100% Cotton: Coaching Style

By Cotton Fitzsimmons, Fastbreak Magazine

Originally Published: Dec. 1988

You hear a lot about “coaching style” these days. Sportswriters and fans are always trying to pin labels like “conservative,” “loose,” or “flamboyant” on coaches. But when you come right down to it, a coach has to be himself. When a guy tries to be somebody else, he usually fails.

John Wooden’s trademark at U.C.L.A. was that rolled-up program. He seemed “laid back” in his style and enjoyed some great years. Some of the old guys were a little more animated, like one who used to coach the Phoenix Suns, Butch van Breda Kolff. Butch had one of the wildest styles in the world. He ran up and down the sidelines, he ranted, he raved. That was Butch’s style. He couldn’t be anybody but Butch. The emotional style of a coach has a lot to do with his team. If he has a real good team his emotions can run anywhere from calm to excitable. But probably never really wild.

People ask me how come I coach down on one knee. It’s simple really. When I first came into the NBA, I coached on the bench, but it was too easy to pop up and be out on that floor. In my second year with the Phoenix Suns I had 37 technical fouls. I had to figure a way to control myself. By getting down on a knee, it took me a little longer to get up. By that time the play would be gone, I’d cool down and wouldn’t get the technical, at least not in those numbers. Some people might consider that to be “style,” but I consider it a financial necessity.

As far as a coach dealing with his players, that’s also style. Some coaches believe that the players are on one side, they’re on the other and you only meet at the games. That’s not my style. My style is for me to know my players and my players to know me, so that we can figure out what to expect from each other. I think that’s an important part of coaching style. Some coaches say very little to players and other guys chew ‘em out pretty good. I fell that there is a time and a place for everything. A coach should never embarrass his players in from to other people and you don’t want them to embarrass you.

Appearance has become part of a coach’s style and it can run the gamut. There’s Pat Riley with his Italian suits, the wet look, the whole bit. Then, at the other extreme there’s Doug Moe or Frank Layden. Rumor has it that their clothes are made in New Haven, Missouri at the local tarpaulin factory. That doesn’t mean that Riley is a better coach than Doug Moe or Frank Layden. I think that appearance is the least important aspect of a coach’s style. He has to be himself. If anybody else tried to be Frank Layden in the NBA they’d fail. Frank laughs at himself and he laughs at his team. That’s his style and it works for him and the Jazz.

I’ve always tried to tell young coaches: “Don’t try to imitate anybody, be yourself.” I know it’s easier said than done. Young coaches have a tendency to want to impress people with their style. Whether it’s their clothes or their tough, drill sergeant attitude, they’re trying to impress people. As they stay in the business a little longer, they fall into their own niche and develop their own way of operating. Everybody’s a little different. I have two assistant coaches with the Suns, Paul Westphal and Lionel Hollins. Paul Westphal is a little more outgoing, a little more opinionated and has a lot more to say to the officials during the course of a game. Lionel Hollins is a little more withdrawn, not as outgoing, says very little to the officials. They’ll both be able to get the job done. They’ll have to be themselves and that’s what’s so interesting about style.

A lot of sportswriters say that a team is an extension if it’s coach’s personality. I don’t always buy that. It makes good reading, nice fairy tales. I think most people who watch their teams want to see a coach who’s really into the game. If their coach is sitting over there, his legs crossed, not saying a word, not doing anything and his team is not performing well, certainly they are going to wonder. A coach has to get into the game, but has to do so in his own way, through his own personality.

If there was one man who had an influence on my coaching career, it probably was my high school coach, James A. Wilson, a strong disciplinarian, who was one of the most successful coaches in the state of Missouri winning over 500 high school games.

Some coaches get real up tight, others don’t. I’ve never been the type of coach that got real up tight. I’m hyper. I’m ready for the game and I really get after the program, but you’re not going to bother me before a game. I try to put everything in its proper perspective. With some coaches everything has to be regimental. Be at a certain place, at a certain time with everybody’s shoes tied exactly the same. That’s not me.

I think a coach starts by patterning himself after somebody he knows and respects, but then he’s got to develop his own style. I happen to love and enjoy what I do and I think it shows in my coaching. If somebody is going to pin a label on my style, I hope they use the word “enthusiastic” and put it right under “Pure Cotton."