By John Feinstein
Sunday, January 14, 2007
After 15 years of coaching in the NBA, Jeff Bzdelik is familiar with travel by charter. So it wasn't surprising that he was quite comfortable sitting up front on his team's charter Thursday night with his dinner served to him as soon as he sat down.
"Kentucky Fried Chicken," he said, laughing. "Two pieces. Two small pieces. But if it doesn't snow, we might get to Laramie by 7:30 and find something open there."
The charter Bzdelik found himself on was the Air Force Academy basketball team's bus, which was chugging up Interstate 25 from Colorado Springs to Laramie, where the Falcons defeated Wyoming, 58-56, last night.
That would be the 18th-ranked Air Force Academy Falcons, 17-1 with double-digit victories over (among others) Wake Forest, Texas Tech, Stanford and George Washington. This from a school that ended a 42-year NCAA tournament drought in 2004.
"What people don't understand about this team is that it has talent," Bzdelik said. "People say we play hard, which we do, but a lot of teams play hard. They say our offense is hard to guard, and it is. But it isn't the offense that makes the players. It's the players that make the offense. These guys can shoot, they're tough and they make good decisions. Very good decisions."
After getting fired as head coach of the Denver Nuggets after 2 1/2 seasons, Bzdelik contacted Air Force about the opening created when Chris Mooney left after one year to take the job at Richmond. Bzdelik had been in the NBA as an assistant and a head coach for 15 years and only had been a college head coach once: in the mid-1980s, when he was the coach at UMBC soon after the school moved up to Division I.
"We were amazed when we heard an NBA coach might be coming to coach us," senior shooting guard Matt McCraw said. "But since he got here, he's been so into everything we've been trying to accomplish, it's been amazing. I think we all felt he fit with us from the first minute he walked in the door."
Bzdelik arrived in the midst of Air Force's remarkable basketball renaissance, which started when Joe Scott took over the program after the 1999-2000 season. Air Force had fired longtime coach Reggie Minton, who had gamely tried to keep the team competitive in the Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences with little luck. The Falcons never had a winning record during Minton's 16 seasons.
Scott, who had played at Princeton and coached there under Pete Carril and Bill Carmody, came in with the notion that the Princeton offense would be a perfect fit for an academy team. The offense is based on smarts, passing skills, decision making and (recently) the ability to hit open three-point shots. Scott recruited players with those skills, notably 6-foot-5 Dan Nwaelele and 6-6 Jacob Burtschi, who both fit the Princeton offense perfectly.
"We knew if we did what we were supposed to do, we would be tough to guard," said Burtschi, now a senior along with Nwaelele, McCraw and three other early Scott recruits. "Coach Scott's theory was simple: make a team work on defense for 35 seconds and they'll get tired. What's more, it affected their offense."
The Falcons won the Mountain West regular season title in Scott's fourth season, earning the school's first NCAA tournament berth since 1962. The sudden success earned Scott several coach of the year awards and the Princeton job that was vacated when John Thompson III left for Georgetown.
"We really weren't surprised," McCraw said. "We knew his connection to Princeton. And we knew Coach Mooney was going to stay and keep doing things the same way so we were prepared. When Coach Mooney left a year later, though, we were in shock."
Enter Bzdelik, who, with his credentials, no doubt would have been a candidate for a higher-profile college job or a top NBA assistant's job, any of which pays considerably more than his current employer. Yet Bzdelik called Air Force, not the other way around.
"I felt as if I was ready to do the full-circle thing," he said. "I'd started as a high school JV coach, worked my way up to college and then the NBA. I was ready to do something different and I knew that coaching at a place like Air Force I would have some recruiting disadvantages. We've lost kids for the simple reason that they don't want to be in the military. But when I find a player who fits into what we're trying to and he wants to be here, I know I'm getting someone who is smart, responsible and will be very coachable. You can't survive at an academy day-to-day if you aren't coachable."
Nwaelele and Burtschi are the scoring leaders (at 15.2 and 13.7 points per game, respectively) on a team that is built around six seniors but has young depth that Bzdelik thinks will keep Air Force very competitive the next few years.
Bzdelik intentionally scheduled tougher opponents this year, believing his team was ready to play a testy nonconference schedule. Air Force's only loss was in November to Duke.
"I think we were a little in awe of the name," he said. "But it helped us to play them. A couple weeks later we played Wake Forest [a 94-58 rout] and were fine with it. I think when we play our best, we can compete with most teams."
Bzdelik has changed his team's offensive approach. Scott insisted that his players not even look to shoot most of the time until the shot clock approached 10 seconds. Bzdelik simply wants a good shot.
"Before we never thought about shooting early in the clock," McCraw said. "Now, if we're open, we shoot. It's more fun that way, and it actually makes it harder for the defense because they never know when we're going to shoot."
If Bzdelik had any doubts about his choice two years ago, they were dispelled the first day he met his players. Doctors discovered that his daughter Courtney, then 13, had a brain tumor that would require surgery. When Bzdelik walked into his first team meeting, he introduced himself to each player individually, handing them a card with all his phone numbers -- home, office, cell -- on them.
"Anytime you need me, I'm there," he told them. "Doesn't matter what it's for, call."
The players had a card for him, too. It was for Courtney -- someone they had never met -- a get-well card put together and signed by the whole team. Bzdelik knew at that moment that he was in the right place. Courtney Bzdelik now is 15 and healthy, and is at most games along with her mother and older brother.
"We bonded right then and there," Bzdelik said of that first meeting. "It's just grown since then. I sleep well every night coaching these kids. I feel good about what they're doing and accomplishing. I'm having a blast."
As are they all -- riding the bus through the snow on I-25, eating fried chicken and winning basketball games.