|Friday, April 18
When it comes to 'family,' Heathcote at head of table
By Andy Katz
Two seasons into his coaching career, Doug Wojcik joined college basketball's first family of coaches. Or, so he thought.
Three years later, he was asked to leave when Matt Doherty resigned as North Carolina's head coach in March. Wojcik had no choice, essentially cut off from the Dean Smith family of coaches after Doherty was forced to leave Chapel Hill last month.
But in hindsight, he may have actually moved up among college basketball's forest of coaching tree. And, it could actually turn out to be the best thing that could have happened in Wojcik's young career.
This isn't intended as a knock on UNC, but when Wojcik was hired by Tom Izzo as an assistant at Michigan State, he became an official member of the Jud Heathcote family of coaches -- a fraternity that boasts more head coaches than those of Smith, Mike Krzyzewski or Bob Knight.
"I hate losing my guys, but he could be the next one to move on," Izzo said of Wojcik, a former Naval guard, who teamed up with David Robinson and former MSU assistant Brian Gregory in the late '80s. "I hit a home run with this hire. He's all class, has the charisma I'm looking for and brings instant credibility."
Wojcik chose Michigan State over UCLA, Pittsburgh and Dayton because of Izzo. He said he admired Izzo's work ethic, the Spartans' style of play, and the fact that Michigan State had become Izzo's program.
The Heathcote/Izzo coaching tree isn't some Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Since Heathcote handed his program over to Izzo in 1995, the coaches who have coached under Izzo and moved on to their own programs has created a Sequoia -- with Heathcote at the top, watching his pupils develop from his perch in Spokane, Wash.
And, Heathcote has spawned a number of coaching trees, not just the one rooted at Michigan State.
Let's start with the obvious. Working under Heathcote since 1986, Tom Izzo took over at MSU in 1995 when Heathcote retired. The assistants to Izzo who have moved on to head coaching jobs begin with Stan Joplin in 1996 (Toledo) and steadily continue with Tom Crean (Marquette, 1999), Stan Heath (Kent State, 2001; Arkansas, 2002), Gregory (Dayton, 2003) and Mike Garland (Cleveland State, 2003). The last two were hired for their first head coaching jobs within the past two weeks.
While Crean has been at Marquette only four years, he has already seen three of his assistants move on to head coaching jobs: Tim Buckley (Ball State, 2000), Tod Kowalczyk (UW Green Bay, 2003) and, last week, Darrin Horn (Western Kentucky).
Each of these coaches have direct lineage to Heathcote. But, so too, does the Oklahoma tree.
Remember, Kelvin Sampson worked for Heathcote in 1978-80 after he finished Pembroke State (N.C.). Sampson went on to coach at Montana Tech and Washington State before Oklahoma. Sampson's assistant Ray Lopes is the head coach at Fresno State. Jason Rabideaux was the head coach at UTEP, before he abruptly resigned before this past season. And, Sampson's top assistant, Jim Shaw, is likely to land a head coaching job in the next year.
And then there is the Montana tree. Heathcote coached at Montana prior to Michigan State. His assistants were Jim Brandenburg (former Wyoming and San Diego State coach) and Mike Montgomery (Stanford). Montgomery got the head coaching job at Montana and his coaching offspring -- Stew Morrill (Montana, Colorado State and Utah State), Blaine Taylor (Montana and Old Dominion), Doug Oliver (Idaho), Willis Wilson (Rice) and Trent Johnson (Nevada) -- are all therefore linked to Heathcote and indirectly the Michigan State family.
But it doesn't stop there. One of Heathcote's assistants at Michigan State was Don Monson, who went on to coach at Idaho and Oregon. Monson had Mike Deane (former Marquette, Siena and Lamar coach) on his staff, as well as Barry Collier, at Oregon, at one time. Collier, now the coach at Nebraska, spawned a tree of his own at Butler. His assistants -- Thad Matta (Xavier), Todd Lickliter (Butler) and Jay John (Oregon State) -- have all moved on to head coaching jobs.
