Sunday, April 27, 2008

Izzo Better Served To Resist NBA’s False Allure

There is no manual. There is no preparatory course. There are no numbered dots to connect. There is no online degree.

There aren’t any of these, none that can properly prepare one to become a head coach in professional basketball. But there IS an almost sure-fire path to take to be an UNsuccessful one.

Be a college basketball coach first. Now you’ve got a recipe for failure!

This is the time of the year when NBA teams go in search of new sideline leaders. The regular season finished, pre-season hopes dashed. An 82-game journey filled with losing, sniping with players, and working under the constant siege of sports talk radio blabbermouths and riff-raff sportswriters. Who needs it, anyway?

Inevitably, the hordes of unpaid advisers start tossing names around. The usual suspects turn up in these made-for-radio discussions – the recycled coaching veterans who themselves have been, at one time or another, let go after their own seasons of dashed hopes.

This spring, it’s Rick Carlisle. Deposed former coach of the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. He’s one of the mentioned – rumored to be a candidate for the vacant job in Chicago. The Bulls, incidentally, are looking for a coach after giving the ziggy to Scott Skiles in December. Their interim coach, Jim Boylan, didn’t stand a chance of being Skiles’s permanent replacement. Skiles, right on schedule, has resurfaced as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. And Carlisle is the hot name for the Bulls job. Or maybe the Knicks. New York is looking for someone to clean up Isiah Thomas’s mess. Carlisle has been mentioned for that job, too.

Another name is being bandied about – again. And he’s one of ours.

Tom Izzo, perhaps the greatest basketball coach in the history of Michigan State University (with apologies to Jud Heathcote), has been mentioned as a possible Bulls coach. He’s telling friends and the media that, yes, he would listen if the Bulls ever called. And no, they haven’t called yet, says Izzo. Back in 2000, on the heels of the Spartans’ national championship, Izzo reportedly turned the Atlanta Hawks down – a generous offer, by all accounts.

Consider this yet more free advice from an unasked, but for goodness sakes, Tom – Just Say No.

“I still consider (the NBA) the ultimate level of basketball,” Izzo said the other day when the Bulls purposely came up in conversation. “Something about (the NBA) makes me intrigued.”

Well, Izzo is right about one thing: the NBA is, absolutely, the ultimate level of basketball. Don’t let any of those college freaks tell you otherwise.

But Izzo coaches at the highest level of the college game, currently. His teams routinely appear in the NCAA tournament, and in a good year they tease us all the way to the Final Four. Usually they win at least one game, sometimes two or three in The Dance. He has built the MSU program as one to be envied, just as the football they play in Ann Arbor is looked at wistfully by the folks in East Lansing. They even have something in the Breslin Center called the Izzone – a section of crazies who pride themselves in acting like buffoons, all in the name of the sis-boom-bah that goes along with the college game.

But Izzo should reject the Bulls, turn them down flat, if it should ever come to that. He should run as far away as he can from any overture to take his game to the next level. For history – that unbiased bastion of prognosis – says that college coaches consistently get chewed up and spit out by the pro game.

Izzo will be no different, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise.

There isn’t any specific reason why college coaches simply cannot make it in the NBA, but here are a few: a) they’re too intense for the pro players; b) their x’s and o’s don’t work in the pro game; c) they cannot suspend players who don’t buy into their message; d) pro players look at college coaches cross-eyed from the moment they blow the whistle for their first practice.

Most of the good pro coaches today were former NBA players. Just about every one of them eschewed the college sideline; they, instead, latched onto an NBA team as an assistant. Some didn’t even do that; they were hired as head coaches without any prior coaching experience. Usually that’s not a recommended way to go when it comes to plying a trade, but in the NBA it’s not all that bad.

Some of the greatest coaches in NBA history weren’t players, of course. Some were, in fact, products of college campuses. But not before they apprenticed as pro assistants first – and for many years. Maybe I’m the first to break it to you, but the Pistons’ Chuck Daly was once a very successful coach at tiny Penn University, way back in a decade called the 1960s – some twenty years before becoming a genius at the pro game. But Daly was an assistant with the Philly 76ers, then a broadcaster, then an assistant again, when the Pistons came calling in 1983. He didn’t make the near-impossible leap from NCAA to NBA in one fell swoop.

Izzo, like so many college coaches before him, figures himself to perhaps be the one who can buck the trend. He looks at the allure of the pro game, sees that “ultimate level” of basketball, and wonders. And for that he’s not to be blamed. It’s human nature to ask oneself if he has what it takes to cross over to another level in his chosen field.

But Bobby Knight never acted on that notion. John Wooden never did. Dean Smith never did. But Jerry Tarkanian did, with the San Antonio Spurs some 15 years or so ago, and the abbreviated experienced nearly caused him to bite clear through the towel he famously chewed on during games. Other college stalwarts like Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and PJ Carlesimo have tried and failed. I could dwarf your typical grocery list with more examples of this kind of failure.

So don’t do it, Tommy. Stay on campus. Tell those Bulls no, if they bother to ask. Better yet, pretend you’re not home. Out of sight, out of mind. And you won’t have to lose yours.

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