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Q & A

BOZICH | Larry Brown explains why Mike Woodson is right coach for Indiana -- and their future

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If there is a person who can provide the seal of approval about what is required to win as a basketball coach in the NBA and the college game, Larry Brown can do it.

A Hall of Famer, Brown won more than 2,300 games and an NBA title as a professional coach as well as 266 games and an NCAA title as a college coach.

Brown, 80, retired from coaching in 2016 but maintains close relationships with former players and assistant coaches that he mentored.

One of his top pupils is Mike Woodson, who was named head men’s coach at Indiana University March 29. Woodson assisted Brown in Philadelphia and Detroit, where the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title.

Brown endorsed Woodson, 63, for the IU job, even as critics questioned his lack of college coaching experience as Woodson returned to his alma mater.

On Tuesday, Brown talked to me for 20 minutes about his relationship with Woodson, why he believes Woodson was the best choice for the job and about the report that Brown might work with Woodson in Bloomington.

This is a slightly edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.

QUESTION: When did your relationship with Mike Woodson begin?

BROWN: When I took the New Jersey Nets job after I left UCLA (in 1981), I traded him. (Brown laughed.)

QUESTION: You traded him away from New Jersey?

BROWN: “I traded him to Kansas City (after 7 games) and it was the best thing that ever happened to Woody.

“He played for a coach (Cotton Fitzsimmons) that admired all the things that he was capable of doing instead of being with a dumb-#@# coach that didn’t recognize all of his skills.

“It was a match made in heaven for him.”

QUESTION: What player did you get for Woodson?

BROWN: “Whatever we got back, it wasn’t enough. I think we might have gotten back Sam Lacey. I had a real young team. Mike Gminski was a little banged up. I had a bunch of young players. We needed some experience and a guy in the middle who could help me coach and teach these young guys how to play.

“It worked out amazingly well for everybody, especially Woody. (Woodson played 5 of his 11 NBA seasons for the Kings. He retired as a player in 1991 with a 14.0-point career scoring average.)

QUESTION: How did your relationship grow after that?

BROWN: “The real connection was when Woody was with Milwaukee (as an assistant coach) and they fired Chris Ford (in 1998), I just noticed how loyal he was and supportive that he was with Chris. I just admired that.

“Then I thought to myself, ‘One day, I’d love to have an opportunity to hire him.’ It just happened to work out.

“You know (North Carolina coach Dean) Smith called me one day and told me Matt Doherty fired Dave Hanners, Phil Ford and Pat Sullivan. Coach Smith called me and said that he wanted me to hire all three and hung up.

“I called him back and said, ‘Coach, I’d love to do that but the season has started and I don’t have any openings right now. He said, ‘Well, you’ll find them.’

“So, eventually things work out. Eventually I got to call Woody and said come with me to Philadelphia (in 2001). He came with me to Philly and then we went to Detroit together (in 2003-04, winning the NBA title).

“He got the Atlanta head coaching job (in 2004) and we’ve been family ever since.”

QUESTION: What makes Mike a good coach?

BROWN: “He’s a terrific human being. He’s knowledgeable as hell. I mean his grasp of the game is as good as any.

“You know, one thing, I never ever designated a top assistant, second assistant or third assistant. Because I always wanted to be able to recommend anybody on any staff.

“If anybody called me up and said, ‘Tell me what your coaches’ strengths are. Is he a defensive guy or an offensive guy?’ I always used to scratch my head, thinking, ‘This isn’t football.’

“I always liked the fact that I could tell people, ‘No, they’re just coaches. They can just coach.’

“But Woody, aside from being an unbelievable X and O guy, he’s got unbelievable people skills, which today I think is more important than Xs and Os.”

QUESTION: NBA people have told me that Woodson has great relationships with players. Is that what you’re talking about?

BROWN: “Yes, and I think sometimes we forget that. We don’t put enough emphasis on people skills because analytics have kind of jumped in. I still haven’t figured that out, how that works.

