Part Five: The Games Outside the Games
So far, we have been talking about Coach Tony Bennett's system for how his teams will play the game. But a lot of what happens in those games is determined by what happens outside of the arena and before the whistle blows. Recruiting new players, marketing your program, dealing with league offices and officiating, and many other tasks. In a couple of areas, Bennett could stand to re-examine his position, because opportunities are being left on the table, opportunities that other coaches are exploiting to Virginia's disadvantage in what is ultimately a zero-sum game.
Publicity and Hype
In the Washington Post article cited earlier in this series, "Tony Bennett and Virginia hoops aren’t for everyone, but ‘it’s okay to be different’" by Kent Babb, the reporter relayed a couple of anecdotes that reveal Tony's beliefs about publicity and how they led him to pass up two specific opportunities, and probably numerous others.
Not long after Bennett arrived in Charlottesville nine years ago, assistant coach Ritchie McKay approached him with good news. Sports Illustrated, the venerable national magazine, was interested in writing about Virginia and a changing ACC.
“I’d rather not,” McKay would remember his boss telling him.
“Tony, man, this would help recruiting,” said McKay, himself a former longtime head coach, but Bennett said his program wasn’t ready.
What better time to tell the nation what you are all about than when you are establishing your program? Sports Illustrated wanted to give Tony a chance to introduce himself and his vision for Virginia Basketball to the sports fans of America, and he turned it down. Turning down opportunities to present himself and his program to the nation is a recurring theme. From this past season, Babb presents another anecdote:
ESPN’s “College GameDay” at John Paul Jones Arena and Hokies Coach Buzz Williams seizing any chance for national exposure, Bennett declined to appear on television and mostly stayed home to review game notes.
Bennett hates publicity, both because he is uncomfortable with it personally and because he believes it conflicts with his humility pillar. "He actively avoids the spotlight for himself and his program, believes pregame theatrics and between-game hype are pointless, doesn’t see how interviews and television appearances can benefit his team." Babb.
I understand. I get it. I hate dealing with the public also. My dream job is consigliere, where I hang back in the shadows and whisper advice into the ear of the king, while he gets the glory. Heck, I don't even care if he gives me the blame. But if Tony wants to avoid publicity and run his organization in the shadows, he should be a spymaster, not the head coach of a top ten college basketball program. I also get the humility pillar thing. My mom gave me the "don't brag" lesson and I hate going out and telling people all the great things I can do, but I've come to learn that in some contexts you simply have to do it. It is a simple truth that in a job hunt, for example, you have to sell yourself or someone who is willing to sell himself will get the job. Being truthful and honest in presenting your strengths is not in conflict with humility.
Virginia Basketball competes at the highest level of an industry. It is in the public eye. It has to earn television appearances, fill its arena and win donations to get the resources it needs to compete. Public image, public relations are integral to all three of those endeavors. It also has to recruit players, and publicity and hype assist there, too. You cannot hide your light under a bushel. No, you need to put it on the highest mountaintop and give it fuel to burn bright so that it can be seen from far and wide.
Every Sports Illustrated story turned down, every College GameDay television appearance declined, is a lost opportunity to market the program and get the RIGHT kind of attention. What better publicity could there be, what better counter to the negativity that others sling at us than Tony Bennett speaking to his vision, his principles, the things he wants his players to accomplish? Tony Bennett is literally the best public relations resource this program has. Have you ever heard him speak or read one of his interviews where you did not get excited? His sincerity, his humor, his humility and deep compassion shine through. It is not inconsistent with the Pillars for him to do go on TV - it is a chance to teach the Pillars and let the world see just what he and UVA are all about.
I'm not talking about Buzzing out and chasing every TV camera he can find. I'm not even talking about granting every interview request. Sports Illustrated and College GameDay are obvious.
We are in a public relations war and have been since the end of January 2015, only we don't seem to recognize it and we aren't fighting. College GameDay came to Charlottesville in January 2015, they loved it, Jay Williams got excited and picked Virginia to win - and in less than a month the Bad4Basketball campaign kicked off. Opponents make sure our pace and style, our failures, and random events that can be used to harm our image get publicity and mentioned to potential recruits. Every time we reject a public appearance or interview, we give up an opportunity to fight those things, to tell our story, to put a competing frame out there.
This is one area where Tony needs to compromise his feelings with reality. Publicity and hype are not fundamentally inconsistent with the Pillars. How they are done is what matters. He can do them with humility. And insomuch as things like College GameDay might create distractions for players, he should view it as valuable teaching tools, because when you get into the NCAA Tournament, the hype, publicity and distraction just multiply at each step. The more they learn how to handle those things, the better they will do. It cannot be avoided, so it must be exploited.
The League Office and Officials
In one of the Coach's Corner radio shows, Tony was asked about sending video to the league about the officials, and he said that he does not do that. He does not believe it is effective, and he clearly was uncomfortable with the whole subject. Complaining is not something Tony likes to do. He clearly saw the whole thing as distasteful, and he likes to think that the relationship he builds with the referees on game day is most effective. As with his views on publicity and hype, I get it, but I think he is missing part of the view.
Tony came to the ACC fairly recently. When he got here, he rarely showed any reaction to referees. He has definitely learned that in this league you have to show pique now and then about referees' calls or you are going to get walked over. He does work the refs now, and I do think that it has worked for him. The next step is recognizing that working the league office between games is part of working the refs, and part of the job of protecting his players. Dean Smith used to work the league office. He made reference to it on at least one occasion that I recall hearing. That evil sorceror down in Durham certainly does it. Many coaches in many sports will send video to the league after a game. I'm convinced that complaining to the league office is effective. A few anecdotes have given me that belief.
