Denton: Vaughn Eager to Begin Journey

By John Denton
October 31, 2012

ORLANDO – During his 12 seasons as a NBA player, Jacque Vaughn kept a meticulously comprehensive scouting report on coaches, detailing the things he liked and disliked about the practice preparations, game strategy, pep talks and dealings with players.

And during Vaughn’s two years as an assistant coach in San Antonio, Vaughn constantly did research on the inner-workings of a team, peppering travelling secretaries, trainers, equipment managers and videographers with questions about the demands of their jobs.

For Vaughn, all of the note-keeping, questions and analyzing, was a reconnaissance mission of sorts for the day that is ahead of him now as rookie head coach of the Orlando Magic.

As he prepares for his first regular season game as a NBA head coach when his Magic host the Denver Nuggets on Friday, Vaughn has been preparing for this moment all of his life. That preparation is a big reason why Vaughn has been unflappable throughout his first training camp and preseason and is considered by many of his peers in the business of basketball as a can’t-miss hit as a coach for years to come.

Vaughn has been asked repeatedly for weeks about any aspects of the job that have surprised him and each time he shakes his head. He said there have been no nerves and even fewer sleepless nights as he tries to mold a Magic team filled with several new faces. Clearly, because of the legwork and preparation that Vaughn did leading up to this moment, he cares little about his status as a rookie head coach and the youngest mentor in the NBA at 37 years old. Instead, he is totally at peace with his new job.

``This is what I am – I’m a coach,’’ Vaughn said emphatically. ``If I was trying to pretend to be something I’m not, like a race car driver or a chef, I might be nervous. But I feel great in this job. This is a part of who I am. I don’t get too high or too low and I think our guys will appreciate that.’’

Almost to a man, Orlando’s players have lauded Vaughn’s style of coaching and tact when dealing with people off the court. Point guard Jameer Nelson loves the freedom he’s been afforded by Vaughn to make play calls on the court. Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis said it means the world to a player to have a coach in the huddle encouraging them with positive thoughts. And even such a little thing as a ``good morning’’ from Vaughn before practice made rookie forward DeQuan Jones feel special and want to compete even harder.

``Jacque is going to be so good for us as a team,’’ Magic standout guard Arron Afflalo said. ``He’s going to be easy to play for, but at the same time you can tell that he is going to command discipline. I’m enjoying playing for him and I think Jacque has had a good coaching experience so far. But (players and coaches) are going to have to make it easy on each other by handling our individual responsibilities.’’

Because they are aware of his preparation leading up to becoming a coach and his respected and disciplined persona during his playing days, Vaughn has already received enormous approval ratings from fellow coaches around the NBA. None other than Greg Popovich, a four-time NBA champion and voted recently in a poll among NBA GMs as the best coach in the league, said there is so much to admire about Vaughn – from his basketball smarts to his serene nature in dealing with potentially volatile situations.

``You can look at players on any team and sort of get a feel of who has an intuitive sense of what’s going on and Jacque always had that,’’ said Popovich, who coached Vaughn as a backup point guard and brought him back as an assistant coach. ``He understood everyone’s role and where everybody should be all of the time. He was just one of those players you would seek out and get suggestions from when he played, so you kind of know that they could coach if they want to. You try to talk them out of it, but guys like Jacque you can’t talk them out of it. Jacque had that sense of what wins and what loses and what a team really is. He always had that respect no matter what team he played for. He was a no-brainer as far as coaching goes.’’

Vaughn was a no-brainer because he had been preparing himself for this moment as a head coach for years. Little did the coaches he was playing for at the time know it, but Vaughn kept a dog-earned notebook full of diagramed plays, practice schedules, inspirational poetry and general likes and dislikes scribbled throughout.

While playing for Roy Williams at Kansas, Vaughn noted how detailed the practice sessions were organized efficiently down the minute and no time whatsoever was wasted. Under Jerry Sloan in Utah, Vaughn took away the veteran coach’s competitiveness and the belief that any system – if grounded in principles and run properly – could work regardless of the personnel. When Vaughn played one season in Orlando in 2002-03, Doc Rivers taught him motivational tactics and ways to relate to players. And while playing for and coaching under Popovich in San Antonio, Vaughn learned the value of hiring good people and detailed preparation.

