Jim Boylen had a piece of buttered toast rolling around in his mouth as he speed-talked over breakfast, detailing from his point of view some of the particulars regarding a crisis his Utah basketball team was facing. A crisis that started with losing and ended in a dark state of permanent defeat.
He said everything at that table with the checkered tablecloth that people had come to expect from Boylen back in the day — he was emotional, passionate, angry, disgusted, cartoonish, optimistic about the change in his players that was coming, that was always coming, right around the corner.
The problem was, the corner came, but the changes never did.
Instead, the players subjected to Boylen’s coaching methods were jumping ship, as though it were a burning, sinking freighter, a third of the team leaving the program, looking for some other place to play, some other coach for whom to play for.
Those Utah players from seven and eight years ago acted and sounded a lot like the Chicago Bulls players act and sound now, after Boylen took over as head coach following the recent firing of Fred Hoiberg.
Some of the Bulls had their quick fill of Boylen’s approach, complete with long, arduous, almost-punitive practices, as well as substitution patterns dictated from the coach that included benching of entire lineups, accompanied by lectures about lack of effort and efficiency.
The Bulls last Sunday infamously refused to practice, instead calling for a meeting, first with players only, and then with players and coaches.
Boylen cited license granted by management to do what needed to be done with and to a young team that had been freshly beaten by the Celtics by a gawd-awful number of points in a pathetic showing. There was a new sheriff in town, even though Boylen previously had been Hoiberg’s deputy, and that bright, shiny badge was now on display, chest puffed out, straight into the faces of professional basketball players who, in the law’s view, were dancing outside the lines of proper hustle, proper execution, proper comportment.
In short, Boylen was taking the reins in Chicago as though he were coaching the Saginaw High Seahorses JV team, to the extent where he was establishing the cracking of heads and organizing player leadership councils.
After Boylen was fired at Utah, he went on to stops as an assistant at a number of NBA teams, including San Antonio, where he worked for Gregg Popovich, one of the most respected coaches in all of sports. That alone was an indication that through his years around basketball — he was an assistant with the Houston Rockets before coming to Salt Lake — Boylen may have learned a thing or two about teaching the game. He, apparently, was a terrific lieutenant.
When he was first hired at Utah, one NBA executive said this about him: “He knows how to show guys how to get better. He recognizes their strengths and builds from there. He knows how to reach players and manipulate the game.”
When Steve Francis won the NBA’s rookie of the year award, it is said Francis brought Boylen up on the stage with him, acknowledging his help in developing his prowess.
Almost none of that was apparent during Boylen’s short tenure as the Utes’ head coach, especially over the descending final seasons as the team lost more than it won, gradually falling apart, descending into a deep, unhappy abyss.
Over breakfast that morning in a small Salt Lake City cafe, Boylen blamed his players for a lack of discipline, an absence of competitive diligence and drive. But the more he pointed the finger at others, the more the blame bounced back to him.
“We need toughness,” he said. “We need players.”
What Utah really needed was a better coach. A year later he was fired.
Boylen’s father, Fred, was a major influence on his coaching style. Fred was a captain on the Michigan State football team, an All-Big Ten selection, playing linebacker and guard. He also was a state Golden Gloves heavyweight boxing champion. Boylen once said of his father: “My dad taught me to go out and compete. He said, ‘If you get knocked down, get up. If you knock somebody else down, help him up and knock him down again.’”
The problem with Boylen was that he coached basketball like his father boxed. He knocked things down. He hit adversity over the head with a sledgehammer. If trouble arose, he punched it. There were times when a more sophisticated, subtle, stylistic approach was needed. Boylen was not the guy to provide it.
So now, there he is in Chicago, operating in much the same manner in which he coached while running the Utes. It didn’t work at Utah. It’s off to a rough start with the Bulls.
Maybe Bulls management wanted to send a rugged message, using Boylen as a kind of short-term sacrificial lamb, only to be replaced after the fire flamed and then burned out. Maybe some folks actually thought the years between his firing and his hiring now might have brought along some growth, some sophistication, some nuanced methodology that was previously lacking.
It could be, but … but …
Jim Boylen is a good guy and a good assistant who isn’t a great head coach. That’s what the evidence shows. If the negative tide turns for the Bulls, it will only come if Boylen turns, too, if he changes the way he moves, maneuvers and motivates. Sometimes, acumen trumps toughness, brains beat brawn. Sometimes, an open mind and a soft touch is better than a closed mind and a clenched fist.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.