Coaching relationships take a hit

Exposure, competition and high salaries affect friendships in the business

Originally Published: May 3, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Rick Barnes was recruiting in Connecticut, trying to find guys for his then-boss, George Mason head coach Joe Harrington, when he spied Jim Calhoun sitting in the bleachers.

This was back when Calhoun was making a name for himself as a head coach at Northeastern and Barnes was in the infancy of his coaching career, helping Harrington build Mason from the ground up.

"I walked up to him and said, 'I'm Rick Barnes. I'm an assistant coach at George Mason,' and then I just asked him, 'Why do your teams rebound so well?'" Barnes remembered. "He told me to sit down, and he talked to me and actually answered the question."

[+] EnlargeRick Barnes
David Butler II/US PresswireTexas coach Rick Barnes treasures the coaching friendships he's built over the years.

Two decades later, including years when the relationship between the two was at times contentious with Barnes as head coach at Providence and Calhoun at UConn, Barnes and his Texas team beat Connecticut in the Sweet 16.

A few days later, a letter arrived addressed to Barnes. It was from Calhoun.

"He said that he never likes to lose, but if he had to, he was glad it was to someone like me," Barnes said. "I'm not sure how much of that goes on now."

With all of the gains in college basketball -- increased exposure and skyrocketing salaries -- something had to give. And to an extent, it is the relationships among the coaches.

We are coming off a Final Four where as much was made about the rift between Rick Pitino and John Calipari as the X's and O's battle between Louisville and Kentucky. What really happened between the two is likely forever lost in a he said-he said morass, but it's probably not too hard to figure out.

Boil it down to one word: competition.

It's not so easy to be friendly anymore. There's just too much at stake.

"We're in a world right now that, if you're talking to a guy you could be recruiting the same [player] he is," Davidson's Bob McKillop said. "Or you might run into him in the tournament next year, and I really believe that's closed down the fences a little bit."

Friendships and relationships still exist, particularly among the generation that came up in the 1970s, and you can still walk into a gym on a sticky July day and find coaches who don't necessarily fit together joking and chatting. I sat between Providence coach Ed Cooley and North Carolina coach Roy Williams for an entire game's worth of banter in South Carolina a year ago.

But as time passes and the generations shift, the relationships are becoming more insular and less trustworthy.

"I think guys like me, Bill Self, Jay [Wright], Tom Izzo, we were brought up by those old-school guys," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "The next phase of guys, I'm not so sure. There's such a ruthless charge to move up in the business and the money is so big now, so I'd question whether it's as strong there. I'm not sure, and that would be disappointing."


Get Barnes going and he can spin a few endless tales about his days coming up in the profession -- of hand-delivering a résumé to VMI only to have the commandant serving as athletic director offer a mere 'thank you' before turning his attention to whatever task was on his desk; or itemizing a budget that allotted $30 per double occupancy at hotels and $18 per diem during his George Mason days.

But more than the stories, it is the connections that Barnes treasures -- the relationships with Jack Kvancz, who gave him his first head-coaching job; and with Dave Gavitt, his athletic director at PC who would become so integral to Barnes that "once I got to Providence, I never made a decision without asking for his input."

He is typical of his peers, guys who count their friends as many and their influences and mentors as many more.

"Coaches like to talk about basketball," he said. "I can't tell you how many nights I'd sit down and became friends with people just because they just wanted to share the game. I don't want to stereotype today, but it is different. When I got in, no one got in it for the money because there wasn't any money."

Instead there was this camaraderie and mentoring, opposing coaches sharing a drink and a story or an offensive set and a dinner.

If you were lucky, if you found someone who really invested in you, it became about so much more.

[+] EnlargeBoB McKillop
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireDavidson's Bob McKillop says competition and high stakes have hurt the coaching brotherhood.

Certainly career advancement was part of it. Basketball is no different than many a profession -- who you know is as critical as what you know -- but the relationships also were about caretaking and about teaching the next crop of coaches how to tend to the game that was at the epicenter of their existence.

"One of the greatest gifts Eddie Biedenbach gave all of us is that he allowed us to think outside the box and taught us to take a risk," said McKillop, who, along with Barnes, worked as an assistant under Biedenbach at Davidson. "He was outstanding at giving us that freedom, that trust. Too often you become a mechanic and do what's on the desk in front of you."

It is a subtle message that McKillop has carried with him for nearly 30 years. He counts the world among his mentors, as quick to take a nugget of information from a book penned by Knute Rockne as he is to steal body language insight from how Bobby Valentine walks off the field against the Yankees.

