Sunday, December 21, 2003 Updated: December 23, 2:06 AM ET
No winners when proteges meet mentors
By Andy Katz ESPN.com
The idea was hatched in the summer of 2002. Yes, Steve Alford and Bob Knight had played each other before as Big Ten coaches at Iowa and Indiana. But this was different. This would be on their terms.
So, as Alford struggled to resurrect his coaching career, he and the coach he'd played for during his All-America career in Bloomington, Ind., decided they'd pick up where they'd left off in 2000 when Knight left Indiana. The pair's relationship may have been strained since Knight's final years at Indiana. But when Alford asked to talk, Knight was there to listen, though now in Lubbock, Texas.
It's that way when it comes to mentors and their proteges. And at the time of the Alford-Knight coaching summit, a proposed Texas Tech-Iowa game was almost an olive branch from Knight to Alford, who was struggling with his coaching philosophies after all but losing control of his Iowa team during a disappointing 2001-02 season. Locking in a game against Texas Tech would certainly send a message that Knight, as a mentor, would always help out his student, Alford, in a time of need.
But Monday night's third encounter between Knight and Alford, this time in Dallas is a rarity. In the world of college coaching, mentors don't like to schedule their former assistants or players-turned-head coaches. Usually, the matchups are left up to the NCAA Tournament selection committee to set up, and it loves to set into motion these potential games (see: Duke vs. Missouri, 2001 second round NCAA Tournament; Duke vs. Notre Dame, 2002 second round NCAA tournament; North Carolina vs. Kansas, 1991 Final Four semifinal).
"Some things are sacred," says Marquette coach Tom Crean of why he doesn't play Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Crean was an Izzo assistant before taking the Marquette job four seasons ago. He was also a fellow assistant with Izzo on Jud Heathcote's MSU staff. "Tom doesn't want to do it and I don't want to play, either. We, at Marquette, play a lot of great games. And one guy who doesn't have to play great games is Tom Izzo. But he would do it if our program needed it."
Crean points to his national schedule with games against Wisconsin, Arizona, Notre Dame and St. John's as examples of why the Eagles don't need to schedule Michigan State.
"I've never pushed for it," Crean said. "I don't see our fans complaining about our schedule."
Florida head coach Billy Donovan is still looking for his first win against mentor Pick Pitino.
Crean said he would play "his guys," if it were important to them. But he hasn't received any calls from Tim Buckley (Ball State), Darrin Horn (Western Kentucky) or Tod Kowalczyk (Wisconsin-Green Bay) to schedule Marquette in a home-and-home.
"I'm doing fine without Tom giving me a game," Crean says.
Minnesota's Dan Monson won't play Gonzaga's Mark Few -- his assistant at Gonzaga. Few and his good friend Ray Giacoletti of Eastern Washington have to play because the two schools are in the Spokane area. But Monson won't play Giacoletti, either, a good friend who never served as a Monson assistant.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery did his former assistant Willis Wilson a favor and played a road game at Rice this season. A top 25 team going on the road to a lower-level program doesn't occur too often, although the Cardinal didn't feel too threatened by a game with the Owls until Rice gave Stanford a scare.
Oh, and you won't see UCLA schedule Pittsburgh any time soon -- not with Ben Howland now in charge of the Bruins and his former assistant Jamie Dixon put in his old position as Pittsburgh head coach.
If television isn't involved, relationships play a key role in how non-conference games are scheduled. And there is a fine line when it comes to signing a contract.
Louisville wouldn't have played Florida under normal circumstances. Billy Donovan didn't feel like he had to play Rick Pitino, or vice versa. Both coaches and their programs are established nationally. Pitino did play Donovan when he was at Marshall, but the Herd was a program on the rise and needed the bump in exposure win or lose. The former player and his coach at Providence were forced to go against each other in the SEC when Pitino was at Kentucky and Donovan just starting at Florida.
But the Dec. 13 matchup -- the first of a home-and-home series -- was different. Pitino wanted a marquee game for the Billy Minardi Classic. He wanted Donovan because his late brother-in-law was a huge Donovan fan when he played for Pitino at Providence.
After Louisville beat Florida -- Donovan has never beaten his mentor, and Pitino is 13-1 overall against former assistants -- Pitino said it meant a lot to him for Donovan to come and play at Freedom Hall. He reiterated that Minardi loved watching Donovan play. Pitino said that he would continue to get games with coaches in the Classic who knew Minardi and that includes former Pitino assistant Mick Cronin, who is in his first season in charge at Murray State.
Prior to the Louisville game, Donovan said there is always an uneasiness about playing a game against Pitino, mainly because of the hype that leads up to the game.
Some things are sacred. Tom doesn't want to do it and I don't want to play, either. ... But he would do it if our program needed it. ”
— Tom Crean, Marquette head coach
"The storyline becomes about the coaches," Donovan said.
Would Donovan play his former assistant John Pelphrey, who is now the head coach at South Alabama?
"Probably not," Donovan said. "I'm sure he'd like us to come down there for two-for-one, though."
When the mentor and protege meet in the NCAA Tournament, however, the games take on lives of their own. Such a matchup usually dominates pre-game news conferences. It did for Quin Snyder when Missouri played Duke in the second round of the NCAAs. Prior to the opening tip, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski pulled the Mizzou coach aside and told him how hard it was for him to coach against Snyder.
"We had one of those moments where we acknowledged our friendship," Snyder said. "After the game (a Duke win), Coach didn't want to see us lose. He said it was hard for him to see that happen to his former assistants. He said it wasn't a game he wasn't looking forward to."
Administrators also must be aware of a potential coach's feelings toward playing a former boss. It was certainly on Illinois' mind when Bruce Weber interviewed for the job there. Illini athletic director Ron Guenther asked him about Weber one day possibly leaving for Purdue, where he had been an assistant to Gene Keady. Weber said he had no plans to replace Keady. But the discussion never came up about how he would feel coaching against his mentor.
Come Jan. 10, the circus will come to Champaign when the Boilermakers visit the Illini
"It's a no-win situation," Weber said. "In my case, coach (Keady) gave me a chance and I was part of his life for 19 years. If you beat him, after the game you'll feel bad. If you win, your mind is on your school and your team, but you don't feel good about beating him either."
Keady actually called Weber after the Illini lost to Providence in the Jimmy V Classic. It was just a check-up call, to see how Weber was doing after a disappointing loss. Weber, however, shouldn't expect a similar call the night before the pair's first meeting in the Big Ten.
"I don't like to get beat and I don't like to hurt members of our families," Keady said. "I saw some things in that Providence game that my teams have done, and it's not his fault. So I wanted to encourage him. I did it with (Steve) Lavin (at UCLA) and did it with (Kevin) Stallings (at Vanderbilt).
"But we take this too seriously," Keady said of coaching against friends. "They're in our way and we'll try to beat them. If we want to win the league we'll have to."
But Keady wouldn't choose to play Weber. He simply has no choice now that they're both in the Big Ten.
Scheduling during the non-conference part of the season is tricky enough. And matchups involving friends or former allies don't happen often. But when they do, the attention is focused on the coaches -- win or lose, like it or not.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.