Through the Trifocals

Will assistant coaches become good head coaches? Will their head coaches train them properly for leadership? Or will they try to mimic their mentors at the expense of their own growth? <br><br> Illinisports discusses the subject of assistant coaches and their behavior around their head coaches in his latest column.

I can't seem to get this image out of my mind. During the Illini game with Duke, the television cameras panned over to the Duke bench to watch Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his assistants Johnny Dawkins, Steve Wojciechowski, and Chris Collins. They looked and behaved like clones of each other. Do you remember?

All four coaches were seated during the action on the court, and the only movements by any of them were occasional hand jerks in a restrained effort to keep from being too demonstrative. Only their heads moved as they leaned forward to observe the game. It somehow reminded me of a show I saw on Animal Planet showing African animals. In the show, little Meercats all popped their heads up simultaneously and perused the terrain for enemies in synch with one another.

I am not trying to cast aspersions on the Duke coaching staff when I make those comparisons. But what it reflected was a kind of "follow the leader" mentality. It seemed as if the Duke assistant coaches were either afraid to behave as independent entities or were showing supreme respect by mimicing their mentor. Most likely, it was a combination of both.

What this episode said to me is that Mike Krzyzewski may have a problem similar to leaders in other walks of life. Namely, what type of personality do you want your assistants to have? Do you want them to be natural leaders, or do you want them to follow you? If you want them to be leaders, they are likely going to be a constant irritant as they stand up you and question your every decision. If you want them to be followers, then they may be unable to assume leadership roles when they have their own teams.

Leaders must be able to make independent decisions. They must be willing to take responsibility for their followers to ensure not only their welfare but their growth. Leaders must also be willing to help their assistants prepare for the day when they must transform themselves from followers to leaders. As an example, parents of all species are responsible for helping their offspring survive while simultaneously teaching them how to "leave the nest" and survive on their own.

A head coach who wishes his assistants to become successful head coaches someday must both take charge of his assistants when necessary and yet defer to their ideas and trust their skills when possible. He or she would be wise to encourage independence from the assistants within the framework established. In fact, the head coach can benefit greatly when the assistants are allowed to provide input. Sometimes, their varied approaches to problem solving can be essential to winning games. No one has all the answers.

This delicate balancing act is not easy to accomplish, so there are not many true leaders in the world. Most people want to be in charge so they can have everything their way. But they are often too busy thinking of themselves and their immediate problems to consider the needs of their followers. If they command a following, whether through elevated success rates or coercion, they are often happiest when the followers make no waves, question no decisions, and just copy what they are told. Unfortunately, this does not allow the followers to develop leadership skills.

I first recognized this phenomenon when I was living in Chicago and the original Mayor Richard Daley retired. Daley had groomed a successor by the name of Michael Bilandic, who subsequently was elected into the mayorship. Unfortunately, Bilandic was a "yes man" who had no idea how to lead. In other words, opposites attract, and Bilandic was never a threat to Daley's position of authority. Of course, he was also not capable of actually replacing Daley in the everyday decision-making necessary to run a city, even one run by machine politics. Bilandic had a brief tenure as mayor because he was unable to reach or exceed the level of competence of his predecessor.

Robert Pirsig discussed this phenomenon in his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". Pirsig was a rhetoric professor who was looking for a way to teach "quality" to his students. In other words, he wanted to teach students to become their own masters instead of trying to copy other masters.

Pirsig discovered that a person who copies others can only become an incomplete version of the object of their imitation. Great writers, great coaches, etc. don't really copy others, they incorporate ideas from many others and then create their own unique syntheses that go beyond what has happened before. They have to be both followers and their own leaders, and their mentors have to encourage them to grow beyond the egoistic desire of those leaders to be copied.

And this is the problem I see with the assistant coaches at Duke. They appear to copy their head coach so completely, it is questionable whether they can be independent thinkers when in charge of their own programs. They may be too good as mimics to have natural leadership skills. They may not have the ambition to match or supercede their present master. And they may suffer when they have no idol to turn to for protection during difficult times.

