Long Distance Jayhawk


Life During Wartime: On Victories and the Factors of Success by longdistancejayhawk
Can you imagine a time when this was cool? Or that a man who would wear your grandmother's couch upholstery as a sport coat could win 900 games?

Can you imagine a time when this was cool? Or that a man who would wear your grandmother’s couch upholstery as a sport coat could win 900 games?

Earlier this week, Jim Boeheim reached a lofty plateau in the college hoops world, getting win number 900. That’s the kind of benchmark that only two other coaches, Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, have managed to pull off. Boeheim will inevitably best the General this season, short of some kind of disaster happening. Naturally, when a milestone like that, one that speaks to the longevity of a coach and a certain level of excellence at their job, it’s only natural that there will be a backlash1. Doug Gottlieb jumped on the bandwagon quickly, trashing Boeheim for being good, not great2. The main crux of Gottlieb’s argument centers around player success in the Association3, staying clear of the NCAA4, whether or not anyone replicates your style5, and success in the tournament6. Obviously, everyone would love to win the tournament, and most fanbases want to win the tournament every year, but if you seriously follow the sport, you know that it’s a total fucking crap shoot who wins. If there were a magic formula to tournament success, I’m pretty sure we’d see more dynastic runs along the lines of John Wooden’s UCLA juggernaut. The fact that, after winning 900 fucking games, tournament wins seems to be a concern in Boeheim’s legacy is frustrating. I don’t believe that what Boeheim achieved is less significant because tourney success is fickle mistress, one which involves luck as well as coaching accumen, and, ultimately, sustained excellence should matter more.

One thing that’s so attractive about the tournament to non-hoop junkies is the chaos, the randomness of the thing. Imagine having to win that many games straight against teams that range from the best of the best to fired up for a Cinderella run and every state of being between. There’s no way to perfectly pick the tournament, let alone pick the eventual champion by anything other than luck7. Quick, name the last ten coaches to win the tournament. Most people probably couldn’t name the teams, either. Most of the winners are solid programs and there are quite a few instances of repeat winners. But some of these guys aren’t necessarily hall of fame material. Yes, Gary Williams, I’m talking about you. Billy Donovan, I know everyone thinks you’re the bees knees, but I don’t. Benedict Williams is getting the benefit of the doubt, not for the fact that he’s in the conversation this year, but because the Naismith HOF already inducted him8. What I’m getting at is you have to be a good coach, sure, but winning the tournament is kind of like winning the lottery. Some times you hit big, some times you don’t. More often you don’t. Obviously, as a fan, you want to win every year. That’s just not realistic, though.

The General wore nothing but the best in strange ass suits. I'm pretty sure Boeheim took his style cues from Knight.

The General wore nothing but the best in strange ass suits. I’m pretty sure Boeheim took his style cues from Knight.

I’m only being mildly sarcastic here. If you’re inclined to whipping dicks out and measuring, there are really only two coaches in the 900-win club with Boeheim, as mentioned above. The other two guys have seven titles between them, three to Knight and four to Coach K. Boeheim checks in with just one title, which he got over Benedict’s final Kansas squad9. So, does that make Boeheim a worse coach? Does that mean that, when I’m telling my grandchildren about the coaches I used to hate for little to no reason other than they weren’t Toupee, Boeheim’s name will come up? Will he fade from the basketball memory because he achieved a level of sustained success but never sustained it in the one thing that people genuinely remember? These are all great questions, the kind that make for fun bar arguments, but are ultimately meaningless for what’s most important to basketball fans10, winning games and being competitive.

Measuring a coach’s success down to whether or not he can win a crazed tournament11 is a reductionist viewpoint because most people who care about college sports and those that care more than might be healthy about their alma mater, winning is nearly as important as winning it all. Watching your team dominate, game in, game out, is worth more than a tournament victory, on the whole. I mean, look at the 2010-11 UConn team. They could barely win regular season games, winning only in do-or-die situations. While UConn fans probably loved winning the title, I feel like there’s something missing when your team goes .500 in the Big East. For my money, I’d rather have a ton of wins leading up to a title, than a mediocre team somehow backdooring their way into a title. Winning all games is important, not just tournament games. Personally, I’ve enjoyed watching us roll through the Big XII X XII for 8STR8 has been more entertaining than a single tournament victory. Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, but I’ve enjoyed the unmitigated success of the last eight years on the whole more than the 2008 National Championshipt12. It’s just the way I see it.

So, let’s get down to the reason we’re all here. Why should God’s Faithful give a fuck about Gottlieb’s criticism of Boeheim? It should be obvious, but let me break it down for you: right now, Toupee is in the same boat as Boeheim. I’m not saying that Self will never win another title. That’s pretty far from what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, as long as nothing compels him to leave Kansas and he maintains his current career win percentage13, Toupee is on pace to break 900 wins in just over 15 years, tying Coach K’s age when he made the plateau14. If nothing matters but tournament wins, then Bill Self has to start winning more tournaments or he’s going to be getting the same treatment Boeheim got from Gottlieb. I think that Toupee’s a better coach than Boeheim15 and I don’t want to see him thought of as good not great. Honestly, I think there’s something more impressive about winning 900 games because that speaks to a coach’s ability to get players to play, to focus on winning as a practice, to ensure that their program is always in the spotlight. Maybe a fanatical devotion to winning, as Toupee has shown himself to possess, should translate to tournament success. Maybe it shouldn’t. After all, the tournament is an entertaining, obsessive way to crown a champion, but it isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be used as an water mark for a coach’s success16.

Breaking with tradition, Coach K decided to dress like a Mercedes sales man in a nice place like Beverly Hills.

Breaking with tradition, Coach K decided to dress like a Mercedes sales man in a nice place like Beverly Hills.

Ultimately, I feel like this is the kind of argument that will never have a resolution. The ins and outs are too complicated, too tied up in loyalty and passion, to be easily untangled. From an outsider’s perspective, the perspective that Gottlieb is employed to pander to, the only thing they understand is winning titles and bold, statements meant to engender the bloggers like me to write 2,500 words defending a man I don’t even particularly like. Keeping the bar at the lowest common denomiator creates a situaton where casual fans believe that Boeheim isn’t a great coach without engaging with the statement, just accepting it as fact. If I haven’t convinced you that there are bigger things than winning a tournament to worry about, that winning is huge, allow me a final anecdote.

Last St. Patrick’s Day, my buddy James and I went to Black Horse Pub in South Slope. We were there to use Irish rugby as an excuse to drink too many Guinness and get up to no good. Naturally, this was during the tournament, so the minute that college hoops appeared on the TV, I stopped watching the rugby. While getting a beer at the bar, I watched some of the K-State/Syracuse game. Next to me was a woman with her daughter17 wearing a Cuse shirt. We talked a bit about basketball. Eventually, we got around to discussing Boeheim as a coach. I asked her if she wished that he’d won more titles in his long tenure there. “Yeah,” she responded. “Who wouldn’t want more titles? But you know what else I like? Winning. A lot.”

From the horse’s mouth. Winning matters. A lot.

*

FOOTNOTES

1 – If you’re at all turned off by politics, you might want to turn away from this footnote. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…believe you me, I’m not a Boeheim fan, mostly because his 2002-03 team beat us in the title game and he comes off as being kind of a coarse dick. But the one thing that I thought was admirable of him in the wake of the momentous occasion was not pulling any punches on the topic of gun control. Given the horrors that happened in Newtown, there’s no doubt that weapons like the Bushmaster are not at all made for civilian use. I loved that Boeheim, an avid hunter, came down hard, saying that “If one person in this world, the NRA president, anybody, can tell me why we need assault weapons with 30 shots – this is our fault if we don’t go out there and do something about this. If we can’t get this thing done, I don’t know what kind of country we have.” He’s absolutely right because you don’t need that kind of weapon to hunt an animal and, besides, it makes it patently unfair to use as a hunting weapon. Enough soap box. Back

2 – Here’s the full quote:

In college basketball you are judged by four things. 1.Do you compete consistently for a national title? 2. How do your players play in the pros? 3. Do you stay clean of NCAA infractions? 4. Is your style replicable because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

Well, let’s break it down. Boeheim has been to just four Elite eight’s and beyond in 40 years at the helm. His players for the most part have underachieved in the pros. His school has been on NCAA probation and oh yeah, by the way, no one copies his style. I’m not saying he’s not very good, but he’s obviously not great.

