservice to everyone involved.

"I thought it was a privilege to coach at the Air Force Academy. They're good people; it's an outstanding institution; and if you care about young people and our country, you have to appreciate what they do there. Yeah, I was disappointed when we didn't win, but I never allowed that to become bigger than why we were there."

The bigger picture explains why, before Scott's annus mirabilis of 2003-04, this was arguably the toughest coaching job in college basketball.

It's tougher at Air Force than at Army or Navy because of the competition. The Falcons aren't in the Patriot League, playing against schools with limited scholarships. They're in the Mountain West, annually one of the top 10 leagues in the power ratings.

And they don't have basic cadet training before freshman year at, say, UNLV or San Diego State. The summer before college classes start, Air Force's basketball players are roughing it for weeks in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, going through a demanding mental and physical orientation to military life.

Once through that, players must balance rigorous academic work with military obligations and basketball. There are no bunny majors at the academy, and there's no slouching into class in sweats. You keep your uniforms ironed to military specs.

Despite that, Minton insists "the toughest thing is not the military. It's the academics. The military is the thing that scares recruits because they don't know much about it.

"When you're recruiting, you've just got to make people smart. The first thing you do when you go into a recruit's house is to allay fears. Then you get across the realities of the institution."

The current reality is that Air Force basketball has come a long way from its pathetic past, but the program remains fragile enough to shatter if the Falcons lose the momentum of the past two years.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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