A Picture is Worth…

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Is there a more dramatic explanation for why this season’s rule changes – while steps in the right direction – were insufficient to reverse the decline in pace and scoring in any significant way?

I don’t mean the embarrassed looking Hall of Famer and coaching extraordinaire Mike Krzyzewski during last season’s Final Four but the stool on which he’s perched and what it represents: the ascent of the coach from the bench to the court, the shift from coach as teacher to coach as participant.

In effect, today’s game is presented as strange theatrical production in which the director shares equal stature with the performers. He’s on the stage with them, shouting instructions and modifying the script as the play unfolds, and in the process, leaving little room for the actors to actually act. That’s what we have in college basketball today.

The coaches are smothering the game.

They scrutinize every bounce, run with boring similarity the same time-consuming offensive sets, and strangle the free-flowing nature of the game with an incessant stream of time-outs. The TV timeouts exacerbate the problem, effectively creating a series of ten, four-minute games for the coaches to micromanage. More often than not, all the sideline strategizing simply breaks the flow of the game with no appreciable change in the quality of play.

As we enter March Madness, watch what happens whenever a coach calls timeout in the final seconds of a tight game to set up the final shot. Count the number of times his team either: (a) turns the ball over on the inbounds pass; (b) is forced to take a second timeout because they can’t inbound the ball; or (c) ends up with no shot or a worse shot than what they might have gotten if they had simply freelanced the final seconds of play without their coach “coaching.”

The simple fact of the matter is that coaches — even the good ones — can’t resist the urge to coach, to get in the last word.

If they’re not interrupting the natural flow of the game through timeouts, they’re on the floor itself in clear violation of the rules governing the “coaching box,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that the players aren’t listening to them anyway. As Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and author of the book Just Let The Kids Play notes, “When you stand up on the sideline, it gives the appearance you’re coaching more and providing instruction. But it’s just that – appearance. The problem is when you have a standing, constantly chirping coach, how much do you think the players actually retain?”

Here’s a clip of Arizona’s Sean Miller two feet onto the floor, jumping up and down, gesturing wildly, screaming coaching gems to his defense. Does he really think anyone can hear his commands let alone process them in the midst of a battle royal?

Bigelow claims you actually speak ten times more often when standing than sitting. The constant flow of information doesn’t help the players. “At some point, your players simply tune you out. It’s the hardest thing to sell to coaches but it’s absolutely true – less is more.”

The operative word in Bigelow’s observation is “appearance.” Sideline coaching looks good… to fans and especially to the television camera. And therein lies the heart of the problem.

Back in John Wooden’s day and before, most coaches sat and watched. In fact, for thirty-eight years, from 1910-11 through the 1947-48 season, coaching was not allowed by anybody connected with either team during “the progress of the game.”

No coaching. Period. End.

You were expected to teach in practice so that the players learned to manage themselves during the game. A warning was given for the first violation and a free throw was awarded after that.

During the1948-49 season the coaching prohibition was finally lifted and for the first time coaches were allowed to speak to their players during timeouts. Even then, there were usually only two coaches on the bench, the head coach and his assistant, and in rare cases a second assistant. Today we’re likely to see twice that number – all of them analyzing, strategizing, and coaching, their efforts to do so reinforced and glorified by a legion of fawning television commentators, often former coaches themselves.

At what point does appearance trump reality? In a game marked by transition, constant movement, and instant freelance decision-making does all of this bench coaching actually make a difference or does it merely create the illusion that the coach is more essential than he actually is?

To be sure, the new rules to end bully ball and limit coaching interruptions by curtailing timeouts has generated a slight uptick in scoring and pace. For example, possessions per game are up 6% over last season while scoring has increased by 11%. Peek behind such percentages, though, and you’ll discover that the gains are actually very modest, almost insignificant. In mid-December there were seventy teams averaging 80 or more points per game. By late January there were forty-three. This week there are twenty-six. On the eve of the NCAA tournament there are only three teams averaging 85 or more points and none above 90.

