The Coaching Conundrum

Photo: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty ImagesPhoto: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty Images

A lot is often made of the impact a coach has on a team. No major sports league is exempt from criticism of its coaches, and the NBA is no different. Coaches are called out as often as players for a team’s performance, even if the criticism is unwarranted. With all the stress, long nights, close games, and downright infuriating situations that arise, why do some coaches stick with coaching? Where is the joy in coaching, especially when a coach is at the helm of a team struggling to find an identity and a way to win?

Ty Corbin currently finds himself at the helm of a Utah Jazz team in a rebuilding situation. This is a team that’s seen embarrassingly bad blowout losses (32 points to the Trailblazers being the worst so far this season) while also beating at least one decent team so far in the Houston Rockets. At times, coaching the group of young players who currently makes up Utah’s roster seems to hold little appeal or value. So where does the value lie in coaching a team such as this year’s Jazz squad?

Basketball, and sports in general, is made out to be only about winning. The mentality that if a team doesn’t win then that team’s not worth anything, permeates a large contingent of analyst and fan opinion alike. If that sentiment holds true, then not only do we need to question why Corbin continues to give his best effort with Utah, but also why Hall of Fame coaching legend and permanent Utah sports icon Jerry Sloan stayed at the helm of the Jazz for 23 years. Sloan saw his only chances at winning basketball’s Larry O’Brien trophy wrenched away from him by Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time, yet kept on coaching for more than a decade after that. If Sloan had reached basketball’s greatest stage and failed to win, why did he continue to coach?

Maybe the answer lies in the fact that basketball has held a trance over Sloan for his entire life. During high school, Sloan would walk miles in the snow to catch a ride to team practice at McLeansboro High School in Illinois, as he recounted in his Hall of Fame induction speech. Sloan led his Evansville College Purple Aces to a perfect 29-0 season that resulted in winning the NCAA College Division Championship in 1965. Following a decorated college career, Sloan cemented a legacy as a player with the Chicago Bulls, earning the nickname ‘The Original Bull.’

After a coaching stint with Chicago that ended in his termination, Sloan became the head coach of the Jazz following the resignation of Frank Layden. 23 years, 17 playoff trips, 10 50-win seasons, 8 division titles, and two NBA Finals appearances later, Sloan retired abruptly mid-season, saying that he just didn’t have the energy to coach any longer.

For a man who lives and breathes basketball (he’s currently employed by Utah as the Senior Basketball Adviser and attends most home games) watching Sloan take such a suddenly end a coaching legacy that felt timeless was shocking. With such an abrupt finish to a coaching career Sloan dedicated nearly two and a half decades of his life to, the question of why Sloan kept on coaching still remains.

Oddly enough, the answer to that question came during an innocuous pre-game interview with Corbin before Utah’s home win against the Rockets on December 2, 2013.

“I just enjoy watching [the players] grow, talking with them, visiting with them, watching film, then getting back on the practice court and seeing them respond to it,” Corbin said.

“[I enjoy just watching players] find out for themselves how difficult it is to be an NBA guy starting in this league, playing against the competition of starters every night. You have to respond from night to night to different competition and different game plans…and if you don’t have your best game, how do you fight your way through that and try and make it as good as you can and make it not as bad as it can be,” Corbin added.

Corbin didn’t once mention winning as a thing he enjoyed, because enjoying a victory is a given – not only in sports, but in life itself. It’s what else that Corbin mentioned that highlights the same coaching spirit that exists in every guy who finds himself in the position of leading a team from the sidelines.

Corbin said he enjoys watching players grow, talking with them, and working on getting better at the game of basketball. The love of the game is where the fire to be a coach lies – and this is where the conundrum of coaching arrives.

To be a coach means putting oneself into a very public, sometimes more public than the players, eye, opening one up to all kinds of criticism from every angle. Lineups, offensive and defensive schemes, and late game management all lie on the shoulders of a coach. Players will catch grief for missing a game winning shot, or supposedly taking plays off, or not giving enough effort – but coaches are sometimes reprimanded as the sole reason for a loss. The oft-repeated sentiments of, ‘if only coach had played this player, or called this play, at this point in the game, we would’ve won,’ plague a coach all the way to a title, and even then, complaints aren’t ever completely absent. Taking a public beating is all part of the coaching job. A coach has to embrace sometimes open hatred from fans, an emotion that lies in stark contrast to the love of the game.

But that’s worth it to the 30 men that are head coaches in the NBA, the 32 in the NFL, and the hundreds of coaches in college, high school, and youth leagues across the world. These guys put themselves on an open chopping block in the hopes that their particular knowledge will propel their team the championship so many coaches only dream about. Albert Einstein defined insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”

Coaches make adjustments, sometimes big, sometimes small, but their overall approach remains the same. In a way, taking a coaching job is insane from a logical standpoint – but not from the viewpoint of a man who loves a game. Paradoxical it may seem, but coaching fulfills a desire for the people who love a game too much to leave it behind after their playing years are over.

Sloan spent 33 years as a coach in some capacity. Andy Reid of the NFL has spent 31 years in some sort of coaching job. Red Auerbach spent 20 years at the helm of a team, and all of these men coached for the same reason – love of the game. It’s not always about winning, and it’s not all about losing either. Of course winning is the ultimate goal, but the lessons learned along the way are oftentimes more valuable than the trophy itself.

The drive found within a coach is the same drive we find in ourselves. Most average people don’t go to work every day because they’re only focused on ‘winning’ at their job, but rather because they love what they do. The same is true with professional coaches, and their love of the game is something that every fan should keep in mind.

Spencer is an avid sports fan and fisherman. He’s a lover of classic rock and Sundays filled with football. You can find him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant
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