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Virginia Tech’s Mike Young has been named the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of The Year, and for a minute there, I got a little nervous yesterday about whether he was going to gain the honor or not.
Pockets of people on social media were doing the old “let me dig up statistics and bend them to support my opinion” on social media, and there seemed to be some who thought Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner was more deserving.
Some of the people saying this I like. Some of them I even admire. Some of them, I've always thought, are totally clueless.
To overlook Young as Coach of the year is to overlook just what the term “coach” means. You can look at it as an X’s and O’s game manager, and if you do, I suppose digging up stats to say your team had more wins on the road against teams ranked in the top 25 while the moon is in its waxing Crescent phase and Jay Bilas is involved in the ESPN broadcast might mean something.
But to me, a coach is more than a basketball strategist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important. But he’s also a teacher, psychiatrist, talent evaluator, cheerleader, mentor, salesman, tough love kind of guy and second Dad. Young was all of those things, and he needed every skill he had to pull off the miracle that is Virginia Tech basketball finishing 3rd in the conference this season.
It was less than two years ago that Young took over a program that had been rebuilt by Buzz Williams, but after reaching the pinnacle of his 5 years in Blacksburg, he left the cupboard bare. Many coaches also find similar situations when taking over a program, but the Hokies weren’t even a couple of good leftover players and 5 guys from the Y. In fact, they didn’t even have 5 guys on the roster.
Buzz did a masterful job in his 5 years in Blacksburg, but he sold recruits on himself. Play for me, Buzz said, and you will be noticed by the NBA. Play for me, and I’ll teach you the game that will get you to the next level. That’s not a criticism of Buzz by any means, but it did mean when Buzz left, players left too. The reason they came to Blacksburg wasn’t UT Prosim and Hokie, Hokie Hi. It was Buzz Williams, who was now in Texas.
Young had to sell them on Virginia Tech. He also sold them on Mike Young, but not to make it to the NBA. He sold them on a man who would care about them and take care of their best interests. Buzz sold them on making them better basketball players. Mike sold them on being part of the Hokie family while also becoming better basketball players.
Doing that in a state university off the beaten path in the hills of Southwest Virginia by a coach few even thought would get the job is a marked contrast to a guy like Pastner, going into his fifth season in a major metropolitan area like Atlanta. Good players want to stay in the Atlanta area no matter who the coach is. Blacksburg, VA is a different story.
That Young was able to cobble together a team that did not have a losing season in that first season, finishing 16-16 and had a big upset of No. 3 Michigan State early in the season, was a huge surprise. They started strong, then faded as the lack of depth and bigger, stronger ACC teams wore them down. Normally you’d expect improvement with an entire year to recruit better players, but Young again drew the short straw, having to accomplish such a feat in the midst of a pandemic.
Young seemed to have a plan, however. He needed size. He needed microwave-type shooters who could heat up at the drop of a hat. He needed to rotate players frequently to see who could play, who needed more time, and who could fill specific roles. He used the transfer portal as wise as any coach could and found HIS kind of player. He would eventually come up with a team he described early in the season as “pretty good.”
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, had on its roster the player of the year in Moses Wright, who was a senior. Their top-shooting guard was Jose Alvarado, another senior. Of the team’s top six scorers, four are seniors and two are juniors. This was a team that had spent years playing together. Young probably had to reintroduce his players to each other during timeouts because just about everyone besides Wabissa Bede was new.
But even finding the parts to put a competitive team on the floor every night isn’t what impressed me about Young. It was his ability where every time the Hokies had a bad loss, he knew which buttons to push, and the Hokies always rebounded the next time out with an impressive performance. The team never lost two in a row, and in the next game after a loss, they always seemed to excel at the very things they did so poorly in the previous loss.
As they say, it’s not the mark of greatness in what you do when you’re standing up. It’s what you do after you get knocked down and pick yourself back up to try again that defines who you are.
Pastner’s a fine coach, and I mean no disrespect. But he’s in his fifth year in a major metropolitan area with an experienced team and his 4th-place finish this season is his best ever at Georgia Tech. Indeed, Buzz Williams, for all his success, finished fifth in his fifth year, which was his best. Seth Greenberg is the only other coach to make it to a 3 seed, and is the only other VT coach to be named ACC Coach of the Year. Ironically, he didn’t get it in 2006-2007 when he finished third. He had to come back the next year and do it again, finishing 4th, before getting the top coaching honor.
Mike Young has been like a doctor from a tiny country hospital who was asked to come into an emergency room and tend to a patient in critical condition. No one thought he could save the patient, including the family out in the waiting room who thought he was from such a small hospital, they wondered if he was even a doctor.
Even I wondered. So let me say, I was wrong. In case I stuttered, let me say it again. I was wrong, Mike.
Two years later, the patient was not only saved, he’s thriving. In Young's second year, people still doubted him, as the writers picked the Hokies to finish 11th. He has calmly rolled up his sleeves, put his arms around a bunch of young men who not too long ago were total strangers, and made them not only a team, but a family.
He has done something I doubt anyone could have done in such a short period of time, at a school like Virginia Tech. All with a calm, collected smile on his face.
He’s one heck of a coach. Which is why he now, most deservedly, is the ACC Coach Of The Year.