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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Family Business

I'm sure that the moniker applies to more than just North Carolina and Princeton hoops, but both have a coaching family, as it were. North Carolina's lineage starts with Dean Smith, who replaced Frank McGuire. The Dean became the "dean" of ACC coaches during his tenure, where the Tar Heels finished in the top three in the ACC for 33 years in a row, made the NCAA tournament for 23 years in a row and the Sweet 16 for 12 years in a row. Pretty amazing accomplishments for Coach Smith, who won two national titles during his tenure in Chapel Hill. Click on the first link, which is Carolina's website regarding Coach Smith's record, for backup for those tidbits and more.

Coach Smith had said that he would retire not after a season just ended, when he was tired, but before the beginning of a season, when he could determine whether coaching another year jazzed him enough to make the effort required. Before the 1997-1998 season, he determined that he wanted to retire, and that timing paved the way for Carolina to hire Smith's long-time top aide, Bill Guthridge, who was about 61 at the time, to be the head coach. Perhaps Smith timed his decision to grease the skids for Guthridge, who might not have made it through a search committee, but whatever the case, Guthridge honored that decision with a 80-28 record during his three-year tenure and took the Tar Heels to two Final Four appearances. That's superb in its own right, especially for someone whose decision to remain a Carolina assistant for 30 years was viewed in some circles as a concession by Guthridge himself that he was not cut out for a head coaching job. Coach Smith would dispute this vigorously, and the facts dictate that Guthridge in fact was a good head coach.

After Coach Guthridge left in 2000, a vacuum was created. Roy Williams, at the time the best head coach not to have won an NCAA Championship, had unfinished business at Kansas, the school he had joined in 1988 after serving for ten years as an assistant to Coach Smith. The Jayhawks, despite some excellent assemblages of talent, failed to win a national title, and Coach Williams had one more team -- with Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, among others, that was primed to contend. As a result, the North Carolina alum opted to remain in Lawrence, Kansas.

The problem for North Carolina was that beyond Williams, the North Carolina family presented few options. As I pointed out in some posts in the fall (here, here and here), if a university has more than one alum who is a sitting head coach and more than three alums who are sitting assistants (at DI schools), it's doing pretty well, at least in terms of populating the coaching ranks. For whatever reasons, Carolina didn't want to consider alums and then-current assistants Phil Ford, John Kuester and Dave Hanners. The ultimate Carolina alum, Larry Brown, didn't figure seriously into the mix.

That left one-time Roy Williams assistant, Matt Doherty. Doherty, who played alongside Michael Jordan at Carolina in the early 1980's, had spent seven years as an assistant under Roy Williams before getting the Notre Dame job in 1999-2000. After one year and a 22-15 record in South Bend, Doherty was tapped to be Carolina's next head coach.

It turned out to be a disaster. Doherty alienated the local basketball cognoscenti by insisting upon bringing his entire Notre Dame staff to Chapel Hill, thereby jettisoning the North Carolina contingent that aided coaches Smith and Guthridge. He was reported to have had a short fuse and not to have treated the players in the relatively dignified fashion that his predecessors did. While he ultimately recruited well (most of the key players on last year's National Championship team were his recruits), his teams foundered under his tenure, and after 3 seasons and a 53-43 record, Doherty was let go.

That decision must have been a difficult one for the Carolina family to make. After all, they had to fire one of their heralded players -- a key link on the first national championship team Coach Smith coached -- and a member of the all-important and ever-together North Carolina family. Think that's easy? Think it's easy to fire a family member? How many family-owned businesses go bankrupt because the last generation just couldn't do what the prior generations could and no one had the wisdom to see that junior could steer the ship (or had the courage to tell him that his talents lay elsewhere)? It could be that they inherited a bunch of problems, it could be that economic Darwinism took over and hurt the industry in which they operated, or it could well have been that the odds were that at some point a subsequent generation just wouldn't have the talent to run the business. In Doherty's case, he didn't have the seasoning, temperament or political savvy to follow the legend and his top protege, and rather than see their beloved family enterprise fall any further, the Carolina administration gave Matt Doherty the gate.

After only three seasons. With a great nucleus returning, too.

Raymond Felton.