"As a high school coach, I came from a different cloth," he said. "In the 1970s and 1980s, home visits were a big part of the process and I'd sit in the home and watch these guys come in. To me it was like stockpiling information."

Frank Martin followed a similar path, starting out as a well-regarded high school coach at North Miami High School. He sent player after player to various Division I schools.

None, however, played for Bob Huggins. Yet the South Carolina coach counts Huggins among the single biggest influences in his coaching life. He appreciated the West Virginia coach then for the same reason he appreciates him now -- Huggins demands.

When he eyed Martin up as an ideal future college coach, he first partnered him with Ron Everhart at Northeastern because he wasn't sure he was ready for the high-profile assistant's chair alongside him.

"He never signed one of my guys, yet he gave me every break in college basketball," Martin said. "He didn't hire me to get my guys as a package deal. He hired me because he believed in who I was. But he made me learn first. That's what mentors do -- they teach us how to work, how to go through the tough times and get better."

And six years later, Martin returned the favor. Huggins left for Kansas State and Martin went with him instead of going with Andy Kennedy to Ole Miss -- "It was my turn," he said simply. "That was understood. That's what mattered. That sense of sticking with your people instead of trying to find a shortcut, I think that's what we've lost in our profession. I think it's what we've lost in society."


The friendships, the mentoring isn't dead. Not by a long shot.

[+] EnlargeMo Cassara
Chuck Myers/Getty ImagesTrying to get -- and keep -- the upper hand has hurt relationships among coaches, according to Hofstra's Mo Cassara.

Arizona coach Sean Miller has found a resource, he said, in UTEP's Tim Floyd, a guy he never coached with or even coached against. The two crossed paths by happenstance but once they did, a friendship blossomed that now is a two-way information street.

"Five years ago, I wouldn't have known him," Miller said. "Now we talk all the time."

Brey said he regularly fields calls from young assistants or mid-major coaches who are looking for advice, and happily opens his practices to other coaches, sharing his offensive strategies right down to a specific inbounds play without a care.

He's always been that way because others did the same for him. He remembers when he was a young head coach at Delaware, sitting next to Dave Odom at a gym in Oak Hill and talking offense. By the time he drove away, he had changed his entire approach, "all because of 20 minutes I spent in the bleachers."

He believes it is his obligation to pay it forward, and he has no time for those who share worse than a kindergartner with a new toy.

"There is some fear and paranoia about sharing from some guy and to me, that's just ridiculous," Brey said. "You hear about guys hosting a clinic, and they really don't share a lot and to that I just want to say get over yourself. This is not national security here."

But Brey also is at the sweet spot of his career, where he's not chasing the next thing, where people aren't asking him when he's going to jump to greener pastures.

There is a freedom to having arrived.

Mo Cassara envies guys in that spot.

In just his second year at Hofstra, he is still trying to convince people he belongs, that he can do the job. He is of that next generation, a group perhaps slightly more impatient and paranoid about getting and keeping an upper hand, guys who are in too much of a hurry to stop and ask for directions.

"Instead of sitting back and talking to and learning from my assistant, Wayne Morgan, who has been in this business 30 years, it's more like, 'OK what have you got? We've got to do this. Did you get that done?'" Cassara said. "So many of us are just worried about hanging on as long as we can, those old beautiful relationships that were developed in coaching are probably tougher to find now."


So what happens? What happens if paranoia wins the day and coaches continue to close their inner circles tighter and tighter? When the yes men outnumber the mentors, the ones unafraid to tell a head coach he's out of line? When the pressures to win replace the joy of the ride?

"It's hard, hard for all of us because the demands on the job now are endless," Miller said. "We're all pulled in so many directions and then when you have time, you need to give it to your own family. Inevitably what gives is that ability to get together for a long weekend or to talk basketball. Sometimes it's the easiest thing to give up but it shouldn't be that way. We need to keep it alive."

Barnes already has seen some of it. Each year at the Final Four, coaches are given seats at midcourt to watch the game. Like the prime seats at the Oscars, the hotter the coach, the better his vantage point.

Which is fine, except that Barnes can't understand why older coaches -- retired ones, guys whose contributions to the games were huge then and who still have much to share now -- often are relegated to the shadows.

"It's horrendous how some of these guys are treated," he said. "It bothers me to watch guys who love this game be treated like that because to me, that's what it's all about. The friendships, the mentoring, it's about the love of the game. Nothing is bigger than the game. We have to preserve that."

Dana O'Neil | email

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