In the aftermath of Brad Stevens Mania, we’ve all had a few days to regroup, reset our expectations, and reflect on the other names that have been reported or are assumed to be near the top of Scott Dolson’s list.
The most controversial of those names is Mike Woodson.
It certainly isn’t a name that excited me when I first heard it. And I’ll tell you right off the bat here that I’m still not sure how excited I’d be if I woke tomorrow to an announcement that Mike Woodson had been named head coach.
But I have to say … I’m warming to it.
And not just because I’m an optimist by nature and will want to be supportive if he’s the guy.
I’m warming to it because as I dig beyond the surface-level arguments against Woodson, I’m finding some compelling reasons to think he could actually be an inspired, outside-the-box choice.
And to be clear: I only speak for myself here, not my co-hosts. I know that Ryan isn’t warm to it, and I’m not really sure how Andy or Coach feel about it.
But since we all have some time to kill while we wait on Scott Dolson to fill the role, I want to share some of my pro-Woodson thoughts here.
But first, let’s go over the standard argument against Mike Woodson’s candidacy.
First, the argument against Mike Woodson.
It goes something like this:
- He’s never been a head coach or assistant coach in college before.
- He’ll be 63 years old when next season starts.
- He’s been a head coach for nine seasons in the NBA and won only 46.3% of his games.
- Do high school recruits really care that he scored 2,000 points, was a Big Ten MVP, and played in the NBA over a million years ago?
- Is he really going to grind on the recruiting trail?
- We need to modernize the dusty traditions of IU basketball, not double-down on them.
There are probably some other bullet points, but that’s the gist. And some of it is valid. We will all have a lot of valid questions and concerns if Woodson is hired.
In fact, it’s not hard to paint the picture for why this would fail.
But we should also remember that the only perfect (or close to perfect) candidate for the job removed his name from the running by informing us that he’s now a Patriots fan.
Outside of Brad Stevens, every candidate has significant question marks to go along with their upside.
For this reason, we’d all be wise to approach the rest of this job search with humility. The Archie Miller hire was almost universally lauded. Yet here we are four years later.
So for purposes of discussion, let’s flip the Woodson narrative around.
Instead of focusing on why it wouldn’t work, I’m going to try to paint a picture for why it could.
You can tell me in the comments if I succeed in opening your mind or not.
The 5-point argument in favor of Mike Woodson as Indiana’s next head coach
As we progress through this argument, I am going to offer some evidence to counter a few of the bullet points above. A little digging reveals some of the arguments against Woodson to not be the obvious negatives they initially seem to be.
Plus I’ll add a few unique elements that a Mike Woodson regime would bring — upside that we’re unlikely to get with any other candidate.
1. His NBA coaching won/loss record is misleading.
You’ll hear people trot out his career NBA winning percentage — as if citing a coach’s winning percentage in the NBA, where he controls so little, is analogous to when we do it for a college coach, who controls virtually everything.
Yes, Woodson lost more games than he won in the NBA, but he coached for the Hawks and Knicks — two of the most sad-sack NBA franchises of my lifetime.
Consider this about his Atlanta tenure:
- His first Hawks team went 13-69, led by a past-his-prime Antoine Walker. Remove that season (like we do for Tom Crean) and his career record is 302-296. Not bad.
- He coached the Hawks for six seasons. Their win total improved each season.
- After missing the playoffs for eight straight seasons, Woodson took them to three straight playoffs, culminating in two straight trips to the Eastern Conference Semis.
- The team’s offense went from 29th out of 30 in his first season to 10th and 2nd during his final two seasons in Atlanta.
- Since the turn of the century, Atlanta has won 47 or more games just four times. Woody did it twice in his six seasons.
As for the Knicks, Woodson coached the last Knicks team to make the playoffs — the 2012-13 bunch that featured the league’s 3rd-best offense.
In his second (and last) season in New York, the Knicks won 37 games. He was fired. They haven’t won more than 32 games in a season since.
Is he Pat Riley? No. But don’t be fooled when people throw out the 46.3% as a lazy metric to suggest he wasn’t a successful NBA coach. He did a good job in a couple of tough spots over the course of a decade.
Clearly Mike Woodson can coach.
2. He’ll have more credibility with recruits (and their coaches) than you might think.
Will a 5- or 4-star high school prospect care right off the bat that “Mike Woodson” is recruiting them? No, probably not. He won’t have instant cache in those circles until he puts some college skins on the wall.
But will he be able to build credibility pretty quickly? I think so. Here’s why:
- Many high school and AAU coaches, especially in Indiana, know and revere Mike Woodson. And is there a prep basketball coach anywhere that won’t respect a veteran NBA coach who played for Bob Knight and coached Carmelo, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, and others?
- The minute Woody explains to a high school player that unlike Matt Painter or Chris Holtmann or [Insert other college coach here] he played and coached in the NBA, and understands how to help them get there, he’ll have their attention. Once he produces a success story or two, all the better.
- His playing days may have happened before some of the parents of the kids he recruits were born, but they still matter. He was a star in college, a high-scoring role player for most of his time in the NBA, and a bench warmer near the end. He’ll be able to relate to every type of player on the roster and have the credibility of a guy who has actually been there and done that — on the very same college floor his players are playing on, and in the NBA where they want to go.
Look at the recruiting success that Juwan Howard and Penny Hardaway have had. Most recruits today don’t remember those guys as NBA players, but they still have credibility for the reasons mentioned above — especially when they are coaching back home, as Woodson would be.
