In order to find one of the Utah Jazz’s most important coaching voices at the Delta Center, don’t look down to the floor or the bench area.
You’ll see Jeff Hornacek’s No. 14 jersey in the rafters.
You won’t likely see him on the Jazz’s sidelines. Most games, he doesn’t travel with the team. Even during Jazz home games, he’s typically back in his residence in Phoenix, Arizona. But the Jazz legend who was once the third key cog of its most famous teams is now a key cog in Will Hardy’s development as the youngest head coach in the NBA. It just typically happens over the phone.
“Jeff watches all of our games and he and I talk after every game about what he’s seeing,” Hardy said. “I’ve told him that I would like for him just to think like he’s me.”
Hornacek first started as a Jazz shooting coach under Jerry Sloan, before moving to the bench as an assistant coach under Ty Corbin after the former resigned. But his easygoing demeanor and basketball Xs and Os knowledge pushed him forward quickly, and within three years, he was head coach of the Phoenix Suns, amassing a 101-112 record.
The Suns fired him midway through 2016, but coaching Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, then running the New York Knicks, selected him as that team’s head coach just three months later. There, Hornacek spent two years with the NBA’s biggest city’s biggest franchise, trying to integrate parts of Jackson’s Triangle offense with more modern techniques. A Kristaps Porzingis ACL tear in his second season doomed the Knicks to a poor season, though, and Hornacek was let go again. Later, Hornacek spent two years as an assistant for the Houston Rockets before looking for his next opportunity.
Hardy didn’t know Hornacek well before the then-34-year-old became Utah’s sixth-ever head coach in the summer of 2022, though Hardy and Hornacek shared an agent: Creative Artists Agency’s Spencer Breecker. Hardy wanted someone to help develop his own coaching acumen as he went through the early stages of his career, however, and the Jazz happened to have someone with a resume with significant head-coaching experience on speed dial.
“It would have made sense even if he weren’t a franchise legend,” Hardy said, “but he’s a franchise legend.”
The pair met, and hit it off nearly immediately. Hornacek’s title is coaching consultant, but really, he’s a coaching confidant, Hardy says.
“He’s been a really, really good friend and confidant and in some ways like a mentor for me in this role, because he also knows what it’s like to be a head coach and a first-time head coach,” Hardy said. “There are tough moments during the season where sometimes he just offers a ‘Hang in there, you’re doing what you should be doing.’ It’s just a tough stretch over 82 games and so he’s been a really calming influence for me.”
What they talk about on those post-game phone calls varies. Sometimes, it’s one coaching detail they’ll discuss, a timeout or a specific play. But sometimes, Hardy needs the birds-eye view of someone who isn’t blinded by the trees in the forest of an 82-game season.
“When you’re head coach, you talk with the owner, deal with the business side, the marketing, press, everything else. You get so involved as the coach at the game and then the practice,” Hornacek said. “Sometimes, you need to see from a distance.”
That’s where the vet can help the young coach most.
“The good part about having somebody in Jeff’s position is that he’s not bogged down in the day-to-day minutia. So he’s not, like, tainted by our coaches’ meetings. As a staff, sometimes we can get into weeds and so every now and then Jeff’s able to say something to me that sort of redirects my focus because it’s so big picture,” Hardy said. “And so it’s like, ‘Oh wow, like, no s---. Wow, am I missing that?’”
Over the course of his career, Hornacek played for some legendary coaches. In college, he played for a National Coach of the Year winner in Johnny Orr; in Phoenix, he played for Hall of Famer Cotton Fitzsimmons. Of course, he joined Sloan in Utah after a trade in 1994, and in his NBA coaching tenure, he has rubbed shoulders with some of the league’s best-ever coaches.
Hornacek, though, sees a bright future for the second-year coach.
“One thing I’ll say: Will’s really good,” Hornacek said. “I don’t really have to do a whole lot.”
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