Sunday, February 24, 2013


Does the end of the season always come as a shock to you?  I feel like a car in the driveway, revving it's engine ready to head out on the highway, but with no place to go.  Gearing down will be hard, wondering what to do with the extra time in my day, but I'm sure there will be plenty to fill the void.  There always is.

One thing I know will keep me busy is an old habit that I've repeated after every season for 35 years, what the education professors call "reflective teaching."  I cannot recommend this process highly enough, feeling that it has had more to do with whatever success I've enjoyed in coaching than any other single thing (except recruiting great players).  It started for me back in 1978, when I bought a stenographer's notepad and for several weeks jotted down thoughts about the season past, and ideas for making things better in the future.  Did the offense work?  How about practice structure?  Did I get the most out of our personnel?   Etc, etc, etc. 

The odd thing is that I've found this to be the most satisfying part of the entire year, this process of learning from the past and considering the future.  Even after a third of a century, the game is still fresh and exciting, and I still take joy in contemplating how to be a better coach. Eventually, such contemplations led me to a small college in Iowa, and a thin little paperback called The Running Game: A Formula for Success, a book which changed my coaching life.

So what have I learned from this season, this novel experience of teaching the System from scratch?  Here are a few random thoughts that are going into my notebook this spring:
  • The System is, more than anything else, about effort.  Offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers makes it work, and those "skills" are entirely effort based.  If you can coach effort, you can coach the System.
  • Grinnell's offense is not the only one that will work in the Grinnell System, but it does place an emphasis on roles more than any other.  And the more players stay within their assigned roles, the better they will execute.
  • Along those lines, an "equal opportunity" offense may seem good for team morale, but will lead to situations where kids try to do things they aren't suited for.  So whatever offense you use, make sure players understand and accept their roles.
  • The ultimate key to System success is what goes on in practice, and having a consistent general framework for practice keeps coaches organized and players improving.
  • The practice framework I like the most right now is the following:  PERIOD 1- SKILLS (4-line warmup and fundamentals, followed by a layup drill, a three-point shooting drill, and stretching);  PERIOD 2- SKELETON (6 line shooting, or some version of 5/0 offense, or walking through defensive assignments 5/5.  I'd also include breakdown drills in this period)  PERIOD 3- SCRIMMAGE (Live 5/5 situations such as offense after a rebound, steal, score, or dead ball, or defense after a rebound, score, dead ball, or vs. a spread-delay game.  Master these situations, and you master the System).  And last but not least...
  • If you want to win a popularity contest, don't coach the System.

My final thought, and the last piece of System advice I'll inflict on you, my coaching friends, comes from our wise teacher Will Shakespeare, words he has Polonius speak to his son Laertes:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

                           (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Now THAT'S defense!

68 FGAs
32 Threes
38% ORBs
24 TOs
+7 Shots

Our season ends vs. #24 Carthage in what turned out to be one of our better performances of the year, though as our formula goals above indicate, basically unSystemlike.  Still, we played as a team, took good shots, and played hard. 

Unfortunately, the game was marred by what passes for good defense in this day and age:  pushing, shoving, and grabbing.  I can understand when a System team gets a little off balance, reaches too much, or fouls a shooter going up for a layup.  That's a predictable consequence of playing a fast, full-court trapping game.  But we don't teach our players to push and hack... that stuff just comes naturally to them.  On the other hand, "normal" defense (especially as played in DickBennettland) is focused on preventing any sort of penetration inside the arc.  So a team like ours that wants to drive to the rim is going to get bodied-up.  And a post player cutting across the lane is going to be checked and pushed. 

That's defense in the modern era, and I have no problem with that.  Defensive philosophy--like every other aspect of basketball--is all about tradeoffs:  System D involves the willingness to give up easier shots for the sake of forcing turnovers.  What I do take issue with is the unquestioning belief by basketball "purists" that the conventional approach (preventing easy shots at all costs) is the right and only way to play defense, the assertion that their tradeoffs are better than our tradeoffs.  But consider one telling stat:  both teams shot 26 freethrows... in the second half alone!  Our fouls throughout this season have typically been the result of a young team not yet being able to execute their defense cleanly.   On the other hand, the conventional "pack" defenses we've seen this year actually seem to have been taught to hold cutters, body-check drivers, and arm-bar post players.

