Vogel Grateful After Notching 300th Career Coaching Win

by John Denton

ORLANDO – On the surface, 300 coaching victories over parts of eight NBA seasons doesn’t seem to be overly impressive. It’s roughly a .520 winning percentage in a league where the games come in rapid-fire succession over marathon-like regular seasons that span a seven-month period of time.

However, dig a little deeper into that 300-victory milestone – one that Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel eclipsed in spectacular fashion on Wednesday – and you will see that there’s an art and certainly great skill in being able to coax greatness out of teams over the long haul of a NBA season.

Some of Vogel’s finest work in his nearly eight-year career as a NBA head coach was on display on Wednesday at the Amway Center when the Magic whipped the Milwaukee Bucks, 126-117.

First off, everything seemed to be set up for the Magic to suffer what is often referred to the NBA as a ``schedule loss.’’ Not only did they enter on a five-game losing streak and arrive in Orlando at approximately 2:30 a.m. following an ugly defeat a night earlier in San Antonio, the Magic were coming off a taxing 10-day, five-game road trip that spanned approximately 6,328 miles and four time zones.

Vogel, who has a knack for mixing fiery with friendly, wanted nothing to do with excuses and he told his bleary-eyed team as much when it arrived at the Amway Center Wednesday afternoon. He also debunked the notion that the team isn’t playing for anything because it has been out of the chase for a playoff spot for weeks by ``strongly reminding them of the importance of what we’re doing, quite frankly, and that we’re going to turn it around.’’

Vogel’s message – one peppered, at times, with some blue language – was about as subtle as a punch in the mouth, and ultimately his Magic responded with the appropriate fight. They shot the ball as well as they have all season, shared it as Vogel has been preaching for weeks and came alive every time Milwaukee and superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo put together a run. Magic spurts of 13-0 (in the first quarter after a sluggish start), 14-0 (in the third quarter after Milwaukee had taken the lead) and 13-2 (in the fourth quarter after the Bucks had closed to within 95-90) guaranteed Orlando a victory that had Vogel’s fingerprints all over it.

In addition to candidly addressing his team prior to the game and reiterating the message to the media 100 minutes prior to tipoff, Vogel stalked the sidelines all game long, used his timeouts liberally for rest for his players and shouted out both peppy encouragement and sharp critiques to the refereeing crew. During one end-of-the-shot-clock sequence, he barked out ``5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …’’ to his players to remind them he was right there in the fight alongside of them.

Clearly, this game mattered to Vogel – as all of them have since he methodically worked his way up from video coordinator to long-shot interim head coach at the NBA level back in 2011. No matter the fatigue from a long trip, no matter the standings from a frustration-filled season, on this night it really mattered to Vogel, and both he and his players showed it against the Bucks.

``Our guys understand and believe that this is an important time for our franchise and that we’re building something here,’’ said Vogel, whose Magic host Boston on Friday. ``We’re building a culture, we’re building a winning program and these habits will carry over into next season. Our guys were committed tonight, they played the game with passion and they played the game the right way. We were fighting and competing and that’s all you can ask.’’

Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said Vogel wasted no time in Wednesday’s team meeting letting the squad know the importance of fighting and competing, saying: ``He came into the meeting and started with that … and made sure that we understood that we have to finish the season the right way. I don’t think it ever crossed anybody mind that we were going to just give in over the last 14 or 15 games. We have pride and we want to compete.’’

Vogel has been fighting and competing as a head coach for the past seven-plus seasons, and on Wednesday he became the 67th coach in NBA history (and the 13th active coach) to register 300 regular-season wins. His .515 winning percentage (90th best in NBA history) with an overall record of 300-282 has fallen off a bit over the last two seasons with records of 29-53 and 21-48 as he’s struggled to rebuild the Magic into a winner. But Vogel is convinced that the Magic are still on the right path toward success and soon they will be back playing postseason games that matter again.

