Father Knows Best: Bill Van Gundy says Pistons about to be turned around

Damion Jones is on the Pistons summer league roster.
David Calvert/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ORLANDO – Some fathers groom sons to follow in their footsteps, which is why “ … & Sons” adorns so many business signs and commercial trucks across America. Others deliberately steer those sons away from their path. Such conversations usually take place during or just before the college years. Bill Van Gundy never really got to take a stand either way.

Both of his sons, Stan and Jeff, had career paths determined before they got out of elementary school.

“I knew (Stan) was going to coach from the standpoint he or Jeff, neither one, from any time past the third or fourth grade, ever said anything about wanting to do anything else,” said the head of one of basketball’s most fruitful coaching trees, Bill Van Gundy, between practice sessions of Stan’s first summer overseeing all that is Detroit Pistons basketball as both coach and president of basketball operations.

The odds of anybody grabbing one of the 30 NBA coaching jobs available are long. Narrow the group by eliminating all of those who never got a whiff of an NBA playing career and those odds grow exponentially. Now limit the pool to brothers who grew up under the same roof and … well, you’d have a better chance of buying the winning ticket the next time the Powerball jackpot hits $500 million.

It doesn’t buckle the knees of Bill Van Gundy, now 78 and still active on the summer camp coaching circuit, that his two sons scaled the rungs of their profession so swiftly and surely. He knows them, has seen their work ethic and believes in their ability to learn and willingness to adapt. But as a guy who spent a lifetime coaching far from the NBA spotlight, in the dusty gyms of Division III and junior colleges, he also knows how many good coaches never get any farther.

“I can’t say I have to pinch myself,” he shrugs, “but I really do understand how special it is and how God really blessed us.”

It’s the same philosophy Stan still holds. He jokes that he tells young coaches to follow his career path – the key being to know when to get fired. When he lost his job at Wisconsin in 1994, Jeff – forbidden by the Knicks to follow his boss out the door on his way to taking over in Miami – recommended Stan to Pat Riley. Stan’s dream job while playing for Bill at Division III Brockport State in western New York was to take over a successful program like that at nearby Hamilton College.

When brothers Stan and Jeff first squared off as NBA head coaches – Nov. 11, 2003 – Stan, out of character, felt a tug of emotion.

“The only time I’ve probably ever been emotional, sentimental, whatever it is before a game was the first time we ever coached against each other,” he said. “Seven games into my career and we’re down in Houston playing them and you line up for that national anthem. Looking down there, it occurred to him, too. Here we are, two nobodies from Martinez, California. Played small college basketball and everything else. Like, ‘What’s going on here?’ It was really a proud moment. Didn’t last long – he kicked my butt and we started my first season oh-and-seven.”

There was no magical advice Bill gave his two sons, he said, not bothering to add that every day provided a coaching clinic for two eager your students who displayed the same love for the game as their father.

“Along the way, a lot of things that I hoped I have said to them have helped,” Bill said, “but above all, the main thing is to be themselves and work their butts off.”

If there is any quality he would encourage in an aspiring young coach, it’s that last one.

“The first thing is you have to be able to teach,” he said. “That is the very first and most fundamental thing. But second, you just have to work. I work a lot of basketball camps and you can see that in some of the young guys now. Those that really work and those wanting to learn, they’re asking questions, they’re taking notes. They’re going to get better. And there are some that just don’t do that. And then comes the loyalty factor – you’ve just got to be loyal to who you’re working for.”

When he watched his two boys get on the coaching carousel, he never imagined it would dump them off in the NBA. But he also believes to his core that starting from humble beginnings made it possible.

“I would have bet that both he and Jeff would have been college coaches,” he said. “Stan was very fortunate that, right out of college, he went to the University of Vermont with Bill Whitmore and the experience he got there was unbelievable. It’s a small-budget thing. He did the majority of the scouting, he did a lot of the recruiting, he got a lot in. See, I think you get to be a better coach by coaching.”

Even though Bill never coached in the NBA, he understands the challenge of coaching NBA players without a pedigree as a professional player. But players can spot flawed coaches in their first practice. As good ones win their respect, trust follows.

“I’ll go back to something Pat Riley told Jeff and has always stuck in my mind,” Bill said. “Players want to get better and if they are convinced that you are helping them become better, then background is out. I think it is harder when you don’t have that to go in and that immediate credibility. You have to work to build that and you do that by showing them you know what you’re doing and what you’re doing is going to help them.”

It probably won’t come as a surprise that Bill Van Gundy thinks his first son is going to improve the Pistons’ fortunes. By now, it also probably won’t surprise you how he envisions that happening.

“The guy’s going to work his butt off,” he said, “and he will get it changed.”