All of it – from taking notes on coaches to talking to trainers, secretaries and equipment managers – helped prepare Vaughn for the task at hand as the Magic’s rookie head coach. It’s given him a peace as he’s made the transition into coaching.

``It hasn’t been overwhelming at all,’’ Vaughn said of his first four months on the job. ``A bunch of my friends who are assistant coaches have asked me what the biggest adjustment has been. But when I was an assistant coach I tried to picture myself as a head coach and the decisions that went along with the position.

``I sat down with our trainer at a past playing experience of mine and asked him, `How do you schedule the airplanes? How do you schedule food? How do you determine if there’s going to be a meeting or practice?’ Vaughn continued. ``I was fortunate enough that he sat he down and said, `This is what we do.’ So going into this situation (with the Magic), I had already done it before. There’s nothing that has overwhelmed me at all.’’

While Vaughn rarely raises his voice along the sidelines, waves his arms or flies off in a rage – something Magic fans might have grown accustomed to over the past five seasons with Stan Van Gundy at the helm – Orlando players say there is also a fiery side to Vaughn. Already in the preseason, Vaughn challenged the team when it didn’t play physical enough in the first half against Memphis and when it didn’t get back on defense early on versus Philadelphia.

Just because Vaughn speaks in soft tones, often greets others with a toothy smile and can quote famous poetry passages, he does have a distinctly competitive side, Glen Davis stressed.

``He has a little grit to him. (The media) sees him poetically speaking, but me being a guy of emotion I can see that he has some grit in his eyes,’’ Davis said. ``He’s calm and collected, but at the same time if you look into his eyes you can tell that he’ll bite you. And I like that about him.

``He holds the monster inside,’’ Davis continued. ``I just love his coaching methods and his methods fit me. He’s a motivator and he’s always on the positive side wondering what you can do better and what you can do to make the team better.’’

While Vaughn studied the things that he liked about coaches, he also took note of some of the pitfalls of first-year coaches. One of the major ones was not having control over the hiring of the coaching staff, something that Vaughn took control of when he assembled the current group around him. He liked that lead assistant James Borrego had a background in video, while Wes Unseld came up as a scout and Brett Gunning worked in player development. Assistant Laron Profit can give a former player’s perspective, while Luke Stuckey got a promotion from the high school ranks and will focus also on player development. That broad range of specialties among the coaching staff is an accomplishment that Vaughn is particularly proud of.

Said Vaughn: ``I was going to be with these (assistant coaches) every single day, so I had to have a comfort level, a loyalty and a trust factor with these people. I saw first-year coaches not listening to themselves enough, and I learned from that.’’

Maybe the most important lessons of all that Vaughn picked up were from San Antonio’s Popovich, the man Vaughn called after getting the Magic gig to pick his brain more on basketball matters. A master at self-deprecating humor, Popovich taught Vaughn to ``never take yourself too seriously,’’ and to always ``remain true to who you really are.’’ Vaughn said he’ll never try to act like someone he’s not as the Magic’s coach because players and fans will see right through it.

This, this serene, often-times soft-spoken and still highly competitive person is who the Magic will get along the sidelines on a nightly basis win or lose. There are no jitters or any anxiety because Vaughn is confident in his abilities as a coach after preparing for this moment all his basketball-playing life. The preparation will lead to a distinct calmness among the leader of the Magic – one that Vaughn hopes carries over to his players.

``It’s my nature, so there’s no battle there,’’ Vaughn said of staying calm. ``But at the same time that there’s calmness, there’s also a fire. You can’t be around the game for 15 years and not be competitive. My competitive juices still flow and I’ll always stick up for my guys. Sometimes you’ll see some fire and the majority of the time you will see calmness.’’

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John Denton writes for John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.

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