3. His strengths are coaching offense and building relationships.
If you asked me to pinpoint the two biggest reasons Archie Miller’s tenure in Bloomington failed, I would cite his inability to produce competent offenses and his inability to build meaningful relationships with his players.
By all accounts that I’ve found, these are two of Woodson’s greatest strengths as a coach.
While he doesn’t have college coaching experience, he does have experience coaching high-level NBA offenses. And a lot of forward-thinking college programs are moving toward NBA-style offenses — both as a recruiting tool and because they utilize spacing and 3-point shooting more effectively.
And if you’re going to recruit high-level players, you have to be able to build relationships that allow you to coach them hard and get them to fully buy into the team concept.
We’ve seen in recent seasons what it looks like when this doesn’t happen. I think Mike Woodson would excel in this important but underrated facet of coaching high-level college hoops.
Hmm, put together a good offense and build great relationships with players. Sounds a lot like what’s working for Jay Wright and others already at the college level.
4. Indiana basketball will immediately become a family again.
We undoubtedly have to modernize Indiana basketball while preserving the tradition that makes it special. I feel pretty confident that Scott Dolson is going to lead that charge regardless of who is named coach.
But we can modernize the brand of the program while still leaning on our cadre of winning, successful alums to help rebuild the culture of IU basketball.
For various reasons — most notably the Knight rift, Tom Crean’s lack of follow through, and Archie Miller’s lack of interest in anything besides just coaching ball — IU basketball hasn’t felt like a family in the way that Michigan State, Purdue, Kentucky, or other successful programs have.
This essentially boils down to negligent mismanagement of an incredible resource.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of Indiana’s best seasons in recent memory came when Calbert was heavily involved and Tom Crean was making an effort to bring ex-players around more. The players on those teams have talked about the impact Calbert’s presence had.
We need to stop making such an inconsistent effort in this area. Having a legendary player like Woodson at the helm with potentially other IU guys on staff would rally the IU family together in a way we haven’t seen since Bob Knight was fired.
Granted, it’s impossible to draw a direct line from that to on-court success. But it can only help to have current players feeling a sense of connection and responsibility to the guys who came before. They can’t do that if they don’t have actual relationships with those ex-players.
It’s unconscionable that this hasn’t been a consistent part of the experience for IU players over the last 20+ years. Hiring Mike Woodson would help fix that.
And the truth is, whoever is hired needs to make it a priority to fix that.
Now for the fifth and final point, which is admittedly squishier and much more based on conjecture than the other four. But it’s part of the unique upside that a Woodson regime could bring.
5. He’ll be motivated.
Mike Woodson isn’t desperate for a job. He’s currently an assistant with the Knicks. And he’s made good money as a player and coach.
In other words, he doesn’t need this job.
Which leads me to believe that if he takes it, he’ll have a high level of motivation and enthusiasm for it. And that’s good. It’s a hard, demanding job. He would need lots of both.
So where would this motivation come from?
First, he’s a Hoosier. And while I fully believe that we shouldn’t hire a guy just because he went to IU, it does still matter that he went to IU. The place means something to him. He has an emotional connection to it.
More importantly, he has unfinished business.
I have no way to know if this is true or not, but I wonder if it burns Mike that he never hung a banner of his own in Assembly Hall.
His career was sandwiched between the 1976 and 1981 titles. In 1980, his senior year, Indiana was the preseason #1 team in the country. They won a Big Ten title but lost to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament.
He’s one of the 10 best players in school history, but he’s one of the few up that high on the list that doesn’t have a title. Don’t you think he’d be motivated to complete that quest?
Hell, pair him up with Calbert (plus two ace recruiters), and now you have the two best players in school history to have not hung banners working together to complete that important bit of unfinished business.
I think this would matter. I don’t know how much, but I do know that Indiana can’t get this kind of energy from any other candidate. Maybe it intrigues my heart more than it intrigues my mind, but it intrigues me nonetheless.
Key question: what’s the opportunity cost?
So there it is: my 5-point argument in favor of Mike Woodson as Indiana’s next coach.
I’m not endorsing his candidacy or saying he’s my top choice. But I do think researching and writing this was a useful exercise to understand why Woodson seems to be an option Dolson is pursuing.
I should say, to make it clear: I do believe everything in those five points. I’m convinced he’s a better candidate than I initially gave him credit for being.
But the potential hiring of Mike Woodson, as always in situations like these, comes down to opportunity cost.
You can agree with all five of those points about Woodson but still think the downside risk makes him a less worthy candidate than a Chris Beard or an Eric Musselman or a John Beilein or a Thad Matta or someone else.
And Scott Dolson can only hire one head coach.
So I don’t need you to walk away from this post believing Mike Woodson is the best choice for IU’s head coach. I don’t even think I believe that.
But I do think viewing Woodson’s candidacy in this more open-minded light can be a useful exercise in the event that he is hired.
If he is the guy, there will undoubtedly be a lot of disappointment and naysaying. I fully understand why. I’ll probably share some of those worries.
But while it’s easy complain about everything that Woodson doesn’t have as a candidate, we should also consider the unique package he does bring to the table. And I haven’t seen that articulated very well anywhere.
It could, of course, end up not working out; but it could also end up being an excellent fit.
That potential makes it an important stone for Scott Dolson to be turning over. I’m glad he is.