We've probably missed someone along the way, but you get the idea. Plus, there are always the coaching prodigies who would like to claim that they're from the Heathcote tree. And, Heathcote has held weekly strategy sessions with the Gonzaga crew from Dan Monson (Minnesota and formerly of Gonzaga) to Mark Few (Gonzaga) since he retired to his native Spokane.
"We've applied for citizenship in the family," Few said. "I walk out of every lunch with him with about 50 sets. There's no question he has had an influence on me and our staff."
So, you think that Carolina's pull was strong on Roy Williams to not disappoint Smith? Just think if Heathcote called any of those above? Every one of these coaches would listen.
"We had a chance to have three of our guys in the Final Four, but two lost in the Elite Eight," Heathcote said of Izzo's Spartans and Sampson's Sooners losing before Crean's Eagles made it to the Final Four. "If that had happened, then suddenly I would be famous again."
Heathcote still looks at the performances of his former bench mates with pride. But he doesn't feel like he has had a huge part to play in their success. He said he owes a lot to Izzo for keeping the "family" going at Michigan State, not to mention passing on common coaching beliefs down to Crean and beyond.
"You develop your staff to work hard and do everything," Heathcote said. "We never just had recruiters. I told them that I was too busy coaching the players to coach the coaches. I told them that they could coach as much or as little as they wanted."
The Knight tree boasts some marquee names in Steve Alford (Iowa) and Dave Bliss (Baylor), as well as Dan Dakich (Bowling Green) and Jim Crews (Army). But the former Indiana head coach's branches don't have the reach of Heathcote's tree. Krzyzewski easily has the highest profile offspring with Mike Brey (Notre Dame), Quin Snyder (Missouri), Tommy Amaker (Michigan) and Dave Henderson (Delaware).
Then again, Knight has hired outside the family. So, too, has Izzo and before him Heathcote. Krzyzewski and Smith, meanwhile, have always tried to keep everything within the two Tobacco Road families.
Krzyzewski's current assistants are all former players -- Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Collins and Johnny Dawkins. Williams is bringing with him to UNC some outside the Carolina family in Steve Robinson, Joe Holladay, C.B. McGrath, Jerod Haase and possibly Ben Miller. They'll be adopted into the fold with other Carolina coaches like Jeff Lebo (Chattanooga) and Buzz Peterson (Tennessee).
The coaching roots at Duke, UNC and Indiana are strong. But the reach isn't as long as those trees grown by Heathcote and Izzo.
"Duke has its tentacles stretching out there with big-time jobs but we've got our guys at Oklahoma, Michigan State, Marquette, Dayton, Stanford and more," Heathcote said.
Sampson said of Heathcote's influence, "It's the best tree. Look, coach K and Dean Smith have great trees, but nobody's tree is better than Jud's. We all learned from Jud the basic fundamental of coaching and that's to work hard. I still do bed check at camp because Jud taught me to."
Sampson said Heathcote was the reason he landed at Montana Tech for his first coaching job. He said Heathcote then helped him get to Washington State, Heathcote's alma mater.
So, what's the secret? Why has Michigan State, Duke, UNC and other high-profile programs been able to keep it in the family, while others such as UCLA for one, haven't? Well, the real mystery is UCLA's lack of a family atmosphere. One reason is John Wooden never pushed for one. Sure, former assistant Gary Cunningham became head coach, but the run of coaches during the '80s and '90s weren't direct descendants to Wooden, even though he had an influence over each new hire.
"It was never like North Carolina," said Cunningham, now the athletic director at UC Santa Barbara. "UCLA was never about hiring all its own. Coach (Wooden) stayed out of it unless he was asked. He was never influential in the hiring. Everyone was loyal to him and we do get together and there are reunions, but I never heard of him wanting the job to stay in the family."
