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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thoughts on Princeton Basketball

Forgive me, hoops gods, as I hope that I am not violating the Eleventh Amendment that though shall not speak badly of fellow Princetonians. . . and I hope that I'll be speaking constructively in the process.

Here are a few points by way of background:

1. The Princeton men finished last in the Ivies, which, to my knowledge, is the first time that they finished last since the Ivies began play formally as a conference in the mid-1950's (You can look it up here).

2. The Princeton men lost to Dartmouth twice in one season for the first time in about 60 years. Dartmouth is the hockey and skiing school located somewhere just south of Canada.

3. Joe Scott, the Princeton coach, takes some solace in the fact that the Tigers finished 19-8 during 2006, which consists of the 2006 Ivy season and the fall of this past season (but not the spring of 2007). Scott also cited injuries to some key players as a cause for the team's problems in the Ivies.

4. The Princeton program is optimistic about the potential of three freshmen, center Zach Finley and guards Marcus Schroeder and Lincoln Gunn.

5. Big-time recruit Jeff Peterson of DeMatha Catholic re-opened his recruiting after being admitted early to Princeton this past fall. Normally, that early admission constitutes a requirement that the player attend Princeton. The other Ivies, I believe, would honor this and stay away from Peterson, but the scholarship schools will not (by the same token, the Ivies don't recognize letters of intent and would happily take a player who had signed one to a superior program if the opportunity arose). That Peterson is a PG (as is Schroeder) might have something to do with it, but the Tigers' overall record also might have something to do with it (I saw on ESPN the Insider's recruiting web page that Peterson is considering, among others, American, with Penn fifth on his list, but I can't see how Peterson could enroll at Penn next fall given that he was admitted early to Princeton this year).

6. Princeton was not in need of rebuilding when Joe Scott arrived three years ago. He inherited a Tiger team that had won an Ivy title and had two returning first-team all-Ivy players in Judson Wallace and Will Venable. He proceeded to coach the Tigers to their first-ever losing season in league play. While John Thompson III loosened up the dictates of the classic "Princeton system" in coaching his teams, Scott returned to the orthodox version -- with bad results. To say that the program was in need of rebuilding at that time dishonors Thompson, who has demonstrated at Georgetown what an excellent coach he is. In one of the linked articles, Scott is quoted as saying that it took him four years to build what he did at Air Force, and it will take some time at Princeton (in three seasons, he's 18-20 in Ivy play and 38-45 overall). You'll recall that I was one of those who had urged patience with Joe Scott, as "conversions to orthodoxy take time."

7. The rest of the Ivies, excluding Penn, have not gotten better and "caught up with Princeton." Yes, the RPI this season was 18, but Penn was a #14 seed and unlike in prior seasons (when Princeton had Steve Goodrich et al. and Penn had Ugonna Onyekwe et al.) fans held out little hope that the most recent vintage of Quaker squads had a shot to be a dragon-slayer. I'd submit that while various opponents have had their fits and starts (Yale in the early years under James Jones and Brown under Glen Miller), overall it's the Tigers who have changed more than the opposition.

8. Princeton AD Gary Walters, busy in the past months as a member of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, to the best of my knowledge, citing university policy, has been publicly demure on Scott, other than saying he's a coach in good standing (which, depending on how you read it, could be akin to a star athlete's getting a grade of "present" in a core course at his university). Walters has a classic, almost biblical, dilemma. On the one hand, Walters and his contemporaries in the mid-1960's helped make the Princeton hoops brand what it is. Walters is in his early 60's, and he won't be AD forever. When he retires, what shape will he leave the men's hoops program, arguably the signature program in Princeton's athletic department? What will his contemporaries say? How will history judge him?

9. Penn is having another good recruiting year, with four recruits signed (none of whom is bigger than 6'7" and none of whom appears to be a center, although two are power forwards, this again, according to ESPN the Insider). I invite the Baskeball U cognoscenti to weigh in about Princeton, because the ESPN site indicates that the Tigers have a commitment from a two guard from Long Island and are in the hunt for a 6'9" center from Texas. Advantage, seemingly, to Penn in this important area.

10. Some Princeton students have started a "Fire Joe Scott" website. Somewhat predictably, Scott's players have jumped in to defend him. At a place where hardcourt excellence is as expected as the free space on the bingo card, coaching a team to a 2-12 record in league play unfortunately will draw this type of rival choruses.

