- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson usually has no problem opening his practices to the media or anyone else who wants to drop by. But not last week. The Wildcats on Saturday played host to Arizona State, with whom a feisty rivalry is developing after years of Arizona domination. Practice was closed.

"It's an ASU thing," Olson explained.

It's something else, as well. It's a control thing, a gesture not only meant to keep out spies and other insurgents, but to remind people who's in charge.

Other coaches in other sports close practice, sometimes all the time. Other coaches in other sports impose their will and affix their stamps on all elements of their teams or programs. Other coaches in other sports rule with an iron fist.

But college basketball coaches seem to keep theirs perpetually clenched.

If all coaches by nature are control freaks to some extent, these are the freakiest. Unlike their football or baseball counterparts, they deal with a reasonable (read: manageable) number of players. Unlike their peers in the pros, they are molding and shaping the presumably malleable hearts and minds of college youngsters.

All the while, they must wrestle with the sometimes conflicting responsibilities of winning, class attendance and civil obedience, while answering to parents, university presidents, athletic directors, boosters and their shoe company.

Many lose the fight. Given that, the real freaks might be the ones who fail to grasp control.

"I feel when you're put in charge of something, you're a control freak," Utah coach Rick Majerus said. "That's just the chain of command in life. If you're the dean, you're the dean. In the military, you have the sergeant, the colonel and the general.

"You have to be ready to accept responsibility and failure. And when there are consequences, you want to make the decisions. One man's autonomy is another man's control freak."

Olson, who finds the term demeaning, said, "When you're on the court, it can not be a democracy. Somebody has to be in charge. I think it goes to extremes in some cases, but people have to deal with what their personalities dictate. I think you're seeing less and less of that with some of the younger coaches coming in, where there are fewer orders, so to speak. I don't think you're seeing the dictatorial type with some of the younger guys."

Olson has been a college head coach for 27 years, 17 at Arizona. His team won the national championship in 1997, and he has been named Pac-10 coach of the year a record six times. On Saturday the basketball court at McKale Center was named for him. He is the most famous, recognized man in Tucson, a city of a half-million people. He has fashioned a program that wins, that stays off the NCAA suspect list and whose athletes generally go to class and stay out of trouble, with minor exception. He gets things done, his way.

This would not happen if Olson were coaching in the NBA.

"It can't be done in the pros," he said.

"It gets back to this: It's just like being the CEO of a company. Is he not dictatorial in a lot of ways, and some more than others? It's true in every line of work. But it's so much more visible with coaches, because of the TV time."

Watch ESPN or ABC and listen to Dick Vitale (if you can). It's more about coaches, many of whom earn close to a million dollars in combined income "the dapper Lute Olson" and the "brilliant Mike Krzyzewski" and "the General Robert Montgomery Knight" than it is about the players or even the game itself. And Vitale isn't the only one.

"I think that's bad," Olson said. "I think the analysts should talk more about the game and what's going on, on the court. And I think the viewers feel the same way."

Yet coaches like Olson and Krzyzewski and Dean Smith, who had a building named after him while he was still coaching at North Carolina, have assumed such control of their program, they are the program.

To a large extent, it's a sign of the times.

"You're responsible for everything today," George Washington coach Tom Penders said. "Much more so than when I went to school in the '60s. No one held a coach accountable if a player got in trouble or had academic difficulties. Today, every kid has a car… . It's a whole different era. I don't even remember a college coach asking how a kid was doing in a course. Now I get weekly updates."

The pressure on coaches to get their players to attend class and graduate has heightened the control factor. Players need to be eligible to compete. Solid graduation rates reflect well on a program (and doesn't hurt in recruiting). Then, too, coaches say they feel genuine pride when their players do well in the classroom.

"Academically, I'm on them all the time," said Majerus, who spent a year as an NBA assistant and quickly returned to college coaching. "The minute you don't go to class, you're suspended with me. I don't expect an A, I expect an A effort. The minute that's not forthcoming, I'll get rid of you.

"I definitely have a tight hand over the operation, relative to everything. I believe my biggest job is to make sure the players graduate and have a great educational experience. Second to that is winning. I'm pretty much left alone."

Both Olson and Majerus, due in large measure to their success and their personalities, get along well with their athletic directors, who know well enough to leave pretty much alone. Penders, however, had a poor relationship at Texas with athletic director DeLoss Dodds. Penders left Texas in 1998 after a controversial incident regarding the release of the transcript of one of his players, Luke Axtell.

