Yesterday, Jazz assistant coach Jeff Hornacek agreed in principle on a 3-year deal (with a 4th-year team option) to become head coach of the Phoenix Suns. For someone with less than 3 full seasons of NBA bench experience, to advance from a second assistant to head coach of the team that drafted him in the city his family resides is nothing short of a “dream job.” Hornacek will certainly have his hands full, taking on a 25-win Suns team already with over $42 million on the books for 2013-14, but he has all the makings to be a successful head coach.
While it’s impossible to say precisely what his coaching identity will be – during Hornacek’s 14-year NBA career his playing style closely reflected a convergence of the philosophies of his two most distinguished coaches: Cotton Fizsimmons and Jerry Sloan. Hornacek brought some of Cotton’s up-tempo, run&gun style to the Jazz with a blend of pull-up jumpers in transition and the ability to improvise and make some of the most difficult off-balance floaters ever seen. He blended that perfectly into Jerry’s structured offensive system which in-turn flourished with his mixture of shooting, passing and ability to make plays off the dribble. More importantly, as a player Hornacek had grit, determination (former walk-on at Iowa State, second-round draft pick) and an understated competitive fire. Like all coach’s sons, Hornacek was a cerebral player who carved out what Bob Costas labeled in his final season “a near Hall-of-Fame career” – with guile, intelligence, and skill development.
Hornacek is also a very good communicator with an extremely personable demeanor who has endeared himself well to everyone he’s worked with, from players…
…to owners. Former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo (who drafted Jeff) remarked “He was like a son in some respects.” Colangelo wasn’t the only owner Jeff Hornacek made a strong impression on. A common question the late Larry Miller often received was if he thought John Stockton would ever coach. Larry would say that while he didn’t foresee NBA-level coaching in John (or Karl’s) future, he did envision it in Jeff’s and that he hoped it would one day be with the Jazz. While it’s nice that Jeff got to start his coaching career in Utah, it does sting a little that he couldn’t receive his ultimate job at the place that has believed in his coaching ability the most.
Larry was far from the only member of the Utah Jazz who envisioned Hornacek being a good coach. In 2004, Hornacek interviewed for the Celtics head position despite having no NBA coaching experience whatsoever.
In 2008 – although he had only a year’s work as a part-time shooting instructor on his coaching resume – Hornacek interviewed for both the Suns’ and Bulls’ positions. Despite that lack of exposure, a current Jazz media personality along with a former teammate of Jeff’s both felt he was a strong enough candidate to be a great coach and land the Phoenix job in 2008 (audio link below):
In sports – things normally don’t turn out as you hoped or expected. The ideal scenario I had envisioned starting in 2007 when Hornacek began working for the Jazz was always for Jeff to learn under the greatest coach in Jazz history and eventually take over when said legend would decide to leave on his own terms. While Jerry Sloan’s appalling departure is ultimately what made Hornacek a fixture on the Jazz bench – the vision remained with a new head coach who failed to impress as Jeff began to inspire and forge strong bonds with the players who hopefully will represent the Jazz’s future.
That’s what makes losing Jeff Hornacek hurt the most for the Jazz. Utah isn’t simply losing a bright assistant coach – they’re losing a bright assistant coach who many hoped would be the answer to the coaching woes that have plagued the organization since Jerry Sloan stepped down. It’s one thing to lose something you don’t really need. It’s another to lose something that has the potential to be exactly what you are lacking.
While the questions will linger about Jeff Hornacek’s experience (he has just 176 games of NBA bench experience – all of which came sitting to the right of a head coach Bill Simmons called “wildly incompetent“), he will now have the opportunity to gain that and he’ll get it starting with a poor team. Just like his early days at Iowa State and after being drafted, there will be low expectations. He’ll have a chance to grow as a coach, in a city that he loves with a fanbase that respects him. It’s a tremendous opportunity for Hornacek. It’s only a shame this chance isn’t coming in the place where many felt he would be a great coach all along.