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Pitino Has Influence on Pacers, Too

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 9, 2013

It's hard to tell where Frank Vogel would be today if not for Rick Pitino. Coaching some Division III college basketball team, perhaps. Almost certainly, he wouldn't be coaching in the NBA.

The fingerprints of this year's NCAA championship coach are all over the Pacers, thanks to the unlikely connection between Pitino and Vogel that dates back 19 years ago to the University of Kentucky. It's a relationship that Vogel pursued, stalker-like, until he won over his mentor with his sunny sincerity and dogged determination, and one that has served him well.

Vogel adapted Pitino's emphasis on defense, his willingness to allow offensive freedom, his detailed preparation and, most of all, his positive attitude. When Pitino took over a Kentucky program rocked by bluegrass stains of scandal, he made a daring promise. “We will win, and we will win right away.” Vogel saw that, and never forgot it. So it wasn't a mere coincidence that at his introductory press conference after taking over as the Pacers' head coach during the 2010-11 season, he promised his team would make the playoffs. Like Pitino, he backed up his vow.

“Work ethic and belief,” Vogel said Monday, hours before Pitino's NCAA championship win over Michigan, summarizing Pitino's influence. “Showing a player that you believe in him can really (help him) overachieve for his talent level.

“And not only the work ethic, but how you prepare. How you go about coaching a team day-to-day and the work ethic of studying an opponent inside and out, studying yourselves inside and out. How to run practices. To be exposed to that level of greatness, it's just meant everything to me.”

Vogel was an anonymous point guard at an anonymous Division III school, Juniata College in Huntington, Pa., when he decided Pitino could lead him from the basketball wilderness. He had watched from afar as a 13-year-old as Pitino took a Cinderella team at Providence to the Final Four in 1987, and then went on to make the nearby New York Knicks a fun team to watch while they won their first division title in 20 years, and then led Kentucky's turnaround.

The clincher for Vogel came in 1992, when he watched Pitino's third team at Kentucky take Duke to the wire in an Elite Eight game, until Christian Laettner's historic turnaround jumper preserved the Blue Devils' path to the national championship. From that point on he knew he wanted to coach, and he knew he wanted to coach like Pitino. Besides, that 2.6 GPA wasn't going to fulfill his initial goal of going to medical school. He needed an alternative.

Vogel's path from Division III point guard to NBA head coach is a classic lesson in initiative and persistence. The Cliff Notes version is that after his third season as Juniata's starting point guard, in 1994, he decided to pursue his dream and gain experience with a Division I program. He wrote letters to the coaches at James Madison and George Washington, but also to Pitino at Kentucky – “just to see what happens.” He expressed his desire to coach, his devotion to Pitino's way of doing things, his willingness to do anything to help out and gain experience, and his dream of playing as a walk-on, too.

Pitino sent back a form letter saying thanks, but offering no hope for a role. Vogel stuck with his dream, attending the legendary Five Star camp in Pittsburgh for the purpose of meeting Pitino. Camp director Howard Garfinkel introduced him to Pitino and his lead assistant at Kentucky, Jim O'Brien, at which point Vogel reminded Pitino of the letter he had written and restated his desire to transfer there and help. Coaches like Pitino hear similar requests every day, so his response, again, was barely lukewarm. “If you come down and I can help, let me know,” was the gist of it.

That was all Vogel needed to hear. Like a star-struck actor rushing off to Hollywood, he packed up and left Juniata, enrolled in classes at Kentucky as a biology major, and began showing up around the basketball offices and practice facility.

Coach Pitino said to come see you if I needed anything, Vogel told Kentucky's equipment manager and other officials.

Only in-state students are allowed to work as a student manager, he was told.

You're going to have to make me go away, Vogel said.

You seem like a nice kid, you can hang around and watch practice, he was told.

After a couple of weeks of that, with no opportunities forthcoming, and fearing he had thrown away his senior season at Juniata for nothing, Vogel went to see O'Brien. He offered to help in the film room, and asked to play as a walk-on. O'Brien, impressed by the newcomer's persistence, talked to Pitino, and a day later told Vogel he would be given a two-week trial.

Having started with nothing, Vogel nearly wound up with more than he could handle that first season. Based on his performance in pickup games with Pitino's son, Richard, he was given a spot on the “junior varsity” team that Pitino implemented that season because of his program's unusual depth at the time. That meant practicing with the JV squad from 5-7 a.m., going to class, coming back to help with individual instruction sessions with varsity players late in the morning, eating lunch, returning for varsity practice from 2-6 p.m., and keeping up with an 18-hour class load.

The JV team played about 15 games against junior colleges and Division III programs in the area, such as Hanover. His role consisted mostly of making post-feeds to Nazr Mohammed, but it didn't matter. He was wearing the Kentucky uniform, and inhaling basketball.

Vogel worked most closely with O'Brien. Kentucky had purchased a high-tech video and computer system similar to what NBA teams used at the time, so Vogel had to lie a little to convince O'Brien he knew how to use it. O'Brien, meanwhile, told him that Pitino might return to the NBA someday, and that there could be an opportunity for Vogel to go with him as a video coordinator if he learned the proper skills. It came true after Vogel's third season at Kentucky, when Pitino was named coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics.

Pitino originally didn't plan to take Vogel with him to Boston, but O'Brien intervened once again and convinced him to give the kid yet another break. It was “a head-spinning time” for Vogel. He had been a Division III point guard one minute, been part of a national championship team in Lexington the next minute, and now was working for one of the NBA's legendary franchises. Pitino, however, could not turn the Celtics into a winner. His 3 ½ seasons there are remembered best for his “Larry Bird is not walking through that door” rant to reporters following a homecourt loss to Toronto, and he resigned midway through the 2000-01 season.

O'Brien became the head coach, and Vogel moved to the bench as an assistant. Three years later he followed O'Brien to Philadelphia. When O'Brien was fired after one season, he became an advance scout for two years, and then rejoined O'Brien's staff with the Pacers in 2007. Another 3 ½ seasons go by, O'Brien is fired, and he becomes the Pacers' head coach.

Vogel is calm and optimistic by nature, but his 6 ½ seasons with Pitino convinced him that the “confidence-boosting” approach was the best. Thus, he has stuck with the Pacers' young players through good times and bad, always maintaining an up-beat tempo. It hasn't resulted in a championship, but it has provided a major contract extension for Vogel, brought the Pacers their first division title in nine years, and made him far more successful in the NBA than Pitino had been.

Not bad for a kid from Juniata with nothing but a dream.

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