Wednesday, April 24, 2024

MOMENTS, MEMORIES and MADNESS with STEVE CAMERON: The art of coaching, as shown by Henson and Madden

| May 31, 2020 1:11 AM

What makes a great coach?

The whole package remains a mystery, but I think we can say for certain that the qualities include leadership, understanding people and being tactically astute in your sport.

Just for fun, I want to re-visit two incidents involving a couple of coaches I’ve gotten to know over the years.

The settings were very different — the first occurring in raucous Assembly Hall at Indiana University, and the second on a casual train ride across the Wyoming plains.

The coaches involved were Lou Henson, who won 779 basketball games while at Hardin-Simmons, New Mexico State and Illinois; and John Madden, later famous as a broadcaster but also the first NFL coach to win at least a hundred games (103-32-7) during his first 10 years in the league.

Two oddities about these coaches: Henson was, for some unfathomable reason, considered a great recruiter but poor game manager; and Madden retired after that 10th successful season because the stress was tearing at his stomach — even though his Oakland Raiders had won the Super Bowl just one year earlier.

Also, both coaches wrote books in which I was mentioned, so it would hard to forget them.

FIRST, the Lou Henson story.

I’ve already written here that the 1988-89 University of Illinois team was the best I’ve ever seen at the college level.

The signature moment for that group came on March 5, 1989, at Indiana.

The Hoosiers had a great team — led by guard Jay Edwards — and went on to win the Big Ten title when Illinois lost star guard (and future NBA regular) Kendall Gill for 12 games, during which the Illini went only 8-4.

They had been 16-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation when Gill broke his foot in a nationally televised 103-92 win over Georgia Tech.

Then, Illinois lost three of its next four without Gill, but rebounded to win six of seven as 6-8 Marcus Liberty and 5-11 P.J. Bowman somehow combined to fill that empty role, as needed.

Gill was almost ready to return when the Illini went to Indiana in the first week of March, but he was held out in an abundance of caution.

Indiana led by 11 with less than nine minutes to play, but Illinois fought back ferociously, and a 3-pointer by Stephen Bardo netted a 67-65 lead with 1:38 remaining.

Neither team could score again until two seconds were left.

At that point, the Hoosiers’ Edwards hit an unbelievable fall-away jumper from the left baseline — against two Illinois defenders — that somehow went over the corner of the backboard and swished.

Cue the crowd in Assembly Hall to go bonkers.

It appeared time had run out and the game would be going to overtime, but Bardo called time the instant the ball hit the net, and the officials put two seconds back on the clock.

AS IT happened, my perch in the media area was right behind the Illinois bench, and I could hear every word spoken as Henson drew up a desperation play to break the 67-67 tie.

Remember, even Illinois fans who admired Henson believed that this was the kind of spot where Indiana’s “genius” Bobby Knight would always get the best of him.

Henson almost had to shout with all the crowd noise, but he calmly told his troops that Bardo, who had very strong arm, would take the inbounds throw and fire it up-court — to a spot where two separate screens would, hopefully. allow future NBA star Nick Anderson to arrive and get off a long jumper.

The designated target was about 26 feet from the hoop, but Anderson was immensely strong, and Henson later said that he felt trying to heave the ball further would cause it to be batted around uselessly.

I heard all this, but the critical moment came just before the Illini broke the huddle.

“Listen, Nick,” Henson said, “the very last thing Knight will tell his players is not to foul with the game tied — so you can get off a clean shot.

“And you have two seconds, which means you don’t have to just catch the ball and shoot quickly.

“That’s time enough to get squared up.”

Dick Vitale, meanwhile, was telling his TV audience to remember that the clock wouldn’t start until the ball was touched by someone in play.

In other words, Bardo’s throw was free time.

I remember thinking: I doubt this will work with a full-court heave and an impossibly long jumper — but that was so smart of Henson to give Nick those instructions right before he walked back on the court.

It seemed especially bright to remind Anderson that Knight would tell his players not to foul, and it played out that way when Edwards didn’t even challenge Nick.

Bardo’s bullet turned out to be a perfect strike, which brought up a curious fact.

“Bobby Knight didn’t have anybody pressure the inbounds throw,” said Illinois leading scorer Kenny Battle. “That meant Bardo could run the baseline, and he was about 6-7.”

Ultimately, the screens did their job and Anderson arrived at the designed spot a split-second before Bardo’s throw got there.

Nick caught the ball, took a quick dribble to his left to get comfortable, rose up (his feet were at Edwards’ waist) and swished the long, long jump shot.

“Have you ever heard that many thousands of people shut up all at once?” asked Gill, who was on the bench.

“All you could hear was our voices.”

The players were heroes in the 70-67 victory, but I’ve never forgotten how Henson orchestrated the entire sequence and explained it to his troops.

Take a suck of THOSE tactics, Bobby.

NOW LET’S go from the madness of Assembly Hall to a long, pleasant journey on a cross-country Amtrak train.

This was 1979, and John Madden was returning home to California after a trip to Milwaukee — at which he received the first-ever Vince Lombardi Award for his decade of coaching.

All football fans know by now that Madden wouldn’t fly, and in his first few years of retirement and TV work, he traveled exclusively by train.

The way I got involved was through Bob King, vice president of the Denver Nuggets.

I was a columnist in Denver at the time, and King collared me one night to say that his pal Madden (they’d worked together at San Diego State) would be spending an hour in town on his way to Milwaukee.

We met Madden at Union Station, but no saloons were open, so we got aboard the train to celebrate briefly in the lounge car.

Eventually, Madden talked us into staying with him on the trip to Chicago — for which neither Bob nor I were prepared.

But it was great fun.

Madden then spent two days in Denver on his way home, and once again, he talked me into making the trip to Oakland with him.

And we had another traveling companion, San Francisco pro football reporter Frank Cooney.

It was great stuff for Cooney and me, soaking up Madden’s funny stories and serious football tales.

That was probably the only sport mentioned until the train stopped in Laramie, Wyo.

A BIT after that, the three of us realized it was time to eat and headed to the dining car.

We’d only been there a few minutes when we noticed that two tables down the aisle were filled with extremely athletic-looking young women.

And tall, at that.

Madden promptly figured out that we’d been joined by the University of Wyoming women’s basketball team – and he had an idea.

“Without talking to them, let’s see if we can guess the starting five,” John said. “What are there, 10 or 12 of them?

“We’ll just watch them eat and interact with each other, and see if we can figure it out.”

So, after Frank had gone to the coach and assured her we weren’t just ogling her players, we did some serious studying.

I was pretty sure had I’d picked out four of the starters, but couldn’t quite see a fifth one and was forced to guess.

Cooney also thought he had at least four correct.

Madden said nothing.

Finally, we all wrote our choices on cocktail napkins, and Cooney was again dispatched to speak with the coach to get some information.

When Frank got back, we all placed our napkins in the center of the table.

I was surprised that I’d only gotten three of the Wyoming starters correct. Ditto Cooney.

And Madden?

He had all five correct.

Frank asked Big John what had tipped him off about the different players.

“I can’t answer that,” Madden said, “or you guys will know how I won a Super Bowl.”


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the offseason.


Oakland Raiders coach John Madden pictured on the sidelines in October 1978.