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 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 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.



A tradition that needs to stop

This season, The Citadel’s basketball team successfully broke a long cycle of losing, and did so in spectacular fashion, with an unprecedented number of league victories, the longest winning streak in over 80 years, and a record-tying 20 victories.  The team broke long road losing streaks at Appalachian State, Davidson, and the College of Charleston.  It got over the hump in every conceivable way except one.  Oh, but that one…

The conference tournament bugaboo struck again.

Samford became the 21st different team to beat The Citadel in the SoCon tourney (I think it’s safe to assume that’s a record), a little more than a month after The Citadel beat the Birmingham bulldogs by 25 points in a game at Samford.  It was, to say the least, a frustrating performance.  The Citadel’s defense was atrocious, as Samford scored 76 points on only 55 possessions.  The Citadel also got outrebounded by Samford, which is both terrible and amazing, given that Samford is one of the nation’s worst rebounding teams.  It was just a miserable night.

I don’t know why, no matter how good or bad the Bulldogs are in any season (and they’ve usually been bad), The Citadel comes up all thumbs every single time when the SoCon tournament gets underway.  You would think that in all those years that on occasion even one of the Bulldogs’ lesser teams would have done something to win a couple of games, even if it were just by accident.  Nope.  The Citadel is now 10-56 in the Southern Conference tournament.

Ed Conroy did a lot of things right this season, but I suspect he’s going to take a hard look at the performance of the team on Saturday night and try to figure out how to change the mindset of the squad entering tourney play.  The team has to play with purpose while remaining loose, something that never seems to happen, regardless of the year.

I don’t know if The Citadel has finished playing basketball this season.  It is possible that the Bulldogs will be invited to a post-season event, as college basketball appears to be going the way of college football, and eventually all 343 Division I teams will get to play in a post-season tournament.   Well, maybe not NJIT.  We’ll see what develops on that front.

If it does turn out to be the end of the season, I feel badly for the players that it ended so rudely, particularly the two seniors.  However, Demetrius Nelson and Jon Brick will depart knowing that in their senior year, they played on a basketball team at The Citadel that won 20 games.  That makes them members of a very, very small club.  Also, if the Bulldogs are able to maintain the positive momentum built up during this season, and parlay it into even more success, Nelson and Brick will know that they were major contributors to the building of that foundation. 

I’ve been asked by friends about two recent articles concerning The Citadel, a long and evocative piece in ESPN The Magazine (and by the talented Wright Thompson, and a shorter feature in The New York Times, the latter of which could have used some editing.  However, as I have pointed out to people who have brought it up, the truth is that other than Ed Conroy, the basketball team didn’t get much publicity from either article, as both were about Pat Conroy.  The two pieces combined were over 5700 words in length, but despite all that verbiage no member of the current edition of the Bulldog basketball team was mentioned, not even once.

I was disappointed in that, because I’ve heard the Pat Conroy tale before.  While I mean no disrespect, I felt the focus should be on the current players and what they had accomplished, not just Nelson and Brick, but Zach Urbanus, Bryan Streeter, and Austin Dahn.  I wanted to read more about the terror of Beverly Hills, Cosmo Morabbi.  I was hoping someone would come up with a nickname for John Brown (besides just “JB”).

Instead, the national media turned to Pat Conroy as the story.  It’s always about Pat.

(Actually, contained within the Pat-and-Ed storyline was something that I thought was potentially much more interesting, the relationship between Ed and Don “The Great Santini” Conroy.  However, that angle would only have tangentially involved Pat Conroy, and the elder Conroy is dead, so it was just used as a way for the preferred narrative to connect Pat and Ed.  Oh well.)

Perhaps it’s just as well none of the players were mentioned, at least in the Times article.  Since that story referred to General Grinalds as the former commandant of the school, it’s possible that Urbanus would have been described as a 6’10” post player…

Finally, you have to hand it to the Southern Conference brass.  After taking the guaranteed money from Chattanooga to move the tournament to UTC’s home court, the conference leadership got exactly what it deserved.  The Mocs had the fifth-best record in the SoCon this season, but despite 20 conference games the league continued with its two-division format.  With the four best teams all in the South division, this enabled UT-Chattanooga (playing in the North division) to garner a bye in the first round while two other teams with better records had to play on Friday night. 

Then everything fell into place for the Mocs.  Not only did they survive a one-point victory over Elon in the quarterfinals (you think the home court was probably worth a few points there?), they only had to beat one of the four teams that finished ahead of UTC in the standings — and that was the third-place team, which had to play an extra game just to get to the final.

There is a good chance (better than 50%, at least) that Chattanooga becomes the first SoCon school to land in the dreaded play-in game, just one year after Davidson reached the Elite Eight.  That will do wonders for the league’s image.  However, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Chattanooga won the tournament on its home court, since that’s exactly what happened in 2005, the last time the tournament was held at McKenzie Arena.

When the tournament was awarded to Chattanooga, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino noted that the arena would provide plenty of seating.  That’s great, except much of it wasn’t used, as even in the final, with its home team playing and a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, the official attendance was only 5,042 (and who knows what the actual attendance was).   

It’s not surprising that a lot of the fans from other schools in the league didn’t show up, since Chattanooga isn’t a geographically ideal location to have the tournament (unless you root for UTC or Samford).  It doesn’t say much for the promotion of the event, though, when even the home team can’t put people in the stands.

Naturally, the tournament will return to Chattanooga next season…