The older I get, the more I agree with John Wooden that basketball's inherent beauty and grace has been corrupted, replaced in this day and age with a game based on ugly brute strength.  Basketball as mudwrestling.  Yes, System teams can hack a lot, but that's not the essence of the style... quite the contrary.  The System, when it is played correctly, is a finesse game.  The problem being that it's tougher to teach someone how to be a pickpocket than a mugger. 

But when defenders learn to have "larceny in their souls" (as Gary Smith puts it), when they master the System pickpocket's sleight-of-hand, the result is beautiful:  a knifing steal, a blind-side back-tap, a clean solid trap and well-timed rotation/ interception. These anticipation skills are what we try to teach our defenders.  In the end, to each his own.  But that does not include the right to define conventional defense as "good" and System defense as "flawed."  

[Oh, by the way, our defensive plan worked well for most of the game, giving us a 10 point lead late in the first half, and keeping the game close for 37 minutes.  All we did was run our "Back" press, moving the on-ball defender to half-court, rotating our weakside wing defender as usual to cover the lag after the inbound pass while the interceptor picked up the open cutter, then waiting to trap until the opponent dribbled the ball... a variation of the "Stay" press.  A little safer, a few less turnovers forced, a few less layups given up... a tradeoff.]

In the end, Carthage adjusted as good teams do, but the Back press variation gave us a shot.  Maybe next year we'll learn how to play defense the "right" way.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Game Plan

We head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin tonight for our game vs. #1 seed Carthage.  There's always a conflict when entering post-season play  to stick with what got you here, or try something new.

Given that we have nothing to lose, we've decided to at least try a little tweak to our defense. Our plan is to dsjdljk lmeonc kdsdjf jlkdsj fkl0 2r3ru29p fnaf8h fapnvf.

Oops! Did that come through garbled?  Well, I'll have to try again tomorrow to give you details on the game plan.  Hope you understand, no telling who reads blogs during the playoffs.  I'll give you a complete report, and let you know how our bright idea paid off. 

Meanwhile, I'm off to the State Tournament this morning to catch the game of one of our top recruits. Two hours downstate to Bloomington, then three hours up to Kenosha.  Ah, the glamorous life of a college coach!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


75 FGAs
28 Threes
34% ORBs
41 TOs
+10 Shots

On the bus after the game, Michelle turned to me and said, "You told me before the season that we'd make the conference tournament, and to be honest, I didn't believe you."

But we did.  Tonight's win, combined with losses by Elmhurst and North Park, place us at Carthage this weekend for the tournament semifinals, and word on the street is that Carthage is not thrilled about this.  But from our perspective, the matchup is the best we could have hoped for.  Carthage is a team we were able to stay with for most of the game in our previous matchups, whereas the other two semifinalists, Wheaton and Illinois Wesleyan--much better suited to play an uptempo game--dismantled us.  Carthage may dismantle us too, but their more methodical style gives us a chance to make them uncomfortable, and that's what we plan to do.

As you can see from the numbers, though, the Millikin game was somewhat un-systemlike. We had only 75 shots, the result of committing 29 turnovers (11 of which were traveling calls).  We also hit only 4 of 28 three point attempts, and it looks like switching man-to-man is going to be the defense of choice for our conference opponents from now on.  Millikin was determined not to give us a clean look from the arc and succeeded admirably.

Switching man-to-man or not, I know from experience that it's well within our capabilities to generate 50+ threes a game, even versus such tight perimeter defense.  (Our ONU squad last year averaged 57 3FGAs per game, and we hardly saw anything but switching man-to-man defense all season.)  It's clear to me that even after 25 games, our players at NCC still are reluctant to take the quick three, reverting as we did tonight to a more "careful" offensive approach.  Apparently, mastering the System is a never ending process as players will always gravitate back towards old, familiar habits. 

