"One of the most overrated thoughts out there is that if you weren't a great player, you can't be a great coach," said Frank Martin, head coach at South Carolina. "It's a big fallacy."
Indiana's Head Coach Tom Crean's playing career didn't extend beyond high school ball but that hasn't prevented him from reaching the upper echelon of the coaching ranks. More than 10 years ago, when Crean was at Marquette, a prospect informed the coach that he would be signing elsewhere because he wanted to learn from someone "who had actually played the game. I took it as a slight," Crean said. "It motivated me. I told him, 'You do what you want, but when we play you, make sure you pay attention to the double-teams we put in place to keep you from scoring. The kid redshirted his first year and hardly played the year after that. He eventually became a decent player, but we won a lot more against his team than we lost. I think I made my point."
Study the résumés of some of the NCAA's top coaches from the past few decades and you'll find guys who struggled to make the varsity squad at their high school. And that's if they played at all. Frank Martin led Kansas State to four NCAA tournament berths in five years despite never flourishing as a prep player in Miami. Rick Majerus, who tried unsuccessfully to walk on at Marquette in 1967, sparked Utah to the 1998 NCAA title game. Before coaching Gonzaga, Mark Few was a star point guard at Creswell (Ore.) High School, but his playing career ended there.
The 2011 Sweet 16 featured four coaches -- Crean, Baylor's Scott Drew, Marquette's Buzz Williams and Cincinnati's Mick Cronin -- who never played college basketball. (Actually, it's five if you include Roy Williams, who only played for North Carolina's JV team.)
There are some who even believe that being a star player beyond college can be detrimental to a coaching career. In other words, the best players don't always make the best coaches. One head coach said a running joke in college basketball circles is to use caution when hiring former NBA players as assistants. The reason? "They're lazy," the coach said. "If you were a star player, you were catered to, so some of them have problems catering to someone else. You might have been great at making yourself a good player, but you might not be able to make someone else a good player -- or you might not be great at paperwork or recruiting. Coaching takes a type of 'servant' attitude at times."
Baylor's Drew won't go that far, but he agrees that having played the game has little to do with coaching it. "Coaching in college is about assembling a team, which is different than playing," Drew said. "There's the paperwork, the speaking, the recruiting. The on-court stuff is just one aspect of it. You've got to do it all to be successful." Drew never played varsity basketball in high school.
Frank Martin traversed the high school ranks for many years. "As a guy who was an inferior athlete, I knew how hard I had to work to even give myself a chance," Martin said. "That's what I try to relay to my players." The mantra has served Martin well at the high school level and in the college ranks. He spent four years as an assistant at Northeastern and two at Cincinnati before joining Bob Huggins' staff at Kansas State in 2006. When Huggins left for West Virginia after one season, Martin was promoted to head coach. Because he had no college head-coaching experience, Martin's hiring was criticized initially, with the thought being that he only got the job to ensure that standout signee Michael Beasley wouldn't ask to be released from his national letter of intent. But after averaging nearly 24 wins in five seasons and reaching the Elite Eight in 2010, no one is questioning Martin now. "Everyone said I was hired to keep Beasley," Martin said of the player who was the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA draft. "At the end of the day, Michael Beasley averaged 14 rebounds as a college basketball player. That might be more than he's grabbed in any NBA game. It's always been my opinion that, if I can get a really talented player to do the really hard work--to grind it out and compete on every play, every shot, every pass -- there's no limit to what they can do."
Proud as he is of his accomplishments, Martin said he knows he must continue to evolve as a head coach. "I love listening to people's minds and getting different perspectives," Martin said. "If you're willing to learn, you've got a chance to teach."
Martin's path from high school benchwarmer to millionaire college head coach is nothing short of remarkable, but there may not be anyone in Division I who has paid his dues quite like Virginia Tech's Williams. A decent player at Van Alstyne (Texas) High School, Williams said he could've made the roster at various "Bible colleges" across the country. But those opportunities didn't appeal to him. Buzz Williams worked as a student manager at a junior college before getting his start as an assistant. Williams began his career in 1990 as a student manager at Navarro (Texas) Junior College. His first job was sweeping the floors. At that point, he said, he began sending 425 handwritten letters to college coaches each week, inquiring about potential opportunities.
Every week of every summer in college was spent working at a different basketball camp, Williams said. By the time he was 21, Williams had been hired as a full-time assistant at Texas-Arlington. He was making $400 a month and living in a dorm room -- and he loved every minute of it.
"I felt like I was coaching the Lakers," he said. Williams said his lack of playing experience hasn't been a factor with his players. If anything, his trek to the Division I ranks helps him relate to the Golden Eagles, many of whom are former junior college stars who had to work extra hard after being overlooked in high school.
"Maybe there are coaches who played at a high level who, because they were really good players, didn't have to do the things that I did," Williams said. "I don't hold that against them. But I didn't have a choice. A lot of people want to be a head coach, but they don't want to be a junior college manager first. I think it helped me. I wouldn't change anything about my path."
Neither would Crean, who preceded Williams at Marquette. "Coaching is like being in a mile race," Crean said former head coach Fran Fraschilla told him. Considering his work ethic, it's hardly a surprise that Crean found himself coaching Dwyane Wade in the Final Four at Marquette in 2003 -- or that he's now the head coach for one of the most tradition-rich basketball programs in America. Other than that one conversation with a recruit, Crean said his lack of playing experience has never been an issue. "At the end of the day," he said, "you've got to have confidence and passion. You've got to have a knowledge base and you've got to be able to make people better. If you can make people better, they'll gain confidence in you, and then you'll gain confidence in yourself. In the end, it really isn't a factor."
--Adapted from espn.com
Thought for the week: Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
A Season In Words by Dan Spainhour