Now, as to what could be going on. . .

To consider how solid the ground Coach Scott is on, you have to consider the "Cappy Cappon" line of coaches. You all know the story by now -- Cappon coached Butch van Breda Kolff, who coached Pete Carril when Coach Carril played at Lafayette. When van Breda Kolff bolted Princeton in the mid-to-late 1960's for the Lakers, he recommend his former player to coach the Tigers. Carril coached Walters in high school. After Princeton, Walters coached at Union College, where he coached a point guard named Bill Carmody. When Carril retired, his long-time assistant, Carmody, became the coach, and two of his assistants were former Carril players, Joe Scott and John Thompson III. When Carmody left several seasons later for Northwestern and Scott for Air Force in the same year, Thompson was elevated to head coach. Several years ago, when Thompson left for Georgetown, Scott returned to Princeton. It's the Princeton version of the North Carolina family, and both families are very supportive and very loyal to each other. To use an Arbor Day analogy, the family tree of Tiger hoops coaches has some deep roots.

But while there are similarities, there also are differences.

You'll recall that after Dean Smith retired at North Carolina he paved the way for his long-time assistant, Bill Guthridge, to coach the Tar Heels. Guthridge coached for four seasons and took the team to 2 Final Fours, and the assumption was that former Smith top assistant and then-Kansas head coach Roy Williams (a Carolina alum) would return home, as it were, upon Guthridge's retirement (Guthridge took over the Carolina helm when he was in his early 60's). Except for one thing -- Williams thought that he had unfinished business at Kansas. So the Heels turned to one-time Williams assistant Matt Doherty, a Carolina alum and teammate of Michael Jordan who at the time had one year under his belt at Notre Dame. Doherty inherited a solid program, but he ticked off the powers that be with a few moves -- a) he fired all of the historic Smith/Guthridge assistants, preferring to keep his ND staff intact (in fairness to his side of the story, he didn't want to see them unemployed after only one year in South Bend), b) he seemingly ticked off Smith with that move and with becoming a control freak, and c) he lost command of his team (sounded like he, too, was intense and a shouter). He recruited well, but in his last season the team underachieved and Carolina had to make a move.

This time (four years ago) Williams was ready to return, and last season he took players that Doherty recruited (Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants) to a national championship. All's well that ends well, and the Tar Heels had a good year last season after losing their top 7 players (who accounted for over 80 ppg).

In contrast, Scott did nothing to anger anyone at Princeton. He didn't jettison long-time assistants, and he didn't try to de-Carrilize the place. He honors tradition, perhaps to a fault, by running the orthodox Princeton system. He does seem to be intense, and questions have arisen whether this approach works with the contemporary Ivy athlete (who, while very competitive, will not play hoops after graduation -- or, at least a majority won't do so for money). That said, he hasn't been successful thus far, and it's not clear how well he has recruited. Usually poor records connote poor talent, and it's not right to chalk up the Tigers' failures this year solely to the injuries to upperclassmen, including junior forward Kyle Koncz (as one of the linked articles suggests). Still, it doesn't appear that the Tigers have, as Penn did in Ibby Jaaber and Mark Zoller a few star players who are able, night in and night out, to put up 15 points a game (and the jury's still out whether they have those young men in the pipeline, although they might). You need those guys to win an Ivy title. That's not to say the Tigers don't have guys who are capable of scoring in double figures every now and then. They do, but it's not clear who is able to do so every night. In contrast, the 1997-1998 team that was ranked as highly as eighth in the country had 5 guys who could do so if need be -- Steve Goodrich, Gabe Lewullis, James Mastaglio, Brian Earl and Mitch Henderson.

The other differences between the Tigers and Carolina (okay, other than the patently obvious, which is that the Tigers don't get McDonald's All-Americans and aren't a perennial Sweet 16 team) is that the Ivies (unlike the high majors) traditionally don't fire coaches -- they might let contracts expire, but it seems that firings mid-contract are rare (or, if they are more frequent, they get little publicity). Another difference is that the Tigers don't have a logical "savior" waiting in the wings the way Carolina did. Finally, even if the Tigers did, they don't have the Ivy equivalent of Messrs. May, Felton and McCants (among others) waiting for that coach to lead them to an NCAA tournament appearance.