As I argued in my last post, basketball is a game of field goal attempts or “shots on goal.” In response to the rule changes the number of attempts and makes rose early in the season but since mid-January steadily fell as the season inched toward post-season competition. They’re still way below the historic high point achieved in the mid-1970s. On average we’re only seeing two more baskets per game per team than last season.

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The reality is that the game will never fully renew it roots of fluidity and grace until the coaches are removed from the gym or severely corralled by more radical changes in the rules governing sideline behavior and timeouts. Given the pervasive influence of television and the huge dollars it generates this is a very difficult proposition, indeed.

To understand the full scope of the challenge, its historical roots and contributing factors, consider the following factoids, impressions and strongly-held opinions:

1. Camera or no camera, coaches are congenital control freaks.

This is especially true of football coaches whose sport – by its very nature – lends itself to the deep seeded desire to dictate, manage and control. There’s nothing quite as silly as basketball coaches pretending that they can do the same thing. It doesn’t work.

Football is a stop-start-stop sport. It unfolds as a series of distinct actions called “plays” initiated by the offense. The offense’s forward movement across the field to the goal line is characterized by either one play that “goes the distance” or more likely by a succession of plays that proceed in stop-start-stop fashion. To start the sequence of action, the offense sets, snaps the ball to initiate play, and then attempts to advance the ball until the defense stops the forward motion and the play is whistled dead. Then, the whole sequence begins again. You have four attempts or “downs” to advance the ball ten yards to keep possession of the ball for another round of four. If you fail, your opponent “captures” the ball and mounts its own journey across the playing field, or you can elect to “trade” the ball for more favorable defensive field possession by punting.

The stop-start-stop nature of the game, paralleled by the ticking game and play clocks, present coaches with a continuous stream of choices. It’s the ideal coach’s game.

In basketball there are no static lines or fronts. It’s not a stop-start-stop game during which the offense and defense align across from one another, snap the ball to initiate play, then, do it all over again. Instead, the action is continuous and fluid, the players’ positions ever-shifting in relationship to the ball, the basket, and the movement of one another. Like football it’s possible to align or set a formation to influence the alignment of your opponent but the initial formation almost always morphs into a totally different alignment or spacing of players as the action unfolds. What begins as a 3-on-2 break ends as a 2-on-1 situation or 3-on-3 or some other variation; what at first appears to be a full-court man-to-man press suddenly becomes a 2-2-1 zone trap. The formation and spacing between players constantly shifts as the players react to one another and the movement of the ball.

Consequently, basketball is a game of freelance. Even teams committed to regimented patterns or a series of pre-set plays are ultimately reduced to freelance as the intended offensive action breaks down in the face of the defense and the attackers are forced to make a different set of choices in response.

Recognition of this reality ought to frustrate a coach’s desire to rule things from the sideline yet many coaches insist on trying driven by the illusion that the more they talk, the more they direct, the better their players will perform. More often than not, these efforts backfire as they inhibit the natural flow of the game and retard the quick, highly intuitive decision-making required of the players.

The problem isn’t coaching; it’s over-coaching. It destroys initiative, robotizes the players, and complicates what is actually a very simple game.

2. Over-coaching expresses itself in four ways.

First, practice routines that disproportionally emphasize the “part” over the “whole,” unintentionally sacrificing “the good” in quest for “the perfect.”

Subjecting players to an endless series of repetitive practice drills that are passive in nature and fail to simulate actual game conditions is counter-productive. Dedicated coaches want to “teach” and to do so they often take what is naturally seamless and whole, and break it into parts or pieces that they can describe, drill, and perfect. Taken to extreme this form of instruction actually retards player development. Imagine teaching dancing or music without ever letting the students actually dance or play their instruments, however imperfectly. Form dribbling in and around cones or stationary chairs is one thing but a “live” full-court 3-on-2 drill featuring continuous action, the players transitioning back and forth from offense to defense to offense, not only requires them to space, dribble, pass, shoot, and defend, but to make decisions on the fly. In effect, the game begins to teach itself as the team “plays through” its mistakes.

