Everyone loves to blame the coach. Sometimes the blame is justified, sometimes it isn’t. Nevertheless, when things don’t go well in sports the head coach is often the first and easiest target.
With that said, there’s nothing I respect more than hearing a high-profile head coach admit they were wrong. With today’s 24/7 news cycle and a media ready to pounce on every word, to admit to a game-changing mistake takes confidence, honesty, and as Bill Raftery would phrase it: “onions.”
I was further impressed by Indiana’s 39-year old head coach Frank Vogel as his Pacers played the NBA’s best team down to the wire for the second consecutive game, still less than 48 hours after Vogel’s highly questionable decision to bench Roy Hibbert late in Game 1. During the telecast, TNT’s crew mentioned that one of the first thing’s Vogel did in the lockerroom after Game 1 was tell the team he made a mistake not having Hibbert on the floor. Vogel echoed these sentiments in public to the media where he said “I would say we’ll probably have [Hibbert] in next time.”
That explained much of how Vogel (who at the age of 37 took over the Pacers with 38 games to go in the 2010-11 season and then coached them to a 42-24 record with no training camp in 2011-12) has quickly earned the respect, trust and loyalty of his collection of blue-collar, no-nonsense players. It’s also shows why the player who had the most reason to feel bitter – Roy Hibbert – tweeted this after Game 1:
A lot of times young coaches who aren’t confident in their ability (or job security) will defend decisions that didn’t work out by blaming it on their players’ execution. Even though nobody would’ve questioned Vogel’s choice had Paul George not played soft defense in allowing LeBron to catch the ball 17-feet from the basket and then convert one of the easiest layups he’s ever had – Vogel (rightly so) didn’t blame his 3rd-year pro. He explained his thought-process during the timeout while admitting next time he would do things differently.
In Game 2 he did. His team played their tails off and in the final minute his adjustments (not switching LeBron/PG screen-roll like they did in Game 1 and primarily leaving Hibbert in the game) resulted in two James’ turnovers in the final minute.
Vogel’s willingness to take the blame reminded me of Jerry Sloan’s post-game press conference following Utah’s Game 6 and series win over Denver in 2010. There was a situation late in the 1st-half when Paul Millsap was cut, and amidst the confusion Jerry puzzingly substituted both Millsap and Kyle Korver (replacing Korver with D-League call-up Othyus Jeffers). The confusion backfired when Utah missed a technical free throw on the ensuing possession with Korver (Utah’s best FT shooter) on the bench. Jerry immediately sent Korver back into the game at the next whistle.
Following the 112-104 win, Jerry closed his press conference by praising his team before bringing up his own mistake without any prompting:
“…We had a lot of guys play well…I just about screwed us up with the substitution that I did. I’m glad we won the game, but I kinda got screwed up there when Paul got hurt and had blood on him and instead of making one mistake I turned around and made two in a row…so that was a mistake on my part. That won’t be the last one either. Anybody else? Thank you.”
Sloan’s post-game display of humility was not an isolated incident.
The late Larry H. Miller, Utah’s beloved owner for nearly 24 years, said in a 2007 radio interview that Jerry regularly accepted responsibility for his mistakes to his players in the locker room.
Just as the Utah Jazz competed hard every night for Jerry Sloan regardless of the odds – the Indiana Pacers have fully bought into Vogel’s sell-job that they are good enough to beat a team that had won 46 of their last 49 games prior to Game 2.
In March Madness you’ll see a Cinderella team make a push and have their confidence snowball, but in the NBA the best teams win in a best-of-7 series. The Pacers are huge underdogs to the Heat, yet it’s obvious they have no fear and every single player on the court believes they are the better team. That attitude and mindset starts at the top.
“This whole team is showing great desire and great heart and great belief,” Vogel said after their Game 2 victory. “They believe we can win the series.”
They also believe in their head coach, because he’s given them reason to.