Basketball Theory: C. Coles
College: Education & Allied Professions
Description: Detailed study of sports fundamentals and teaching and coaching techniques.
Charlie Coles has a theory. According to Coles, the animated, irredeemably old-school basketball coach at Miami ( Ohio), the steady decline of defense over the years is directly connected to the enactment of leash laws in communities around the country. The result: a nation of chronically flat-footed youth. "Getting chased by dogs helped me as an athlete," says Coles, 60, tongue only halfway in cheek. "Defense is anticipation, and if you were in a neighborhood and you didn't know where the dog was, it put some fear into you."
Professor Coles has a lot of theories, some of them specific ("Dribble right at the middle of a 1-3-1 zone. We beat Temple here and got the best shots in the world"), some more general ("You can't coach speed, but you can coach quickness," thus providing a remedy for the effects of the Barking Dog Theory). For nine weeks every fall, in two-hour seminars on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Coles expounds on his ideas in a unique class. Now that Bob Knight no longer presides over A362: Coaching of Basketball, as he did at Indiana, Coles is the only head coach at any of the nation's 150 largest schools who teaches a course in basketball theory.
"If you're interested in coaching basketball, there's not a better course you could take," says Matt Jameson, a senior guard for the RedHawks who's considering such a career. (About 40% of Coles's players take the class.) " Coach Coles has been doing this for more than 30 years, and he's coached NBA players like Wally Szczerbiak and Dan Majerle [at Central Michigan]. We go over everything from scouting to assessing personnel to learning how to build a team."
Coles—who had triple-bypass surgery in 1985 and barely survived an on-court heart attack during the 1998 Mid-American Conference tournament—isn't required to lead PHS 331. But he was a high school teacher for 19 years, giving five classes a day, from math to health, drawing to phys ed, and it got in his blood. "I've always enjoyed this," says the man whose ultra thin mustache, fatherly wit and penchant for telling delightfully meandering stories make him a loopy mix of John Waters, Heathcliff Huxtable and Al McGuire. "One of the things about coaches now, the students hardly ever see them. They're famous, but what does a coach do during the day other than coach his guys?"
Miami is renowned as the Cradle of Coaches—Paul Brown, Weeb Ewbank, Woody Hayes and Ara Parseghian all played or coached in Oxford—and the administration has offered a minor in coaching since the 1950s. Coles graduated in '65 from Miami after twice being named second-team all-MAC as a shooting guard. He fondly recalls the football theory class he took as a sophomore from a rookie head coach named Bo Schembechler. "Best teacher I've ever had," Coles says. "He taught it so well, you ran to class every day."
Four decades later Coles brings the same kind of energy to his own seminars. Over nine weeks his students do a mock draft of NBA players, observe a 6:45 a.m. off-season workout and are run through a practice as if they were players. They learn how to edit a scouting tape, how to address the media and (through hilarious role-playing) how to respond to parents who are angry about their kids' lack of playing time. With Coles's commentary, they watch tapes of Knight's motion offense ("If you keep the ball in the middle of the floor, the defense can't go help-side"), Maryland's flex scheme ("I don't like it because it crowds the floor, but it's constant movement and great if you have versatile players") and the UCLA and Princeton high-post offenses. ("This is fun to watch! Notice their great spacing and how they stay high. That's how they get their back cuts.")
The students also hear rousing soliloquies on the importance of the pivot foot. And they listen to stories. Lots of stories.
"Quick story," Coles says one day during class. "I'm working at a high school camp in Milledgeville, Georgia, first time I ever saw Ralph Sampson. He's 7'4", looks like he's standing on another person. Anyway, my team's working on out-of-bounds plays. There's not much practice time, so I say, 'O.K., run the same play, but just call it different names.' So we do Illinois, and next time it's Three, but it's the same play. So I start doing that with my high school team in Saginaw, and one day I get a call from Western Michigan University. They say, 'Hey, we want you to speak at our clinic about your out-of-bounds plays. You run everything!' And here I am, the worst out-of-bounds-play coach in the country?
Everyone laughs. Coles is rolling now.