Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Pressure and expectations smother winning coaches

Florida Today

Game day at the University of Maryland isn't quite what it used to be. Earlier this season, with snow piled up in the parking lot hours before a game with Florida, fans were already piling in to fill about 20,000 seats at the Terrapins' sparkling new arena.

The home team struggles, the visitor starts to edge slightly ahead. Thousands of fans start growling at their team in disapproval. On the sidelines, the head coach looks up into a sea of red and wonders, "What more can I do?"

Winning a national championship changes a school, changes an entire atmosphere. Especially when you are the defending national champion heading into the next NCAA Tournament.

Reach the Final Four, as Maryland did two years ago, and the fans want more. Win it all, as the Terps did last year, and they want it again.

"Before we went to the Final Four, people's expectations weren't to go to the Final Four," Terps coach Gary Williams said. "And then we went to the Final Four and people thought, 'Well, you should at least get back to the Final Four next year.' That's an incredible amount of pressure for the players to have to live with that.

"But you have to because that's where the expectations are. Then if you don't win a national championship, then that's the next part. That's when, 'Ah, I remember that team that won the national championship. You have a good team this year, but you're not quite as good as they are.' It changes things."

At Purdue, fans have been waiting for Gene Keady's teams to make a Final Four for 23 years. Jim Boeheim has been haunted by the whispers after two national runner-up finishes at Syracuse. Temple's John Chaney has battled the ghosts of almost.

A bad draw here, a bad bounce there. Something always went wrong, keeping the giants of the game from having their one shining moment.

"There's always a little bit of luck," said legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who led the Bruins to 10 national championships, including seven in a row (1966-73). "You've got to have talent, too. But you've got to have a little luck at times to go with it. I've seen baseball games decided by a bad hop. I've seen baseball games decided where a fella's falling away from a fastball and it hit his bat and went over to right field for a hit.

"That was luck."

Twenty years ago, N.C. State won the national title after Lorenzo Charles dunked home a missed air ball by teammate Dereck Whittenburg.

Talk about lucky.

"You can have an excellent team and never win a national championship," Wooden said. "You can have a team that might not be as good that could win."

Things change

For the most part, those closest to the game realize how unfair it can be to label a coach who never won it all.

Williams came close to pulling it off in the 2001 Final Four, where his Terps blew a 22-point lead against Duke in the national semifinals and lost by one.

When Williams and the Terps returned to the Final Four a year later, he was tagged as the coach who couldn't take the final step. Then he did. And suddenly, Gary Williams became a coaching genius.

"It's sort of like being a part of that special group," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "Jimmy Valvano used to always say, it is such a small club. I mean, there aren't many guys who can walk around as national champs."

Williams laughs at such talk. He says he's the same guy he was a year ago, before winning it all. The second time around, the breaks just went his way.

South Carolina coach Dave Odom is another "Almost Coach." While at Wake Forest, Odom's Demon Deacons reached the regional semifinals three times and the regional final once. Wake made the NCAA Tournament seven straight years under Odom, but no one wept when he left for the Gamecocks' job in 2001.

Why? He never won it all.

"I don't think coaches put as much pressure or credibility in winning a national championship as maybe media and fans do," Odom said. "That doesn't mean we don't want to win it. But I think the older you get, you realize while winning a national championship is very, very important - very important - life is going to go on whether you win it or not. You don't want to finish your coaching career saying, 'I didn't win a championship, I was a bad coach.' I'm not going to do that, I'll tell you that."

Demands unfair

Florida coach Billy Donovan has not been labeled as a guy who can't win The Big One. Not yet, anyway.

But expectations changed for the Gators and their coach after the spring of 2000, when fifth-seeded Florida made it all the way to the national final, where it fell to Michigan State.

"Don't get me wrong. One of my biggest goals here would be to win a national championship, I want that to happen," Donovan said. "But John Chaney never has been to a Final Four and I look at myself and know how blessed I've been."

Donovan played in a Final Four at Providence, was an assistant coach in one at Kentucky and took Florida to one as head coach.

Norm Stewart coached 38 years at Northern Iowa and Missouri. He won 731 games, 13th-most in Division I history.

Thirty-eight years, and not a single Final Four trip.

"I look at Norm Stewart. You look at all the games he's won," Donovan said.

"You look at all the great players that Dean Smith has had over the years and he coached 30 years and he won two. I mean, it is so hard."

And once you get close or win it all, Donovan admits, things change. No longer is just making the field such a great thing. Suddenly, the national spotlight grows hot and the fans and boosters starve for more.

Back at Maryland, Williams has the sixth-seeded Terps thinking about another late season run. The national media will flock to see if he can repeat - something only Duke has been able to pull off since Wooden's UCLA Bruins went back to back in 1972-73.

And if he doesn't win it all? If his team slips up against giant killer North Carolina-Wilmington in Friday's first round?

"I told people before the season started, 'I hope we're playing in March.' Nowadays, with 32 automatic qualifiers, it's hard to make the tournament. To me, that's a great accomplishment, to make the tournament. Not to the fans, but it is to me."

Special NCAA hoops section; Bracket contest

It's more than a Bearcats game
No. 24 Arkansas thinking big
UC out to prove naysayers wrong
Varsity Village gets $10M from Fifth Third

Xavier now the hunted

No. 1 ranking increases ante for UK to win it all
Norse win on putback

March Madness could be delayed by war
Pressure and expectations smother winning coaches
Ohio State suspends Williams
BYU's no-Sunday stance could cause NCAA shuffle
Little Mo leads underdog Bulldogs vs. Sooners
Blue Devils to stick with perimeter lineup
Gators need answers quickly
Bobby Knight's son applies for Wright State job
Spirit of Valvano lifts Whittenburg
Tigers learn of bid while on 12-hour bus ride
Asheville gets a whiff of the bigtime

NIT: Iowa 62, Valparaiso 60
UCLA fires Lavin