One clear lesson I've learned this year at NCC is that the key to succeeding with a first year System team is teaching them to truly "go for broke," pushing the tempo to break down the defense (especially off steals and rebounds) to create what Coach A calls a "knockdown three."  It's no surprise that at this point in the season, opposing defenses aren't going to give us a clean look from the arc. They can read a stat sheet.

But even when the look isn't perfect, lots of good things happen when a team generates second chances via the offensive glass.  Shoot... rebound... shoot... rebound... score... press... steal...score!  It's hard to describe, but the System, when it's humming, is like a whirling dervish, a perpetual motion machine.  The beauty of the System is that no single component works that well independent of the others... but when everything is clicking, that synergy makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

It wasn't pretty tonight, but we are still alive and are taking our high-wire act up to Wisconsin this Friday night to do post-season battle with the conference champions.  And if we can create that magical Synergy for just 40 minutes... who knows?

Stay tuned

Just heading out the door for our last regular season game at Millikin, as our season hangs in the balance.  A victory means the first winning season in eight years, and a chance to advance to only our second conference tourney since it's inception.  A bit of good news... one of our key injured players just got cleared, so our recent problems with depth are slightly less serious.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Tale of Two Seniors

75 FGAs
35 Threes
32% ORBs
28 TOs
+4 Shots

ONU 113- ST. FRANCIS 102
103 FGAs
64 Threes
29% ORBs
40 TOs
+15 Shots

It was Senior Day at ONU, and with an early1 p.m. start time I thought it would be a nice idea to drop by on my way out of town to catch the game.  Calling Brooke Peterson, a local high school coach who is also one of my former Olivet  players and assistant coaches, I asked if she'd like to meet me at the game.  "Sure! I'd love to do that Coach Porter!" she said, "and Lauren invited me to speak to the team before the game, so you need to come to the locker with me!"  (Brooke is 26, and still feels uncomfortable calling me by my first name.) "But," she said, "You have to speak to the team after me."

So that was the plan and Brooke gave a beautiful pregame talk, reminding me of how proud I am of her, and how much she's grown up since she came to ONU eight years ago as a shy freshman.  Now she's a confident English teacher and carries herself with a cheerful dignity.   Any coach knows that the real joy of coaching is seeing your players grow up before your very eyes.  Brooke is Exhibit A in that category.

In my brief greeting to the team, I commented about the tradition at ONU, pointing to the fifteen team photos that ring the wall of the locker room, one from each of my years (plus this year's photo from Lauren's first year as head coach). 

"Many of these players are just faces to you," I said.  "But each one has a history, and a legacy.  What is your legacy?  What does it mean to play TigerBall?  It means that you put aside personal ambitions and play together for the good of the team. It means to just do your job."

"Sandy," I pointed to one of the seniors, a 6-1 safety, "I remember when you were a freshman and came in extra, working so hard to perfect your perimeter shot because you'd never taken a three in high school.  Now look at you, leading the team in 3FG percentage.  Why?  Because you only shoot when you are totally wide open! You are our best shot blocker and best rebounder, and you are great at that, and you stick to what you do best, which is not taking ten threes a  game!" 

There were lots of laughs and nods, because the players know.  Everyone gets a chance in TigerBall, but that doesn't mean everyone is the same.  Do what you do well.  Do your job.

I had to leave with 10 minutes to play in ONUs 113-102 victory, with the Tigers holding a comfortable seven point lead.  I saw later fromt he box score that Sandy finished with six rebounds and three blocks in 14 minutes.  She only missed one three, and was smart enough to finish 0-1 from the arc.  She did her job.

It was Senior Day at NCC, and I enjoyed standing quietly in the locker room as Michelle spoke to the team.  The joy of being an assistant is that there is no pressure, no history, no expectations other than to fill my role in advising the head coach as opportunities arise.  No team pictures ring the walls of the Cardinal's locker room, but they are nevertheless a team hopeful of starting a tradition.  After winning just one conference game last year, a win today will almost assure a berth in the CCIW tournament.  I'm proud to have helped them along towards that goal.