“As a coach, I wanted all the information that I could get to put players in the right positions to be successful and coaching the way you feel that it’s going to help your team succeed.

“You look at Woody’s background, man, playing for coach (Bob) Knight and the people he has been associated with since then, he’s got what it takes to have kids want to play for him.

“You know they all want to go to the pros … Woody with his pro background and the fact that he’s an IU grad, he’s from Indiana, played there, grew up in the state, he can walk into any home and say, ‘Hey, I played here. I played for one of the greatest coaches of all time. I always wanted to go here. And it’s turned out perfect for me. It can be perfect for you as well.’

“That will be pretty appealing.”

QUESTION: So his ability to build relationships is at the top of his list of qualifications?

BROWN: “Oh, man. I took over 9 NBA jobs. Only one team had a winning record. Some things that really stood out in my mind and it’s almost like taking over in college now.

"But the first thing is after a couple of days, I always thought after a few practices, me and my staff, the players would know whether we could coach a little bit. That was important.

“Then the second thing I always thought stood out was after a little while the players could figure out whether they could win with this staff or not. And I thought that was important.

“And then the third thing, which most people now would think is the most important, even in the NBA, the players will think, ’Can he make me better? Because if he makes me better, I’ll make more money.’

“But the thing that I thought trumped everything, which is the way it should be and the way it is today, if you can let them know that you cared about them, you cared about them in every aspect of their lives, and they trusted you, they would do almost anything for you.

“I think that trumps everything. I think that is what Woody has.”

QUESTION: He took over 2 struggling franchises, the Hawks and Knicks and went to the playoffs 5 straight seasons in one stretch.

His final Atlanta team won nearly 65 percent of its games and he won the 2013 Atlantic Division title with the Knicks.

What’s your evaluation of his NBA head coaching career?

BROWN: “People don’t realize some things. You know, for me, I took over all these bad teams. You’re not instantly successful. Whenever we turn it around quickly, maybe that’s because we were able to get really quality players and they turned it around quickly in spite of me.

“But the big thing is with records is, you’ve just got to look at the personnel and decide, ‘Did he make players better? Did his team overachieve? Was he the kind of guy that everybody wanted to play for?

“We can throw the records out. He took over a young team in Atlanta and if they would have drafted Chris Paul (instead of Marvin Williams in 2004) at No. 2, he’d probably still be there. And Woody wanted to draft Chris.

“But the Hawks got better every year. Then when he took over the Knicks, I think they went 18-6 (in 2012) the remainder of the season. I think the next year they won 54 games (and won the Atlantic Division and one playoff series).

“Then unfortunately Rasheed (Wallace), Kurt Thomas and Jason Kidd weren’t on the team any more. You know you’ve got to have veteran guys who can teach young kids how to be pros. I think that might have hurt his last year.

“But the years that he sat next to me, players loved him and the knowledge he had for the game. It was evident to me and all the guys around him that he can coach and he’s going to be successful. I’m so thrilled.

“Indiana needed (another) Black coach some day. I think we all have to understand that with the climate now and the contributions that so many African-American kids have made to our sport. I think that’s really a significant thing.

“He’s going to give these kids something … they need a great role model. I think he’ll do that and these kids will recognize how much he cares for them.”

QUESTION: In his first 9 days on the job, 4 Indiana players removed their names from the NCAA transfer portal, including Trayce Jackson-Davis, an all-Big Ten player who was likely leaving IU.

Do you see Woodson’s impact there?

BROWN: “Once Woody got the job, I think it was a pretty easy decision. Trayce loves IU. He’s had a great experience there.

“I’m just hopeful (junior guard Armaan) Franklin stays. If Franklin stays with (Jordan) Geronimo and (Khristian) Lander and the kid (Logan Duncomb) they got coming from (Cincinnati) Moeller High School, Woody has a nice group to work with.”

QUESTION: There was considerable criticism of this hire. People said Woodson has never coached in college. That he never recruited.

Are those valid concerns?

