Assisting in Coach's absence

Originally Published: January 30, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Bernie Fine did as Jim Boeheim would have done two seasons ago. Last year, George Blaney was there for Jim Calhoun. And this past Wednesday night, Kevin Willard filled in for Rick Pitino -- coaching his first college basketball game without a net at the tender age of 28.

Saturday, Kerry Rupp faces the same dilemma each of the aforementioned assistant coaches did when he takes over the controls of the Utah basketball program in the absence of Rick Majerus. His first game-day assignment: arch-rival BYU. His longterm goal as interim coach for most likely the rest of the season: get the Utes into the NCAA Tournament.

College basketball is and always will be dominated by its coaching personalities. Majerus, Pitino, Calhoun and Boeheim are among the most visible and successful coaches in the game. But each of these iconic figures has taken medical leave of absences in the past three seasons, creating incredible pressure on those left behind. And, while the challenges may start with the right-hand man, the responsibilities trickle down the bench -- from the coaches asked to assume larger roles, to the players who must perform at the same high level despite hearing a different voice on game day.

"We struggled when coach Boeheim went out," said Syracuse junior Hakim Warrick, a freshman during the 2001-02 season. "But we knew he wouldn't be out too long. It would probably be harder if you don't know how long the coach is going to be out."

Boeheim, like Calhoun last season, had to take a leave of absence for prostate surgery. Each left their team in a state of flux. Neither could give their players or coaches a return date. The same was true with Pitino's sudden departure last Monday night. But, before No. 4 Louisville could fully consider life without Pitino, he was back at practice after two days of medical tests.

Kevin Willard
Rick Pitino's advice to Kevin Willard prior to playing Houston: "Don't lose."

Rupp and the Utes, meanwhile, know they'll be without Majerus for more than one game. In fact, they don't know if Majerus will return at all this season. The Utah administration doesn't expect Majerus back this season -- even though he is out of a Santa Barbara hospital. The coaching staff and players have been told Majerus needs to change his lifestyle. They know Majerus' latest heart problems were enough of a scare to force him to give up the stressful life of a coach for the immediate future.

And, like Calhoun, Boeheim and Pitino, Majerus controls nearly every facet of the Utah program. His presence over the past 15 seasons has been totalitarian, with the details of practice and game management scripted by him. So, what happens now?

"If we lose, we could struggle. If Kerry wins, then everything should be fine," Utah assistant Tommy Abatemarco said. "Rick drove the team and the staff to win. Kerry has a different demeanor than Coach Majerus. But once the team is put together, the system is in place, and you win, then everything should be fine.

"The same happened with Pitino and Louisville this week."

Yes, but Louisville was without its leader for one game, at home, against a Houston team the Cardinals beat not only without their coach, but without their two best players -- Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean.

When the news that Pitino would be taking a indefinite leave of absence for an excruciating pain in his side that had him doubled over after Sunday night's win at Tennessee, the prognosis for the Cardinals wasn't so simple.

What if Pitino were out weeks, if not months, instead of just two days to tend to a urological matter and undergo tests at the Cleveland Clinic? What if Pitino hadn't returned to practice Thursday, or been cleared to return to his seat on the bench Saturday when Marquette came to Freedom Hall?

No, even if a team wins, it's never simple to replace one of these legends.

Two seasons ago, Boeheim relied on longtime friend and assistant Fine to take over a Syracuse team that opened the season with six straight wins. The Orangemen won the first game with Fine in charge, beating Hofstra rather handily. But the Orange lost the next two against Georgia Tech and N.C. State.

"When we won our first game, no one even talked about it," Warrick said. "Everything was fine after the game, no one brought it up. But then once we lost that first game without Coach Boeheim, that seemed to be what everyone talked about -- coach Boeheim not being there.

"If you win, then it's as if nothing has happened. When you lose, that's when all the controversy starts and all the talk starts about the coach."

In fairness to Fine and the Orangemen, the 2001-02 squad was a team lacking leadership in its lineup. (Carmelo Anthony didn't come aboard until a year later.) Boeheim returned and the Orange reeled off seven straight wins, but Syracuse wound up 9-7 in the Big East and in the NIT -- becoming the rare team to win the Preseason NIT and then play in the postseason NIT. The next season, Anthony arrived, and the Orangemen went from the NIT to NCAA champions.

WILLARD A WINNER

Kevin Willard and the Louisville Cardinals used nerves as a bonding agent Wednesday night against Houston.

In the locker room before the game, the 28-year-old assistant coach acknowledged to the team that he was nervous stepping in for legend-in-residence Rick Pitino, who missed the game while receiving treatment for an unspecified ailment in Cleveland. Not only that, the Cards were going without leading scorer Francisco Garcia (sprained ankle) and top shooter Taquan Dean (pulled groin).

There were plenty of butterflies flying around the pregame locker room. That's when Willard decided to use them to his advantage.

"He said, 'Let's be nervous together and just go out, play and have fun,'" senior guard Alhaji Mohammed Jr. told The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.

That the Cards did, defeating the Cougars 64-48. It was an inartistic game against a poor opponent -- but given the absentee list, a great win.

"After the game all I told them was, 'I appreciate what you guys did for me,'" said Willard, the son of Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard. "They showed up and played hard, and more important, they showed up for Coach and did not let him down. ... That's the great thing about him. Even when he's not here, they know how long his arm is."

Long enough, in fact, that Willard jokingly said he expected a phone to ring courtside, with Pitino's barking voice on the other end. As it was, Pitino's only communication during the game was with sports information director Kenny Klein, seeking statistical updates.

