Open letter to Chuck Driesell

Dear Coach Driesell (mind if I call you Chuck?) —

Congrats on being named head coach at The Citadel.  I liked your choice of tie at the press conference.  You and your family will enjoy Charleston.  Whether or not you enjoy your new job will depend on how you approach it.  Here are some tips:

—  Know your history.  I assume Larry Leckonby told you all about The Citadel’s hoops past.  If not, here is a primer:  Link

I hope you’re not having second thoughts…

Now, that post in the link covers everything up to Ed Conroy’s last two years at The Citadel, which were really good by Bulldog standards.  Conroy won 20 games in 2009 and went 16-16 this past season; he parlayed that into a nice gig at Tulane.  This is good news for you, Chuck, if you have designs on moving up the D-1 coaching ladder. Imagine if you actually won the Southern Conference.  That might be worth an ACC job.

(Who am I kidding.  That would be worth an NBA job.)

—  If you want to make the NCAAs from The Citadel, you will have to win the Southern Conference tournament.  The Southern Conference is a one-bid league; there hasn’t been an at-large bid out of the SoCon since 1950.

Winning the SoCon tourney while at The Citadel will be a tall order, however.  The school’s postseason tournament history?  Ugly.

Now, you remember your father’s struggles in the ACC tournament, so you can appreciate a tourney hex — maybe not one quite on the scale of The Citadel’s foibles at the SoCon tourney, but you probably understand the frustration.  Of course, you also were on the team the year Lefty finally won the ACC tourney, so you know it’s possible to climb the mountain. Admittedly, you aren’t going to have the services of anyone as talented as Len Bias while at The Citadel.

—  Speaking of the left-hander, feel free to invite your father to show up at McAlister Field House whenever he wants.  We’re used to celebrities with connections to the program showing up at basketball games now, since Pat Conroy jumped on the bandwagon the last two seasons.  All I ask is that whenever there is an article in The New York Times about the team’s success, or if Wright Thompson writes a long, thoughtful piece on ESPN.com about the basketball program, that maybe the stories might actually mention a current player.  Just once?

It’s like the program got overshadowed by an ancillary figure.  5700 combined words, no mention of any player.  Sigh.

(By the way, there has to be a great photo op involving General (the bulldog, not Rosa) and Lefty Driesell.  Russ Pace, be ready.)

—  Learn as much as you can about The Citadel, but don’t sweat it if you don’t understand everything about the school. I’m a graduate, and I do not understand everything about the place, and never will.  If you really understand everything about The Citadel, you are certifiably insane.

One thing I will say is that you can’t quite lean on your time in the Navy, or at NAPS. There are some similarities but also some major differences.

You’re going to have to get a crash course in a new culture from somebody who was recently in your situation (Leckonby), and you should seriously consider having at least one guy on your staff with connections to the school. It’s kind of like having an interpreter.

—  You have a reputation as a solid talent evaluator.  I’m glad to hear that is the case, because I think that skill is critical to having success at The Citadel, much more so than just being a “getter” of players.  You’re going to have to look for under-the-radar types.

I’ll give you an example, Chuck.  Remember when Maryland was recruiting Jai Lucas? Of course you do, you were front and center on that recruitment.  Maryland didn’t get him, though, which must have been very disappointing, especially with his father (the great John Lucas) having played for your father at Maryland.

Jai Lucas wound up going to Florida, and then later transferred to Texas.  He was a big-time recruit.  Big-time recruits don’t go to The Citadel.

When you were watching his high school games, though, did you happen to notice the other guard for Bellaire?  Skinny kid, but a solid player.  Wasn’t getting offers from any of the high-majors, or any of the mid-majors for that matter.  I’m guessing you noticed him, at least enough to recognize him…even if you saw him now, in his cadet uniform.

His name was and is Cameron Wells, and he’s currently on pace to be the all-time leading scorer at The Citadel.  I would argue that he has had a much better college career than Jai Lucas, and that’s even taking the level of competition into consideration.  That’s the type of player you are seeking.  Wells wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but it’s not inconceivable he could eventually become the first alum from The Citadel to play in the NBA.

—  Besides finding “hidden” talent, Chuck, there is something else you need to keep in mind, something very important, and something quite a few coaches at The Citadel have found out the hard way.  When you recruit, you have to recruit cadets and make them players.  You can’t recruit players and make them cadets.

You have to bring in guys who are willing to embrace the challenge that is The Citadel. That’s what you’re selling, basically — a unique challenge, one that will stay with you all your life, along with a scholarship and the opportunity to play D-1 basketball.

It isn’t easy. No matter how good a salesman you are, The Citadel is never going to become the UCLA of the East.

The key to long-term success for any coach of any sport at The Citadel is to keep attrition low.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  You have to develop players over a four-year period.  It doesn’t do you any good to recruit some on-court stud if he’s only around for a year or two because he can’t handle the military system.

Also, remember to work with the system, not against it.  Don’t enable your players at the expense of the military side of things, as it will do you no good and will turn the corps of cadets (and a significant number of alumni) against you.  You need to have the corps on your side.