BROWN: “That’s a legitimate thing to say. But I’ve done both. It’s much easier to go from pro to college, in my mind. The second you walk into the (college) locker room, you have instant credibility with the kids. They all want to be where you were. That’s huge.

“The college game is going more toward the pro game, in my mind. Getting (assistant coach Dane) Fife, having (assistant coach) Mike Roberts there. I’m sure they are going to get another guy who will make Woody’s adjustment easier.

“Hiring Thad Matta (as assistant athletic director to work with the basketball program) was an unbelievably brilliant decision.

“Thad was in Indiana at Butler as an assistant when I was with the Pacers. I got to know him. He’s such a great resource for Mike.

“IU is so unique. When I went to the Pacers, I always knew Indiana was a basketball state. But I wasn’t even close to understanding how important basketball was there.

“I think getting Fife and having Mike Roberts around and Thad, he’ll get another bulldog out there that will help him.”

QUESTION: Friends of Woodson’s have told me that Mike has always told his friends how much he loved Indiana basketball and that he wanted to go back. Were you aware of that?

BROWN: “Oh, my gosh. yes. Mike and I last year or maybe the year before, we went to visit Coach (Bob) Knight in Bloomington. Then we went to practice and then we went out to dinner with coach Knight and his wife, Karen.

“It was amazing going back there and seeing Mike’s pictures with his crazy haircut. He’s always had a love for that place. He met his wife (Terri) there.

“We used to argue between North Carolina (Brown’s alma mater), Kansas (where Brown won the 1988 NCAA title) and Indiana which was the best program.”

QUESTION: Woodson played on the 1976 Indiana high school all-stars and wasn’t named Mr. Basketball. A player who went to your school, North Carolina, Dave Colescott, was.

BROWN: “Yeah, I remember. And Mike is still pissed off about it.”

QUESTION: And in a great trivia question, there were 2 guys on that Indiana all-star team who became NBA head coaches. The other one was standing next to Mike in the team picture — Terry Stotts of Bloomington North, the coach of the Trailblazers.

BROWN: “I didn’t realize that. How about that?

“I was close to Tom Crean. I went to see him at IU. Bruiser (Flint) was there (as an assistant to Archie Miller). Mike Roberts, I’ve known him. I’ve known Archie indirectly, through coach (John) Calipari. Archie’s Dad (John Miller) coached Cal when he was growing up. I’ve been around Indiana.

“I just think it’s a perfect time to have Mike be there and I know how much he wants to be there.

“When I went back to Carolina, coach (Smith) asked me to help him coach. Every home I walked into, I could sit down and say, ‘I played for this man, I went to school here. I got my degree there. He’s always been a part of my life.’

“The school is one thing. I didn’t go to Carolina because of North Carolina. I went because of coach Smith and coach (Frank) McGuire. But I didn’t realize what Carolina meant.

“Woody knows what Indiana means. He knows being the head coach, what that means there. I think that’s so important.”

QUESTION: He’s also close to a number of former players like Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Randy Wittman and others, which is helpful.

BROWN: “Oh yeah. The former players supported him. So did a lot of other people. Donnie Walsh (the former Pacers’ general manager) called. I called. (Knicks coach) Tom Thibodeau called. I’m sure others did.

“I have nothing against Archie or Tom Crean or Mike Davis or Kelvin Sampson. They’re all wonderful. I think they’re all great.

“But it’s time for a former Indiana guy. Just like Roy (Williams) stepping down at North Carolina and Hubert (Davis, a former UNC player) got the job.

“It’s the right thing to do. Mike is the right person at the right time.”

QUESTION: One final question. Adrian Wojnarnowski of ESPN tweeted that Woodson talked to you about a possible role on the Indiana staff.

Is that something you and Mike have discussed? Is it a move you’re considering?

BROWN: “Let Woody talk to you about that. I’m good. I’m a phone call away. I’ll probably be in Bloomington as much as Terri will be there.

“I’m all right where I am. I'm just thrilled that he’s going to be here. We’re always going to be on the phone talking about things. Any way I can help, all my guys, I just love sharing what I was taught.”

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