So, there are many factors working at Princeton. In no particular order, there's the loyalty to the Carril line, the length of Scott's contract, the different views of his performance (whether or not he's really on a rebuilding mission), and the fact that there's no logical successor waiting in the wings.

Let's examine the latter point. Bill Carmody probably isn't leaving Northwestern, but in his tenure there he's basically had a .500 team that hasn't gotten an NIT berth, let alone an NCAA berth. He excelled at Princeton, but his possible return would be a long shot unless Northwestern were to give him the boot. Chris Mooney, a former all-Ivy Princeton player, was Scott's top assistant at Air Force, was head coach there for one year, and has been at Richmond for the past 2. He's not a logical successor, really, because he's struggled at Richmond and because if you're going to make a change away from Joe Scott, would your first choice be someone so closely identified with him? Rob Burke was John Thompson III's top assistant when JTIII coached in Tigertown. He's not a Princeton alum (and therefore not solidly in the "Cappon Line"), and my guess is that he'll be able to get a higher profile head coaching job than Princeton were he to seek one out (given how successful Georgetown has been). I'd look for Burke in the CAA or A-10 before the Ivies, but the Harvard job could be tempting. Craig Robinson would be an attractive pick, but he's only been at Brown for a year. Still, he beat the Tigers twice this season, and one of my loyal readers who's a Penn season-ticket holder applauded Robinson's coaching effort against the Quakers as the best opposing coaching job by an Ivy coach against Penn this season. And then there's Carmody assistant, Mitch Henderson, a former Princeton PG who's assisted Carmody for the past 6 seasons. He could well coach the Tigers some day, and my guess is that he'll be a head coach somewhere in the not-too-distant future. Typically, you don't want to make a move unless you're sure you'll hire someone better.

So what's the verdict on Joe Scott? It's clear that he's not as great a coach as all thought when he worked the Air Force miracle and it's also the case that he's not as bad a coach as some frustrated Princeton fans are saying now. That said, the Princeton insiders had better be careful that they're looking at Scott's coaching through an objective prism and not through the lens that he once was a beloved player of Pete Carril. They should be careful to dismiss the criticism of the fans as uninformed ventilating, and, to quote one of Carril's favorite poems, the insiders should "allow for the doubting." True that poem, Scott needs to hold his head high and keep his cool, but those who are grading him are in a tough spot.

I had written previously that conversions to orthodoxy take time. I still believe in that, but I am a little concerned that the Princeton system doesn't transcend talent and aggressive coaching, both of which Penn has (and Penn is having an excellent recruiting year). I don't think that the Tigers should fire Joe Scott, because to do so would be premature. At the same time, they should shed the notion that he's "coach for life" and untouchable precisely because he's an alumnus and a beloved disciple of Coach Carril. Perhaps Walters et al. should adopt the same method of thinking that Carril did when he decided to retire -- Carril knew when to get out and the Tigers should figure out at what point they'll have to decide to let Joe Scott go if the squad doesn't show improvement next season.

My sense is that Walters has talked with the coach about expectations in the near term. The AD at each school meets with his/her coaches every year to review the year (and if he/she doesn't, he should). You wouldn't expect a leader to throw his coach under the proverbial bus publicly, but I can't believe that anyone in the Princeton administration is happy with the state of affairs. And, given how frank he can be, I'm sure that Joe Scott is the first among the unhappy.

I don't know what happened after I blogged here and here about the Marshall and Rice games. In both of those games, the Tigers played great defense. But, as many have pointed out (and I'm sure that those who follow it more closely than I will, as you usually do, point out the holes in this post), they relied as much if not more on the 3-point goal than any other DI team in the country and didn't rebound well. Translated into plain English, that means that they were pretty easy to defend. And when you're easy to defend, it's hard to win.

So Joe Scott will get at least one more year, and my guess is that he'll probably get two (on the presumption that he has a five-year contract and that it hasn't been extended since he came back to Old Nassau). That means two more recruiting classes and a chance to see the promising frosh become juniors. If he got a five-year contract when he started, then it's doubtful that Walters will abandon the family loyalty until Scott's five-year plan has run its course. That's good news for Joe Scott.

Whether it's good news for the Princeton Tigers remains to be seen.