There were lots of laughs and nods as Michelle spoke.  With our shorthanded roster, we had to rely more than ever on Sophie, one of the seniors, a 5-7 safety.  Sophie will never block a shot, but this day she drew three charges, as usual.  She had fourteen points and made 2-5 threes, because she is a good three point shooter.  And she led us in scoring.  She played her role to perfection.  She did her job.

In the end, with 11 seconds to play and us down one, Sophie made the first free throw of a two shot foul to tie the game.  She missed the second.  With one second, North Park hit the game winner.

After the game, I put a hand on Sophie's shoulder and quietly reminded her, "Don't lose any sleep about that second free throw.  We wouldn't have had the chance to win had it not been for you.  You played a great game, and should be proud of the way you conducted yourself." 

That was my speech at NCC.  That was my role.  Sophie did her job.  Sandy did her job.  The Cardinals didn't catch the breaks at the end today.  We had cake after the game... it still tasted pretty good. 

We go to Millikin on Tuesday for another chance to make the tournament. We'll get 'em next time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Quickly and Correctly...

We are coming down to the end, crunch time, with our last home game on Saturday and then on the road next Tuesday.  Our hope was that we'd have at least one of our missing players back, but she's still on injured reserve, and another player has been out since Monday with the flu.  Michelle and I try to remind ourselves that this is normal, but it just feels unfair.  After starting the school year with 19 players, we had just twelve healthy today.  Who do we see about that?  The Injury Police?

Still, we try to do what coaches do, plan a practice each day to help players get better.  One thing that's been on my mind lately as we have shuffled the lineup is how important the simple ability to move is to the success of a team.  On the Run and Gun chatgroup there's been a recent discussion about this very topic, and I'm convinced it is something that separates good teams from poor ones.  I've also come to believe that, surprisingly, movement can be taught.  Although quickness is basically genetic, mobility can be learned, and following are a few observations on the subject.

Movement is first and foremost about motivation.  Ironically, the thing I have always had a very short fuse with is players who are just "going through the motions," and I complained to Michelle today during workout that one of our units is guilty of this greatest of basketball practice sins.  A player who goes through the motions isn't really even succeeding at that:  she's not in motion, not really.  That's the problem! 

What she is actually doing is telling you with her body language, "I don't have enough heart to do anything but the bare minimum, because it just takes too much effort to do things right, and at full speed."  As an assistant, I don't have the authority to correct such attitudes, but in my head coaching days, this would have earned an immediate trip to the baseline for a few reminder sprints, for the guilty individual or the whole team. 

One year I simply kicked an entire unit off the floor and made them watch from the sidelines for five minutes, because one first-year player on that unit (a transfer) had a deeply ingrained habit of loafing.  (Note:  I don't believe in kicking a team out of practice...  they can't correct the problem if they aren't on the court.) But believe me, her unitmates immediately let her know she needed to step it up. 

The funny thing is that this kid was actually a very good player, a Juco all-American (apparently verifying my contention that there's no correlation between reputation and work ethic.)  Fortunately, this little episode made an impact on her, and after she learned how to play hard she became a great player for us, leading the nation in field goal percentage her senior year (66%). But she had to learn how to move, and how to practice first.

So let me be as clear as I can here.  If you want to coach a team to be the best it can be, watch the video of a game and ask yourself, "Are we really working as hard as we can?"  The answer will almost certainly be no.  Then ask yourself, "How can I motivate each individual to move?"  In my opinion, this is the coaching skill that will set you apart.  Can you teach players how to practice and play at maximum effort, or are they just going through the motions, executing poorly and at half speed??  (Note #2:  You don't necessarily have to yell or punish them to get their attention.  I've seen Coach A severly reprimand a player without every raising his voice above the conversation level. But find something that works for you, some wamotivation method for teaching your players to give maximum effort... that's your job!)

John Wooden once said that the goal of every practice was to learn to "quickly and correctly execute the fundamentals of the game."  "Quickly" refers to movement, intensity, and effort.  "Correctly" implies precision and striving for perfection of each skill. 

We've said it before, but it bears repeating: basketball is not about teaching kids plays.  It's about teaching them how to play, and more importantly, how to practice:  quickly, and correctly... with an emphasis on the "quickly" part.