Coaching Resource: Stan Van Gundy

Ethan Skolnick, Bleacher Report (

The nostalgia flowed freely in a text exchange between two men near the top of their profession. John Calipari, now king of Kentucky, recently found a photo more than three decades old, one that captured an eager assistant on the University of Vermont staff, someone Calipari had planned to join before Larry Brown kept him at Kansas. He felt the need to share the snapshot with Stan Van Gundy.

“We got into the whole thing,” Van Gundy told Bleacher Report last week, shaking his head. “He was a Division II player, I was a Division III player. We were both nobodies. I think about that stuff all the time. When I go all the way back, you just say, wow.”

“So many things have to happen,” Van Gundy said. “I’ve always been really aware of that, that this is not a meritocracy, as least not purely. Now, I’m not trying to be overly humble. You’ve got to be able to do the job when you get the chance. But there’s a lot of really good coaches at every level out there, high school, small college, who just haven’t gotten the right break, met the right guy, whatever. And that’s what I expected. I expected coming out I’d be a small college coach, hopefully get a really good small college job. I would have been happy as hell with that.”

And while Van Gundy doesn’t mention Smith specifically when riffing about the creation of a new Pistons culture, you don’t need to dig especially deep to find correlation. He argues that the primary method of culture creation is “the people you put on your roster. At the end of the day, you can say what you want, but guys are going to be who they are. You’ve always got some guys, maybe half your team, who can go either way. If you put them around positive people who are professional and know how to do things, they become positive. And if you don’t, they don’t. And especially when you’ve got the young guys we have. Who they’re around is a lot more important than what I do. A lot more important.”

He learned this in Miami, under Riley, and it was also emphasized in Orlando by general manager Otis Smith. You can see it already in Detroit, in the adults he’s added, from Caron Butler (a longtime ally) to Anthony Tolliver to Jodie Meeks to D.J. Augustin to Joel Anthony (part of two Heat championships).

So he took the dual roles. He has the ear of the owner, with whom he communicates by phone or email almost daily. He also has more to do than he did at his previous stops, where striking a work/life balance was sometimes a struggle. (“I’m a little better at that, not a lot,” Van Gundy admits.) Jeff Bower, the former New Orleans Hornets GM whom he hired, handles and coordinates much of the day-to-day work. But Van Gundy regularly scours through the salary books on available players. And he does cut into his own downtime, spending, for instance, a recent New York night watching second-round pick Spencer Dinwiddie play in the D-League.

“These are things that I never thought of, maybe in the offseason, but never in the season,” Van Gundy said. “And I’ve got to put time in on that every single day.”

“But what I really want to see is a team that, more than the number of wins even, is a team that plays with great energy and great spirit together, and really works hard. Hard, smart, together, that’s been our three words. But that’s the Bill Belichick thing, if you want a smart, tough football team, get smart, tough football players. But you have to give up on your ego thinking that I could take anybody and get them to play the way I want, through the force of my persuasion. That’s not it at all. Those guys decide what the culture is going to be ultimately.”

“I’ll still get after guys, and I’ll get after them in timeout huddles, but I’m not as demonstrative as I was before,” Van Gundy said. “I’ll get on them as a group, and I’ll get on them in here. But I haven’t really had game time explosions at individuals. I haven’t thrown a water bottle. I’m still not the calmest guy in the league, by any means, but I’m not like I was before. I’m not really as bad with that now. I’m really not.”

Caron Butler was a rising star for the Heat in Van Gundy’s first season as a head coach, 2003-04, a season that started 0-7 and ended with a 42-40 record and a trip to the second round. He remembers well the reaction whenever Butler would slip into a streetball style in an attempt to make his name.

“Coach always used to reel me back in,” Butler said. “He did it with screaming and yelling and watching film and breaking down stuff so I got the concepts of things. Once I got it, it would stay with me forever.”

Their relationship had staying power too because, in Butler’s words, the connection with Van Gundy and players is “real,” going beyond the court. They communicated often throughout the next decade, with Butler even texting Van Gundy whenever a coaching job came open. After Van Gundy took the Detroit job, Butler jumped at the chance to join him. Once with the Pistons, Butler initially saw Van Gundy setting a strong tone and knew that approach would be a shock to some systems. But he’s seen Van Gundy toning it down some since, even on the sideline, where Butler can see him “doing a great job of channeling that energy, and saying something positive and getting guys going. I can appreciate it. The other guys don’t see that transition, but I see the growth right there.”

Van Gundy acknowledges that he has never been “easy to play for,” but also notes that he stays in touch with “90 percent” of those who played for him. Many, like Butler, have told him they want to come back and play for him again. Others have chosen to collaborate in another capacity. Like Hardaway, who played for Van Gundy when the latter was a Heat assistant, and called for an interview immediately upon Van Gundy’s hiring. Former Heat forward Malik Allen is on staff too. Quentin Richardson, a Van Gundy favorite in Orlando, has a player development post.

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