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Coaching at an iconic program is much more than just X's and O's


DETROIT -- For Steve Lavin, Jim Harrick's words still echo in Harrick's West Virginia twang. "When you're the head coach at a place like UCLA," the former Bruins basketball coach would say, "you're anah-lyzed, critah-cized, scrutin-ized and di-ssected like a frooooog in a biology class."

Lavin, a Harrick assistant from 1991-96, always chuckled. He didn't truly understand what Harrick meant until he lay on the tray, facing the business end of the scalpel.

"There were many days down the line once I became the head coach that I had a greater appreciation for that quote," said Lavin, who succeeded Harrick and shepherded one of college basketball's name-brand programs from 1996-2003.

To be the keeper of the flame at an iconic program, a coach must do more than draw up plays and recruit. He must be a spokesman, a diplomat and a fundraiser. He must always show proper respect to the legends who built the program. He also must comport himself in a manner acceptable to the donors and administrators who keep the program humming. Most importantly, he must win.

At Kentucky, Billy Gillispie didn't meet any of those standards, so he was fired last week after two seasons. Losing to Gardner-Webb at Rupp Arena early in his tenure certainly harmed his relationship with the faithful, but he may have damaged it just as much by canceling a scheduled speech to the Lexington Rotary Club in 2007. The cancellation ended a 60-year tradition that began with Adolph Rupp. Gillispie also hurt himself by refusing to sign his contract. When many of a program's fans would saw off a limb to be able to coach the team for even one day, it struck many as insulting that a coach wouldn't finalize a long-term commitment.

If new Kentucky coach John Calipari -- who quickly signed his contract -- needs any pointers on how to guide an iconic program, he can watch North Carolina coach Roy Williams at this weekend's Final Four. Williams, whose Tar Heels face Villanova on Saturday, has coached two such programs. At Kansas, Williams led a program that dates back to James Naismith, the inventor of the sport. Now at his alma mater, Williams leads a program made legendary by his idol, Dean Smith.

Like most successful keepers of the flame, Williams is an accomplished schmoozer and a born storyteller. He won't hesitate to self-deprecate. That trait, Lavin said, is critical to staying sane under the pressure to live up to the standards of a Smith, a Rupp or a Knute Rockne. "Take what you're doing seriously," Lavin said. "But don't take yourself so seriously." It also doesn't hurt, Lavin said, to have "elephant-hide thick skin." Williams seemed to understand all of this from the day he took the job at North Carolina. "I was taught by Coach Smith, Bill Guthridge and Eddie Fogler 90 percent of what I do," Williams said at his introductory press conference in 2003. "I was taught to run a program, not just coach a team."

That's why, after Williams was hired, The Charlotte Observer's editorial board praised not only his record, but also his "fit."

"By any measure Roy Williams is among the finest of basketball coaches," the board wrote in a staff editorial. "Even more, he is a man who appreciates the values, traditions and connections for which, in the eyes of some Tar Heel fanatics, Mr. [Matt] Doherty showed insufficient regard. Now that Mr. Williams, a North Carolina native, has come home again, the Tar Heel family is calm and the once-turbulent sky returned to a clear Carolina blue."

That sky might not have stayed blue had Williams not won a national title in 2005 and reached the Final Four in each of the past two seasons.

At Notre Dame, football coach Charlie Weis kicked off his tenure by leading the Fighting Irish to BCS bowls in each of his first two seasons. It was a great story; Weis, a Notre Dame graduate who never played football at the school, had come to his alma mater from the New England Patriots and restored the luster to a program that had fallen off in recent years. Then, in 2007, the Irish went 3-9. When the honeymoon ended, his treatment of influential donors and his attitude in media interviews were called into question. Some wondered if Weis, a career NFL assistant before coming to South Bend, had the correct makeup to hold the same job that Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz performed so well.

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"When you win nine or 10, the naysayers don't jump out at you," Weis said. "When all of sudden you win three, all bets are off."

Weis admits he didn't handle his off-field duties as well as he should have. On Bill Belichick's New England staff, Weis rarely gave interviews. If a fan saw him in a store, Weis rarely heard anything other than, "Go Pats." At Notre Dame, he was the face for the biggest name brand in college football. Now, Weis said, he understands better what is expected.

"I don't think you're ever done evolving in that role," Weis said. "When you first come into any job, especially coming from an assistant to a head coach, there's a level of transition, but you do wear an awful lot of hats here. It's a never-ending process. The one thing I've been able to do better as the years have gone on is to continue to evolve with the job."

Because Weis went to Notre Dame, he had some idea what would be expected. He already had an appreciation for the school's traditions. Still, no amount of proximity to the job can prepare a coach for the ascension to the big chair. Lavin provided the best analogy. "It's like being in a flight simulator," he said, "as opposed to being up in a jet."

Some coaches seem better suited for the role. Lavin, the son of a teacher and a history buff, cherished the opportunity to pick the brain of UCLA legend John Wooden. For Lavin, it was an honor every time he shook Wooden's hand before each game at Pauley Pavillion. Calipari, another epic schmoozer, should embrace his celebrity at Kentucky the way former Wildcats coach Rick Pitino did. In his introductory press conference, Calipari stressed that he and his family members would weave themselves into the Lexington community. "We want to be involved," he said. "I can't be involved in everything. So, please, don't be upset if I have to say no to some things. But I really want to be involved. Wherever we can make a difference in this community, we'll do everything in our power to do that, including our time, our money, and whatever else we have to do."

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, Mich., Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez seems to have the right personality to withstand the slings from a 3-9 debut season and a messy divorce from West Virginia that forced Michigan to pay a $4 million buyout. Rodriguez has made mistakes -- for example, he didn't realize at first that he couldn't give jersey No. 1 to a player who hadn't earned it -- but he has worked to learn the culture of the program.

Like Pitino or Calipari, Rodriguez doesn't lack for confidence. Like them, he oozes charm when he's in front of a camera. Whereas former Kentucky coach Gillispie always looked uncomfortable in the spotlight, Rodriguez embraces it. That's probably why Rodriguez barely has noticed the contrast in off-field duties between West Virginia and Michigan. In fact, he volunteered to speak to booster clubs even though his contract didn't require it.

"In the top 40 or 50 Division I-A programs, you have a lot on your plate," Rodriguez said. "That's part of the job. At some places, you have to do more fundraisers than others. At some places, you have to do more fundraisers than others. Some places, there's more off-the-field obligations than others. Here, it's a nice balance. I enjoy it. I want to go out and meet our people. I want to go out and see the people who support our program. It's not all bad."

Still, Rodriguez knows any goodwill built at a speaking engagement will evaporate if he doesn't improve on last season's record. That's why he can't worry too much about his other obligations lest he forget his primary one. "As a coach, you have to balance," he said. "You have to make sure you can put your time in with your team."

Coaches who can achieve that balance get statues carved and buildings named in their honor. Those who can't usually get shown the door. Lavin, who fell into the latter category, said a coach at such a program would do well to keep handy a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "If." The poem begins: "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too..."

Sounds like perfect advice for a coach carrying the weight of history while fighting the pressure of the present. Of course, such a coach might also do well to heed the advice of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

Just win, baby.