Now in his second year at GW, Penders works for an old friend, Jack Kvancz, a former basketball coach himself and now the Colonials' AD. Penders is much more comfortable and, to be sure, his prints are all over the program. But basketball isn't the gigantic, money-making beast at GW it is at Utah or Arizona or Duke or Maryland. And Penders said his personality doesn't lend itself to seeking the control that others have.

"I'm not a micromanager, I'm not a control freak," Penders said. "I try to delegate among my staff and create a family-type atmosphere. That's my style. I give them as much freedom as possible. Yet, I hold them responsible. But I know a lot of coaches who aren't that way.

"Some coach to a point where if a kid misses a shot, he yanks them, or whatever. If something isn't run correctly, they automatically get in a players' face. Hey, when a player makes a really terrible mistake, everybody knows it. I could never understand why a coach would pull a kid and get in his face. But there are as many successful coaches who do it that way, as there are who stay relatively calm."

Despite his somewhat mellow demeanor, accentuated by a perpetual tan, Penders knows when to get tough. This, after all, is a tough business.

"You have to be a little authoritarian, or the players won't respect you," he said. "You have to have their respect, or you can't compete… . But I've always felt that I'm like the parent of a big family. And that's how you try to coach every day. Some days you have a lot of laughs, some days you don't. That's how life is. You have to create a family environment. It's parenting, more than anything."

Even to where coaches tell their players to clean their rooms. NBA veteran Danny Manning, who played at Kansas for Larry Brown, one of the great perceived control freaks, said Brown insisted his players leave the dressing room nicer than how they found it. "It's something I still do to this day," said Manning, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Asked what Brown was like in wanting to keep his finger on the pulse of everything that was going on, Manning laughed and said, "He did a good job of it."

A college coach "has more responsibility to the kid, and to his parents," Manning said. "Make sure they go to class, stay out of trouble. Don't do this, don't do that. Then go onto the court and make them fit into the system and play as a team and win games and be successful."

That's all.

Every coach controls their players' access to the media, and some go further than others. More locker rooms are being closed off to reporters after games. Indiana's Knight and former Georgetown coach John Thompson stand out as among the the most restrictive in that regard. Olson scolded a reporter recently for calling a player at home, even though that player was about to transfer. On the other hand, the Arizona dressing room is one of the few in the Pac-10 that is open. The idea is to create a positive, distraction-free environment, but that isn't always possible.

Penders, mindful of what happens when a player says too much, said he tries to impose few restrictions on dealing with the media because he believes in letting his players make their own choices.

"I think we have an obligation to prepare them for real life," he said.

In dealing with agents, boosters and other outside influences, coaches have had to become more vigilant. And more controlling. All coaches say they try to recruit players who won't embarrass the program, but the facts are that a) they don't always succeed and b) even if they did, there are no guarantees. Which is why coaches spend a lot of time trying to influence their players' behavior away from the game.

Then they hold their breaths.

"My players know that, in a heartbeat, if they don't act like a gentleman I'll get rid of them," Majerus said.

But Majerus, who has had an occasional player run afoul of the law, also says, "A kid can go out and have a DUI and be a great kid. There are a lot of nice kids who make mistakes. If you make a mistake, were your parents bad parents? Is a coach a bad coach?"

Reminding his players how to act off the court "needs to be a constant more now than it ever was," Olson said. "There are so many pitfalls out there, if they're not extremely careful about what they do and what they say. They can not be like the average student."

Yet for coaches who have control and know how to use it, Majerus and Olson say they still rely on their assistants. When Majerus underwent heart surgery during the 1989-90 season, his first at Utah, he entrusted the team to assistant coach Joe Cravens and said he felt no anxiety about doing it.

"I said, 'I don't care if you put in a zone or the Carolina press, because you are now in charge of this team,' " Majerus said. "I said, 'I want you to coach any way you know.' "

Olson said, "I think it would be ridiculous if you don't rely on your assistants to get input. I think they know I'm going to listen to whatever they have to say. It doesn't necessarily mean everything is going to get implemented, but there has to be an interchange of ideas."

Ultimately, however, Olson invokes Harry Truman.

"We get input from assistants and players, but in the end, the buck stops here," he said. "Is that being controlling? I don't think the term, 'control freak' is very complimentary. I do think it's a matter of how one goes about it, but the head coach has to be the one in charge."

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