This is 2 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
I think we can all agree that progress is a good thing: forward is preferable to back, and up is a hell of a lot better than down. Progress is all about development, advancement, evolution.
If you examine our history as a planet, you'll notice that a crucial element of progress is the development of authoritative hierarchy, structures that dictate what's better than what. Tribes evolve from hunting and gathering to dividing labor, and then to deciding as a group whose labor is more important. Organisms organize into a tidy vertical line, each looking downward to find out what's for dinner. (And when it comes down to it, the science/creationism debate is just a mild disagreement about whether authority had to be discovered, or if it was was simply there all along.)
Athletics are certainly not exempt from natural laws. Take the sport of basketball, for instance - an American game with profound spiritual cues, owing to its constant upward vertical tendency. In hoops' hundred-or-so year odyssey from Void to Great Sporting Spectacle, it's evolved from curious peach-basket exhibitions to regional friendlies to domineering national oversight. But that's progress for you.
The food chain in Division I isn't too difficult to divine - a peek at next Tuesday's Coaches vs. Cancer curtain-lifter between Syracuse
will provide plenty of biological research material. It's a game that will feature one of the widest disparities of on-court talent that you will see this year - figure a Vegas spread of at least 40 points.
In the shining white jerseys, a national powerhouse program that will be opening its defense of a top-conference championship; in glum maroon, a team that has traditionally struggled to find wins in the play-in-game-prone MEAC, a school used to seeing seasons die on the vomit-and-piss colored floor of Richmond's Ashe Center
. The home team will unleash an array of highly-recruited blue chip studs, while the visitors will counter with a collection of trickle-downs, junior college what-ifs and walk-ons.
Need I go on? One sideline will be patrolled by a newly minted Hall Of Famer, a recipient of the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award, a man two years removed from a National Championship... and if you forgot his name, it'll be painted right there on the floor. On the other sideline, some dude named Clifford Reed.
But look more closely. It may not have any impact on what happens on the Carrier Dome court, but there's one very important thing that the two coaches have in common. Both have stayed true to their schools, just like you would to your girl. Or guy.
Very few can match Jim Boeheim's 40-plus years of Orangey service (which began with a walk-on tryout), but Reed is a lifer if ever there was one. As a student-athlete, he knocked down threes in Moore Gym, and graduated on time in 1987. Four years later, after putting in some years at the high school level, he joined the BCC coaching staff. He was named head coach of the Wildcats four years ago, and has struggled valiantly to make a go of it, winning just 35 of his first 100 games. I love this line from his official biography.
Perhaps no one in the league is as cherished for doing more with less than Clifford Reed, Jr.
We're told by our media overlords how to follow college basketball: respect the teams with numbers next to their names, make punchlines of the bottom 50, forget the other 259 exist. When a power-conference team puts together a string of losing seasons, the camera swings away and leaves them in that dark in-between-land - all we see at home is winning, winning, winning. That's far more reality-show than reality.
The constantly-shifting tides of the Top 25 create a false world that breeds false dreams. Our natural instincts urge us to practice upward mobility, but for some (like eager college basketball coaches) this too can be illusory. Sometimes progress is best achieved by standing still, a Zen secret that separates the true Hall Of Famers and the nomadic mercenaries.
My heroes are the coaches who stick around, helped along by the AD's who keep faith in them. They're the ones who become synonymous with the basketball programs at their schools, who come to be regarded as pillars in their communities, who are strong-willed enough to brush off the "he can't coach" taunts during the down years. I have nothing but the deepest respect for folks like Fran O'Hanlon at Lafayette
(10 years at a school without scholarships to offer) or Vann Pettaway, who's coming up on 400 wins in 20 up-and-down years at Alabama A&M
. And then there's Jim Phelan, who recently retired from Mount St. Mary's
a year before he made it to a half-century.
Next Tuesday night's game in Syracuse will be tidily completed (many ticketholders will likely leave early), guffawed about for a minute or two in the sports bars, and then quickly moved on from by most folks. Tucked away in a far corner of Hoops Nation, BCC will give Clifford Reed every opportunity to turn the corner with his beloved program, perhaps even achieve a modest legend for himself - I wish him all the best.
And you never know - as any old-time Orangeman will tell you, Syracuse was way down on the basketball food chain until a certain Mr. Boeheim showed up.
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