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Gordon Monson: Quin Snyder’s work this season is bigger than any Coach of the Year award, it’s a reflection of his life

A long coaching journey with a lot of ups and downs has culminated this season with a team that has taken on his smarts, determination and discipline

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quin Snyder, jazz huddle as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 12, 2021. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2), Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23), Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00), Utah Jazz center Derrick Favors (15)

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Quin Snyder will not win the NBA Coach of the Year Award.

Mark it down now.

Not … gonna … happen.

Not a big deal, either. At least Snyder would never think it is.

Even if he won the durn thing, he’d likely pass it off as somebody else’s reward to reap, not his.

That trophy often goes to a coach in a larger market who in a single season lifts up and pulls out a team that had previously swerved and caromed into a ditch, hauling it now back to some measure of competency and relevance.

Snyder in 2021 did something more impressive, more challenging.

He hoisted a team that had been good and edged it toward greatness.

Good to great is tougher than bad to good.

Think of it like this: A golfer who is an 18-handicapper can easily, with a bit of effort and time and proper instruction, significantly reduce his stroke average to, say, a 12- or a 10-. For a golfer who is, say, a 7-handicapper to get to scratch takes a freaking miracle.

The Jazz this season have been that miracle, guided by a leader who made all kinds of changes within the structure of his team without adding much of any more talent, other than welcoming in a familiar face — backup big Derrick Favors.

Other than that, Snyder boosted an identical group to what had been an unimaginable record. His team this season had a sweet winning percentage of .722. Last season, it was at .611.

Same bunch, different results.

If a head coach’s top job is to make his players the best they can be, put them in positions to do so, Snyder did exactly that with the Jazz. During the regular season, he transformed an outfit that was expected to finish what … fifth? … sixth? … in the West into the team with the league’s best record (52-20).

That shouldn’t blow anybody away, considering it reflects not just Snyder’s coaching ability, it mirrors his … life. His entire existence has been an adjustment, from up to down to up. No surprise, then, that he adjusted darn near everything about his charges to make them better.

Let’s back up and get a running start at this.

Quin Snyder grew up not in a perfect environment, just in a blessed one, a neighborhood called Dawn Villa near Seattle. He lived with his family on Mercer Island, Wash., which if you’ve ever been there you know is an affluent tree-lined suburban land of gumdrops and lollipops, a place where stretch limousines and Lamborghinis roam. It’s where the wealthy go to abide and prosper in their mansions.

Snyder’s family was not overly rich, his dad was a vice principal, but his reality was every bit of that. As a kid, he was a great athlete and a smart, popular student. One of his childhood friends, a younger neighbor kid name of Ryan Rosoff, who observed Snyder with a sense of admiration, once told me Snyder, when he was 12 years old, used to organize whiffle ball games in his front yard, complete with typed-up rules for participation. If any kid broke those rules, he was ousted from the game.

Everyone played by the rules because Snyder was by far the most gifted pre-teen in the group, and the youths from houses on streets all around naturally followed him, keying off his mix of acumen and athleticism.

Rosoff said back then that Snyder was pretty much the same all those years ago as he is now: “Smart, good looking, a great athlete, humble. He was just … different.”

If there’s one thing that stands out about the Jazz coach, and it certainly has this season, it’s that he’s able to gain the trust of his players, these headstrong multimillionaires, world-class athletes, who don’t lend out that trust easily. It extends considerably beyond switching up positions on the floor for the pick and roll in the middle of a game and/or stressing before the season the value of playing defense, using it to get into transition to launch 3-pointers early in the shot clock, that last part a substantial divergence from previous strategies. And yet, when he asks them to make personal adjustments to their individual games, sometimes at a significant sacrifice, they buy into it, following his lead.

He’s done that with the team’s lesser players, you know who they are, and with its stars, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

Rosoff, who went on as an adult to form a company that specialized in corporate leadership skills, explained Snyder’s presence and professionalism thusly:

“It’s a lack of pretense. If people sense you’re full of crap, they won’t follow you. People see that Quin’s a bright guy. When you’re smart and successful, you can go one of two ways. You can become a pretentious D-bag or you can become a great influence on those around you. He deflects praise and takes criticism. He protects the [players] who work for him. They can see that he has their best interests at heart. Plus, he really is the smartest guy in the room.”

The man does have a law degree and an MBA from Duke. He was a philosophy major as an undergrad.

Snyder’s journey from gifted academician and athlete — he went on to become a McDonald’s All-American, winning state prep titles before moving forward to play in three Final Fours at Duke — to full-time coach had its highlights and its lowlights, too. Its doodles and its dips.

After he beat out John Calipari and Bill Self to be named at a very young age the head coach at Missouri, he saw initial success, but was troubled later by personal problems, including a divorce, and losing too many games, mixed with NCAA violations, indiscretions he could not weather in Columbia.

He either was fired from that job, spinning into an extended funk that made him consider removing himself from coaching completely. The years that followed were dark and dreary. Snyder knew he could fall back on his advanced education to succeed in some other realm.

But during that span, at the end of it, Snyder rediscovered something he wasn’t sure he had.

Passion for a game and an adventure he once embraced, and, as it turned out, he still did.

“I realized I had something I love to do,” he said upon coming to Utah. “To work hard, to learn, and I’ve had a lot of people who helped me do that.”

Which is to say, he fought back, took all kinds of assistant jobs from Los Angeles to Moscow, and coached a G League team — the Toros — in Austin, Texas, filled with players who had nowhere to go but up, all in front of a whole lot of empty seats.

There wasn’t much glam or glory in it.

En route he found a path to his staples — determination and a commitment to improvement, and peace of mind — that took him from Timbuktu to, finally, Salt Lake City in 2014 as the Jazz’s head coach.

His teams here have adhered to his mantra of concentrating on getting better, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. He is fully aware he’s judged on wins and losses, but that’s never really been his emphasis.

“I do believe in people absolutely committing themselves to hard work in order to improve,” he said. “Focus on that is a key.”

That overarching approach is key.

It’s not just the tactical stuff, the preparation, the film study and strategy. It’s not just the player development. One Jazz member who requested anonymity said it like this: “He empowers people who work for him — coaches — and play for him. He teaches them that everyone can keep getting better, improving and learning to be better. That’s the goal of life. It’s not winning a game or an award.”

Winning at life.

I get it, this is starting to sound like some kind of tribute. The dude’s not dying.

It’s not supposed to be that, it’s supposed to be the truth about a remarkable coach who was born into an advantaged situation, who saw more victories than most, and then who cratered in a dramatic way.

And then stared down his own troubles, acknowledged them, learned from them, then worked like a madman not only to gain back what had been lost, but to fire past all that to where he is now — on a slope he continues to climb, taking a team that won just 25 games the season before he arrived in Utah to coaching the outfit with the best record in the NBA, better than any of Snyder’s previous Jazz teams.

Now neck-deep in a playoff series with the Memphis Grizzles, anybody think Quin Snyder gives a rodent’s rear end about winning a coaching award that is determined by a media vote?

Hardly.

He’s too busy lowering his team’s handicap, shaving strokes off its rounds, working to get to scratch, beating the course that lies directly ahead.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.

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