Mentors make the coach

Originally Published: December 21, 2003
By Fran Fraschilla | Special to ESPN.com

In Webster's dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

  • Mentor: "A trusted counselor or guide."
  • Pupil: "One who is taught or influenced by a teacher."

    Over the course of 10 days, we'll witness two high-profile mentors play their prized former pupils. It was only a week ago Saturday when Rick Pitino once again beat his protege Billy Donovan and his then-No. 1 Gators in Louisville. Monday night, another mentor meets his pupil, as Bob Knight takes on Steve Alford in Dallas as Texas Tech battles Iowa (ESPN, 9 ET).

    But whether the game is on national TV or in a small gym in Wichita, Kan., every coach's philosophy has been shaped and influenced by the coaches he has played and worked for. When the Hawkeyes have the ball, look at how their "motion offense" is essentially the same one Alford played in while at Indiana. In fact, it was effective enough for him to become the Hoosier's all-time leading scorer and help lead Indiana to the 1987 NCAA title. It is only natural that Alford's own coaching philosophy would be impacted by Knight.

    When you watch Donovan's team, there is a lot of Pitino's up-tempo philosophy evident in their style of play It is the same style that made Donovan successful as a player at Providence. And, sure, Roy Williams carved out his own success in college basketball through 15 seasons at Kansas, but look at his Jayhawk teams of the past, or this year's UNC squad. See a little Dean Smith there?

    THE 'ULTIMATE' MENTOR
    By ESPN's Fran Fraschilla

    Dr. James Naismith was widely credited with inventing the game of basketball in 1891 at the Springfield (Mass.) YMCA. Not many people know that he took the game with him to the University of Kansas in 1898, where he started the basketball program.

    One of his pupils was a young man named Forest Clare Allen, better known as Phog Allen, who would coach KU to 591 wins before retiring in 1956. Allen, in turn, coached future Hall of Fame coaches Adolph Rupp, John McClendon, Ralph Miller and Dean Smith.

    Rupp went on to great success at Kentucky, producing many successful coaches, two by the names of Joe. B. Hall and Gale Catlett. Smith's many proteges, of course, are legion -- but two went back to Kansas to keep the great basketball tradition alive there: Larry Brown, who won the 1988 NCAA championship and Roy Williams, who just ended one of the most successful coaching runs ever in college basketball.

    When it was time to replace Williams upon his departure to UNC this spring, the obvious choice was Bill Self, the head coach at Illinois. This past October, Self walked out to center court at Phog Allen Field House during KU's version of Midnight Madness to a standing ovation from the 17,000 fans. And, Self not only brought out his mentor with him, Larry Brown, the man who hired him at KU 18 years earlier, but he also brought out all the ghosts of that famous arena that sits on Naismith Drive.

    Mike Krzyzewski, like Alford, was mentored by Bob Knight. And, in his decades of success at Duke, he's mentored successful coaches like Mike Brey, Quin Snyder and Tommy Amaker. Jud Heathcoate mentored Tom Izzo, among many others, and now Izzo has branches of his "family tree" stretching throughout today's game with the likes of Tom Crean (Marquette), Stan Heath (Arkansas), Brian Gregory (Dayton) and Mike Garland (Cleveland State) in the head coaching ranks.

    Still, even with the hours spent around a great head coach as a player or as an assistant coach, it is important for every coach to be his own coach. I had the good fortune to learn the game from four successful head coaches -- Jack Kraft at Rhode Island, Danny Nee at Ohio University, Gary Williams at Ohio State and Rick Barnes at Providence College.

    Nee, who is now at Duquesne, had the biggest influence on my coaching career. After a successful run as Digger Phelps' assistant at Notre Dame, Nee turned around a dormant program at Ohio. As part of his staff, we would win at least 20 games four years in a row, reach the postseason three times and did not lose two games in a row during that time.

    Like a lot of 23-year-olds, I thought I knew it all before I worked for Nee. I found out, however, how little I knew and he let me know it. As an ex-Marine, he was extremely demanding, covered every base -- whether it was recruiting, scouting, coaching or running basketball camp -- and accepted absolutely no excuses.

