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I have to admit, I couldn’t help noticing several moments during Virginia Tech’s big upset of No. 3 Villanova last night and then not think about the contrast between the football and basketball programs.
Those moments illustrated a lesson I hope Virginia Tech’s athletic administration has learned.
The first came late in the game when the Hokies were rallying. Television cameras caught the Virginia Tech bench, where Coach Mike Young was briefing his players on what he wanted done during the timeout. The players were engaged, excited, listening. Young was full of energy, but controlled, as if teaching a class and both coach and player alike were excited about what they were learning.
The second came after the game. Young immediately took the blame for a key play that occurred in the final seconds. Keve Aluma was supposed to miss the second shot of a one-and-one; he tried, but it banked in, so Villanova had one last chance. There were 1.3 seconds left so the odds Villanova could pass the ball inbounds and make a shot were slim to none. The only chance was to run the baseline, slip one of your players in front of the defender while he’s watching the ball, and draw a charge.
That’s what happened to the Hokies’ Justyn Mutts. A foul was called, Villanova made both ends of the one-and-one and the game went into overtime. Asked about it after the game, Young was quick to say “I failed to coach my player [Mutts] on one of the oldest tricks in the book and it almost cost us."
This was not a case of Young using the press to confess his coaching sins to the world. Young is a sharp and experienced coach who is not only good at coaching X’s and O’s, but is just as good managing and motivating people. He knew people might criticize Mutts for that play, and he was having none of it. He immediately drew the arrow toward himself, deflected all criticism from the player and heaped it all on the coach.
Which is what great coaches do.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Young, after that play, immediately went to Mutts and told him “forget about the past. We need you in the present because you’re going to hit the shot that wins the game.” Sure enough, the first shot of the overtime – a 3-pointer to make it 67-64 – was by Mutts. With 3:45 left in overtime, Mutts was fouled and had two free throws. He hit them both and Virginia Tech never trailed the rest of the game.
Those are the results of what great coaches do.
Contrast that to what you see on the sidelines during football games this season. Or hear the head coach talk about “ludicrous crap” with a look on his face resembling the emotion of an unshaven stone.
One is a mere coach. The other is a leader.
A leader, I might add, most would run through a brick wall for.
Young did not acquire these skills in an online seminar or a two-week coaching convention. They came from being a head coach for many decades at Wofford. I’ve learned first-hand over my life that you can study any subject there is and become pretty well-versed on that subject in a relatively short period of time.
But when it comes to people, that takes time and experience. There's no substitute. You have to learn that one size does not fit all, that people have different buttons that need to be pushed, and above all there needs to be a connection between coach and player where one feels the other cares. It can’t be faked. Either you care or you don’t, and most can sniff out someone who is not sincere in less than an hour.
When you’re a hot young coach or manager, that’s not obvious. It’s about being the smartest guy in the room. Or having the power to say “because I said so.” Or how much you’re being paid.
But one day you realize it’s not about you. You realize to be a great manager of people, you have to be honest with them. If they’re not good at what they do, explain that to them and help them find another situation. If they’re salvageable, teach them. If they’re good, praise them while finding ways to push them to be great. Treat everyone as if they were your son or daughter, with praise, respect and sometimes tough love.
Mike Young has clearly learned that being a head whistle for a long time. Frank Beamer did too after 5 years as a head coach at Murray State, and six more years where his teams struggled from the effects of probation, so he didn’t have the talent pool to say “you’re hired” or “you’re fired.” He had to teach and develop the hand he was dealt. Young has done the same.
They both turned out to be two of the best hires Virginia Tech has ever made.
So as the rumor mills are talking about hiring a new football coach with a great legacy name, a lot of technical knowledge, but no actual experience as the head guy, I hope the powers that be keep the examples of Beamer and Young in mind.
Because there are some who can coach X’s and O’s. There are also some who can manage people. But the special coaches – the ones who truly make a difference - are the ones who can do both.
Mike Young showed that last night.