Saturday April 30th, 2011

Indiana president Larry Bird met with reporters on Thursday, one day after his scrappy Pacers team was eliminated from the playoffs. Bird offered few clues as to his future -- "Hopefully we (Bird and owner Herb Simon) will get together in the next week or two," he said -- and even fewer about the fate of head coach Frank Vogel.

"I said he's going to have the first interview and the last interview," Bird said. "I was very impressed with a lot of things he did. He grew along with our players. It's just a situation where he's a free agent and there [are] some other free agents out there. We're going to talk to a few people and make a decision."

It's true, Bird will have options. The pool of head coaching candidates is a deep one. He could go for the veteran hand [Jeff Van Gundy, Rick Adelman, Mike Brown], the rising star [Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Kelvin Sampson] or the experienced assistant [Lawrence Frank, Mike Woodson, Dwane Casey]. He could tap into the TV booth [Kevin McHale, Mark Jackson] or dip into the college ranks.

His choices are good. But there is one that stands out: Vogel.

No, he's not a former player (his playing career ended at Division III Juniata College), and Vogel doesn't bring much experience to the table. His coaching resume is topped by the 10-week fill-in job he did when the Pacers fired Jim O'Brien in January, is filled out by a decade of being a relatively anonymous assistant coach and is preceded by a stint as Rick Pitino's video coordinator with the Celtics.

Those around Vogel, however, know exactly why he has been successful.

"He was an extremely hard worker," said O'Brien. "I kind of ran Rick's staff [at Kentucky] and even then you knew he had a knowledge of the game that was at a high level. He's analytical. He marries video and statistics really well."

As a head coach, Vogel proved to be much more. Sure, he was under a mandate from Bird to loosen the reigns, to sink or swim with Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George. But confidence and success don't just come with playing time. It takes a coach to understand what buttons to push, to know when to teach and when to discipline. These are the nuances of coaching Vogel understands, a skill that was a big reason Indiana, who was 10 games under .500 when Vogel took over, was two games over with Vogel at the helm. In a short amount of time, he put Hansbrough and George in position to succeed and reconfigured the offense so it ran through a struggling Roy Hibbert on the low post.

"He simplified things, which was good for that team," said an Eastern Conference executive. "He was always prepared and the players responded to him."

"He's a great teacher of the game," O'Brien said. "And he's a great instructor. The players respect him."

There's something else Bird will have to consider: Money. The Pacers ranked 27th in Forbes' most recent team valuations; the publication called Indiana "among the most troubled organizations in the NBA." It attracted an NBA-low 13,538 fans per game last season, the fifth straight year it's ranked in the bottom five in attendance.

Why is that important? Because experienced coaches like Van Gundy, Adelman or Brown could command between $3 and $5 million per season, a price tag the Pacers are unlikely to pay. Even Frank and Woodson made in excess of $2 million in their last coaching stops. Indiana won't get Vogel for less than $1 million, but entering a potentially lockout-shortened season, it might not have to pay much more than that, either.

Indeed, reasons not to retain Vogel are few and far between. Indiana has a pretty good thing going. It's core group -- Hansbrough, George, Hibbert, Darren Collison and Danny Granger -- is 28 or younger and under the team's control for at least the next two seasons. They will lop some $30 million off the cap this summer and Bird has made it clear that if another team is looking to sell a star, he's interested in buying.

Vogel has a rapport with his players. They trust him, believe in him. And he believes in them. On his way to dinner with his coaching staff Thursday night, Vogel's mind was already at work with ways to improve the team next season.

"They have to stay hungry -- hungrier than in the past," Vogel said. "You can't get complacent. Trades can happen, somebody working harder than you can come in and try to take your job. This summer everybody has to work."

Vogel says he will keep his options open, which he should. Bird has given no timetable as to when he will make a decision and Vogel's stock has never been higher. There is a good chance that a team with a coaching vacancy (Houston, maybe) will give him a call.

But Indiana is where he fits. Fans who once felt disconnected from the team are now gravitating toward it. Twitter has been ablaze with positive feedback. A Facebook account titled "The Frank Vogel Campaign" is up and running. They see the fire in this team, the passion. Shortly after being eliminated by Chicago, frustrated Indiana players could be heard barking at several Bulls in the hallway. They believed in themselves.

They believed they could win. Credit them for that. Credit the coach, too.

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