    Nee made his assistants do everything a head coach would do. The first time I ever spoke in public was at an Ohio University Booster club luncheon. I was petrified. But the more I did it, the more it prepared me to be a head coach. Now, 20 years later, I am making a living talking about basketball and could give a 20-minute speech in my sleep.

    I remember the first recruiting trip I took on my own. It was an 8½-hour drive to New York City, and 10 minutes out of Athens, Ohio, in a blizzard, I turned around and went back. When I was met by Nee, and he made it perfectly clear that working for him was like working for the United States Postal Service -- "Through rain, sleet or snow ..." I never complained about the weather again. Oh, and the player I was meant to see that trip ultimately signed with Ohio and became a four-year starter.

    If Danny Nee put you in charge of installing the zone defense for a particular team, you had better know every slide of the defense and how offenses would attack it, or he would embarrass you in front of the team. It was as much my defense, as an assistant, as it was his, and I took it personally when someone scored on us.

    My next stop was Ohio State, where I spent just two seasons with Gary Williams before he became a household name. I learned that close losses were not acceptable. Players learned this, also, and they always improved under Williams because they learned to compete. We won way more games than we should have at Ohio State with the talent we had. And, to this day, I am convinced that had he stayed with the Buckeyes -- with guys like Jimmy Jackson and Chris Jent in the fold -- he'd have won an NCAA title or two before finally breaking through in 2002 with the Terps.

    Williams was (and remains) so intense. Once I wore the same glen-plaid suit for a game that he and I had both purchased from the same clothier. He was not pleased and the veins almost popped out of his neck when he saw this "twin" suit. I thought for a moment that I would have to go home and change clothes. Maybe I should have. The next time I bought a suit, I made sure to ask the salesman if Coach Williams had been in recently.

    I learned a lot of basketball from Gary, as well.

    As intense as he is about competing, he is great about giving players freedom on offense. If you look at guys like Steve Francis, Walt Williams, Juan Dixon, Terrance Morris, Turk Booth, Lonnie Baxter and Steve Blake -- they all flourished in Coach Williams' system. Being a former point guard at Maryland himself, he has a great feel for offensive tempo. His teams can run on you and beat you up inside when they have to.

    When Gary left to go to Maryland, I went to Providence with Rick Barnes, whom I had replaced as an assistant at Ohio State.

    Barnes has the same intensity that Gary and Danny have. A lot of the defensive principles I learned and used as a head coach came from Coach Barnes. His teams at Texas are, generally, as good defensively and as physical as anyone's in the country.

    Barnes also did everything he could to maximize a player's ability. He was very big on strength and conditioning back then, and he now probably has one of the largest basketball weight rooms in the country. He loved developing players on the court as well, and we ended up putting about eight or nine guys in the NBA. Coach Barnes would also was able to counter his intensity with a disarming style and sense of humor. I pretty sure it remains hard for a player to stay mad at him, because he never lets them leave the gym upset and he had great rapport with them.

    Ironically, while both Barnes and I called Gary Williams a mentor, Williams was influenced by his college coach Bud Millikan, who played and coached for the legendary Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). Iba had, in turn, a great influence on so many coaches -- from Don "Bear" Haskins and Eddie Sutton, who also played for him, to Bob Knight, who befriended him later in life.

    In addition, Gary Williams worked for Dr. Tom Davis at Lafayette College. In later years, an Ohio State-Iowa game between the two would look like an inter-squad game as both teams pressed and trapped each other for 40 minutes, with neither the "mentor" nor the "pupil" giving in.

    I was an assistant for 13 years before becoming a head coach at the age of 33. The people I worked for, without a doubt, influenced my coaching philosophy. I took all the best things I liked from each coach, making sure, however, that they fit my own personality. In nine seasons as a head coach at Manhattan, St. John's and finally New Mexico, eight of my teams reached the postseason. And each team had a little of Nee, Williams and Barnes in it -- probably with some Millikan, Iba, Davis and Phelps mixed in.

    As a fan of basketball history, the coaching combinations used to be successful still boggle my mind.

    Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.

    Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN. He formerly was the head coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico.
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