That line you had at the presser about players “taking that experience [of The Citadel’s military system] to the court” — that was solid, Chuck.  You at least talked a good game there.

—  Speaking of the corps of cadets, you need to confer with Leckonby and General Rosa and some of the cadet leadership to figure out how to make McAlister Field House a decided homecourt advantage again.  It wasn’t last season, and that’s a concern, because in the SoCon, you need to defend your homecourt.

The big problem is that league games are usually played on Thursdays and Saturdays.  On Saturday, the corps is generally on leave, and a leave that is both much-anticipated and much-needed.  On Thursday nights, you have a combination of things working against you, but I think you can work with the corps on that night.

See if you can arrange it so that a minimum of one-fourth (or at least one-fifth) of the corps is in attendance on Thursday nights, at least for SoCon games.  Saturday is a tough nut to crack; at the very least, make sure cadets stuck on campus are at the games.  Try to get cadets some rewards for supporting the team.

You have to understand, Chuck, that by and large cadets at The Citadel are not sports fans.  At Maryland, you could count on a large student body with a healthy number of hoops nuts.  You had a built-in student fan base.  That isn’t the case at The Citadel, with just over 2000 members of the corps of cadets, only a very small percentage of whom grew up following college basketball on any level.

—  That’s why, Chuck, you also need to reach out to the community.  In terms of selling the program to outsiders, you’re going to have to be a little bit more like your father, I think.  You’re competing with a lot of entertainment options, and Charleston is not really a sports town. However, it’s something you have to do.  The Citadel has one of the oldest fan bases in the league, if not the country.  You need to find some fresh blood.

— This is sort of an aside, Chuck, but I wanted to warn you in advance about Southern Conference officiating.  It can be, uh, inconsistent.  This is particularly true on Saturdays, when all the high-profile officials are working major-conference games.

Weekday games usually aren’t so bad, because there is sometimes a quality ref or two available for SoCon games. Saturdays, though, are often just short of an officiating debacle (actually, last season’s Davidson-Wofford game in Spartanburg was a debacle).

It’s just another reason why you need to have a good, boisterous crowd at McAlister for Saturday night games.

— Also, if you don’t mind, I would like for you to fix the uniforms.  The next time we break out new duds, please be sure that the lettering on them reads “The Citadel” and not “Citadel”.  It’s a pet peeve of mine, but still.  Get the name of the school right.  I bet General Grimsley would shake your hand if you made a point of correcting that, and it’s always good to be on the right side of the Grimmer.

—  Your predecessor, Ed Conroy, made a point of scheduling quality non-conference opposition, with occasional home games against the likes of Michigan State and Southern California.  I really liked this approach, and hope that you keep doing it.  You probably are going to have to play two or three “guarantee” games at a minimum every year, anyway.

With that in mind, Chuck, see if you can schedule games against Big 10 and/or SEC opponents.  Every Big 10 home game is televised on the Big Ten Network (BTN), and many of the SEC games are on one of the various ESPN platforms.  Even a game on ESPN3.com is worth it for The Citadel.

Last season the Bulldogs were on television a grand total of three times, once on ESPNU and twice on SportSouth.  To raise the profile of the program, and for recruiting purposes, I think it’s important to get on TV as much as possible. Besides, if we’re going to play elite teams to pay the bills, we might as well get something else out of it other than cash.

—  You are going to be in an unusual situation at The Citadel for a new coach, in that you will be inheriting a team that has the potential to be good next season.  I already mentioned Cameron Wells, but you have several other excellent players with whom to work.

At the press conference you mentioned that next season’s team could be “very special”.  I was interested in the way you described the number of returning starters. Instead of saying that “all five starters will be back,” you noted that (I’m paraphrasing slightly) “at the end of the season all five starters were coming back.”

There have been some rumblings that at least a couple of players are considering leaving the school, including two regulars in the rotation, so your first recruiting job is going to be trying to keep them from bolting.  It appears you are well aware of this, which is good.  I hope they stay, as if everyone comes back next season really could be special.

Despite the expectations for next year, you won’t really be under any pressure to win immediately, and can think long-term.  Ed Conroy left for a better job after four seasons.  The three coaches before him had a combined winning percentage of 41.2%, but despite that coached for 11 (Les Robinson), 7 (Randy Nesbit), and 14 (Pat Dennis) seasons at The Citadel.

The job isn’t a career-killer like it’s occasionally been made out to be.  Four of the last eight coaches, in fact, left to coach other Division I schools; one of them, Norm Sloan, would later win the national title.  Sloan and Robinson would actually coach two other D-1 schools after leaving The Citadel (counting Sloan’s two stops at Florida just once).

Congrats again for getting your first shot as a D-1 head coach, Coach Driesell.  Your opportunity comes at a place that is unusual and not for the faint of heart, but very special nonetheless.  Cherish the experience.

We’ll be rooting for you.

Sincerely,

SS

2 Responses

  1. Killer post.

  2. Great post. I am not a fan of The Citadel — instead, a Maryland fan — but I will follow them and cheer for Chuck to succeed down there. Good luck Chuck!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: