Monday, October 4, 2010
New Faces, New Places: Brian Wardle
By Dana O'Neil
The manual still sits somewhere in Tom Crean’s office.
Five years old now, it’s nonetheless as viable and useful as it was the day Brian Wardle created it.
Technically it’s a how-to manual, made at Crean’s behest, for Wardle’s successor at Marquette. A Director of Basketball Operations for Dummies, if you will.
It also could serve as Wardle’s résumé.
“He was [one of] the all-time leading scorer at Marquette, and when he came to work for us, he was arranging for the bus pickups. But he never complained,’’ Crean said. “He’s very real. He’s got a big personality, but he’s also very real. He learned how to do things from the ground up because he knew that’s how you had to learn.’’
Here’s what Brian Wardle is: just 30 years old and a brand-new head coach at upwardly mobile Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Here’s what Brian Wardle is not: ill-prepared for or overwhelmed by the job.
“The one knock on me I know is, can he get it done? He never has before? Only time will tell with that,’’ Wardle said. “But one thing about me, as a player and throughout my career, I am very thick-skinned. I’m very confident in what I bring. People are going to question me and I know that and I don’t care. I have a great vision in mind; I’ve had great mentors. I’m ready to do this.’’
And Wardle, who spent his past five seasons as an assistant at Green Bay, has his vision set on a bar placed fairly high in the hoops hierarchy.
Green Bay is not aspiring to be just another good mid-major. It’s aspiring to be the next Butler.
After their Final Four run, the Bulldogs have redefined mid-major power for every team in the country -- but even more, for the ones who also call the Horizon League home.
And don’t think people aren’t watching and copying. When athletic director Ken Bothof was in the market for a new coach after Tod Kowalczyk left for Toledo, he made a conscious decision to stay within the program.
“With young assistants, the question is always, ‘Are they ready?’ Bothof said. “Well, because Brian was here, I had an opportunity to get to know him and evaluate him, not just as a coach but his ability to communicate and to talk to him. Does he have a plan? A vision? And he does.’’
Wardle doesn’t plan on becoming the next Brad Stevens any more than he intends on mimicking Kowalczyk or Crean. He will do things his own way, in his own style.
That, however, doesn’t mean he won’t use Butler to sell the Phoenix.
“I will absolutely piggyback on what they’ve done,’’ Wardle said. “When you’re recruiting, you sell what they’ve done because they’re in our league. They’ve found good, tough kids who played well together, rebound and have done it the right way. If they can do it, why can’t we?"
Green Bay has been close recently, racking up a pair of 22-win seasons in Kowalczyk’s past two years. But the goal for the Phoenix now isn’t just racking up more wins; it’s finding a way to unseat Butler.
The direct route is finding better players, the diamonds in the rough or the sleepers that others passed on.
The indirect route is finding subtle ways to make the team you have better. Wardle and Kowalczyk are both branches of Crean’s tree, with similar coaching philosophies. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t places to tweak.
Wardle already has zeroed in on his emphases -- rebounding and better defense. Last season, the Phoenix ranked seventh in the 10-team Horizon League in rebounding margin (-1.1) and fourth in scoring defense, giving up a respectable 66.9 points per game that Wardle believes can still get better.
He wants his players to have a passion on the defensive end and will reward them for their efforts.
“I tell my guys all the time, I’d never ask you do something I wouldn’t ask my daughters [ages 3 and 1] to do,’’ Wardle said. “If they play basketball, I expect them to guard somebody and get in their face. I expect my players to do the same.’’
And like his daughters, if his players behave well, they will be rewarded.
“I’m going to get in you and get on you, but then if you do something right, I’m going to sprint over and chest bump you,’’ Wardle said. “If a guy goes above and beyond, if we get a great rotation or guard the dribble, I’m going to get fired up and I want my players to get excited. That’s how you build a good defensive team.’’