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Steve Aschburner

It's hard to imagine Jerry Sloan (right) having as much coaching success without Phil Johnson by his side.
It's hard to imagine Jerry Sloan (right) having as much coaching success without Phil Johnson by his side.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images

Time for more assistants to follow Winter into Hall of Fame

Posted Aug 14 2011 10:25AM

As a head coach of the Houston Rockets from 1972-74, Tex Winter posted a 51-78 record. He ran the NCAA basketball programs at five universities before and after his brief NBA stint, and at four of them -- Marquette (25-25), Washington (45-35), Northwestern (44-87) and Long Beach State (78-69) -- compiled a mark that was 24 games under .500. Hardly Hall of Fame material.

Winter's 15 years at Kansas State from 1953-1968 clearly were his peak as a head coach: He led the Wildcats to the Final Four twice, into the NCAA Elite Eight two other times and finished there with a 261-118 record. But that wasn't getting him into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, either, because he became eligible in 1976 and heard nothing but crickets for the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

No, it took Winter's servitude sitting alongside or behind Phil Jackson with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, resident "old head" and triangle-offense guru, to earn him -- at age 89 -- his moment in Springfield, Mass., this weekend.

It took the six NBA championships won by the Bulls and the five rings snagged by the Lakers to earn Winter his due. And still it took dogged lobbying from his protégé Jackson, a Hall boycott by former Bulls GM Jerry Krause and presumably compassion from the selection committee after Winter's 2009 stroke to nudge him across the threshold of his beloved sport's shrine.

That is one tough door to open.

Flip things around, though, and a different reality hits home: If Winter had only his years with the Bulls and the Lakers on his resume (and his backers' vocal support and the health setback), he would have to buy a ticket into the hoops hall same as you or me.

Assistant coaches don't get enshrined. And that's wrong.

It is wrong not just in basketball but across the major sports. Players get honored as Hall of Famers, naturally, for being among the very best at what they do. Head coaches get there too if they rack up victories or win titles in impressive enough numbers (85 of the Naismith Hall's 303 enshrinees got in as coaches).

But assistant coaches? Nowadays, they get well paid (hundreds of thousand dollars annually, maybe $1 million or more if you work for Mark Cuban). They get lots of face time on flat-screens, seated right next to the boss and occasionally wielding the clipboard. But they don't get into Springfield. Or Cooperstown or Canton or Toronto.

Assistants remain just that in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters or selectors: Sidekicks. They are Sancho Panza, Kato, Chewbacca, Barney Rubble and Ed McMahon. Robin? Sometimes they get no more respect or credit than Alfred the Butler.

But anyone who thinks that a head coach doesn't lean on his most trusted assistant in a hundred ways over the course of a season or multiple seasons together doesn't understand the inner workings of a sports team. In many cases, the trusty sidekick truly is a counterpart, handling the tasks that the head coach neglects or isn't as adept at. For instance, the bosses who drip charisma and thrive in game situations often need diligent X&O types at their side to run practices and suggest plays.

Sometimes it's an experience thing, the way Dick Harter handled so much of the defensive work and served as a resource for Larry Bird when the Indiana Pacers went to the 2000 Finals (and for other head coaches before or since).

Quite often, there is a good cop/bad cop dynamic in play apart from any specialized knowledge on offense or defense. That was one of the Winter's greatest contributions to Jackson's success in Chicago and Los Angeles -- he's known as a champion of the triple-post offense, the famous "triangle," yet some of his best work came off the court, where his glare took over for the spotlights.

"He knew it was his job to deliver the harsh truth to the superstars," NBA author and historian Roland Lazenby told Fox Sports West recently. "Phil wasn't going to do that. And it had to be done, whether it was Michael Jordan or whomever. They never had to wonder what Tex was thinking. He wasn't going to coddle him."

Winter's shock of white hair and grandfatherly appearance helped him get away with it. But so did his knowledge and his commitment first to the game, expertise mixed with passion that Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest simply had to respect.

Said Lazenby in the interview: "His frankness was a huge part of the great value of his counsel. He was really the only one in the Lakers organization who could stand up to Phil on a regular basis."

Thus, Winter wound up in the Sipowicz-Tubbs-Riggs school of cop sidekicks, speaking truth to talent and ego while Jackson was spouting Zen and handling out books for the players to read.

The old saying in basketball is that the seat gets a lot hotter when you move over 18 inches to the head coach's spot on the bench. An even older saying, though, is the one about "Behind every great man, there's a great woman." In this context, it is a great assistant standing behind a great head coach, ready to serve as strategist, resource, mentor, critic, drone, pain in the players' butts or whatever role the boss delegates.

There are such unsung Hall of Famers everywhere. For years, baseball insiders have made the case that one or more of the legendary pitching coaches -- Johnny Sain, Roger Craig, Dave Duncan, Leo Mazzone -- ought to get a plaque in Cooperstown for contributions that otherwise fall through the cracks. The same goes for football, where offensive coordinators such as Mike Martz and Tom Moore and defensive gurus like Buddy Ryan and Fritz Shurmur never quite get their ultimate due.

In the NBA, it's hard to imagine Utah Jazz boss Jerry Sloan's Hall of Fame coaching career without thinking of, and spreading some of the credit to, assistant Phil Johnson. Those who got so joined at the hip through years in Chicago and Salt Lake City that when Sloan abruptly stepped down last season, Johnson exited with him rather than linger for the top job.

A thoroughly behind-the-scenes assistant such as Tim Grgurich has provided invaluable wisdom and guidance to a bunch of NBA teams after his years as the head man in Pittsburgh and then UNLV sidekick to Jerry Tarkanian.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau seemed headed toward a professional lifetime of suggesting-rather-than-deciding until the Bulls finally tabbed him prior to last season; now if Thibodeau ever gets to the Hall, it will be based more on his 2011 NBA Coach of the Year award as launching pad. Others such as Elston Turner and Mike Budenholzer have taken over as the league's current coaches in waiting.

But all of these assistants without whom the W's would drop, the L's would mount and the tenure of everyone would be a lot shorter than it already is have been waiting for Springfield to honor even one of them properly. With all due respect to Winter's work across decades as a head coach, let's count him as the first assistant -- of several -- to get in.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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