When the Magic ultimately get back to the postseason, Vogel and his 31 career playoff wins (45th in NBA history) will be ready for the job. As Vogel stressed to his team on Wednesday, what they do now in finishing this season on an uptick could go a long way toward building a playoff run next season.

``I talked about how important the rest of our season is and our guys understand very clearly that the basketball right now is very important,’’ Vogel said. ``It’s a time of growth. We’re giving some of our younger guys bigger-than-usual opportunities for them to grow, but it’s also an important time for our veterans to grow within our system as well and develop habits. There’s going to be carryover into next year and everything we do right now is building toward that.

``We’re going to turn this thing around here,’’ Vogel continued with conviction. ``Obviously, we’re not making the playoffs this year, but what we do (on Wednesday) and the rest of the season is important for our franchise.’’

Winning 300 games was also important to Vogel because of what coaching means to him and how hard he’s worked to get to this point and stay in the NBA as a head coach. The coaching profession is all he’s wanted to do since he was a junior in college, and he sacrificed his playing career at tiny Juniata (Pa.) College to become a student-manager at the University of Kentucky so that he could learn the craft under former Wildcats’ coach Rick Pitino.

After Vogel talked and worked his way onto the staff at Kentucky as a video coordinator who logged countless hours in the film room in 1995, Pitino gave him his first shot at the NBA as the Celtics’ video coordinator. From there, he grew into becoming an assistant coach with Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana – a run interrupted only by two seasons as a scout.

In Indiana, Vogel became a head coach at the expense of Jim O’Brien, who had been fired after being unable to get the Pacers into the playoffs. As it turns out, O’Brien had the biggest influence on his career at Kentucky and in three NBA stops. Coincidentally, O’Brien is just a spot ahead of Vogel on list of NBA coaching wins with 303.

None other than Pacers president Larry Bird – arguably one of the smartest people ever to lace up a pair of basketball high-tops – tabbed Vogel as a head coach in 2011 even though he had never held that job at any level. Vogel won his first four games as a head coach, notched seven victories in an eight-game stretch and got that Pacers team to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. He would make the playoffs four times in five tries in Indiana, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals twice and missing the postseason only when star forward Paul George was out for most of the 2014-15 season with a broken leg.

Not too bad for someone from tiny Wildwood Crest, N.J., who hoped he could simply reach the small-college level of coaching when he first started out. He has yet to help the Magic turn the corner, but he is confident in the abilities and practices that he’s used for years to help him find so much success.

``Honestly, it’s really humbling,’’ Vogel said of reaching the 300-win plateau. ``I’ve been blessed to coach a lot of great players and we have a lot of great players on this team right now that I look forward to building something really special with.

``I’ve also been blessed to work with a lot of great assistant coaches – from that first staff in Indiana my interim year to the staff when I got my first contract there (in Indiana) to my third staff when (Brian) Shaw and Jim Boylan left – there were a lot of great assistant coaches there,’’ Vogel added. ``And my guys here (in Orlando) work their tails off and do a good job of checking all the boxes of what needs to be done to build our program and make sure our players are developing and that our team is prepared. They’re obviously a huge part of this.’’

Vogel wants to be a huge part of the Magic going forward because he believes wholeheartedly in what the franchise has been able to grow over the last two seasons. Often, he points to the individual growth of young players such as Aaron Gordon, Jonathon Simmons, Mario Hezonja, Jonathan Isaac, Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch as signs that Orlando is trending upward.

Other signs are the ones that emerged from Wednesday when the Magic galvanized in the face of adversity and played well together to get a win. Against the Bucks, the Magic drilled 18 3-pointers, handed out 31 assists and get big nights from Simmons (a career-best 35 points), D.J. Augustin (a season-high 32 points) and Vucevic (22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and four steals). Most importantly, they responded to their head coach and, in the process, helped him land a milestone victory.

``It was difficult to finish (the last road trip) the way that we did, but I was just happy that our guys were able to come back and pull out the (win),’’ Vogel said. ``The fact that it’s my 300th (win), that’s a good way to do it, I guess.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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