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Why did he fail? Final thoughts on Jim Wooldridge

Why did he fail? Why couldn’t he get over the hump?  Why were we “so near and yet so far.”

I’ve asked others for their take, but what I usually get is this:

“Wooly is a crappy coach”
Me: How do you know that?
“He doesn’t win enough games.”
Me: Why do you think he can’t win more games?
“Because he’s a crappy coach.”
Me: So how did you come to the conclusion that he was a crappy coach?
“Because he didn’t win enough games.”
Me: So, given the decent things he seems to be doing, what would be the specific set of things he does badly leading to him loosing games?”
“He’s a crappy coach!!  What are you, deaf?”

So, one last time.  Here is my analysis of what went wrong.

First we have to clear off the false answers to that question.

“He didn’t know how to prepare a team.”  Sorry, but the problem wasn’t having a plan, the problem was the team executing the plan.  This year we saw more evidence than before that JW could prepare and coach a team for the specific things the opponents were going to do.  Time and again, it was clear the team was aimed at the vulnerable point in the other team’s offense.  Time and again we shut down their star players.

“He couldn’t coach a team in a close game.”  Well, the record on close games is a fact.  But what really is the reason?  I think we are simply not taking into account that we were not a deep team.  I know this year the buzz was our depth, but in fact all we did was close up the gap a little.  I compared how many players we had that played 10 or more minutes with all our B12 opponents down the stretch.  We played 7 guys 10 or more minutes.  In every single one of the last 6-7 games we were going against a team that played eight, nine, or in two cases TEN players ten or more minutes a game.  I think it is entirely possible that exhaustion in close games down the stretch can explain one or two losses - UT and OU come to mind.  We saw JW outcoach the opponent in the CU game, the KU win, and even the UT loss.

“He couldn’t recruit.”  Another red herring, in my view.  Divide players into “NBA class” (Blackman), “Pretty good” (Hoskins, Massey), “Average” and “Project” (Afeli).  Compared to Asbury and Altman, he recruited more people in the pretty good class.  The jury is out if Martin is “NBA” or “pretty good.”  The jury is out if Harris is pretty good or average.  Hayden would have been pretty good.  What you youngsters do not appreciate is that, unless memory has failed, we have NEVER had a coach who was a great recruiter.  We’ve NEVER had a class like KU gets every year, or talent like UT has.  Tex went to the final four with Kansas kids.  With Hartman, recruiting almost didn’t matter, because his particular specialty was molding decent talent into winning teams.  People most definitely did NOT talk about him as a great recruiter.  Kruger left with a rap that he didn’t want to be bothered recruiting.  Altman - who knows.  Asbury we all know about.  So it might well be that an argument could be constructed that Wooly was one of the best coaches in this department we’ve ever had … BUT - it wasn’t yet enough.  It was possible he could have increased the talent level more, but it was happening very slowly.

So, what are the reasons for failure?  Here is my take.

He was learning how to coach in the B12.  He made a big jump in his career to move to the B12, a big jump. I think JW got better as a coach over the years.  Moves like changing offenses, bringing in an assistant coach who can relate to the players, the obvious quality of defensive game plans were all signs of growth. 

Offense.  He was a defensive coach.  His yanking of players for defensive miscues was a signature move.  He called time outs for defensive mistakes.  But our point production never got to where it should have been.  We did not see the discipline on offense we did on defense.  We didn’t see the smooth passing, quick adjustments and just flat out skill development on offense.

Player management.  Why did Tyler and Schyler never develop into consistent role players?  Why was Afeli forgotten, then suddenly reappear? Did we wait too long to see Delvez play?  Why did Curtis disappear down the stretch - and not even play at all?  I’m willing to bet there were reasons for some of this, but it seemed this year that we saw more and more odd situations like this.

Jim Wooldridge is a nice, classy guy.  Time and again we saw him step up, accept responsibility and accept no excuses.  Interviewer wonders about attendance, Wooly says “if we win games the fans will show up.”  Interviewer offers a plausible excuse for a loss, Wooly rejects it.  “We expect them to play hard all the time.”  A player goes nuts (e.g. Hayden), Wooly protects them from the press, and lets everyone think it was his fault rather than blame the player.

Well, what is wrong with that?  What wrong is that we don’t live any longer in a culture that values those things. We live now in a culture where nice guys finish last more than ever before.  We openly value winning at almost any cost - and value guys who don’t get caught. 

To build a program, some political infighting is needed.  You have to get full support from the Athletic Department.  You need money, you need facilities.  I believe, but I cannot prove, that when the final history of this is written we will learn that JW did not ever get the full out support from the Athletic Director that he needed.  Synder did openly demand full support, and he had a way of getting what he wanted.  I suspect, but cannot prove, that Wooly told his assistants to forget about the AD and focus on solving what they could solve.  I doubt he talked out of school very much.  I doubt he let boosters know what was going on.  When you combine that with the anemic reporting on our program from the local mainstream media (which is just sooooo small town in the way it ignores any sort of bad news or controversy) and all this stayed hidden.

A second aspect to the problem with being a classy guy has to do with loyalty to assistants.  While we don’t have terrible assistants, I suspect we would have benefited by an upgrade.

A third aspect is that he never got respect from the refs.  He never solved how to work them to his advantage. 

Recruiting.  I know I rejected this as a reason for failure, but it is still a reason for not moving forward faster.  Think about where recruiting would have been if JW had been back for one more year.  Next year we loose DD and gain Williams and, as a practical matter, also gain Delvez.  We had one more scholarship.  What would JW have been able to bring in?  A near NBA class player, a pretty good player, or a project?  With our point guards being a junior and a senior, we need a “pretty good” class, freshman point guard.  And the year after next we need a very good recruiting class including someone of Hoskins ability and at least a 6’9 height.  The contrast to what Huggins can do on recruiting and what JW could have done is obvious.  Again, it goes back to the jump JW made from his previous coaching jobs to being in the Big 12.  Huggins made his reputation elsewhere, JW was going to make his here.

The task for an unknown coach to recruit to Manhattan is larger than you all think.  We keep assuming that our best effort of the season is what we should be doing every game.  By that logic, Ski Jones was a slacker when he scored below 63 points.  Focusing on our great efforts against UT or the KU win and assuming that was the true state of our talent just ignores the actual size of the talent gap.  Our cultural history as a program is doing more with less.  We all loved that Harman could take cast off players and win with them.  Well, you say, JW had six years.  Yes, he did, and you can rap him for where we are after six years.  But if you compare our final Sagarin rank against the Sagarin rank of what it takes for a B12 team to get into the NCAA you do in fact see a consistent closing of the gap, year after year.  The wins and losses were flat and that is the bottom line.  But maybe this is a bigger hill for a guy without a national rep to climb than we admit.

JW is gone and we have all moved on now.  But, bottom line, the man had the faults of his virtues.  It’s a rough and tumble game and nice guys do not finish first.  Money is everything, winning is everything.  But not to me, and not to Jim Wooldridge.  I think of him as a lost opportunity for Manhattan and Kansas State.  He gave more than he took and he left things better than he found them, and there is not much higher praise you can give for how you do a job or how you live a life.

But, he didn’t make enough improvement, and the reasons I offer are my best guess.

Updated 5/1/06; © 2006 John P. Nordin