I had breakfast recently with John Linehan, the former Friar great who has more steals than anyone in the history of college basketball. John was a sophomore on our first team at Providence College in 1998.
John’s story is a great one. He was a 5-8 point guard (John and I often argue over which one of us is taller, and 5-8 is being generous) out of Chester, PA who was originally headed to Howard to play basketball. At the last minute John didn’t feel right about going to Howard, thinking he could play at a higher level, and ended up at Winchendon (MA) Prep School for a prep year. In the spring of that Prep year, John signed with Pete Gillen and his staff at Providence College after they realized their point guard, God Shamgod, was leaving for the NBA. Late in the spring of that year was the first time John had an offer to be a Big East player.
John played with a chip on his shoulder, having played for years with and against some of the best players in the country in the Philadelphia area. After 5 or 6 years in the NBA Kobe Bryant was asked who was the best defensive player he had ever played against, and he said “A guy named John Linehan.” John was undersized and not naturally gifted on offense, but determined to make his mark on every game he played by being a pest defensively. As a 5-8 guard he knew he had to find a different way to help his team and didn’t get caught up in proving he could score. He showed a maturity level and intelligence that not many college plays possess, understanding his best way to impact the game was on the defensive end rather than trying to prove to people he was something he wasn’t. I’ll never forget a win we had at Villanova when John dominated the game and taking a look at the box score afterward. John finished the game with 6 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 steals, but he had 0 field goals. He dominated a game without making a basket.
Given John’s toughness and determination, it wasn’t at all surprising how hard he worked to make himself a good offensive player as well. He became a consistent jump-shooter and a guy who could penetrate and make his teammates better. But the offensive side was a result of pure hard work – that stuff never came naturally to John. And he never lost sight of the way he could help his team the most. There were times on the bench when I was just amazed – it seemed like John could outrun the ball while it was in the air to make a steal. Friar fans have great memories of the way John played and drove Big East teams nuts. Most will remember Jim Calhoun subbing Taliek Brown and Tony Robertson in and out of games for each other because John was terrorizing them into turnovers.
John is a great example of so many things that can help you become successful. Understanding who you are as a player and what you can really excel at. The ability to overcome a perceived flaw (size) by learning how to play with it. Not to mention all of the basic stuff you always hear about with hard work, determination and perseverance. John had something to prove every time he took the floor, and coaches always love to recruit players who play that way.
John is also a great example of what tough players can do for a coach and a program. John played so hard in every practice and every game, as if he thought someone was going to take his scholarship away from him at the end of the day. He was never considered a Big East recruit, so he always played with that chip on his shoulder. That approach was contagious with our entire team at Providence College. We happened to be an undersized team that first year, often playing 6-6 forward Erron Maxey at the center spot, but we played really hard and fast.
John Linehan was such a big part of the identity of that team and our program that we established in those early years. We used to get a lot of credit for how hard we competed, and fans would come up to me and say “I love how hard you guys play.” I remember wondering how much of that had to with John Linehan, a player we inherited when we first got there. While I think we did a good job coaching and getting everyone bought in to the way we expected to play, a lot of it had to do with the players we had on the team. John Linehan and another undersized guard, Corey Wright, set a tone for how we played that everyone followed. Having guys like that made our coaching job a lot easier, because giving great effort was part of their nature.
John Linehan always made me think that tough players who are great competitors make you a better coach. I think about it a lot now that we are trying to build something at the University of Maine. It’s not that you can’t set a tone for your team and have an effect on them by demanding a certain approach, you certainly can. But it’s a lot easier when your players are naturally disposed to play that way, and it can become contagious. If there are certain things you want your team to be, it helps to recruit those things first. Find them in the players you bring in, and get the most out of them when they get to your program.
John Linehan just finished up his 12th year playing professional basketball after stealing the ball 385 times in his NCAA career, still the all-time record. He’s made a lot of people better coaches along the way, and I’m lucky to be one of them.