Vogel Worked His Way to the Top (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part story on Pacers head coach Frank Vogel's life and career. Read Part 2 »   Read Part 3 »

The Pacers were reeling from a five-game losing streak, one that would reach six by the end of the evening and had no end in sight. Frank Vogel, however, was positively chipper as he walked into the hallway outside the locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for his obligatory pre-game chat with the media.

“Hello, everybody!” he said with enthusiastic inflection, flashing a sincere smile. He complimented Indianapolis Star reporter Candace Buckner on her hat, then turned to the rest of the reporters gathering around him in a half-circle. “Everybody else looks good, too,” he said, still smiling. “You all look fantastic.”

It was said with just enough sarcasm to avoid sounding patronizing, but it was typical Vogel: cheerful, complimentary and cooperative, even though his injury-fractured team was being drenched by a losing streak; even though the latest loss had come just 24 hours earlier in Boston, where his team failed to get the ball inbounds on a final possession that could have forced overtime even though two nights before that, it had lost an overtime game in Washington, where his team again had failed to execute a final possession, winding up with Roy Hibbert throwing up a desperate and futile three-point attempt.

That was months ago, however, and seemingly another era now that Vogel has led a turnaround and established a personal landmark. Friday's victory over Cleveland was his 191st as the Pacers' head coach, surpassing Larry Brown's record. He'll check off another milestone on March 7 at New York, when he sets the record for NBA games coached with 329. That record was held jointly by the four Pacer coaches who managed to last for four NBA seasons: Slick Leonard, Jack McKinney, Brown and Rick Carlisle. Vogel's win percentage is better than any of theirs, and better than all the Pacers' coaches other than Larry Bird, whose three seasons on the job coincided with a sweet spot in roster talent, experience and stability.

Vogel has smiled through it all, from last season's Olympus, when the Pacers had the league's best record (46-13) through the first week of March, to this season's early apocalypse, when they started 1-6 and seemed destined for the draft lottery because of a relentless run of injuries. That demeanor, extraordinarily upbeat and positive, can give the impression he's not strong enough or tough enough to lead a band of veteran professionals to an NBA championship, and this much is indeed undeniable: Vogel is a genuinely nice man, not to mention an optimist who could find a sliver of sunshine at midnight.

It's just who he is. Even his mother doesn't know where it comes from, and takes no credit for it.

“Frank can see the two percent good in a person,” Fran Vogel said. “He takes the two percent of good and runs with that.”

That applies to teams, too. Vogel has been unabashedly optimistic since taking over the Pacers on Jan. 30, 2011, when he replaced one of his mentors, Jim O'Brien, as the head coach. The Pacers were 17-27 at the time, two games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Vogel, then 37, the youngest head coach in the NBA, declared, “I fully expect us to make the playoffs this year.”

The Pacers, refreshed by the sunshine pouring out of their new coach, not to mention some key strategic changes, won seven of their next eight games, went 20-18 the rest of the season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2006, losing to Chicago in the first round.

They went 42-24 the next season and reached the second round of the playoffs, losing to eventual champion Miami in a competitive six-game series. They were 49-32 the following season, taking eventual champion Miami to seven games in the conference finals, and 56-26 last season despite a poor finish, taking the Heat to six games in the conference finals.

This season has brought a plunge off the high dive. Paul George broke his leg on Aug. 1, returning starters David West, George Hill and Roy Hibbert have missed a significant number of games with injuries, and rotation players C.J. Watson, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen have also been out with various ailments. And yet, contrary to dour early-season projections, the Pacers remain in contention for a playoff position. With the roster healthier than it's been all season, the worst of the schedule behind them and the possibility of George returning in mid-March, hopes for a fifth straight playoff appearance are bona fide.

All of which should be no surprise to anyone who knows of the work ethic, persistence and, yes, optimism that lifted Vogel from Division III point guard to NBA head coach.

The All-American Kid

It began in Wildwood, N.J., a resort town on the Atlantic seaboard. The population is about 5,000 in the winter, but swells under the summer sun to about a quarter-million on holiday weekends when tourists invade. Vogel's upbringing there was stable, practically idyllic except for one nearly tragic event. Throughout his childhood, he was a self-described “goody-two-shoes” who respected and trusted authority figures, never behaved inappropriately and was a dedicated student-athlete.

His mother recalls him saying, while in junior high school, that a lot of his friends thought adults were dumb but he'd been paying attention and thought most of them were really smart. That included his parents.

“Mom and Dad were the best,” he said. “I never clashed with them.”

His story seems as if it could have sprung forth from Disney screenwriters. In the ‘50s. But the script probably would have been rejected for being too sappy. After all, protagonists need to have flaws, make a big mistake or two along the way, and be rescued – by a dog, a policeman, a cowboy, somebody – before achieving their dream.

Not Vogel. He and his older brother, Justin, were by all accounts exceptional kids, although Justin quickly admits to being less “squeaky clean” than Frank.

