Thursday, February 5, 2009

Coaches don't win games during games, they win before games

About five years ago, author and sportswriter John Feinstein wrote a book titled "Let Me Tell You a Story" that captured his many conversations with former Celtics coach and president/GM Red Auerbach, who won nine NBA championships and 938 games as a coach, and another seven titles as GM.

Coach Auerbach died in 2006 at the age of 89.

Here are a few highlights from the book:


You can't control every single play. Coaches today figure you can't control a fast-break the way you can control a half-court offense. These guys don't want a running game because they lose control if they have one. They want to walk the ball up the court so they can stand up and control every possession, every pass. They feel more secure that way. That's why we're getting all these games now with teams scoring in the sixties and seventies.

As a coach, you have to go out and get the best players you possibly can, coach them as well as you possibly can, and then, ultimately, like it or not, trust them to know how to play. You can't micromanage the game.

One thing [Phil] Jackson does well is he trusts his players, which is one of the reasons they play for him. He's not up on every playing pointing to where the next pass should go. And then, when the Lakers lose, people get on him because he wasn't up screaming or calling a time-out the minute the other team scored two straight baskets.

A lot of coaches get up and scream or call time-outs so they look like they know what they're doing. Does it work? Maybe for some guys, but the thing that always works best is winning.

The biggest mistake coaches make is overcoaching. When you see a guy up, especially in the pros, trying to control every play, that's overcoaching. If you guys don't know where to throw the ball or who they're guarding or where they're supposed to be on defense once the game starts, you're in trouble. Like I said, though, it's about control and about looking like you're in control.

That's not to say you don't pay attention to detail. I used to always go out with my team for warm-ups because you never knew what you were going to pick up by watching the other team. Maybe someone is limping just a little. Maybe someone looks listless, like they're sick. Maybe you see that something looks wrong with one of your guys. You never know.

I always said you didn't win games as a coach during games, you won games as a coach before games. Choosing your team. Preparation. Practice. Knowing the other team's strengths and weaknesses going in. Once the game starts, if you haven't got all of that under control, you aren't going to win the game by being an X and Os genius. Players win during games, not coaches.

When I coached, during the season, my practices always got shorter and shorter. Why? First of all, you have to rest guys as the season goes on so they can be fresh for the play-offs. Second, they shouldn't need as much practice late as they do early. You can only go over things so many times before they stop listening.

Now if the guys didn't come in prepared to go hard, I might keep them longer. But they knew that. They understood as long as they came in ready to give me their best effort, we were going to get them out of there in an hour and a half tops, maybe less than that late in the season. I go to college practices and I see a guy in January or February keeping his team out there three hours. That's crazy.

I watch a lot of college practices. First of all, they're too long. Kids can only concentrate for so long, especially if they're being asked to go to class and study too -- which a few schools actually insist on. And even though they keep 'em out there forever, they never seem to teach them fundamentals.

I always believed that you teach guys to do what they can do. These days, everyone has all these assistant coaches. Honestly, I don't know what they all do. I look at some NBA benches now and there are ten guys over there. Ten guys! That's almost one for every player. So why are they all so weak on fundamentals? The college coaches blame it on the high school coaches, the pro coaches blame it on the college coaches.

I know you can still teach guys. Larry Brown does it. Lenny Wilkens does it. You just can't accept a guy saying he doesn't need fundamentals. Everyone needs them. Guys don't learn to box out because it isn't sexy. A good box out doesn't get you on SportsCenter, does it? But it wins games. A good pass -- a simple one -- doesn't make the highlights either. Only the spectacular one.

Coaches today drive me just a little bit crazy. When I hear one of them say after a game that he's going to have to look at the film to figure out what happened, I bust out laughing. I mean, who do they think they're kidding? You lose a game, you know exactly why you lost the game. You know who screwed up, and if you don't, you shouldn't be coaching in the first place.

When I coached, we didn't have film or tape or anything like that. You think I didn't know who could play and who couldn't play? These guys today want you to believe that what they're doing is some kind of science.

Coaching is simple: You need good players who are good people. You have that, you win. You don't have that, you can be the greatest coach who ever lived and you aren't going to win.