Sean May.

Rashard McCants.

It helped, of course, to have Roy Williams waiting in the wings. One of the top twenty coaches in all of college basketball and one of the best, if not the best, not to have one the national championship, Williams was ready to return to Chapel Hill. His last great Kansas team didn't win a national title, and he faced some more serious rebuilding in Lawrence than he had before. The decision for Carolina, then, wasn't as painful as it would have been had Williams again sent word that he wasn't willing to leave Kansas. Then the Carolina administration would have had a tough decision -- keep Doherty, who was struggling mightily or, heaven forbid, go outside the family and hire a big-name head coach (such as South Carolina's Dave Odom, who I believe would have been a great fit in Chapel Hill). What would have happened then? Would the Carolina administration have been more patient? Could Doherty have returned the Tar Heels to Top-20 status?

Enter Williams, who had run his course at Kansas and was willing to return to Carolina, and presto, his elusive national title came to him -- and to Carolina -- all during a time when Coach K had become the dean of ACC coaches and, in fact, all national coaches. It's quite a riches to rags to riches story.

And then there's Princeton, which has quite a family lineage of its own.

From 1938-1943 and then from 1946-1961, Princeton had a head hoops coach named Franklin "Cappy" Cappon, after whom the current Princeton head coaching position is named. Cappon coached the Tigers to a 250-181 record, and among the players he coached was a feisty forward from the Class of 1944 named Willem "Butch" van Breda Kolff (who, after World War II, captained the 1946-1947 squad, which had, incidentally, a 7-16 record; van Breda Kolff is considered a member of the Class of 1944 because that was his original class at Princeton before the war broke out). Cappon fell ill in 1961, and onetime Tiger football star Jake McCandless replaced him for the remainder of the 1960-1961 campaign and the following season. In the fall of 1962, the Tigers, "VBK" as some called Van Breda Kolff, joined the Tigers as their head coach. He stayed for five years, coaching the legendary Bill Bradley and guiding the Tigers to a 103-31 record during his tenure, four Ivy titles in his five seasons and one NCAA Final Four appearance. Prior to coaching at Princeton, VBK had coached at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where one of his guards was a tough steelworker's son from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania named Pete Carril. One of his players was Gary Walters, Princeton Class of 1967, who is the current Princeton Athletic Director, who played for Pete Carril at Reading (PA) High School and who coached current Northwestern (and one-time Princeton) coach Bill Carmody when Walters was the head coach at Union (NY) college.

After the 1966-1967 season, he left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers (click here for his professional coaching record). Princeton faced a tough decision when it had to replace Van Breda Kolff, as he had done a tremendous job. Legend has it that among those who applied for the Princeton job after the 1967 season was Bob Knight (who was a bit young at the time, having graduated from Ohio State in 1962).

Princeton kept the job in the family, so to speak, by looking no further than to Bethlehem, where its first-year coach, Pete Carril, had led the Engineers (now Mountain Hawks) to a 11-12 record. Carril, who graduated from Lafayette in 1952, had paid his dues, having coached high school basketball in Easton and Reading, Pennsylvania for 11 years. My guess is that when hired the reaction was more "Pete who?" than "wow, we got a well-known name to replace Van Breda Kolff, as we should have, since he went to the NBA." (In a somewhat similar fashion, nationally prominent Duke went to an obscure coach when it had to replace Bill Foster after the 1981 season. All Foster had done was to take Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel and Gene Banks to the final game, and the Blue Devils hired the relatively unknown head coach from Army, a Bob Knight disciple named Mike Krzyzewski, whose record in four seasons at West Point was 73-59).

