This version of Jim Boylen is barely recognizable. After spending four seasons as the University of Utah’s basketball coach with his arms continually waving and his legs moving in a defensive stance, Boylen occupies a chair on the Indiana Pacers’ bench, leaning forward with his elbows resting on the clipboard above his knees.
Fired by Utah last March, Boylen is back in the NBA as an assistant coach. He describes the league as “familiar territory,” having formerly spent 13 seasons with three teams, but there’s something strange about seeing him sit and watch games, instead of turning them into an interactive experience.
The Pacers (16-7), who host the Jazz on Tuesday, are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises, and Boylen is enjoying their success. Yet he’ll always wonder what he could have done with one more season at Utah. He makes a point of saying he never told any of his former players to transfer. And he hopes he’s remembered well in Salt Lake City, although he acknowledges, “I don’t know how I’m perceived.”
What’s clear is the traits that made him attractive to Ute athletic director Chris Hill — who hired him and then awarded him another five-year contract after Boylen’s second season — are serving him well in Indiana.
“He’s just a very, very passionate guy about the game of basketball, a preparation fanatic,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “He’s been a breath of fresh air, a great addition to our staff — and an extremely funny guy.”
Beyond providing comic relief, Boylen is charged with developing the Pacers’ big men, including Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansbrough. Hibbert, a fourth-year center, is averaging career highs of 13.7 points and 9.7 rebounds. Citing the team’s improved offensive efficiency, Vogel labels Boylen “almost a post-spacing genius.”
Boylen even shut out Jimmer Fredette. A year after scoring 47 points against Utah, the ex-BYU guard went scoreless in six minutes against Indiana in January.
Boylen still blames Jimmermania for some of his troubles at Utah. The rebuilding cycle that followed the Utes’ Mountain West Conference co-championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009 coincided with 30-win seasons for BYU and Utah State, which magnified Utah’s downturn.
Yet he’s convinced that even after a 13-18 season, his program was primed to be competitive in the Pac-12 with virtually the entire roster returning.
“As you know, I wanted another year,” he said, standing in a hallway of Bankers Life Fieldhouse after an Indiana victory last week. “I was hoping to coach that team. It didn’t work out.”
With no prompting, Boylen discussed his players who left the program, notably Will Clyburn (Iowa State), J.J. O’Brien (San Diego State) and Shawn Glover (Oral Roberts). “I never told my guys to leave there,” he said. “Some guys were loyal to that situation; they didn’t want to be there without me there. That happens everywhere.”
With the Utes enduring a historically awful season, Boylen takes no satisfaction in his successor’s struggles. His only hint of bitterness comes cryptically: “There’s a whole other side to this whole thing.”
Mostly, he’s thankful for the contract that still owed him some $2 million (his Pacers salary is subtracted from the school’s obligation) and fond of Utah.
“I loved it,” he said. “I thought I was a pretty good Ute. … I learned a ton. I’ve used that already. Frank’s a young coach, and he’s very receptive to the experiences I’ve had.”
Boylen’s biggest regret is that this season’s compacted NBA schedule won’t bring the Pacers to Salt Lake City, where his family was involved in J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School’s community and made friends. After a difficult 2010-11 season, his wife and two daughters are healthy and happy in Indiana. “Our life’s good,” Boylen said.
Tuesday offers a reunion with the Jazz. “You just have to love that franchise and the way they play,” Boylen said, “but I don’t think there’ll be a lot of huggin’ and kissin’. We’ll save that for some other time.”