Second, complicated offensive schemes that congest the floor, obscure the choices, and attempt to control too many variables.

Such efforts reward the defense as they foster indecisiveness and predictability. “As I watch college basketball throughout the year, 70 percent of the offensive stuff I see run is all the same. It’s easy to guard,” says former coach Fran Fraschilla. His colleague in the basketball commentators’ fraternity, Seth Greenberg, seems to agree. “I think we need diversity in our game, in terms of style of play… there’s too much dribbling and screening… not enough passing and cutting… It’s transition, pull it out, run a set, pull it out and run a seven-second play.”

Third, constant badgering or belittling.

Different players and teams respond to different kinds of instruction at different times. Humor, satire, anger, criticism, encouragement, enthusiasm, the quiet voice, the loud voice — all are useful tools in the coaching kit, but a constant barrage of the negative is destructive. It sucks the live out of the game, destroying player confidence and team morale. In its most extreme forms it descends into bullying and humiliation.

Remember Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing players?

Contrast his behavior with the quiet reserve of Butler’s former coach, Brad Stevens or Davidson’s Bob McKillop, or the infectious enthusiasm of Shaka Smart at Texas.

To a greater extent than many other sports, basketball is an emotional game. A player’s temperament or mood will greatly affect his performance. The fundamentals of the game emphasize quickness, body control, and touch. All demand neuromuscular coordination of a fine degree to attain maximum performance. Any excess flow of adrenalin can cause an imbalance in this coordination with disastrous results on the playing floor. The controlled drive becomes a charge, the sharply timed pass a turnover, the smooth individual move a travel, the quick defensive hands a hacking foul, and most of all, the smooth rhythmic shot becomes a jerky prayer. The end result? A possible win becomes a probable loss. Emotion, then, plays as vital a role in basketball as the execution of fundamentals, as the tactics and strategy, even as much as the talent available. Coaches who mistake screaming for teaching hurt their players and hurt the game.

Fourth, game management.

Show me a coach relentlessly prowling the sidelines, barking out a constant stream of “do this” and “do that” commands and I’ll show you a coach who doesn’t understand the nature of the game. The sideline prowlers further complicate things by subjecting both their players and the fans to one timeout after another. As noted above, the coach’s desire to “say one more thing” simply breaks the flow of the game and often makes matters worse. (Gene Sullivan, my high school coach and later assistant at Notre Dame and head coach at Loyola Chicago, once told me that he occasionally called timeout to say absolutely nothing. He simply wanted to give the opposing coach an opportunity “to screw things up.”)

And how many times have we seen the team in the lead stop playing? Coaches often behave like investors trying to time the market, needlessly tinkering with the tempo of the game. Instead of extending their lead, they shift to protect the lead. (See Nate Silver’s interesting analysis of John Calipari’s decision to slow the tempo in last season’s semi-final loss to Wisconsin.)

3. Don’t blame Bobby Knight.

Many attribute today’s obsession with control, offensive and defensive efficiency, and error-free basketball to Robert Montgomery Knight. After all, his mantra is frequently quoted: “Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes.”

 But it’s not really true.

To be sure, Knight’s arrival in the Big Ten in 1971, quickly followed by six conference championships and two national championships in his first ten seasons, captured the attention of his fellow coaches. Pretty soon everyone in the league wanted to copy his success formula. The league’s long history of fast breaking, high scoring teams gave way to a greater emphasis on team defense and deliberate, risk-adverse offense.

You’re mistaken, though, if you think Knight’s Indiana teams played like programmed robots.

His first national championship team in 1975-76 averaged 82 points per game. This season there’s only fifteen D-1 teams averaging more. And his renowned “passing game” offense depended upon read-and-react decisions by the players, not instructions shouted from the sideline.

