Colton's Corner: In College Basketball, Nice Guys Finish Last...Or Do They?
Cover photo: Indiana Hoosiers head coach Bob Knight hurls a chair across the floor in a game against rival Purdue after a questionable foul call
Cover photo credit: Associated Press
March is upon us everyone. One of the most highly anticipated months on any sports fan's calendar. 67 of the best teams in college basketball, and the Kentucky Wildcats (go Peacocks), battle it out over three grueling weekends until a national champion is crowned. This article isn't about the NCAA tournament though, but the tournament has had me thinking more and more about college basketball and the many captivating moments and people in its illustrious history. Specifically, it's had me thinking about some of the coaches in the history of college basketball, especially as I watch my own school's program undergo a culture change after letting go of the longtime coach and replacing him with someone new. All of this thinking has brought me to one conclusion: nice guys finish last.
Don't get me wrong. I love Tommy Lloyd. There are not many coaches, if any, in the NCAA I would rather have in charge of the Arizona basketball program. His style of play is exciting and hard to keep up with, his recruiting is elite, his demeanor makes him relatable to many of his players, and all of those things combine to remind a lot of older Arizona fans of Lute Olson, who had all of those traits as well. If you're reminding someone in Tucson of Lute Olson, you are as good as gold.
I am not an older Arizona fan. I am a young Arizona fan. I love Lute Olson, and I know he is one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, but I never have seen him coach a game. I have never even heard him speak live. My first exposure to a Wildcats bench boss was the spring of 2019, the spring before I would begin attending Arizona, and it was of an angry Sean Miller telling a reporter to "drive back to Phoenix" after the reporter asked Miller several times about the NCAA investigation concerning alleged recruiting violation surrounding Arizona's basketball program.
I thought at the time his behavior was obnoxious and uncalled for. And it was. But after a few games at the McKale Center, listening to the crowd get loud when they announced his name and watching him run up and down the sidelines screaming at officials and players as he sweated profusely (if you ever hear me say "our sweaty king," I am referring to Miller), he was forgiven. For many, he was forgiven for his obnoxiousness much sooner than that. He was forgiven because, even though he was obnoxious, he was our obnoxious. He was our angry, sweaty, screaming coach, and if you don't like it, then you can drive back to Phoenix too.
Why is that? Why is it that Arizona fans not only didn't dislike Miller for being that way, but we actually loved him more for it. I don't know. Why don't you ask Connecticut fans why they loved that about Jim Calhoun? Or why Louisville loved that about Rick Pitino? Or why UCLA fans currently love that about Mick Cronin? Or why, in perhaps that most famous of these examples, Indiana fans loved that about Bob Knight. Yes, Bob Knight, who, in perhaps one of the most iconic moments in college basketball history, picked up a chair and threw it across the floor after a series of questionable calls. When Knight threw that chair, The Assembly Hall erupted with cheers. As he walked off the court towards the locker room, the cheers morphed into chants. Bo-bby, Bo-bby, Bo-bby.
The reason basketball fans love it is simple: it's because of the passion. Sports fans are passionate about their teams, and they want to see that the leaders of their teams are as passionate as they are. It's obvious when a fan is passionate about a team. They're screaming, waving their arms, and saying whatever comes to mind. They are wearing their emotions on their sleeve. Coaches, on the other hand, are expected to be a lot more under control. They are expected to keep those things inside and to be the stoic leaders of the group, calm enough to handle anything that could come the team's way. But sometimes, in an especially hot moment, a coach might resemble a fan a little bit. They might also scream, wave their arms, and say whatever comes to mind. A fan seeing this makes all of the emotions they feel seem validated, and it shows that the team leadership is just as invested in the team's success as they are. That should be obvious, but to an incensed sports fan, not many things are obvious. So when you have a coach like Sean Miller, someone who does not keep it a secret how he is feeling, it becomes easy to identify with that coach, and you begin to excuse some of the more negative aspects of their behavior. These coaches become fan favorites. They definitely do not finish last in popularity.
But what about the nice guys? Well, Lute Olson finished his career at Arizona, and he will go down as one of the greatest, and most loved, college basketball coaches of all time. The story is very similar for UCLA's John Wooden, and the story will be similar for Gonzaga's Mark Few. All of these mild-mannered coaches, retiring in peace, and leaving their fanbases wishing they were still around. And what about our nice guy, the subdued Tommy Lloyd. Well, in his first season at Arizona, he is 31-3 and has lead the Wildcats to a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. So things are looking pretty good. The future looks good as well. This team is very young and will return nearly everyone next season. The recruiting is also stout, with a few four star recruits and a five star recruit on their way in in the upcoming seasons. So perhaps I was wrong about nice guys. Maybe being boring and not being a fan favorite is a worthy tradeoff for not paying recruits or choking players (I'm looking at you Knight). Maybe being more likely to fall asleep during a game is better than being more likely to be ejected from one. Maybe being popular is less important than bringing sustained success to a program. So yes, it appears as though I was wrong on my initial assessment of whether nice guys really do finish last. Don't get me wrong though, I definitely miss Sean Miller's character. With that being said, if he were still here, I'm sure I would miss winning basketball games more, so I suppose it all works out in the end.