Why do you make it so hard for me to hate you, Johnny Dawkins?
Why do you exude a professionalism I can only assume was ingratiated in you as a child, cultivated as a star for Michael William Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils and refined as a protégée of “Coach K” when you were done doing your thing in the NBA?
I think I know the answer: You’re a good dude. You paid your dues as a player, and a great one at that, then as an assistant coach learning from the master at your alma mater. I know firsthand that the Farm is a great place to be, so I know why you wanted to be here.
On the day you were hired almost five years ago, you said it took you and your wife “about 10 minutes” to think before accepting the job — it’s taken me two years for me to come around to the idea that this should be your last one at the helm.
There is a disclaimer before I really dive in, however. Firstly, I don’t believe this will be your last as head coach for the Cardinal. Secondly, if you can keep the boys in the win column for the rest of this season and snag an NCAA Tournament berth, I will devote another column to the wonderful taste of crow.
I sincerely hope to be coughing up black feathers come March.
But for now, I feel a responsibility to ask the hard questions and take whatever flak may come my way. And it seems like the more questions I ask, the fewer answers I get.
That’s a problem, especially when my first question is: Why haven’t we played in the NCAA Tournament since the Lopez twins led us to the Sweet 16 a month before you arrived?
I was more than willing to give the squad a nice little grace period, maybe three full years even, for you to retool, rebuild, instill whatever offensive and defensive systems you wanted.
Losing Brook and Robin to the NBA was a major blow, and not just because two more seasons of twin 7-footers would have likely resulted in two automatic appearances in the Sweet 16. No, it was a lose-lose because it sapped the talent out of the program in one fell swoop and made it very hard for you to recruit blue-chip talent to the Farm, a difficult enough chore already given Stanford’s academic requirements.
But you knew that would be the case. And you knew there would be injuries cropping up along the way and that nothing would go the way you wanted it to because it’s your first head coaching gig and that’s just life. But you signed up for this, and at the introductory press conference you said as much.
“There will be a number of things that pop up that I don’t expect at the moment,” you said. “But you know what, that’s part of the process. That’s part of the growth you go through. I think I’m prepared for it.”
I agree with that statement, I think you were prepared for it. But unfortunately there is one, and only one, ultimate judge of your performance: wins and losses.
In 2008-09, the team went 20-14, which is nice on the surface, except that it went 6-12 in conference play, which was good for ninth in the Pac-10. But I can explain that year away purely based on the talent on the floor.
I’ll do the same for 2009-10, when Landry Fields was about the only thing you had going for you. But 14-18 was not a good record for a school that made 11 consecutive appearances in the Big Dance from 1995-2005, and then two more in 2007 and 2008.
Which brings us to year three. It fell flat, and there isn’t much else to say. Sure, injuries to Andy Brown and Josh Owens did you no favors whatsoever, but another sub-.500 season kept fans, as well as recruits, away. If winning is a recruiting tool money can’t buy, losing is… well, it’s just bad.
It was during that season that I first began to question our relationship, Johnny. On the court, I saw no offensive blueprint for success and none of the creativity I thought you would bring to coaching given your playmaking ability as a player.
Maybe my expectations were too high. But all I had to go on was what you said, and what you said had me dreaming big. “I believe in an up-tempo game,” you said. “I believe in man-to-man defense. I believe in an offense that is predicated on good ball movement and player movement.”
Yes! That’s more like it! Except that didn’t happen.
Because what you put in place, or at least what your players decided to run on the floor, was more like the next part of your quote. “Some semblance of the motion offense, along with some sets.”
Uh oh. Perhaps I should have been worried when you said you wanted to run a motion offense, but not really, with sets, but not many of them.
Even in the struggling Pac-12, that won’t cut it. I thought we were supposed to be good last year, when we beat Oklahoma State and played tough against Syracuse in the preseason. And I still thought you had us rolling when we started Pac-12 play 5-1.
Then we lost to Washington State. And Washington. And Cal. And Arizona. And UCLA. And Oregon. And Utah! Seventh in the conference doesn’t work, not with Dwight “The Canadian” Powell, John “I love Seattle” Gage, Josh “Big Country” Huestis, Aaron “Fresh Cuts” Bright and Andy “White Mamba” Brown.
But I bit my tongue because I wanted to give you, and myself, one more chance to travel to a men’s NCAA Tournament game where my school was actually playing. That was supposed to be this year, when your “Pick Six” class was playing its junior season and was ready to rumble.
Instead, we’ve stumbled. A preseason schedule that saw us beat no one good, then two losses to open conference play, then an embarrassing loss to Colorado that came just days before we pulled the pants off of Utah. Why?
I know you weren’t the one out there missing shots (last in the Pac-12 in shooting percentage) or getting outrebounded (minus-1.4 differential in league play before Wednesday). But you were the one on the sideline and you get the credit whether we win or lose.
All of your work on the defensive end — and that’s where I seriously compliment you, because the team has usually kept up the intensity on the defensive end even when we couldn’t score — goes to waste when the ball doesn’t go through the hoop.
It’s sad, but heads have to roll.
The talent is there; clearly the performances against Utah and Oregon proved that this week. But there is no time left to blame the players. Something has gone wrong. I don’t think they trust you, I don’t think they believe, because it’s a fine line to walk between searching for a good rotation and starting different players on any given night, and I feel you might have lost track of that line.
I’m not sure they understand why the hot hand doesn’t play, like when John Gage literally couldn’t miss against Cal and then started the first seven minutes of the second half on the bench. Or why the cold hands aren’t told to try something different, when jumper after jumper isn’t falling.
Perhaps it’s just all lost in translation, and certainly I’m no expert sitting in the stands and not privy to what goes on behind closed doors and on the practice floor. But Bernard Muir is an expert, and I don’t know how long his patience will last either.
I think it’ll last until next spring, when your best and biggest recruiting class are seniors and cannot possibly not go dancing. There are factors other than winning in play in the decision, like contracts and upheaval.
But I don’t have that long. And while I don’t agree with it a lot of the time, the sports world requires success the day before yesterday.
I’d like to let you have the last word, because I talk a lot and ramble on. So as I take my leave of the sports department, I’ve picked another of your quotes from that first presser, and I’d like to imagine that it symbolizes the philosophy of any good partnership, be it at The Daily, in the Stanford basketball program or in life.
“We talked about trusting one another, because for us to do anything good, we have to know that we are telling each other the truth.”
You’re a good man, Johnny Dawkins. Let’s go win the Pac-12.
Miles Bennett-Smith has been Dawkin’ around with Daily sports for too long. Welcome him to his upcoming tenure as editor in chief at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @SmilesBSmith.