And the stakes are big. If Scott turns it around and makes Princeton as formidable as he did Air Force, the Tigers could run off a string of consecutive titles. If he fails, what's the long-term damage to the brand name? Is there a chance that the Tigers will lose the recruiting edge they once had were recruits to examine the school's collective record over the past five years? Is that type of data relevant to recruits?

And Penn fans, take note. Do not rejoice in this. You need a strong Princeton team to help make the rivalary better and to make your team better. Sure, you want to win, but the Ivies' RPI and avoidance of the play-in game in some part depends on the rekindled excellence of the Tigers' program. Plus, it would be fun to go to a game at the Palestra or at Jadwin that had some meaning, wouldn't it (okay, so maybe you wouldn't agree with me here)?

Princeton fans, be patient and be supportive. Joe Scott is your coach, and you all need him to succeed. Let's hope that he'll draw on his successes at Air Force (and as a Carmody assistant), learn from his past three years, have one of his own light bulbs go off and burn brightly, and inspire the team to the success that the Princeton program and its supports have grown to expect.

Let's remember what it was like to walk into Jadwin knowing that the team would paste Dartmouth by 20, what it was like to watch Earl and Lewullis, Goodrich and Henderson. Let's hope that Coach Scott can wake up those echoes and renew the Tiger hoops brand with vigor.

Because the alternative -- failure -- is more than we can bear.

Gary Walters knows this, and so do Pete Carril and the other insiders.

And one thing is guaranteed -- no one will work harder than Joe Scott to bring the program back.

Let's hope that the Tigers administration, and Coach Scott, is working smart, too. The past three seasons collectively have been a drought. Princeton needs the Air Force Joe Scott.

And needs him now.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

BLATHER

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BLATHER

7:21 PM  
Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Joe Scott has a long way to go to show - in terms of results - that he is Pete Carril or Bill Carmoody or JT III. And if he is not of that ilk, Princeton basketball will be in eclipse for several years...

11:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take off the rose-colored glasses. The single best thing for Princeton is to fire Joe now. Anyone could do a better job coaching.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why worry about offending the basketball gods, things can't get any worse for Princeton basketball. Unless the gods decide to punish us by extending Joe's contract this offseason.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's Go Joe or Let Joe Go?: Princeton Basketball and its Discontents

Thanks for this Sportsprof.

It reads engagingly, a bit like a grand Russian novel of the rise and fall of families and dynasties. Your eloquence of detail in the genealogy of Princeton basketball and concern for ethical human relations are all clear. As one who urged you to write something, I personally appreciate it. I am also one of the Penn fans who believes we need PU to regain its strength as worthy rivals on the basketball court--that so complements our broader and enriching institutional distinctions.

It would be terrible for Penn basketball if the League's quality declines. Not only does great rivalry produce better teams, but I have to believe that higher NCAA seeds would help us all win a few post season games. This year Penn would have had a chance against UVA who they would have played had the seeding been a step higher--though as you know the Quakers acquitted themselves with honor against Texas A & M and U of Texas last year. And George Vecsey of the NY Times along with Penn's center/blogger Steve Danley offered wonderful insights into Penn basketball and Ivy League gestalt both before and after the first round game.

However the trouble with your analysis, and with Princeton basketball, is partly the trouble with Princeton itself in the 21st century. Everyone is so concerned with dynastic loyalty tied to Pete Carril and the other anointed ancestors before him via former players and assistants, that a more clear-eyed approach is needed: one based on actual merit and results as well as reacting to new realities of how recruiting is done and how the game is played today. To continually reach back to the Carril style developed pre-shot clock, and even your longing for the great teams of the mid-90s, is the kind of wishful thinking that does little to gain recruits or advance decisions about how long to a keep a coach who seems so clearly out of time (if not out of place) at Princeton.

For 3 seasons Joe Scott has seemed more to be about running the Princeton "system" (that he admittedly learned from the master) than winning games with the hard work of recruiting great players and melding them into a team. 

In this he seems to mirror what we non-Tigerphiles detect about the University's Platonic quality. This can be a useful attribute if you are doing humanities-for-humanities sake. It's not great for the kind of organic team-as-community or family engagement that college basketball requires.
 One senses in Scott's demeanor a bit of Gens. Custer or Cornwallis--a blankness of expression reflecting his inability or unwillingness to adequately address the conditions in which he must battle. That blankness quickly turns to red rage shouting when it's too late.

