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ACC Coach Of The Year Is Useless

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By Al Featherston

Is it possible for an award to be so devalued by bad choices that it no long means anything?

That was my thought recently as I listened to David Glenn debate a caller on his radio show about the merits of various ACC Coach of the Year candidates this season. In contrast to the player of the year and rookie of the year vote, which in most years the media gets right (with a few glaring exceptions), our coach of the year choices over the years have turned the award into a joke.

Basically, there are a couple of flaws with the way we pick our Coach of the Year.

First off, it's become a referendum on our own preseason predictions. The team that we most underrate in preseason usually produces the Coach of the Year. It could be because the coach actually did a great job with the talent on hand … but just as often, it's because we displayed our lack of knowledge and insight when making our preseason predictions.

Is Seth Greenberg really the best coach in the ACC over the last six years? Well, he's the only guy to win Coach of the Year twice in that span. The ACC produced three teams in the final AP top five in 2005, but Greenberg was Coach of the Year for taking 16-14 Virginia Tech (8-8 ACC) to the NIT. Three years later, the ACC produced two top 10 teams and another ranked in the top 25 - but Greenberg was honored for a fourth-place ACC finish (9-7) and a 21-14 NIT team.

That's not to pick on Greenberg, who actually does an excellent job at a tough place to coach, but it calls into question the criteria used by the voters to select ACC coach of the year.

But there is another fundamental flaw in the way the media casts its coach of the year votes and it also has to do with expectations, but in a different way.

Mike Krzyzewski likes to say that every player - and every team - has to run its own race. For some coaches, achieving a winning record and an NCAA bid is a great achievement. But some coaches - given their situations and the talent on their teams - are expected to do more than that.

[Set aside for a moment the fact that acquiring that talent is a coaching requirement that is almost never factored into coach of the year debates.]

But when the vote is taken in the last weeks of the regular season (technically, voters can hold their ballots until 6 p.m. the day of the ACC Tournament title game, but in practice, most vote the week before the tournament), how do you judge how good a job a coach such as Krzyzewski or Roy Williams - whose ultimate success or failure is determined by his team's NCAA performance -- has done?

Go back to 2005, when the voters picked Greenberg for his 8-8 ACC finish in his first year in the league. You might argue that they should have honored Roy Williams, who guided the Tar Heels to a 14-2 ACC record and a No. 2 finish in the AP poll (No. 1 in the coaches' poll). His core group of players went from 6-10 in the ACC (under Matt Doherty) to 8-8 in Williams' first year in Chapel Hill to 14-2 in his third.

Of course, if voters could have foreseen that he was going to guide the '05 Heels to the national title that spring, the vote might have been different. Maybe. But given UNC's rank and the widespread perception that they were the nation's best team, that was hardly a farfetched outcome and apparently didn't influence enough voters.

Williams won a well-deserved ACC Coach of the Year Award a season later, although that always felt to me a lot like what the Academy Award voters did to Jimmy Stewart in 1939-40 … after stiffing him for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (giving the Best Actor award to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips), they honored him a year later for the lightweight The Philadelphia Story (over Henry Fonda's immortal performance in The Grapes of Wrath or Chaplin's courageous smackdown of Hitler in The Great Dictator).


I think I soured on the coach of the year voting in 2001.

That was an odd year. First year UNC coach Matt Doherty had won national acclaim after upsetting Duke in Durham and climbing to No. 1 in the nation in early February. For two-thirds of the season, he might have done the nation's best coaching job … and apparently that was enough for the AP voters, who handed Doherty the AP National Coach of the Year award.

Apparently, it didn't matter that Doherty's team collapsed when it mattered most - first blowing sole possession of the ACC regular season title with successive Sunday losses at Clemson, at Virginia and home to Duke; then losing the ACC championship by getting blown out of the title game by the Devils; then stumbling in the NCAA Tournament when the Heels were upset in the second round by Penn State.

The ACC voters, a bit more astute than the national electors, held off long enough to notice Doherty's collapse and instead honored first-year Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt (Doherty did finish second in our vote).

That was a classic "exceeds expectations" choice - Hewitt inherited a team that was 13-17 (5-11) in Bobby Cremins' last year and brought them in at 17-13 (8-8). He did a great job fitting some disparate pieces around shot-blocking center Alvin Jones and maturing point guard Tony Adkins.

In itself, anointing Hewitt in 2001 would not have been a crime (not the way naming Doherty the national coach of the year was). But 2001 happened to be the year Coach K pulled off the greatest coaching job of his career - and one of the greatest in modern basketball history.

Don't get me wrong. Duke was expected to have a strong team in 2001 - preseason No. 2 in the nation and the ACC favorite with such future pros as Jason Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy (not to mention another future pro in freshman Chris Duhon).

Through the bulk of the season, the Devils were just about what they were supposed to be. In fact, on Feb. 27, Duke was 25-3 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. That night, the Devils were playing their final home game against Maryland. Early in the second half, Duke held a narrow lead over the powerful Terps when Boozer went down with a broken foot. The Devils collapsed down the stretch and lost for the only time in four tries against the Terps that season.

The injury appeared to have destroyed Duke's season. Even Krzyzewski admits to spending several hours in deep despair.

"Okay, Carlos is out and it's not going to happen this year," Krzyzewski later wrote of his blackest hour. "We're not going to win the national championship ... it's over. It's over."