Brey said one thing Krzyzewski won't allow his assistants to do is take bad jobs. He allows each to coach as much as any assistant in the country, and leans on them to work as hard as any assistant. This made Amaker, Brey and Synder tailor made for high-profile head coaching jobs. The same is true within the Heathcote/Izzo family. Crean and Gregory said they wouldn't have their jobs if Izzo didn't let them coach. They were never placed into specific roles. And there have never been divisions among the staff.
"If you've got a great program and the assistant's never move then you're not giving them credit," Izzo said. "I'm having an easy time moving guys because I give them the credit they deserve. I give them ownership and responsibility."
Keeping things in the "family" has certainly caught on at Michigan State. Heathcote has recently held Final Four Friday gatherings at a local watering hole in the host city. Pop on by and you'll see coaches from Michigan State, Montana, Oklahoma, Stanford, Marquette, and more.
"It's pretty cool,'' Izzo said of the Heathcote family. "Tom (Crean) and I have been talking about having the whole group back in the fall, the way Carolina does (with the college and NBA Tar Heel coaches). This is something that I feel really good about. We've got our own program now.''
And it all starts with Heathcote, the godfather of college coaching "families".
What else we're hearing
At Yale... James Jones is imploring Prosser to play a return game on campus instead of in Bridgeport, Conn. The game is a return from a 2-for-1 series. Jones originally wanted to play the game at the New Haven Coliseum, but that has since had its doors closed for good. He fears that playing the game in Bridgeport won't provide a true homecourt. But Prosser is no fool. Wake Forest at Yale is a dangerous game. The last two high-profile teams to lose to the Bulldogs also saw their head coaches lose their jobs this spring -- Jerry Dunn at Penn State and Larry Shyatt at Clemson. Yale won at Penn State twice and won at Clemson in the past two seasons.
At Xavier ... Rising senior guard Romain Sato is going to follow the David West summer plan and play at the Nike camp in Indianapolis and follow the Jordan camp circuit in Santa Barbara. The Musketeers also got point Lionel Chalmers back for another season after the senior earned back his fourth season of eligibility. Xavier signed up to play Indiana in the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis, goes to Mississippi State and gets Alabama at home in marquee non-conference games next season.
At Arizona and North Carolina ... Lute Olson and Roy Williams will continue their rivalry on the court, but involve a new school. The coaches want to keep playing each other and that means Arizona and North Carolina, not Arizona and Kansas, will play. The Arizona staff wasn't sure when it would start, but it looks like 2004-05. Arizona is also pretty peeved about the lack of structure at some of these high school tournaments during the school year where runners for agents are free to roam and college coaches can't attend. This continues to be a major issue, but one that could cease with a new age limit in the NBA draft. If the 20-year minimum age requirement goes into effect in 2004 then agents would be wasting time trying to woo high school juniors or seniors. They wouldn't be eligible for the draft. Meanwhile, former Arizona forward Dennis Latimore will decide between Oklahoma and Notre Dame. He visited Oklahoma and is at Notre Dame this weekend.
At Marquette ... Tom Crean was lying low after signing his contract extension, apparently not interested in seeing if Illinois was interested in his services. But a few details are emerging as to why he took the deal. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said it was hard for Crean to turn down a chance to be secure financially from a school that had taken care of him. The new Al McGuire center, set to open in the fall and the love fest that a Final Four can deliver were too hard to ignore. "The AD and the school had been very fair to him," Izzo said. "All of those were big factors."
From the NABC ... The coaches association is thrilled that the NCAA got rid of a camp rule that was causing grief. Coaches no longer have to pay a $40 fee and be certified to work their camps, according to Sampson, who is the NABC president. But the NABC isn't too jazzed about the new Chicago pre-draft camp rule. The all-expenses paid trip by the NBA could lead to more players staying in the draft. If they play well, and get a taste of NBA lifestyle for a week then they're less likely to return. The decisions would be made in late June, leaving the colleges scrambling for a replacement. Players and NBA teams have the opposite opinion. Players feel it will give them a true read on their draft status while NBA teams will get a more competitive camp.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year. The next column will be on May 9.