Like any longtime head coach, Indiana’s Tom Crean rarely takes it personally when a recruit shuns his program for another school.
But on one occasion, he couldn’t help himself.
More than 10 years ago, when Crean was at Marquette, a prospect informed the coach that he would be signing elsewhere because he wanted to learn from someone “who had actually played the game.”
Crean’s on-court career didn’t extend past high school.
“I took it as a slight,” Crean said. “It motivated me. I told him, ‘You do what you want, but when we play you, make sure you pay attention to the double-teams we put in place to keep you from scoring.’
“The kid redshirted his first year and hardly played the year after that. He eventually became a decent player, but we won a lot more against his team than we lost. I think I made my point.”
Plenty of others have, too.
Although it can certainly have its benefits, a successful playing career in college or the NBA is far from a necessity to excel on the sideline. Study the résumés of some of the NCAA’s top coaches from the past few decades and you’ll find guys who struggled to make the varsity squad at their high school. And that’s if they played at all.
Frank Martin led Kansas State to four NCAA tournament berths in five years despite never flourishing as a prep player in Miami. Rick Majerus, who tried unsuccessfully to walk on at Marquette in 1967, sparked Utah to the 1998 NCAA title game. Before coaching Gonzaga to 11 straight league titles, Mark Few was a star point guard at Creswell (Ore.) High School, but his playing career ended there.
Heck, just last season, the Sweet 16 featured four coaches — Crean, Baylor’s Scott Drew, Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin — who never played college basketball. (Actually, it’s five if you include Roy Williams, who played for North Carolina’s JV team.)
“One of the most overrated thoughts out there is that if you weren’t a great player, you can’t be a great coach,” said Martin, who now coaches at South Carolina. “It’s a big fallacy.”
There are some who even believe that being a star player beyond college can be detrimental to a coaching career. In other words, the best players don’t always make the best coaches.
One current head coach said a running joke in college basketball circles is to use caution when hiring former NBA players as assistants. The reason?
“They’re lazy,” the coach said. “If you were a star player, you were catered to, so some of them have problems catering to someone else. You might have been great at making yourself a good player, but you might not be able to make someone else a good player — or you might not be great at paperwork or recruiting.
“Coaching takes a type of ‘servant’ attitude at times.”
Baylor’s Drew won’t go that far, but he agrees that having played the game has little to do with coaching it.
“Coaching in college is about assembling a team, which is different than playing,” Drew said. “There’s the paperwork, the speaking, the recruiting. The on-court stuff is just one aspect of it. You’ve got to do it all to be successful.”
And Drew certainly has been at Baylor, where the Bears won a school-record 30 games last season while reaching the Elite Eight for the second time in three years. Drew said his lack of experience as a player has never been an issue during his coaching career.
Drew never played varsity basketball in high school, but his father, Homer, was an All-American at William Jewell College and the longtime head coach at Valparaiso. And Drew’s younger brother, Bryce, played in the NBA after hitting one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history at Valpo in 1998.
Scott Drew was an assistant coach on that team. He joked that he and Bryce, who is now the head coach at Valparaiso, probably have different selling points when pitching themselves to recruits.
“My brother can say, ‘I know what it takes. I’ve been in the NBA,'” Scott said. “At the same time, I can say, ‘I helped my brother get to the NBA.'”
Much like Scott, Martin has compiled a glossy résumé despite a lack of success as a player. Shaky Rodriguez, his coach at Miami High School, hired Martin as a 19-year-old assistant in 1985, and Martin became the head coach there 10 years later and won three state titles.
“As a guy who was an inferior athlete, I knew how hard I had to work to even give myself a chance,” Martin said. “That’s what I try to relay to my players.”
The mantra has served Martin well at the high school level and in the college ranks. He spent four years as an assistant at Northeastern and two at Cincinnati before joining Bob Huggins’ staff at Kansas State in 2006. When Huggins left for West Virginia after one season, Martin was promoted to head coach.
Because he had no college head-coaching experience, Martin’s hiring was criticized initially, with the thought being that he only got the job to ensure that standout signee Michael Beasley wouldn’t ask to be released from his national letter of intent. But after averaging nearly 24 wins in five seasons and reaching the Elite Eight in 2010, no one is questioning Martin now.
“Five years ago everyone said I was hired to keep Beasley,” Martin said of the player who was the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NBA draft.
“At the end of the day, Michael Beasley averaged 14 rebounds as a college basketball player. That might be more than he’s grabbed in any NBA game.
“It’s always been my opinion that, if I can get a really talented player to do the really hard work — to grind it out and compete on every play, every shot, every pass — there’s no limit to what they can do.”
Proud as he is of his accomplishments, Martin said he knows he must continue to evolve as a head coach. Last fall, during the NBA lockout, Martin invited Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Blake to work out for a week in Manhattan, Kan. Martin coached Blake in high school, but that didn’t stop him from picking the guard’s brain about pick-and-roll offenses and defenses so Kansas State would be better prepared to play league rival Kansas.