But sometime during that dark night, his military training kicked in and Krzyzewski began to attack the problem, rather than wallow in self-pity. Over the years, he has put two words at the heart of his coaching philosophy: Next play. It was his way of saying to forget the past and move on.

That's what he did in the early morning hours of Feb. 28, 2001. He devised a plan to re-shape his team to win without Boozer - indeed, without a scoring presence in the post. He installed slender, undeveloped sophomore Casey Sanders in the pivot and asked him to do three things: defend, rebound and set screens. To get more speed and defensive pressure on the floor, he installed Duhon as a starter, asking fifth-year senior Nate James to become the team's sixth man. He asked 6-foot-4 football refugee Reggie Love to fill in as his backup center.

Most of all, he told his team to run, to press and to look for the 3-point shot.

Well, we all know what happened next. Duke went into Chapel Hill for the regular season finale and shocked the Tar Heels. A week later, the Devils edged Maryland in Atlanta, then routed the Heels to claim the ACC title.

At that point, a few astute voters could have changed their coach of the year ballots, but I was told that most of the votes were in the week before the tournament.

It's hard to blame the voters for what happened next. Duke rolled through the NCAA Tournament, finally getting Boozer back for significant duty in the Final Four, where the Devils rallied to beat Maryland in the semifinals and preseason No. 1 Arizona in the championship game.

Duke went 10-0 after Krzyzewski revamped his team in response to Boozer's injury, winning his sixth ACC title and his third national championship in the process.

It was, in my opinion, his greatest coaching job … but the only reward it brought was the Victor Award handed out by the National Academy of Sports Editors. He didn't win any of the major Coach of the Year Awards. He didn't receive a single ACC Coach of the Year vote that season .

A very similar scenario played out last season.

To be frank, I think the vote for Gary Williams as 2010 ACC Coach of the Year was the right one - considering when the vote was taken. I think Williams did a great job squeezing a regular season co-championship out of that Maryland team. He had a brilliant, if somewhat unstable, point guard in senior Greivis Vasquez; a talented freshman center in Jordan Williams; and some solid veteran pieces to support that pair. He won a series of close games, including the showdown with Duke in College Park in the last week of the regular season.

It was a great coaching job of maximizing his talent.

Of course, Krzyzewski was running a different race. He restructured his team at midseason around center Brian Zoubek - a lumbering big man who never seemed to fit the fast-paced style that Coach K had adopted in the wake of Boozer's injury in 2001. But Krzyzewski revamped his style to take advantage of Zoubek's strengths and to maximize the abilities of a team without a true point guard, but which did have three extraordinary offensive talents. He slowed the tempo down and packed in his defense. He made sure his team valued the ball and got good shots for its big three.

The result was 15 wins in 16 games after the re-boot (the lone loss coming at Maryland). That included 10 straight wins to close the season, earning Krzyzewski his 12th ACC champion and his fourth national title.

Shouldn't that achievement have been honored with some kind of coach of the year award?

Of course, Krzyzewski has piled up plenty of honors in his career, including five ACC Coach of the Year Awards. He's been named national coach of the year 12 times in eight different seasons (none since, winning the Naismith Award three times and the NABC Award twice. He's been honored by the Sporting News, the defunct UPI and twice by Chevrolet.

Strangely, he's never won the AP National Coach of the Year Award, despite being the most successful coach (in terms of overall wins, national titles won, Final Four appearances, conference championships and NCAA Tournament wins) in college basketball over the last quarter-century. And despite winning more games in the first 11 years of this century than any other coach in any other decade (including eight conference titles, three Final Fours and two national titles), he hasn't been the ACC Coach of the Year since 2000.

Maybe if he wins out this year, he'll win it for the first time in 11 years. Maybe not. If he loses a game down the stretch, it's going to be unlikely, especially if that loss comes in Chapel Hill. If Roy Williams wins even a share of the ACC regular season title, he's going to be the ACC coach of the year. Count on it.

Just how good a job has Coach K done this season?

Well, Duke started the season with high expectations. The Blue Devils were the preseason No. 1 team in both national polls and were the overwhelming choice in the ACC preseason rankings - the only first-place vote that the Devils didn't get in that poll was from an idiot who later claimed he meant to vote Duke No. 1 but got confused by the ballot (and, no, he wasn't from Florida).

Of course, that was when it looked like Kyrie Irving would be pulling the trigger at point guard. When the brilliant freshman went down late in the Butler game on Dec. 4, it left a huge void in Krzyzewski's plans. He had built his style around the full court talents of the gifted playmaker. Without out, Coach K has had to revamp everything - the third year in a row that he's restructured his team at midseason.

Duke's current status -- 25-2 (12-1 ACC) and No. 1 in the nation  - is a testament to the job he's done after losing one of his big three stars. If he brings the Devils in at 15-1 in the ACC, then wins the ACC Tournament, he should win the ACC Coach of the Year Award (but probably won't).

Whether he wins it or not, the real test of Krzyzewski's coaching performance this season won't be measured until after the vote is taken. He's reached the point where success and failure is a function of his team's NCAA performance. If this team reaches the Final Four without Irving (or with a late-returning Irving smoothly integrated into the lineup), it would be a great achievement.

It would mean a heck of a lot more than the meaningless ACC Coach of the Year award.

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