MINNEAPOLIS — John Calipari’s team is not at the Final Four, but his words are. Here’s what he said last week about coaching.
“If you look at this as life or death, you die a lot.”
There are four guys coaching here this weekend who must know exactly what that means. They have all had their journeys this season to get to the Final Four, requiring patience and perspective and no panic. Tony Bennett and the post-UMBC blues at Virginia, Tom Izzo with all of Michigan State’s expectations and injuries, Chris Beard and Bruce Pearl convincing their teams from Texas Tech and Auburn they could accomplish something that had never been done before at their schools — and beat big names to do it.
But here they all are. Four very different men, one very same goal the next few days.
The elder . . .
Izzo, of course. If Michigan State wins, he’ll be the sixth oldest man to coach a national champion, at 64. Just a couple of months younger at No. 5 would be John Wooden. This will speak to his longevity: When Izzo advanced to his first Final Four 20 years ago, Beard was an assistant at North Texas, Pearl was coaching Division II at Southern Indiana, and Bennett was with the North Harbour Kings in New Zealand.
The best player . . .
Bennett, by a mile. He was a star for his father at Green Bay. Here’s the NCAA record book coming into this season. Note the name at the top for all-time career leader in 3-point percentage at 49.7. Yep, Tony Bennett. Izzo played at Northern Michigan, and Pearl and Beard were managers in college.
When Pearl’s Auburn players were explaining last week how none of them had been recruited by the powerhouses they were beating all month, Bennett chimed in, “I want to go on the record with something. I wasn’t recruited by North Carolina, Kansas or Kentucky, either. I’m a mutt, too.”
The longest and most winding road . . .
Easy call. Beard. Division II, semi-pro — it’s all there on the resume. A dozen names in all. One thing never changed, though: where he would go each spring, like a basketball swallow returning to his own Capistrano. He knew just the place to grow a dream.
“I’ve gone to the Final Four every year in my career. I just never coached there,” he said. “I’m very proud of my path in coaching, and I feel like I represent a lot of guys out there. I grew up going to these open practices on Friday. I was the guy that would always get there early and stay for all four practices and take notes and just dream of maybe one day being down there.
“I’m sure that will be the case Friday. There’s going to be a lot of coaches in that arena Friday, and maybe deep, deep down inside they know — I can do this. I’m going to do this one day, even though the whole world doesn’t give you much of a chance.”
Saturday will be Chris Beard’s one day.
“Basketball is basketball. Three years ago, I was trying to win a game in DII, just like Saturday, I’ll be trying to win a game in DI.”
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The man of a thousand faces . . .
Normally, the automatic answer would be Izzo, and he certainly is. But it’s a horse race with Pearl on who has the most. There is a fire to the man from Auburn that the game of basketball has a way of igniting.
“Come to practice, and that’s exactly what it is. Or come watch me before a Division II exhibition game,” Pearl said. “When the clock starts and the game is on and we’re practicing or playing, that’s who I am. The buzzer sounds, and I shut down.
“But for 40 minutes or however long we’re going to go, it’s going to be intense. It’s going to be the same; my guys don’t see any difference in a big game or a small game, or a game in March – or in this case, it’s going to be April.”
However many expressions Izzo or Pearl go through in a game, they’re way more than Tony Bennett’s one.
The master psychologist . . .
They all have had to be, or else they wouldn’t be here. But nobody anywhere had to heal more wounds than Bennett, with what happened to Virginia against UMBC. It was the ultimate David plunking Goliath and an unforgettably great story — unless you’re Goliath. It took knowing exactly what buttons to push, exactly what voices his players needed to hear, exactly what tone of opportunity had to be set. Because it could have gone so, so wrong.
“I’m not sure there was anybody that’s ever done a better job of handling something,” Izzo said. “And in his own way, using that as a motivator to not feel sorry for ourselves, it’s part of who we are, and let’s move on.”
Take that pain, grow from it, use it. It could take you places you wouldn’t get to otherwise. That was Bennett’s mantra to his team, delivered all summer, in the fall, through the winter, right to the doorsteps of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Along the way, we’ve found out not only about Virginia, but Tony Bennett, too.
“Where does peace and perspective come from?” he said. “I always tell our guys it’s something that is unconditional. I know I have that in the love of my family. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith.
“But of course, you feel things. Of course you desperately want things to go well, and it’s frustrating when they’re not. You step back and look at it. I always challenge our guys, what’s your secret of contentment?
“You dwell on what it is good because there is a bigger picture in all of this, and I believe I understand that. So going through those refining moments, they’re tough, but when you look back at them, they’re sometimes painful gifts that draw you near to what truly matters.”
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And when basketball hands you a particularly galling moment, as basketball tends to do? “Punch the pillow. I used to do that when I played for my dad.”
He’s tried to teach his players what the UMBC loss taught him: It made him determined for the atonement that only a Final Four could bring, but “it did something maybe as significant or greater. It made me realize that if that never does happen, it’ll still be OK.”
Turns out, that was the perfect combination for what it would take to get Virginia here. As one of his players, Jack Salt, said, “He’s a great coach, he’s a great person. He deserves to be in the Final Four.”
The odd offensive-minded man out . . .
Think Michigan State or Texas Tech or Virginia. Yep, defense. All three coaches are renowned for it. Auburn, not so much, though the Tigers can force gobs of turnovers. But Pearl is viewed as something of a mad bomber, with the way Auburn hoists up 3-pointers.
“I think I’ve always been accused of living by it and dying by it. Never quite understood what that meant,” he said. His philosophy is this: In a game with lots of contact, the 3-point shot, if taken at the right time, is one of the few things done with no contact.
“The open 3-point shot is the second best play in basketball,” he said. The best? Scoring inside and getting fouled for a 3-point play. “Just because the Golden State Warriors figured it out, don’t blame me. I’ve always shot the 3 ball.”
The driven man. . .
For Beard, Bennett and Pearl, there can be nothing like the first championship. A coach joins a most exclusive club that night, and who knows when they’ll get back? But there is something particularly urgent with Izzo, possibly driven by the first-hand knowledge of just how good a title feels and what it means to a coach and players and school, even if it was 19 years ago.
There are voices out there saying that for him to truly claim a legacy among the very elite, he needs another. How could a man with eight Final Fours possibly respond to that? You have to take into consideration Izzo’s self-set high bar.
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“I’d say they’re right, because I need to validate it for me, I don’t need to validate it for them,” he said. “I have my own goals. I have my own aspirations of what I want to do, and what I want to do is put Michigan State in rare air.”
He means three titles for the Spartans. That would move Michigan State from the top 15 to the top nine in championships. “The more I keep talking about it, it puts you in a smaller fraternity,” he said.
March has been good to Izzo. He has seen colleagues suffer cruel fates in this tournament, which slow their own legacy building. He mentioned Purdue’s Matt Painter, national coach of the year in some votes, who only last week had a Final Four trip disappear in seconds.
“A freak thing happens . . . and boom, boom, boom, and now all of a sudden you’re not (perceived) as good. I think I’m past that stage. I was in that stage earlier in my career. It drove me crazy. Now I’ve matured a little and I can handle that. So tell them (who say he needs another) I appreciate that, and they’re motivating me to win another one.”
And should the Spartans give him a second Monday night? “Then I’ll need you to find some other friend that says, `Well, two is good but Mike (Krzyzewski) has won five, so you haven’t done much yet.’
“I’ll thank that person, too.”
Four different men, who like Calipari said, have each died a few times in their profession. But they will never feel more alive as coaches than they will Saturday.