Princeton, not Penn, was the dominant Ivy team at the time Carril was hired, and Princeton's archrival was Cornell, not the Quakers, who didn't soup up their squad and become nationally prominent until two years later, when an outstanding coach named Dick Harter took the Quakers to a #3 national ranking in the 1970-1971 season (Penn was 25-2 the season before under Harter). Replacing Van Breda Kolff was big news, and Carril helped forge his legend quickly. In a career that spanned 29 seasons in Princeton, his record was 514-261, earning him a perch in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He coached many outstanding players, including future NBA players Geoff Petrie, John Hummer, Brian Taylor and Armond Hill. He won 13 Ivy titles in that time (11 NCAA tournament appearances and the NIT title in 1975, when he NIT was a formidable tournament), put the Princeton Offense on the map, and, as his biography set forth quite clearly, his teams played to win. As Dick Vitale, John Chaney and many others put it, no one wanted to draw Princeton in the first round on the NCAA tournament. Yet, the most talked about game from the Carril era was a loss -- when #16 seed Princeton took Georgetown to the wire and lost by a point to Alonzo Mourning and company in a thrilling game. Carril made them forget Van Breda Kolff, and he established himself as the dean of Ivy League coaches.

He also knew when to retire. In the 1995-1996 season, he was 66 years old, and the Tigers tied Penn for the Ivy title despite a fourteen-point shellacking the Quakers handed the Tigers at the Palestra in the last regular-season Ivy game for both teams. Carril was playing three guards most of the time -- Sydney Johnson, Mitch Henderson and Brian Earl -- and the Quakers took advantage of one particular size mismatch -- a shorter Henderson or Earl trying to guard the Quakers' Donald Moxley, a 6'3" (perhaps bigger) guard who had a particularly good game. The playoff game was at Lehigh, and Carril started 6'6" freshman forward Gabe Lewullis in place of Earl and put him on Moxley. Lewullis held Moxley to 0-12 shooting, scored 16 himself, and still the Tigers needed overtime to beat the Quakers and make it into the NCAA tournament. After the game, he wrote on the locker room's chalk board, "I'm so happy. I'm retiring."

What happened afterward was the stuff legends are made of. Princeton beat UCLA, 43-41, defending champion UCLA, in the first-round of the tournament, and they did so on the signature play of the Princeton offense late in the game -- a back-door pass from center Steve Goodrich to frosh forward Gabe Lewullis. That happened nine years ago, and the Tiger faithful still talk of that play.

Princeton quickly annointed Carril's long-time top aide, Bill Carmody, to the head coaching job, so quickly that it didn't appear that Old Nassau embarked upon a time-honored tradition for hiring -- the search committee. Carmody was the obvious choice, a search committee would have had to have been daffy not to have anointed him, and he rewarded the Tigers with four great seasons, going 92-25 during that time and taking the Tigers to 2 Ivy titles, 2 NCAA appearances and 2 NIT berths as well. His 1997-1998 team, featuring seniors Goodrich, James Mastaglio and Mitch Henderson and juniors Brian Earl and Lewullis, went 27-2 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to ultimate Final Four participant Michigan State. Plain and simple, that team put on a clinic every night they played and at one point was rated #8 in the country (it drew a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest seed an Ivy team has garnered since the NCAA adopted the 64-team format).

Things looked extremely rosy, and the Tigers landed an eight-person recruiting class that was the envy of everyone. But the following year, with the frosh still learning, the Tigers finished second to Penn, which was featuring a heralded frosh named Ugonna Onyekwe and didn't make the NCAA tournament (they did, however, make it to the third round of the NIT). The year after, Penn won the title again, and then the following happened to Princeton (roughly around the same time): a) two-time first-team all-Ivy center Chris Young was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third round and signed with team, giving up his Ivy eligibility (he's now a starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres); b) Carmody bolted for Northwestern; c) top Carmody aide Joe Scott got the head coaching job at Air Force, d) four other players left the team, including heralded C/F recruit Chris Krug and F Ray Robbins, and e) a few key players (G Ahmed El-Nokali and C Nate Walton) were to miss some games early in the season because of injury.

A perfect storm, perhaps. Yet, John Thompson III, who had been the team's second assistant the year before (and who graduated from Princeton in 1988, one year after his teammate, Joe Scott -- Scott played for an Ivy champion his freshman year and never again; Thompson never played for an Ivy title winner), led an unlikely contingent to an Ivy title -- in one of the best coaching jobs I have seen anywhere. In four years, his teams compiled a 68-42 record, won two titles outright and shared another (going to the NCAA tournament twice), before he bolted for Georgetown (understandably so) two seasons ago. During his tenure, he loosened up the Princeton offense a bit, and his style was more mellow than that of his predecessors, Carril and Carmody. (While Thompson was just getting going, Penn's Fran Dunphy was solidifying his reputation not only as the best coach in the Ivies, but also as one of the best in the East.) The one-time second assistant did a good job with the family business and left it in good shape for his successor. (That Thompson is a good coach also is evidenced by his first year at Georgetown, where he breathed life into a moribund Hoyas' program, leading them to a 19-13 record and an NIT berth. The Hoyas were on the cusp of an NCAA bid).