Despite the image of the screaming, in-your-face dictator hurling chairs across the floor we so often associate with him, for the most part, Bobby Knight let his players play. He instilled his philosophy and principles in practice and expected his players to apply them during the game.

There’s no better illustration of this than Knight’s 1987 NCAA championship game against Syracuse when, rather than taking a timeout in the final seconds to set up the game-winning play, he trusted his players to get a good shot all on their own. Without any courtside instruction from Knight, they quickly adjusted as Syracuse shifted from its traditional zone into a box-and-one and freelanced the play that sprang Keith Smart for the game-winning basket.

So why is Knight so often blamed for spawning today’s army of control freak coaches? Two reasons.

First, a generation of high school and college coaches not only began emulating Knight, in their zeal they often exaggerated his coaching principles. They began concocting their own versions of his simple passing game or motion offense adding more and more “rules” that soon stifled player initiative and slowed the pace. And on the defensive front, while Knight preached positioning tactics to disrupt offensive timing by “extending the passing lanes” complimented by offside help to prevent penetration, his disciples developed techniques that effectively mugged or manhandled dribblers and cutters.

“Running the cutter off of a screen” or “bumping the cutter” meant to physically bump the cutter off of his intended path. Grabbing a cutter or using a raised forearm to slow him down threw off the timing of the play, giving the defense time to recover to contest a good shooter. “Foul them with your chest,” “hands up, body down,” and “body him up” meant to keep your hands up while committing mayhem with your lower body. On ball screens, “hit your man before the screen hits you.” On dribble penetration, “get into the ball handler and angle him out” or “run him off of his intended path.”

Over time this became the new norm. As former player and ESPN commentator, Jay Bilas, has said, “Coaches figured out, correctly, that officials tend to unconsciously self-regulate, and would only call a certain number of fouls per game. If only a certain number of fouls would be called, it is pretty easy to figure out that the more a team fouls, the more advantage could be gained by the defense… it became easier to slow down or stop the best offensive players and to do so with fewer defenders. In short, organized and taught fouling became… part of the college game”.

Secondly, while Knight’s “tough guy” demeanor certainly contributed to the problem, inspiring fellow coaches to infuse their teams with “control” and “discipline,” the real culprit was the growing cadre of T.V. announcers and commentators – many of them former coaches – who glorified Knight, Dean Smith, and others in the coaching profession, celebrating and reinforcing the notion of the “coach as hero.”

As the number of former coaches in the broadcast booth grew, the number of coaches on the bench seemed to swell with it. The camera lens followed suit, capturing not only their antics but endlessly recounting their coaching lineage and maxims: defense wins championships, making the extra pass, taking the charge, working the officials, milking the clock, plotting X’s and O’s on the clipboard, the patient, lower scoring offense – these were signs of coaching genius.

Bobby Knight became “the General.”

4. The 1968 “Game of the Century” was the turning point.

In an era of 24/7 cable news, the internet, and March Madness office pools, few college fans today know it but the first time an NCAA title game was broadcast in prime time occurred in 1973 when Bill Walton scored 44 points in UCLA’s victory over Memphis State. Prior to that college basketball was largely a regional affair. Very few games were broadcast nationally. Not even the NCAA tournament.

For instance, if you were a Chicagoan in 1963, you weren’t able to see home-town favorite, Loyola University, battle Cincinnati in the national title game. You had to listen to it on the radio, patiently waiting for the taped delay of the game presented later that evening.

The turning point occurred on Saturday, January 20, 1968 when #1 ranked UCLA and #2 Houston, both undefeated, squared off in front of a record 52,693 fans in the Houston Astrodome. Billed as the “the game of the century,” it was the first prime time national telecast of a college basketball game in history, and is largely regarded as the most significant telecast in the history of the sport.

