Rise & Grind
Southern Illinois-bred Jerry Sloan grew up from a stand-out college and pro player into one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
A knee injury ended Sloan’s career in ’76, and when McCutchan retired around the same time, it seemed the second part of his old mentor’s wish would came true: Sloan accepted the head coaching job at Evansville. But five days later, Sloan changed his mind, citing “personal reasons.” The mystery of why Sloan didn’t go back to Evansville remains, as he still cites the same “personal reasons” when asked why he never coached his old school. Eerily, the Evansville team went down in a plane crash that same season, killing everyone on board.
Instead, Sloan joined the Bulls as a scout that season and soon became an assistant coach. Then, in ’79, the Bulls named him their head coach. Three coaches before Sloan had failed in quick succession to get the Bulls up to Motta’s standard.
Sloan would fall short, too. In less than three years, his teams were 94-121. They qualified for the Playoffs in his second year, but the franchise fired their Original Bull early the next year. Yet, in talking about decisions he made as a young Bulls coach, Sloan shows both the stubbornness that made him a great player and the confidence that allowed him to succeed at his second stop. “I wouldn’t have done anything differently coaching the Bulls,” he says today.
And once again, after getting knocked down, like Sloan did in his aborted playing career at Illinois, he would come back stronger, better prepared. Although this time the transformation would take a few years. That was all right. He never seemed to be in any hurry.
The Utah Jazz hired Sloan as a scout, then as an assistant coach to Frank Layden. Seventeen games into the ’88-89 season, Layden retired and the team named Sloan as their head coach. Old friend Phil Johnson was named his assistant.
Stop for a moment to consider the long arc of Sloan’s great success over 23 years with Utah: He became the Jazz head coach three months before Blake Griffin was born. During the years he coached the Jazz, there were 245 coaching changes in the NBA. And five current NBA teams (Charlotte, Memphis, Toronto, Orlando and Minnesota) did not even exist when Sloan took over in Utah.
Today he’s third all-time in NBA wins (1,221) behind Don Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332). By 2002 he was the longest tenured coach in any major professional sport, and he obviously still was when he retired abruptly last spring.
And Sloan is one of just three coaches in the League’s history to notch 15 or more consecutive seasons with a winning record. (Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are the others.)
How about this stat? Jerry Sloan holds the record for most consecutive games with the same team: 1,673. Second place? Red Auerbach, with 1,192.
In our fast-changing, high-tech society, Sloan is practically the definition of “Old School.” And sure, there are a lot of old-school coaches, but nobody who has won as consistently in such a—well, such an obscure place. In an era of free agency, when a lot of players (and coaches) might as well have WHERE’S MINE tattooed on their shoulders, Sloan is like a human throwback jersey. In a world that values hipness and cool and street cred, Sloan is the anti-trend, the coach in a John Deere hat.
But when asked about today’s player and the typical NBA mentality, “What they consider hard work and what I consider hard work are two different things,” is about as critical as he gets. It’s practically impossible to get Sloan to criticize players, past or present.
This is the guy who married his high school sweetheart and stayed with her for 41 years, until cancer took her away. He never even had an agent, and every contract he signed was a one-year deal.
And winning consistently in Utah? How hard it is to attract players and win in a minor market like that?
Here’s a great irony: Sloan was not only the NBA’s longest-tenured coach. He was also the least decorated. He has never won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, although Johnson, the assistant who rode shotgun on Sloan’s long ride, won it. Do you think that bothers Sloan? Hardly. Instead, he wants to talk about the coaches he learned so much from as a player and assistant. Not just McCutchan and Motta, whom you’d expect. Sloan insists on mentioning, in very specific detail, all he learned from Paul Seymour, Johnny “Red” Kerr, his high school coach Haile, Ed Badger, Scottie Robertson, Larry Costello and, of course, Frank Layden.
In 2001, long before he wrote the book Glory Road, writer Dan Wetzel made his case on CBS.com for Don Haskins as the greatest college basketball coach of all time. Haskins was the winner of a single NCAA title, but Wetzel argued that he’d won a huge number of games in El Paso, a city and mid-level job where the other names on his list—Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, John Thompson, Henry Iba, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and John Wooden—would never have even considered coaching.
I’ll suggest a similar possibility here, although Jerry Sloan will be embarrassed and appalled: He may have been our best NBA coach ever. As great as Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkens were, Sloan was winning consistently in Utah. And despite having Stockton and Malone (they still sound better as Stockton to Malone, don’t they?), Sloan won with castoffs, also-rans and a less-than-stellar roster over 23 years in our most remote NBA city.
No, Jerry Sloan won’t like that suggestion. It will feel awkward, just like it felt as an out-of-place farm kid at a Big Ten school. As out of place as a fancy fedora would be on him. Still, over time, he might have to get used to it.
Rus Bradburd was an assistant coach at UTEP from 1983 until 1991. Now an assistant English professor at NMSU, he’s the author of “Forty Minutes of Hell: the Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson.” His first book of fiction, Make It, Take It, will be released in January of 2013.