After K-State was eliminated from the NCAA tournament in March, Martin spent a weekend doing television work for CBS. During commercial breaks he questioned co-hosts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Greg Anthony about various strategies and schemes and how best to relay them to his players.
“I love listening to people’s minds and getting different perspectives,” Martin said. “If you’re willing to learn, you’ve got a chance to teach.”
Martin’s path from high school benchwarmer to millionaire college head coach is nothing short of remarkable, but there may not be anyone in Division I who has paid his dues quite like Marquette’s Williams.
A decent player at Van Alstyne (Texas) High School, Williams said he could’ve made the roster at various “Bible colleges” across the country. But those opportunities didn’t appeal to him.
Williams began his career in 1990 as a student manager at Navarro (Texas) Junior College. His first job was sweeping the floors. At that point, he said, he began sending 425 handwritten letters to college coaches each week, inquiring about potential opportunities.
Every week of every summer in college was spent working at a different basketball camp, Williams said. By the time he was 21, Williams had been hired as a full-time assistant at Texas-Arlington. He was making $400 a month and living in a dorm room — and he loved every minute of it.
“I felt like I was coaching the Lakers,” he said.
Williams said his lack of playing experience hasn’t been a factor with his players. If anything, his trek to the Division I ranks helps him relate to the Golden Eagles, many of whom are former junior college stars who had to work extra hard after being overlooked in high school.
“Maybe there are coaches who played at a high level who, because they were really good players, didn’t have to do the things that I did,” Williams said. “I don’t hold that against them. But I didn’t have a choice.
“A lot of people want to be a Big East head coach, but they don’t want to be a junior college manager first. I think it helped me. I wouldn’t change anything about my path.”
Neither would Crean, who preceded Williams at Marquette.
Crean said he realizes how fortunate he is to have been surrounded by some of greatest minds in sports. Before taking over at Marquette in 1999, Crean was an assistant under accomplished coaches such as Jud Heathcoate, Ralph Willard and Tom Izzo. And his brothers-in-law — Jim and John Harbaugh — are NFL head coaches.
Long before he met any of them, though, Crean was certain he wanted to become a college head coach despite never playing the game beyond high school. At the same time he was attending classes as a 19-year-old sophomore at Central Michigan, Crean was working as an assistant coach at Division III Alma College (enrollment 1,400) and at Mount Pleasant (Mich.) High School.
While some of his current colleagues were starring as players on the court at schools such as Providence and Oklahoma State, Crean was already adapting to life on the sideline.
“Coaching is like being in a mile race,” Crean said current ESPN analyst and former head coach Fran Fraschilla told him at the time. “You’re two laps ahead of everyone right now.”
“Looking back,” he said, “that talk with Fran was a real confidence booster. I was going through one of those moments when I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this. I never played. I don’t have the background.’ But from that point on, I never lost confidence that I could move forward. I spent a lot of time learning from different people and applying it.”
Considering his work ethic, it’s hardly a surprise that Crean found himself coaching Dwyane Wade in the Final Four at Marquette in 2003 — or that he’s now the head coach for one of the most tradition-rich basketball programs in America.
Other than that one conversation with a recruit, Crean said his lack of playing experience has never been an issue.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “you’ve got to have confidence and passion. You’ve got to have a knowledge base and you’ve got to be able to make people better.
“If you can make people better, they’ll gain confidence in you, and then you’ll gain confidence in yourself.”
Even though standouts such as Crean, Drew, Martin and Williams have proven that coaching success is possible without having played at a high level, there are times that a history of on-court prowess certainly doesn’t hurt.
In Danny Manning’s nine seasons as an assistant at Kansas, only two Jayhawks post players who started at least 50 percent of the team’s games in a single season failed to be selected in the NBA draft. There may not be a better big man’s coach in America.
“Our big thing here is scoring before you catch the ball,” KU coach Bill Self said before Manning was hired as Tulsa’s head coach in April. “So it’s all about doing things to make sure you’re going to score once you get the ball.
“Danny is the best when it comes to teaching guys about footwork and angles and putting yourself in a position to make something happen.”
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg — one of the most popular players in Cyclones history — spent 10 years in the NBA before taking over at his alma mater two years ago. Guard Scott Christopherson said Hoiberg’s ability to relate to his players is one of his biggest strengths.
“Sometimes coaches who haven’t played a lot don’t understand the emotional roller coaster a 30-35-game season can be,” Christopherson said. “Sometimes you go through slumps where you’re not playing as well as you’d like for four or five games.
“Coach Hoiberg understands what that feels like. So he knows the buttons that need to be pushed — and the ones that don’t need to be pushed.”
Before he transferred to Iowa State, Christopherson played one season under Crean at Marquette.
“I can’t say he didn’t understand the emotional side of the game,” Christopherson said. “He’s obviously very, very good. Coaches [who didn’t play] work as hard or harder than anyone. There may be things they don’t get at first but, as time goes on, they catch up.
“In the end, it really isn’t a factor.”