“My wife and I were amazed,” Vogel's father, also named Frank1, said. “We'd say, 'What did we do to deserve these two kids?'”

His mother recalls the time when, as a grade schooler, Frank was leaving the house with a basketball cradled under his arm to go play. He hadn't been gone but a few seconds when he raced back inside, shouting.

“Hey, Mom, quick! Get out here!'

“What is it?”

“You've got to come out and see this sunset!”

Frank being Frank.

Push his parents or brother – or for that matter Frank himself – to recall a time he got into trouble at home or school, or just engaged in some mischief, and you hear crickets.

“I don't think he ever got in trouble,” Justin said.

Well, there was the time the owner of a cafe across the street from Frank's grade school called Frank's father because of what his six-year-old son had just done. He had ordered a ketchup sandwich. Was that OK?

It was OK. And there's your dirt on Frank Vogel. He loves ketchup. Most condiments, actually. He puts them on everything. Look in his son's cupboard, Dad says, and you'll find a half-dozen extra-large jars of ketchup. Dad remembers seeing a t-shirt once that said “I put ketchup on ketchup.” It reminded him of his son.

Beyond that, the only thing distinguishing Frank from the masses was his wholesomeness. He got along with everyone, but wasn't really part of the popular crowd until high school, when his starting role on the basketball team provided some cred. Even then, he mostly blended in. He hustled his way onto the academic honor roll and into the starting lineup on the basketball team. He had dabbled in soccer and cross country, but basketball was his passion.

He had begun honing his game against Justin, who is two years older, playing in the driveway no matter how cold it got. Philadelphia is the closest NBA city to Wildwood, so the brothers were 76ers fans. Justin was Julius Erving, and Frank was Mo Cheeks in their one-on-one games. Frank also idolized Michael Jordan, like every other basketball-loving kid of his generation. He had a Jordan poster on his bedroom wall and spent his savings on the Air Jordan shoes. He would later find inspiration in Jordan's book for young readers, “I Can't Accept Not Trying,” which emphasized a point he would never forget: the biggest mistake in life is to not go after what you want.

Small Town Celebrity

His trust in adults, his desire to achieve and his love for basketball all came together as an eighth grader at a basketball camp run by Allen “Boo” Pergament near Atlantic City. One of the counselors, Mike Gatley, put on a demonstration showing a variety of ways a person could spin a basketball. One of them was at the end of a toothbrush while pretending to brush his teeth. The point was to show what a person could accomplish if he set goals and put in the time to work toward them.

For the next few days around the house, Justin recalls, Frank spun basketballs like a madman, in every way imaginable, including at the end of a toothbrush while pretending to brush his teeth. He loved doing things like that, even in private, to test and amuse himself. He made up individual baseball games, too, such as one where he threw a ball off the edge of a step and awarded base hits depending on where the ball landed.

“When he was working on something, he was pretty intent on doing it,” Justin said.

The toothbrush trick mastered, Vogel showed it off for one of the cooks at Urie's Waterfront Restaurant, where his mother worked part-time to supplement her income as a school secretary.2 Once word got around, the other workers wanted to see it, so Fran had her son come in late one night, after hours, to show it off on the back deck. One of the other workers had tried unsuccessfully to get on the Stupid Human Tricks segment on The Late Show with David Letterman, and offered to pass along the phone number to call and apply.

Frank said sure, assuming Letterman's show was just a local program. How would he know? He went to bed at 10 most nights, and almost never stayed up past 11. His mother called, scheduled a time for an interview and audition, and before long the entire family was making the 155-mile trip into New York City – the first time for Frank.

Frank had to take a basketball, of course, so he and Justin each took one, dribbling down the streets of Manhattan, small-town kids playing among the big city skyscrapers. Upon arriving at the NBC offices at Rockefeller Center, Frank went into a room with a woman to perform the trick. She loved it, and asked if they could spend the night so he could show the lead producer the following day.

“Little did I know the cost of the hotel room,” Frank's father said. “The whole thing was like $600 for one night.”

The Vogels took in the Empire State Building that afternoon. This was 1986, when security was less stringent than today, so Frank and Justin took their basketballs to the top floor. Today they would be banned as potential weapons, but Frank and Justin didn't even consider dropping them 102 floors to the street below, Letterman-like.

The next day, a Wednesday, the impressed lead producer said Stupid Human Trick participants usually have to wait more than a year to get on the show, but someone had canceled and they had an opening for the following Tuesday. Frank was booked for the 5 p.m. taping.

It was big news back in Wildwood. The local newspaper, the Atlantic City Press, ran a front-page article on Frank's appearance the day of the taping. That night, at the NBC Studios, Frank waited in the Green Room with his parents while Justin sat in the audience. Mom and Dad were scared to death. Mom, normally talkative, was quiet. Dad, normally reserved, was chatty. Twelve-year-old Frank was coolly oblivious, still unaware of the scope of his audience.