When Thompson left, the choices were rather narrow in the eyes of the Princeton faithful. Given that the descendants line is well-drawn, going outside that line would have been well near impossible. Which meant that the candidates were: a) any then-current Princeton assistant (including current assistants Mike Brennan and Howard Levy and then-top assistant Robert Burke, a HS teammate of Thompson's who followed him to Georgetown) and anyone else within the family who was coaching at a high level. That meant one-time Columbia head coach Armond Hill, Air Force head coach Joe Scott, Air Force top aide Chris Mooney (a Princeton alum and two-time first-team all-Ivy player) and Northwestern assistants Craig Robinson and Mitch Henderson (both Princeton alums; Robinson was a two-time Ivy Player of the Year in the early 1980s, while Henderson, perhaps the best athlete to play basketball for Princeton in the past 25 years, was the point guard on the heralded 1997-1998 team and about whom Fran Dunphy said he had nightmares of his dribbling through the Penn defense).

The choice was rather simple. Scott was head and shoulders above the rest (guiding Air Force to its first NCAA tournament bid in 42 years), and he wanted to return back East even if some (and I was among that some) thought the job would be a step down for him. Hill had not done well at Columbia, Robinson was too new to coaching and Henderson was too young. Mooney would have been a fine choice if it weren't for Scott, and he ended up succeeding Scott (he left Air Force after one year for Richmond after last season). Scott, after all, had performed his miracle in Colorado Springs (against big scholarship schools to boot) and had the full confidence of the Princeton family. He was, then and now, a low-risk hire with great possibilities. (In contrast, Doherty was viewed as a risk because he had spent only one season at Notre Dame and wasn't considered ready for the hot seat that Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge had warmed for three and a half decades).

The family had regenerated itself. Again.

Except a funny thing happened to the family line. The talented son didn't come home and set the world on fire. Perhaps it's a case of not being able to come home, period. Perhaps it's a case of the hometown folk not seeing what you see and not wanting to fix things that they didn't perceive were broken. Perhaps it's a case of the family business having changed while you were gone and you didn't. Whatever the case, the odyssey of Joe Scott underscores the perils of the family business and, in particular, its management.

Put another way, just because you keep something within the family doesn't mean that the family business will continue to succeed, and sometimes it takes even the most talented sons a while to get their foothold and make the business their own (there was a good piece on ESPN this morning about the records of head NFL coaches in their early seasons, and Bill Belichick, Bill Walsh, Tom Landry and Bill Parcells, among others, had losing records for several seasons before revealing their true potential -- you'll have to look this one up -- I can't link to everything!). Scott took a program that was atop the Ivies with two returning all-league players and coached them to their worst league season ever -- over 49 years of Ivy play. Princeton alums were aghast -- where was the Joe Scott who had worked the miracle in the Mountain West Conference? Who was this guy?

What last season's sub-.500 record and this year's 2-10 start say about Scott is that perhaps he wasn't as all-world a coach as his efforts at Air Force suggest and probably isn't as bad a coach as his trials at Princeton might imply. He's only been there for a season and a half, so he'll get more time. A lot more, too, as Princeton typically let's contracts expire before terminating coaches in any sport, and because, well, he's a member of the family in good standing. That means he'll get at least two seasons after this one to show his worth, and perhaps even another atop that. He'll at least get to coach his first recruits when they're seniors. As I posted earlier in the season, Scott is an Orthodox Carrilite, meaning that he's a purist as to the Princeton way of doing things. If you consider the Thompson era the era of liberal doctrine, Scott's could represent a return to orthodoxy -- an intense coach and a much more strict interpretation of "the system."

And those conversions take time. They aren't subtle, and neither is Joe Scott.