As great, and certainly well-endowed, a University Princeton is, it appears too often to be defending certain courtly old order ways of doing things. The old complaints were class/culture exclusivity, a bit much emphasis on legacy admits, anti-Semitism, minimal minority presence on campus etc. I realize that these issues are far diminished nowadays, but it takes a lot of energy to break from traditions when necessary.

In this regard Penn has had an advantage, it has long welcomed a wide range of cultures and classes. Embedded in Quaker pragmatism and post-industrial revolution entrepreneurship, creative pragmatism has been a strong undercurrent, Penn has been an activist in bringing knowledge to society in part via the professions. It has functioned more as a meritocracy than the old WASP elite model derived from the divinity school base of HYP. Harvard has long been at the top (despite what US News says) because it to has a bit more urbane pragmatism (Can do Puitanism?) in its blood.

Penn's historic diversity has been reflected on basketball teams for years that have featured star African American, Jewish, and blue collar white players among others. In the era when (later Knick and Sen) Bill Bradley was starring at Princeton, John Edgar Wideman--the first black Rhodes Scholar from the Ivies, and later noted author, from a working-class Pittsburgh family--was a great player at Penn.

Rather than dwell on comparative social genealogy of Penn and Princeton as institutions that produced certain types of successful individuals--and one could in literary, judicial, governmental, financial, scientific and artistic circles--the point now is: when Penn hired its new coach, Glen Miller, it did two things of note. 1. It went to someone with no legacy in Penn basketball as a former player or coach. 2. It went to arguably the best (or most promising) coach in the league after Fran Dunphy…and in the same moment ended Brown's ascendance. Miller, despite some inevitable team backchat by Dunphy's seniors, took a very good nucleus through a successful if not always stellar season. Miller was a merit hire who has, thus far at least, lived up to his notes. He is the perfect creative pragmatist.

Arguably Joe Scott was a merit hire as well, given his success at Air Force. He was also a sentimental favorite for all the dynastic essentialist reasons Sportsprof has so carefully noted. But when merit doesn’t pan out, one is left with a social performance gap that puts a tradition of absolute loyalty and muted criticism to the test. If Carril's message was the somewhat overly optimistic "The Smart Take from the Strong," what happens when the "smart" fail to take from the smart (as in this year's Ivy cellar landing). What happens when this collision of loyalty and reason is belied by performance on the watch of a Carril descendant? That is the very problem.

Joe Scott is invoking Carril's legacy and system without having made the emotional and philosophical journey of its inventor or original advocate. Joe may have played it in another time at the same place, or made it work in this time at another place (Air Force) but what's needed now is much more than a system of play, what's needed is a coach to who can step up to lead and inspire… and create a new system that works for Princeton in this new time. Balancing tradition with transformation, community acceptance with individual transcendence is what all great leaders do. They create the tradition of the future, they don't sit on legacies

Sportsprof rightly notes his concern that "the Princeton system doesn't transcend talent and aggressive coaching…." Increasingly one imagines that non-Ivy schools with academic and strong athletic ability like privates Duke and Stanford (both in other years) or publics Virginia, UNC, Berkeley, UCLA and others are getting the very players Princeton would most want. In the Ivies Penn and others are also getting them.

When Princeton basketball was closer to the bragged premise that "The Smart Take from the Strong," alums felt good because it validated the school's intellectual reputation and social status in terms of physical achievement in the great equalizer of sport. Unfortunately there seem to be fewer and fewer both smart and strong enough basketball players to go around--especially for our non-scholarship programs. The ones willing to run the gauntlet of the admissions offices in the Ivies, possibly pay 40,000 a year, and then play for a losing program, are fewer still.

While Penn faces many of these same challenges noted, winning is not currently one of them--though the continued losses in the NCAAs are bad for all the Ivies. "Good showings" go only so far. And to this we reiterate, the longterm demise of a great rival saps enjoyment of and strength from "fighting" Quaker basketball.

To quote the drunken cheer of Penn students in a West Philly Irish neighborhood watching Princeton play Georgetown to a near upset in the NCAAs back in the early 90s. "Let's go Tigers!"

Let's go Joe! One more season…up or out.

Nick Spitzer

1:20 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Now that Joe Scott has abandoned ship, who is Gary Walters going to find to rebuild the Princeton basketball brand?

10:05 PM  

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