Mike Woodson coaching Indiana: This I have to see

New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson reacts to a call in the first half against the Indiana Pacers Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Indianapolis. (Michael Conroy/AP)
New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson reacts to a call in the first half against the Indiana Pacers Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Indianapolis. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Credit: Michael Conroy

Credit: Michael Conroy

The last conversation I had with the new coach of the Indiana Hoosiers wasn’t much of a conversation. He was yelling at me over the phone while he played golf. He was incensed not because I’d suggested the Hawks fire him — though I had, more than once — but because, after he was fired, I’d mentioned his name in something I’d written about the new Hawks.

“You’re no longer allowed to use my name!” hollered (name redacted). “It’s the (Larry) Drew and ownership (Atlanta Spirit) show now!”

(Name redacted) was introduced Monday as Indiana’s fifth head coach since his mentor, Bobby Knight, was fired for throwing a fit because an IU student said, “What’s up, Knight?” (Hoosiers are apparently ultra-sensitive as to how — or if — they’re addressed.)

(Name redacted) is among the more curious hires of the millennium. He’s 63. He hasn’t coached college basketball. He played at Broad Ripple High in Indianapolis, which also spawned David Letterman. He was one of IU’s greatest players — my first glimpse of (name redacted) was when he outdid Darrell Griffith, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, in the 1976 Kentucky-Indiana All-Star series — and among Knight’s more accomplished disciples.

Indiana University's Mike Woodson drives around Washington's Stan Walker during the championship game of the Indiana Classic Dec. 19, 1978, in Bloomington, Ind. (AP)
Indiana University's Mike Woodson drives around Washington's Stan Walker during the championship game of the Indiana Classic Dec. 19, 1978, in Bloomington, Ind. (AP)

There’s a chance (name redacted) will succeed in the fishbowl job where four others have failed. There’s a better chance he won’t. And enough redacting. I’m talking about Mike Woodson. What’s up, Woody?

There’s more than a bit of Knight to Woodson: He tends to shout when displeased. Billy Knight, who as Hawks general manager hired Woodson off Larry Brown’s Detroit staff after the superstar-less Pistons won NBA title in 2004, came to wonder if he was indeed the right man for the rebuilding Hawks. Woodson and Josh Smith went round and round, though J-Smoove could have that effect on people.

It wasn’t until the 2007-2008 season, after the drafting of Al Horford, that the Hawks had enough players in place to think about winning. By then, Knight had decided Woodson needed to go. The Atlanta Spirit, being its contrary self, declined to back their GM. Woodson stayed. Knight traded for Mike Bibby, the point guard the team lacked. (In 2005, Knight picked Marvin Williams over Chris Paul.) Given a floor leader at last, Woodson lifted the Hawks to the playoffs, albeit with a record of 37-45. Somehow they took the 66-win Celtics to a Game 7 in Round 1. Knight resigned thereafter.

It took a while, but the Hawks had been reborn. They would make the playoffs 10 years running. They would win 53 games in 2009-2010. That spring they beat Milwaukee in Round 1 after trailing 3-2 in the series. Their opponent in the conference semis was Orlando, which had Dwight Howard. Woodson insisted on double-teaming Howard. This insistence continued after the Magic won Game 1 by 43 points and Game 2 by 14. Orlando’s perimeter shooters — Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick — would make 44 treys over four games.

It was suggested to Woodson by higher-ups that double-teams weren’t working. Woodson paid no heed. The Hawks lost Game 3 at Philips Arena by 30. They would be outscored in the sweep by a record 101 points. The Spirit had fully anticipated bringing Woodson back the next year; those 101 points changed ownership’s mind. One Spirit member lobbied hard for Drew, who’d been Woodson’s assistant from the start. LD lasted three years as HC.

Woodson felt undercut. He sat out a year, then took a job as a Knicks assistant under Mike D’Antoni, who soon went the way of all Knicks coaches. Woodson was bumped upstairs. The Knicks made the playoffs twice. When they missed the 2014 playoffs, Woodson was fired. He then worked as Doc Rivers’ assistant with the Clippers.

Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Woodson, guard Joe Johnson (2), and forward Josh Smith (5) head to the bench for a time out during the second half of a 105-75 loss to the Orlando Magic in game 3 of the  Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday, May 8, 2010, at Philips Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Woodson, guard Joe Johnson (2), and forward Josh Smith (5) head to the bench for a time out during the second half of a 105-75 loss to the Orlando Magic in game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Saturday, May 8, 2010, at Philips Arena in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Now Woody is the coach of his alma mater, which found a donor willing to pay $10 million to buy out Archie Miller after four years. The post-Knight IU has reached the Final Four once, that in 2002 under Mike Davis, whose fate it was to succeed Knight. Davis lasted four more years before stepping aside. Then came Kelvin Sampson, who landed the school on deep-dish NCAA probation. Then Tom Crean, who three times took the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 but no farther. (Crean now coaches Georgia.) Then Miller, who left Dayton after taking the Flyers to the Big Dance four years running.

Indiana’s latest search was complicated by Brad Stevens — once of Butler, now of the Celtics — saying no. It has been reported that Thad Matta — once of Butler, more recently of Ohio State — agreed to take the job but failed a physical. Matta has back/leg issues; he might have taken the Georgia job had his physician cleared him. Indiana claims Matta received no offer and failed no exam. Chris Holtmann — once of Butler, now of Ohio State — also said no.

Plot twist: Matta, who’s 10 years younger than Woodson, will join the Indiana athletic department as an associate AD for basketball. Such a package deal is, in college circles, unusual if not unprecedented. With Woodson having never recruited, he figures to need all the advice he can get. Still, we’ve seen what Woodson thinks of advice. Drew talked his way into becoming the Hawks’ head coach by listing all the swell ideas he’d had that Woodson ignored.

The model for IU is Juwan Howard, who despite no college coaching experience has hoisted Michigan to the Elite Eight. Howard is 48, not 63. Woodson brings the Knight connection that no Indiana coach since Davis has had, but Knight has been gone for two decades. The General’s authoritarian approach mightn’t work so well with players who have a transfer portal as an escape hatch.

For all his stubbornness, Woodson is a pretty fair coach. That said, Indiana is among the toughest jobs in the land. IU fans still bow at the altar of Knight, whose final 13 seasons in Bloomington yielded no national titles. (His first 16 brought three.) It’s a program trying to rekindle the glory days, which seldom works. It will be intriguing to see what 18-year-olds think of someone whose last contact with the college game was in 1980. It will be fascinating to see if Woodson and Matta mesh. And to the man himself, I say:

Good luck, (name redacted). You’ll need it.

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