Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg turns to some famous friends for help

By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 11:58 PM

Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell lives comfortably in Virginia Beach these days, retired from coaching since 2003. But he still tries to stay active within the sport he loves.

So when he had a preseason dream about the veteran-laden starting lineup that his friend, Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, was supposed to have this year, Driesell had to call him about it.

"I just told him: 'Look, they know your offense. They know your drills. They know your defenses. So just don't work them too hard,' " Driesell recounted this week. "That's one thing I think I probably did wrong in my career. I think I wore my teams out by the time the tournament came around. So I just said, 'You've got your starting team coming back, just take it easy.' "

Greenberg said Driesell's message "resonated" with him recently as he's tried to cope with senior forward Jeff Allen's strained groin. Left with just eight scholarship players because of injuries and a transfer heading into Saturday's matchup with Wake Forest, Greenberg has eschewed his normal mantra of "gotta practice" in favor of trusting that Allen "knows what we're doing" in an effort to keep him as healthy as possible for games.

Greenberg has turned to Driesell and other coaching notables to help navigate through the various setbacks that have threatened to derail the Hokies' season. While he has a group of assistants to provide guidance, Greenberg has also relied on a network of friends in the coaching business - "my fellow gurus," he calls them - for advice.

"We talk all season. We all have the same problems," Greenberg said. The coaches range from those Greenberg broke into the business with to legends of the game like Driesell and Bob Knight. "That's something I've always done, almost like a support group for coaches. It's just something that I think is important. You can be out there on an island, but who better understands what you're going through than someone who's going through it at the same time."

Greenberg's ethos revolves around hard work, so his mind rarely drifts away from basketball during the season. But that can have its drawbacks, especially when the Hokies aren't winning.

Last month, when Virginia Tech lost three straight games, including a heartbreaking home defeat to Purdue, Greenberg spent a couple long nights on the phone with Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, a friend since the early 1980s. At the time, Greenberg felt the chemistry on his team wasn't quite right and didn't know whether he should be concerned given the amount of seniors he had.

Izzo, though, was going through similar issues with his team. After advancing to the Final Four last season and returning a core of veterans, Michigan State has already lost five games. Greenberg credits Izzo for ensuring he didn't panic early.

"You've heard the saying misery loves company," Izzo said of his conversations with Greenberg. "But usually it's always about how to motivate kids and deal with distractions. I think whether it be injuries or other things, that's what Seth and I talk about a lot. It's not the tactical part of it, as much as it is the motivational part of it, the understanding part of it. I think sometimes coaches feel like their team is having these problems and nobody else is until they talk to somebody in a different conference."

Greenberg's latest quandary has him seeking advice from all over the country. The Hokies' roster no longer resembles the one that was picked to finish second in the ACC before the season, and it's forced Greenberg to alter his coaching philosophy in order to "figure out ways to keep your best players on the court."

He's spoken with Texas Coach Rick Barnes, who once got through a season with just eight players by playing more zone defense - something Greenberg has implemented the past two games.

And one of Greenberg's best friends, Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl, has been instrumental in helping him adjust his practices and how he speaks to the players that remain. Pearl had to make do with eight players because of suspensions toward the end of last year.

"My big thing was obviously just to try not to change," said Pearl, who suggested Greenberg implement no-contact practices now that conference play - which often involves at least two games per week - has arrived. "If the kids see you acting differently because your roster's short, then they're going to worry about it. Don't address it too terribly much. Don't focus on it. Focus on what you've got."

Greenberg hasn't strayed far from that mantra, whether the Hokies were defeating Florida State last weekend in a convincing manner or foundering away a 16-point lead in a 64-61 loss at North Carolina on Thursday night.

He refuses to look back on what could have been or the preseason expectations, instead channeling his energy into "coaching the team that we got."

"I'm not going to spend any time throwing a pity party," a defiant Greenberg said after the Hokies' close loss to the Tar Heels. "We can't change it, so let's go out and play some ball."

His friends couldn't have said it better themselves.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company