An excerpt from Hard Work (cont.)
In my first season as an assistant coach at North Carolina in 1978, I didn't say 10 words. I was scared to death. The only sound that came out of my mouth was a whistle. I would referee in practice because I felt that was a way I could contribute.
During games, I kept a chart on the bench of what offenses and defenses we called, the quality of shots taken, and the results of each possession. At halftime I'd give Coach Smith that statistical analysis. I could tell him, for example, that every time our offense ran "Fist," we wound up with a layup, or that we got four turnovers in the six times we called our "Scramble" defense, so our double-teaming was effective. It was the first time Coach Smith had ever had that kind of information and he really liked it. I did it to keep myself busy because I'd get upset at some of the foul calls, but I didn't want to say anything to the referees. I would have had a heart attack if an official had ever called a technical foul on me.
In my third year we were playing at N.C. State and for some reason I turned to Coach Smith on our bench and said, "Coach, what do you think about running 'Biggie'?"
He stood up right away and yelled, "Jimmy, run Biggie!"
My heart jumped into my throat. We ran the play and scored.
The next time we got the ball, Coach Smith asked me, "You want to try Biggie again?"
"Yeah, maybe to the other side," I said.
So we ran it to the other side and we scored again.
After the game, while we were waiting in the parking lot to ride the bus home, I said, "Coach, you really made me nervous. I just threw out that play as a suggestion."
He said, "Let me tell you something. The other coaches throw plays out to me all the time. If you throw one out at me, I know you have thought it through so much that I don't have any worries about going ahead and calling it. I want you to stay that way. If you suggest something, I'm going to do it."
That made me feel really good. In three years, that was the first suggestion of any play I had ever made. I was starting to feel like a real coach.
At the end of the following season, in 1982, we were the best team in the country. Coach Smith had taken a lot of criticism from the press about coaching in six Final Fours and never winning a national championship, but I felt there was no way we were not going to win this one. We had reached the NCAA tournament final the year before and gotten a taste, and in '82 I was sure we were going to win the whole thing.
We were playing Georgetown for the championship and it was a close game throughout. We were down by one point with 32 seconds to play. Coach Smith called timeout and the guys came over to the bench. The negative look on all of their faces scared me to death. It was the first time that night I ever had the thought, "My gosh, we could lose this game."
The players sat down in chairs and the coaches knelt down in front of them, and I can remember it like it was last night. Coach Smith said, "Okay, we're in great shape. We're exactly where we want to be because we're going to determine the outcome of this game."
I pretended to cough so I could look up at the scoreboard just to make sure I had the score right, because he was making me feel like we were ahead.
Then he said, "I'm serious. We're exactly where we want to be. This basketball game is ours. We'll run 'Lineup' in case they're pressing, but I don't think they will be. We'll get it in and let's see what they're doing. I believe they'll stick in a zone. If they are, let's run "2" and look for the lob, but I don't think it will be there. If it's not, don't worry about it, penetrate and then try to pitch on the backside. If we get the shot and it's open, take the shot. James, when you go for the lob, go ahead and get inside position on the weak side. Sam, you get inside position in the middle, so even if we miss the shot, we'll get the rebound and put it back in. If they get the rebound, don't worry about it. Just foul them. There's no way they can make a free throw in this situation. We're going to determine the outcome of this game."
When the team left the huddle, I felt so much better. The look on everybody's face had changed 180 degrees. I saw Coach Smith pat Michael on the back and say, "Michael, if you get it, knock it in."
We went out on the court, ran "Lineup" and they didn't press, so we threw it in; they did stay in a zone, so we looked for the lob, but we didn't get it. We threw it on the backside to Michael and he took the shot and knocked it in and we won the national championship.
I was thrilled, but it was also a moment of relief for me because I was tired of everybody saying Coach Smith couldn't win the big one. I had tears rolling down my face and that was why.
I also learned a little bit about coaching that night.
In our locker room after losing at Wake Forest on January 11, 2009 to drop to 0-2 in the ACC, I did what I have always done. I drew from my past.
I turned to Coach Robinson and said, "Coach, do you remember the 1991 season at Kansas?"
Coach Robinson's eyes got real big because he didn't know what I was doing, but he said, "Yes."
"Do you remember how our Kansas team started out that '91 season in the conference?"
"Isn't that the year we started out 0-2?"
"Exactly right, Coach. That's very good. Do you remember how we finished in the conference that year?"
"We finished first."
"Do you remember how we ended that season?"
"We played for the national championship."
"That's right. So, guys, we've been through this before. I've been through this before. Coach Robinson has been through this before. We've been 0-2 before and played for the national title. The season is not over. This is just a little bit of a challenge. So just follow along. Just do what we tell you to do and things will be fine. Guys, this game was extremely disappointing and we've got to play better, but my gosh we stunk it up and we still had a chance to win the dadgum game. This is just as much my fault as it is yours. I apologize and I've got to get better. But we're going to be all right, you've got to trust that. You've got to believe that. Do you believe that?
"What were our goals? Was our goal to beat Wake Forest? No. Our goal is to win the regular season championship and then our goal is to win the national championship. We haven't lost those opportunities. We can still reach our dreams."
I got a sense from each player that they were thinking, "Okay, huh, I guess we are all right."
Then I told them, "Let's keep this conversation in our locker room. Let's keep this to ourselves. But if you do what we ask you to do, I promise you we'll have a chance to be there at the end."
Pacing around the coaches' locker room a few minutes earlier, I had remembered how I felt when my 1991 Kansas team lost to Oklahoma State to fall to 0-2 in the Big 8. I remembered how at our coaches' meeting after that game I'd thrown a clipboard up against the wall in my hotel room in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and told my staff, "You guys get the hell out of here, I'll figure it out myself." But I also remembered how I'd decided that with the players I was going to be extremely positive and how well they'd reacted to that.
So that's what I did with my North Carolina team. I was going to do everything I could to make sure that they didn't fall off the cliff. Showing confidence in them was more important to that team than any team I have ever coached because of the high expectations they were facing. I didn't want panic to be an option. I had to keep saying we were going to be fine.