Maybe Dawkins, Wojciechowski or Collins will make good head coaches. But let us site some examples of similar situations and see how they have done. Coach K himself is a product of the Bobby Knight "system", but he did at least become his own person and keep some of the behavioral extremes to a minimum. Of course, perhaps we don't always know what happens behind the scenes.

Several other of Knight's former assistants have not fared well with their own teams. Mike Davis is one of the most recent Knight proteges to struggle as a head coach. After all, who could ever stand up to Knight and keep his job? It has always been easier to follow him than grow beyond him due to his intimidation tactics.

Coach Theresa Grentz, the Illinois women's basketball coach, is a strong-minded person who enjoys leadership and wants the responsibility of making her own decisions. Her status as a Hall of Fame Coach and former US Olympic Coach makes her an attractive option for assistant coaches interested in learning the art of coaching. But there are times it seems that her assistants are reluctant to interfere with her decision-making during games. I really don't think it is fear as much as it is respect. Grentz's strong personality is most attractive to followers, so some of her assistants may not make the best head coaches.

Looking now at some of Coach Krzyzewski's former assistants, questions can at least be raised about Quin Synder and Tommy Amaker. Both Snyder and Amaker are exceptional recruiters, but their teams have sometimes struggled and underachieved. And both tend to recruit players who are good individually but lack team-oriented traits. When players become too self-absorbed and start to hurt the team, both coaches seem to have difficulty getting them back in line.

Tommy Amaker sits patiently on the bench during his games, just like his mentor, while most coaches prowl the sidelines. This may be an admirable trait, and it is much appreciated by the players on the bench and the fans in back of the bench. But one must wonder whether he commands the respect necessary to corral his players and insist that they play a team game when the situation requires it.

Yes, Michigan won this year's NIT. But they always will look good when their players are hitting their shots and playing with confidence. After all, they are talented athletes. But when they are not hitting their shots, Michigan behaves to me like children with an overly permissive parent.

The NIT game with Oklahoma was a good example. Michigan players took wild shots, made disinterested passes when they had no shot, didn't work their offense to disrupt Oklahoma's defense, and failed to take advantage of Oklahoma's limited bench. All the while, Amaker just sat and watched. I am not advocating a wildman coach who goes ballistic with every failure. But the Michigan team was behaving like a bunch of selfish kids, and they needed a parent to sent limits and get them back into balance. They got lucky and won (barely), but they could have dominated and didn't.

I am not trying to criticize Michigan or Amaker because they are doing the best they can do, but I do believe these problems stem from a tendency of Coack K to produce coaches who are followers instead of leaders. To a man, they are all highly prized for their pedigrees. But don't be surprised if some if not most of Coach K's coach trainees continue to struggle when in charge of their own teams.

It may be too soon to tell for sure, but Coach Bruce Weber may be one of those rare exceptions who can willingly submit to a dominant head coach while an assistant and then show natural leadership skills when in charge of his own program. Weber describes Keady in a way not usually heard from those who are blind followers of an authority figure.

Weber mentions that despite the gruff exterior, "Gene Keady is really a puppy dog. If he gets upset, you just roll him over and rub his belly, and everything will be fine." These are the words of a man who respected his former head coach and accepted his role while at Purdue, all the time realizing he would be his own person when he had his own program. While some assistants might feel intimidated, Weber saw through the facade and willingly submitted when it served everyone's purpose. But he also worked to become his own boss.

And that is a good example why Bruce Weber will not return to Purdue as head coach. He has his own program now, and he stands on his own two feet. A follower would have waited forever for the chance to succeed Keady, while at least one person grew beyond the role of follower and became his own boss. And now he is having his own success and training his own assistants to be leaders themselves someday.

And the nice thing is that Illinois gets the chance to benefit from the transformation. I hope other schools will benefit as much when Duke's present assistants branch out on their own, but I have my doubts.

Go Illini!


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