Before the game Willard spoke with Pitino, who asked Willard who he planned to start in place of the injured Garcia. Willard said he was going with Mohammed, and Pitino said, "I agree."

Willard made one deft decision early, calling for an alley-oop to Mohammed against the back side of Houston's 2-3 zone that resulted in a dunk. He also hustled reserve forward Nate Daniels into the lineup earlier than usual to take advantage of his 3-point shooting, which the team needed without Dean and Garcia. Daniels stepped up to score 17 points, hitting five 3s in 24 minutes of play.

It's been a tumultous two weeks for Willard, who was arrested for driving under the influence Jan. 18 and suddenly promoted to interim head coach Monday. Taking over the No. 4 team in the country and having a 15-game winning streak entrusted to you is no small burden -- especially when your boss is Pitino.

"You knew exactly what was going on inside of him, you knew he was nervous," fellow assistant Reggie Theus, who scouted Houston and was a more demonstrative presence on the bench than usual, told The Courier-Journal. "But if you looked at him, you never could tell. Kevin's a tough kid, and coaching is in his blood."
-- Pat Forde, Special to ESPN.com

Fine admits he was a bit handcuffed, saying Boeheim instructed him to coach the team and to do things Boeheim's way.

"He told me this is who you are going to play, and this is how we're going to play," Fine said. "It's not the same thing as getting an opportunity to coach your team. He's the boss and that's what you have to do."

"It shouldn't be tough for the players because the system isn't changing," Fine adds. "You're preparing for the games the way you always do. We didn't change a thing. But we didn't have leadership from the upperclassmen and we didn't play well. It was good having him back. He's a Hall of Fame coach. I definitely would like to coach my own team. It's not the same filling in, instead of coaching them for one game or two."

Both Boeheim and Calhoun had the luxury of handing their teams over to trusted, older coaches, who knew the system and the head coach's style. That was Calhoun's thought process when he called on Blaney last season. Blaney, the former Holy Cross and Seton Hall head coach, was put in charge Feb. 3 when Calhoun left for a similar procedure as Boeheim a year earlier.

But, again, nothing is scripted when it comes to playing without a head coach. The Huskies would do exactly the opposite as Syracuse, losing its first game without Calhoun at Virginia Tech, but then winning its next two -- at Providence and home against the eventual national champion Orange.

Blaney and the Huskies would split their next two games without Calhoun -- losing at Villanova and beating Rutgers at home -- going 3-2 before Calhoun returned 15 days after undergoing prostate surgery to coach against St. John's. Connecticut beat the Johnnies that day and eventually went on to the Sweet 16.

Blaney also said Calhoun instructed him on what to do, but unlike Fine, he was also given the freedom to experiment. Blaney played more zone defense. He gave freshman forward Marcus White more minutes. They were two moves Calhoun didn't have a problem with, and choices he may have made on his own eventually.

"You're going to have a bit of your own personality in there," Calhoun said. "I wanted George to feel comfortable in there. I needed him to be comfortable there. The changes were subtle."

Blaney said the trust between the two coaches helped during Calhoun's recuperation. That same bond existed between Fine and Boeheim, while Willard looks up to Pitino as more of a student than an equal.

Majerus has been in contact with Rupp and his staff, and will be the rest of the season. But his situation is different. Rupp knows his boss is retiring at season's end, and may not return this season. Boeheim, Calhoun and Pitino always expected to return to the bench as quickly as possible.

"The players have to know there is trust with the coach and the person taking over, and they do get a sense of that," Blaney said.

"I felt good about the team in George's hands because he has been down 20, and up 20, and been in every situation," Calhoun said. "I don't know why coaches don't hire incredibly competent assistants. You need someone who has sat in your seat and know what that means.

"Tommy (Moore) has been here 10 years (as an assistant) but George sat in my seat at Holy Cross (and Seton Hall) and has the comfort level that not every coach would have."

Head coaches who are comfortable with their standing at the school are usually the ones who hire former head coaches as assistants. N.C. State's Herb Sendek has former Ohio coach Larry Hunter by his side, while Virginia's Pete Gillen hired former Boise State coach Rod Jensen prior to last season. Colorado's Ricardo Patton has former Washington State coach Paul Graham on his staff. West Virginia's John Beilein sits next to former Penn State coach Jerry Dunn come game time.

These are just a few examples of head coaches who have equals by their side. Plenty of coaches take in their former assistants who were once head coaches like Ohio State's Jim O'Brien, who has former William & Mary coach Rick Boyages on his staff, and Bob Huggins, who relies on former Youngstown State coach Dan Peters.

"There's no question that a lot of coaches wouldn't be willing to hire a former head coach," Blaney said. "They may not be secure enough to do that. But it goes back to Jim and my relationship. Jim has always been willing to listen to other people. He does that every day."

If the Cardinals had lost to Houston and Pitino were out indefinitely, the pressure certainly would have mounted on Willard. In the land of Bluegrass, there would have been plenty of questions. The players may have questioned the leadership in their ranks and on the bench.

But Louisville won after Willard received only a few words of advice for him, "don't lose."

Apparently, that's universal for anyone who is taking over for an ill or recovering coach. Just win.

Rupp is not a former head coach. In fact, his coaching for however long in Majerus' absence is something of an audition for the full-time gig. So, losing would clearly not just hurt his ability to keep the team intact the way Majerus would, but also crush his chances of being Majerus' successor.

The decision of who replaces Majerus may or not have already been made. But losing, whether fair or not, is the one thing Rupp can't let occur too often if the latest replacement is going to work out as well as those in recent seasons.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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