Wearing an untucked red shirt, smiling and showing no hint of nerves, he performed the toothbrush trick flawlessly. Letterman loved it, and posed for a photograph with the family afterward. The Vogels arrived home that night just in time to watch the show's 11:30 PM airing. Some of the bars in town had organized gatherings for the townsfolk to watch young Frank Vogel perform nationally, but Frank himself wasn't interested. He announced he was going to bed, but Mom prevailed on him to at least watch his segment.

He did. And then he went to bed.

He was paid $452, after taxes, for his appearance once it was confirmed he wouldn't lose his amateur status and still would be eligible to play college basketball. The segment was re-aired a year later, and he got another smaller check.

A Natural Leader

Vogel and Letterman share a defining characteristic.

Letterman grew up in Indianapolis amid humble surroundings, graduated from Ball State and then made his mark as a local radio host and weekend weatherman on Channel 13. He dreamed of more, though, and in 1975 gave up all the comforts of home to move to Los Angeles to take a shot at a career as a comedy writer and standup comic.

Vogel would one day decide he wanted more, too, and trade a sure thing for a long shot.

He had a solid high school basketball career, averaging about 10 points and eight assists for a Wildwood High School team that finished 23-6. Vogel claims to have been the fifth-best player on the team, and it's not false modesty. His coach, Joe Bimbo agrees. But even that was an accomplishment, given the impression Vogel had made as a chubby eighth-grader.

“I didn't think he was going to be anything,” Bimbo said. “He had no talent whatsoever. He just worked hard.”

Vogel was cheerfully oblivious to the opinion of others, and supremely dedicated. A couple of years earlier, he had told his father, quite seriously, he had decided to become a Division I point guard and then go on to play in the NBA. As a more realistic eighth-grader, buoyed by his experience at Boo Pergament's camp, his life ambition had become – and recorded in the school's yearbook – to run a basketball camp and teach the game and life skills to young kids.

Still, he wanted to get everything he could out of his high school career, and put everything into it. The point guard, he was the prototypical coach on the floor, in season and out. Most of Wildwood's road trips were one-hour bus rides, or longer, so when the team was within 15 minutes of its destination Bimbo would send Vogel to the back of the bus to wake up his teammates and go over the scouting report. He communicated through Vogel during games, too, sometimes harshly. And, in the summer, Vogel would round up the other players and make sure they were playing somewhere. At one team camp, a grandfather who owned a limo service picked them up and drove them home in style.

Vogel's intangibles of maturity, intelligence, dedication, discipline, leadership and poise shone throughout his senior season, on the court and off – never more, perhaps, than when the home in which he and his mother were living (his parents had separated amicably the previous summer and would later divorce) was destroyed by fire.

It happened on Dec. 10, in the middle of the night. Vogel was awakened by the sound of glass breaking in another room. Suspecting an intruder, he got out of bed and cracked open the door, but smoke poured into his bedroom. When he poked his head into the hallway, it felt like he had stuck it in an oven. He hit the floor and yelled for his mother to wake up. He crawled to a sliding glass door in a front room, but it was far too hot to touch. Smoke filling his lungs and barely able to breathe, he crawled back to his room and shouted at his mother to crawl out of her bedroom window. He did the same from his bedroom, and joined her in the backyard. By leaving their windows open they drew the fire to that end of the house, quickly incinerating the entire structure.

The cause of the fire was never determined for certain, but was assumed to be electrical. Regardless, Frank and his mother lost all their material possessions. But the Wildwood community is small, and tightly-knit. It rallied around them, raising money and donating household items and clothes.

“I had a wardrobe that was probably better than what I had prior – within 24 hours,” Vogel said. “It was an incredible show of support.”

He and his mother lived in an empty luxury high-rise apartment for a couple of weeks, and then stayed in a friend's in-law apartment for the rest of the school year. Just a few days after the fire, Vogel played in a holiday tournament, had a career-high 15 assists in one game, and was voted MVP.

The loss of his home and possessions hadn't motivated him, but it hadn't distracted or discouraged him, either.

“Just one of those life lessons,” he said. “About how you deal with adversity and let basketball be your refuge.”

Editor's Note: You just read Part 1 of a three-part story on Frank Vogel's life and career. Read Part 2 »   Read Part 3 »

1 — Vogel is not Frank Jr. His father is, however.
2 — Fran Vogel was a secretary to the principal during the school year, and worked as a waitress at Urie's in the summer to help pay her sons' college tuition. “It keeps you young,” she said. “I was never in better shape.” A talkative lady, she knew how to inhale tips from customers. “Do you have frog legs?” one might ask. “I used to but I got them fixed,” she would say. She now works in Hammonton, N.J. for a company that designs and builds kitchens. Vogel's father has been self-employed most of his career, such as by owning a sign business and publishing a real estate guide.

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