Prior to the game ABC had shown some interest in televising it in its weekly afternoon broadcast of Wide World of Sports, but a fledgling television entrepreneur named Eddie Einhorn acquired the rights to syndicate the game in prime time on his TVS network. He lined up 150 stations in 49 states throughout the country, some of them signing up on the day of the game. Interest in the game grew to the point that Einhorn was actually fielding phone calls while the game was in progress from companies wanting to buy TV ads. He hand-wrote ad scripts on the fly and handed them to announcer Dick Enberg to read on the air during timeouts.

From that point forward, television coverage of college basketball exploded. First on NBC, then ESPN, and finally on CBS. Simultaneously, interest in the NCAA tournament grew – from regionally televised double-headers to regional coverage of the two national semi-finals to the Final Four weekend, eventually mushrooming into the wall-to-wall, every-game coverage we enjoy today.

The explosion of television coverage nationalized the game, helped standardize instruction, and dramatically popularized college basketball, but in the process, mythologized the role of “the coach” as the networks searched for an enduring, enticing narrative to exploit.

5. The Digger Phelps TV timeout.

Nothing epitomizes the symbiotic relationship that developed between the broadcast booth and the coaching community more than the on-air relationship between Digger Phelps and the television camera in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Digger Phelps with his carnation, Digger Phelps gesturing to the student body, Digger Phelps on his knees, arms extended, eight or ten figures raised toward the heavens, signaling the big play… all in front of the camera.

But the image I enjoyed most was Digger huddled with his assistants after calling a timeout. Three or four grown men whose full-time job was to coach twelve or thirteen college kids, trying to figure out why they called timeout in the first place. For Billy Packer, Dick Vitale and their various sidekicks in the broadcast booth this was a sign of “great coaching.” Pretty soon every high school coaching staff in the country was doing the same thing. All in the name of appearance. It looked good.

We know what we’re doing. We know the secret handshake.

Is the game really that complicated?

Here’s a chart comparing the scoring results of Divisions I, II, and III at the end of last year’s season.


Why is scoring in D-2 and D-3 significantly higher than D-1 scoring? The coaches use the same offensive and defensive strategies, the games are governed by the same rules, and the D-1 players are bigger, stronger and more athletic than the players of an earlier era… so why do D-1 teams lag behind in scoring?

The answer is pretty simple: there’s little or no television coverage in the lower divisions. There’s no incentive for D-2 and D-3 coaches to interrupt the flow of the game in an attempt to justify outrageous salaries or to enhance their brand in the television market.

The game is all about the kids.

13 thoughts on “A Picture is Worth…

  1. Incredibly detailed post and spot on! Just let them play, yell at them at the timeouts and bench players who aren’t listening. Actions speak louder than words.

    • Thanks for the comment. One point of disagreement: yelling during timeouts is sometimes needed but very often is counter-productive. The key thing is ask oneself is: “Are my kids competing? Did they come ready to play? If so, then, what minor adjustments can we make to translate their effort into success? If they’re not competing… if their heads aren’t in the game, then I need to shake them up.”

    • Thanks for the comment. Phelps deserves much criticism for his shameless self-promotion on the sideline. For years he has promoted the fiction that Notre Dame basketball started with him. What he fails to acknowledge is the fact that before his arrival in South Bend, ND was already listed in the top ten of college basketball victories along with traditional powerhouses like Kentucky and Indiana. Phelps’ most celebrated victory was ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974. But what is never reported is the following: (a) three of his stars in that game were recruited by his predecessor and on campus when Phelps arrived in the summer of 1971; (b) that season UCLA suffered three other losses and for the first time in years did not repeat as national champions; and finally, (c) in the season preceding Phelps’ career at ND, UCLA’s only loss also occurred against the Irish and in a season where UCLA won all the marbles. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to get that off my chest!

  2. Great piece, Mark.I finally found some time to crank through this article. So much of this, while making good sense, also translates to how some people manage in business, government and even in families; the good and bad ends of it. Again, super analysis by what is clearly a basketball mind..!

  3. Pingback: … Consequences | better than a layup

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