Doug Gotlied, not afraid to shit all up in someone’s Cheerios on a night that should be a celebratory one. What can you expect from a guy who used to start OSU games with his pants on backwards. He was like Scott Pollard’s personality mated with a shitty prop comic. Anyway, I think Gotlieb was being unduly harsh on a successful coach for reasons that will become apparent shortly. Back

3 – I guess Carmelo doesn’t make up for all the other players? What if Fab Melo manages to become the next Jordan? While I do think college coaches prepare kids for the NBA, I don’t know how you can penalize a guy for what his players do once they’ve made it to the pros. Because it isn’t like Boeheim’s summer job is making sure that his guys live up to their college careers in the pros and don’t coast now that they’ve gotten paid. Seriously. Specious argument. Back

4 – Given the draconian nature of the NCAA’s rule book, I’m pretty sure wiping your ass with anything other than industrial strength bodega toilet paper is against the rules. Schools have a whole department stocked with lawyers to try and make sure that teams don’t break the rules…BECAUSE THE RULES ARE INSANELY CONVOLUTED. Back

5 – I think that’s the most idiotic thing of the whole list. Boeheim, ever the contrarian, embraces a style of play that’s I don’t find all that entertaining to watch and a ton of people criticize. But there’s nothing immature about winning a ton of games. Back

6 – I think it’s obvious that, by dismissing the other three criticisms in footnotes, you know exactly what I’m going to discuss with this piece. Back

7 – I make educated guesses and strategize the bracket, but I can’t claim to be a seer in this regard. I mean, one of my strategies (the “top four seeds in each region bye” strategy) proved disastrous last year. As a man, who everyone acts like he drafted the Magna Carta, shit all over my bracket. Who, by the way, has also cracked 900 wins. Back

8 – How fucked up would it be if they could rescind that invite based on the fact that Roy Williams has been either incapable or unwilling to sustain any form of consistency during his UNC years. Yes, he’s won a slew of games and coached some incredible kids, but it seems like his distaste for winning conference tournaments is bleeding into the regular season a little too often (especially for my parents). Back

9 – I remember the narrative of that one centered around the notion that Boeheim was a great coach who hadn’t won a title. Which is kind of funny, because at the time, I remember thinking the same thing about Roy Williams. It’s interesting the way the media picks a topic and runs with it, even when it could actually go the other way. Back

10 – Well, me anyway. Back

11 – It’s called goddamned Madness for a reason, people! Back

12 – Which is saying a lot since that weekend involved so many wonderful memories like exorcising the Williams Demon, watching my dad turn catatonic as I frantically grabbed him shrieking “I can’t believe this is happening, I can’t believe Hansbrough is playing like complete shit,” having my dad threatening to kick me out of the car outside the Alamodome parking lot, sitting there listening to every asshole Memphis fan talk about how great their team was…oh, and you know, blacking out immediately after Mario’s Miracle. Back

13 – When I crunched the number, I used this rather than his Kansas win percentage, just to give him some breathing room for wining 900 games. I’m nothing if not nice to those I love. Back

14 – There are a ton of assumptions being made here, so bear with me. Back

15 – Admittedly, I’m biased. So, take that into consideration when you’re reading this. Back

16 – I realize that Gottlieb specifically took issue with whether or not Boeheim “consistently competes for a national title.” I took that to mean “do you make the tournament?” because if you’re making it to the tournament, I’d say you’re competing. To the question of consistently, in 36 years, Syracuse has made the tournament 30 times. He’s been bounced in the first round five times (shit, not making me look good here), the second round seven times (fuck). He’s made eleven the Sweet Sixteens (okay), two Elite Eights (meh). All three times he’s made the Final Four, he’s gone to the title game. So, maybe he’s not the most successful when it comes to the do-or-die tournament, but it isn’t like he’s coached consistent NIT teams, here. Every great coach is going to crap the bed sometimes. Roy Williams won a fucking title with UNC and then managed to not make the tournament the next season. Back

17 – I live in Park Slope where a woman would never bring their child to a bar like Black Horse on St. Patrick’s Day, let alone drink as much as she’d been drinking that day. That’s the real difference between Park Slope and South Slope, if you’ve ever wondered. Back


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