Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New coach's first team meeting sets tone

By now, you've read a great deal about the firing of NY Mets manager Willie Randolph. I thought Mets management mishandled Randolph's firing as they left questions about his job unanswered and let it drag out.

Of course, Randolph wasn't without fault. I was puzzled by some of his rules on things like facial hair and hair length. There are enough battles to fight during the season and these aren't the ones I'd choose.

As is typical in sports, the team hired a replacement who takes a much different approach than the previous coach. I like what Jerry Manuel's done, including a seemingly minor change of having his starting pitchers hand the ball off the relievers during pitching changes to help build camaraderie.

He's also simplified team rules and made it clear what he expects from his guys: Just play hard.
When a new coach takes over -- whether during the season or in the offseason -- the first team meeting is so important. Players begin forming their opinions immediately, so it's critical that the new coach clearly communicate his vision, style of play, and overall coaching philosophy. Players must understand what's expected of them -- on and off the court -- from the start.

In Golden State, I spent an entire week with Tom Sterner, one of my assistants, working on our first team meeting, making sure we'd identified our goals for the season, which were to lead the NBA in scoring and be the league's most improved team (we finished the season second in scoring and the most improved team).

The key was identifying goals that were both aspirational and achievable, and then making those goals clear (i.e., putting them in writing) and talking about them daily and creating strategies to achieve them.

In our second season with the Warriors, one of our goals was to be the most improved team defensively (we held opponents to almost 10 fewer points). The Celtics did that this year, preaching defense the entire season to the point where it became Boston's team identity and a key to their title run.

As a side note, I really loved watching Willie Randolph when he played. I remember in 1988 making the drive from Albany, where my Dad was coaching in the CBA, to Yankee Stadium for a game. Yankees OF Dave Winfield, who played basketball for my father at the University of Minnesota in the early '70s, got us tickets. As a baseball fan, it was wonderful to watch Randolph play the game.

At the same time, I'm pulling for Jerry Manuel. He seems like a genuinely good guy who deserves a chance to lead a Major League team.