Basketball means a lot to Princeton, perhaps not as much as it does to Carolina, but, still, a lot. The crisis in Tar Heel land was Tar Hell to the cognoscenti, and something had to be done before a talented roster bolted in open revolt. In the Ivies, sports don't matter as much, and Princeton isn't defined by its hoops team the way Carolina is. Plus, Joe Scott came as a proven commodity; Matt Doherty, now in exile, really was not. And, he angered the Carolina hoops gods to boot, building his own path to an ignominious departure. Scott, on the other hand, retained certain assistants, had gone back to the pure teachings of Pete Carril, but he hasn't won. That, in fact, is his worst sin.

Yes, he might be more animated than his predecessor, Thompson. Yes, his offense looks conservative at times. Yes, his team is very young, and yes, he did not do a good job last season. It could well be that the family business needed an overhaul anyway. It could well be that while Thompson's teams didn't wax Penn the way some of Carmody's teams did, that the return of Scott means a more detailed conversion process, a longer one, which, if successful, will make Princeton more formidable than before. If Scott's record at Air Force is a predictor, then this conversion will be successful.

And potentially scary for opponents.

It just might take longer than any of the Princeton faithful realize. Penn is enjoying a watershed period under a special coach. The other Ivies are better, although I'd argue that this year the Ivies are way down, that while Penn is the class of the league this is perhaps the worst potential champion Penn will field during the Dunphy era, so it's not as though Princeton, in its current state is far behind. Right now, at 2-10, it hasn't even played an Ivy game yet.

Keeping things within the family is a tough business. It's great to pass the torch from one generation to the next, but the transitions aren't always the smoothest. Great institutions weather tough times -- that's what makes them great. The brands of Penn and Princeton are very strong, and both have weathered their difficult periods. The Penn teams for most the 1960's weren't that special, and the Penn teams during the Craig Littlepage and Tom Schneider eras (mid-to-late 1980's) weren't that good either. Yet Penn, when Schneider left for Loyola (Maryland), didn't go national for a coach. It hired Schneider's top assistant, a guy named Fran Dunphy. Dunphy had the misfortune of taking the reigns right as the Kit Mueller era at Princeton got going, but four years later the Jerome Allen era began (it didn't hurt that one of Dunphy's mentors coached Allen in HS). The institution not only survived, it thrived.

Carolina has its trials after Bill Guthridge retired and Matt Doherty took the reins. But it weathered the storm and won the national title last season. And, important to Carolina fans, they kept the coaching position within the family.

Right now, the Princeton family is being tested. The alumni are nervous and worrying, as I'm sure the Carolina faithful did when Matt Doherty had the reigns. They have short memories though, because before Pete Carril cemented his legendary status with four straight titles from 1989-1992, his teams hadn't won a title since 1984. From 1984-1989, the Tigers finished 57-43, 32-24 in the Ivies, and out of the money. From 1984-1986, they finished 24-28. They didn't look crisp, and interlopers Brown and Cornell won Ivy titles during that time. The Princeton fans were nervous, but there wasn't a hue and cry about Pete Carril.

As there shouldn't really be about Joe Scott.

Because it's way too early to tell much.

The bet here is that Princeton basketball will be just fine, and it will surge under Joe Scott. It just might take another year. Or two.

After all, there's no guarantee that the family business will win 20 games and a league title every year.

But that doesn't mean it's time to give up on this family just yet.

Not by a three-point, err, long shot.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great history. Since I matriculated at Princeton in 1968, I got to see most of it first hand, and I wouldn't add or delete anything.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Excellent work, Prof. As a Carolina fan, I tell you "you nailed it."

Ed
ACC Basketblog

12:33 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments, guys.

Ed, in answer to the post on your blog, it's not that I have a ton of time. I hadn't posted for a while because instead of writing daily posts, I used my alloted blogging time to write the piece, which I started working on right before New Year's. It was fun to do, a nice change from the other types of posts I write.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Ed Batista said...

Great read, Prof--very enjoyable. I just linked to it from the front over at the Frog.

3:04 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate it, especially from fellow bloggers. Keep up the good work, guys!

1:36 PM  
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