I was watching the replay of the Duke/Kentucky Elite 8 game from 1992 – the Christian Laettner game, arguably the greatest game ever played – this weekend. With just over 8 minutes to go Laettner got fouled going to the basket, and then responded by stepping on Aminu Timberlake’s chest. Laettner clearly did it on purpose and got T’d up for it, and rightfully so – you could make a strong case he could have been thrown out of the game.
I sent out a tweet watching the game giving Coach K credit for not over-reacting to the technical, and leaving Laettner in the game to help his team win. There was 8 minutes to go in the biggest game of the year, and Duke obviously needed him to win the game. I wasn’t giving Coach K credit for trying to win, I was giving him credit for not making an emotional decision.
I got a lot of positive interactions to the tweet, with almost 100 likes and retweets, but some of the negative responses were pretty intense, which I guess I should have seen coming given it was Coach K, Duke and Laettner. It was really interesting to see the difference in the reactions.
My point was this: When a player gets a technical foul, especially in a close game, it’s a pretty emotional moment. The easiest thing to do as a coach – and I’ve done this – is to get upset and pull that kid out of the game, leaving him to think about what he did on the bench. It shows everyone that you are in charge and you aren’t going to stand for bad behavior. But what you are doing there is adding your emotion to an already emotional situation – and that’s not usually when the best decisions are made.
So I do give Coach K credit for handling that situation with composure. He didn’t add negative emotion to the situation and make it worse. He figured out what was best for his team and stayed on that course. Was he trying to win the game? Hell yeah he was. That’s a huge part of his job.
Now if you feel like Coach K made the wrong decision, and should have yanked Laettner from the game, I understand how you can feel that way – even if I don’t agree with it. One of the toughest decisions you have to make as a head coach is if necessary discipline rises to the level of suspension for a game. If it does, then you have to make the tough call to sit your player. If it doesn’t, there are plenty of other ways to discipline a player and get the right message across. I’ve said many times I don’t believe in half-suspensions or minute restrictions, because I don’t think they send a clear message (What you did was wrong! But we are going to play you enough to hopefully still win the game…). Now, is there behavior that clearly merits you are done for the game and you shouldn’t check back in? Sure there is. Did this rise to that level? I’m not so sure.
And the hard truth for me is this – At the time, in the heat of a close game, when one of your players makes a terrible emotional decision – that isn’t the proper time for you to make the right decision. There is so much that goes into any decision on discipline, and it shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction that’s made in a matter of 30 seconds. That’s not how you make the right decision, and I firmly believe that. If you can take your time to get it right, you should do that.
I’ve had that type of reaction as a head coach, and I’ve learned from it. A kid gets a technical foul in a heated game, and I’m pissed off, so I bench him the rest of the game. But when I go back and watch the tape, I realize the officials made a mistake. He didn’t do anything to deserve the technical foul, he was actually trying to help the situation. And the official clearly overreacted. But I sat him down for the rest of the game to send him a message, and I had to apologize to him and the team later. Now, is there a lesson to be learned in not putting yourself in that situation to get a technical? Certainly. But I was reacting to the T, not to the behavior of my player.
I was at a high school game a few years back watching a friend of mine coach, and his best player got a technical foul early in the second quarter after a skirmish. He and a player on the other team got a technical foul. I saw it pretty clearly, and my guys kid really wasn’t involved and was trying to walk away. But the ref stuck them both. So the kid sat for the rest of the 2nd quarter (while the opposing player who got T’d up kept playing), and his team went down by 14 points, never to recover.
So I asked the coach about the T’s after the game. He said they had a rule, that if you get a technical foul you sit the rest of the quarter. I found that interesting. First of all, the penalty by definition is going to be random. If you get a T with 8 seconds left in the quarter, you only sit 8 seconds. But this kid got stuck early in the quarter and had to sit over 7 minutes. That didn’t make sense to me.
I asked my guy if he had ever gotten a technical foul and he said he had, he’d gotten a few. So I asked him if he always sat for the rest of the quarter when he got one and he laughed and said “no, of course not.” Um, okay.
If you have a rule about technical fouls and they are unacceptable and you stick to that rule, because it works for you and it fits your personality, I have no problem with it. We all handle them differently. But not all technical fouls are the same, and the actions that lead up to them certainly aren’t the same. I’m certainly not arguing against discipline or accountability. But I do think it’s important to think about how consistent you are with it, and the manner in which you make those decisions.
You may have a rule about being late for practice as well, but everything is contextual. I’ve had players late for practice because they overslept or they were flat out lazy. But I’ve also had players late for practice because they had a young daughter and their mother couldn’t get over in time to take care of her, so they had to wait until she arrived. And that made them late for practice. Are those situations going to merit the same response? Technical fouls come in different context as well. The difference with technical fouls is often they happen in the heat of an intense game, where it is even harder to make the right decision.
For the record, my teams have always had a rule on technical fouls which we discussed at the beginning of each year. The team would agree that they were unacceptable, and I would make sure to talk about how you can’t put yourself in a position where you might get one, because sometimes the officials will overreact. We would have a team run of “11 in a minute” – 11 lengths of the floor finished in one minute, for everyone on the team, if we got a technical foul. That would give us a chance to discuss the technical and how it came about – but also to finish the game and give our team the best chance to win. I’ve gotten one technical foul in 13 years as a head coach, and thats’ one too many. I ran the 11 in a minute drill myself the next day while the team watched.
If you want to say that Laettner stepping on Timberlake’s chest was enough to bench him for the rest of that game, I get it. The truth is if we had replay back then for flagrant fouls like we do now, he probably would have gotten a flagrant 2 and been ejected from the game. Should Coach K have taken that matter into his own hands and benched Laettner immediately? You can make that argument as well. I’m not so sure. Was Coach K thinking about winning? I’m sure he was, and I don’t see how you can kill him for that. It’s absolutely his job to think about winning, and with 8 minutes to go until the Final Four that is only magnified. Did he put winning ahead of discipline or what was right for the player and his team? I have no idea, and neither do you. I don’t know nearly enough about how he handles discipline inside his program. I have no idea if he handled that with Laettner and how he did it. You can certainly have your opinion on it, and reasonable minds can disagree.
But I do firmly believe this – making a reactive, emotional decision in the heat of a game to bench a player because he got a technical foul is not the right way to go. Measured, unemotional decisions to me lead to the best outcomes. And it is simply hard to be measured and unemotional in that moment.
Regardless of what approach works for you, it’s important to be consistent. And it’s harder for me to be consistent making an emotional decision during an intense game. Don’t overreact to the emotion of a technical foul, take the time to make the right decision.