After Harold Deane went off on North Carolina in University Hall in 1995, Dean Smith talked about him in the post-game press conference. Included in there was a complaint about the number of free throws Harold shot. It was in that press conference that he made a remark about how it seemed ACC officials blew the whistle whenever Harold drove. The following year, Harold's free throw rate dropped. Unfortunately, I did not find conference only numbers for 1995 and 1996, but his overall free throw rate dropped from 59.3% to 49.9%. I remember many ACC games where Harold and Hoos were frustrated at the lack of calls when he went to the rim and had gotten calls the year before.
In the press conference after Virginia beat Duke for the 2014 ACC Tournament Championship, Rat Lord complained loud and long about the number of free throws Virginia had shot, in particular Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon. Virginia had shot 38 free throws in that game. Brogdon had shot 10 and Gill had an astounding 17 attempts. This was the culmination of an ACC season in which Gill had a 92.6% FTr, Brogdon had a 41% FTr, and the team had a 40.4% FTr for fifth in the conference.
The following season, Gill's free throw rate declined to 63.4%, Brogdon's to 28.4%, and the team's fell to 31.6% for 10th in the conference.
My last anecdote is not in the ACC, but it helps illustrate the point. In Melo Trimble's freshman year, Big Ten referees treated him like an NFL quarterback in practice. I remember in our game with them being incensed how every time he drove into the lane the referees blew the whistle. You didn't have to do anything, just be near him and a whistle blew. I saw Maryland two or three other times that year and it was the same thing. I remember in the NCAA Tournament game I saw, the announcers made reference to Big Ten coaches complaining about it. The following year, I heard again how all the Big Ten coaches had complained about it. In Trimble's freshman year, he had a FTr of 71% and averaged 6.9 FTA/game. In his sophomore year his FTr was 46.9% for 5.1 FTA/game, and in his last year, it dropped again to 42.4%, with a slight increase to 5.3 FTA/game. The lack of whistles clearly impacted his game, and he was visibly frustrated and confused.
These anecdotes do not prove a damn thing. I cannot prove anything. But I believe the hypothesis that coaches complain to the league office and that it has an effect is accurate. We compete in a conference with coaches who will not hesitate to lobby for their benefit. Refusing to do the same handicaps you. As I have learned during my foray into institutional employment, he who does not complain to authority gets put on the defensive in someone else's narrative.
Tony's position against sending video to the league office is in general a reasonable one, and when we're talking about some blown calls, guys getting held and bumped on the baseline with no call, etc., it's not an issue worth really pushing (even though I think it unwise not to lobby), but this year it seems to have become an issue of player safety. Our players - Isaiah Wilkins and Kyle Guy most notably - took a lot of blows to the head or face (and Kyle was viciously hacked on the arms several times also) without any whistle blowing or video review. Hell, twice Isaiah got called for the foul! There is no excuse for the referees missing this. It is something worth the university making a formal protest to the league over. We need to stop being so nice and make a stink now and then.
Speaking of not being so nice all the time, recruiting is not a nice activity. I can't say the specific things I've heard of specific coaches saying to specific recruits because I won't spread rumors and don't want to risk spreading something that is not, in fact, fact, but let's just say that some of the coaches we see on the sidelines, some of the coaches who a lot of Hoo fans really like, say some pretty crappy things to recruits. Some of them say things that are if not outright lies, at the very least things they know are extremely misleading. A lot of coaches throw a lot of shade. It is my belief that in a competitive, zero sum game like recruiting, you cannot afford to solely extol your virtues - especially when your main recruiting pitch is "you're going to have to work for everything you get here, and we won't promise anything."
It is my belief that you can ethically and morally engage in negative recruiting. I don't want to suggest that Tony do something that violates the Pillars or his principles, or ours. I wouldn't want to do that, either. I merely suggest that it's ok to say, "I don't think you would be happy at Duke because ..." or "The coaches at that school south of Jacksonville are not telling you the truth. They told you this, but really ...." Principled negative recruiting, where you always keep certain things in mind:
Everything you say is true and not misleading.
You keep it to factors and subjects that are directly relevant to the recruit's goals.
I'm sure there are more, but those are all I can think of right now.
Do our coaches do that? I don't know. Everything that I have heard or read about how UVA's staff communicates with recruits tells me that they stick to selling themselves and showing the player how he would fit at UVA. Get out there and set some Jack Salt screens or give a quick shove when starting a cut. We want to win, not make friends or avoid conflict. Who cares if Buzz thinks you're a good guy? Yes, we want to do things the right way, but what's wrong about telling a recruit what Villanova's coach won't tell him or exposing Louisville's lies (hypothetical, of course)?
The common thread is that Coach needs to get out of his comfort zone sometimes. He doesn't like publicity? It comes with the territory and has to be used. Some of these things that he doesn't feel comfortable with, the answer is not to refuse to engage in the activity; the answer is to engage in it in a moral, principled way. It is possible to use publicity, petition the league office for redress, or negatively recruit in such a way as not to violate your principles. Refusing to do so is, in my opinion, refusing to do a part of the job.
Next - Six: My View as a Fan and Conclusion