One of the four teams in the NCAA finals this weekend doesn't really belong there. The Indiana Hoosiers, coached by the brilliant Bobby Knight, are not one of the four best teams in the nation on paper. In fact, when I saw them play at the beginning of the season, I figured they would be somewhere in the middle of the Big Ten.
The reason the Hoosiers are playing UCLA this Saturday is that they have one of the finest man-to-man defenses in the country. Coach Knight spends 80 per cent of his practices working on defensive fundamentals, and from all indications his players have learned well. Indiana's strong defense allows them to stay with teams with far superior material, even if the Hoosiers shooting is off range on a particular evening.
The point of all this is not that Harvard should try and steal Knight away from Indiana, but that the Department of Athletics should hire a defensively oriented coach. Knight could never fit in here. His boisterous, cantankerous, flamboyant style would clash with sedate, apathetic Harvard. However, his coaching philosophy is desperately needed. There is tremendous individual talent on the Crimson basketball team, but it needs to be blended together. The Harvard cagers' man-to-man defense has been pitifully weak for most of the last three seasons, causing the Crimson to lose a number of games they should have won. The danger with the run-and-gun philosophy employed by former head coach Bob Harrison is that on any given night a team's shooting could go cold, and its fast break become erratic.
Since man-to-man defense is all work and effort, the only way it can fail is if the ballplayers aren't hustling. There is no such thing as a cold night on defense.
Teaching team defense is a particularly difficult task, and it often takes a coach a good two or three years to get his ballplayers playing the way he wants them to. However, Knight took an erratic Indiana squad and despite the loss of star forward George McGinnis built a 17-8 NIT team last year and an NCAA finalist this season, employing a healthy does of inexperienced sophomores and freshmen.
Anyone who takes the position that no coaching approach can build a winner in the "Cambridge atmosphere" is either a fool or an apologist for Harrison. Despite some key losses, coach Bill Cleary put together an extraordinary hockey team in the Harvard atmosphere as have crew coaches Harry Parker and Steve Gladstone. If the new coach can build some semblance of a winner, fans will flock to the IAB and the program will flourish.
In looking for a coach, the Department of Athletics must make sure that they do not choose a candidate who is awed by Harvard. Bob Harrison could never really adjust to Cambridge and really didn't see the Harvard student as a normal human being. Harvard students are no different than anyone else, and if a coach has a different attitude, it will only mean problems for the program.
Lastly, Harvard needs a coach who is independent from all pressures, be they from the Department of Athletics, alumni or fans. The coach Harvard hires should have a definite basketball philosophy that needs no reinforcement, correction or elaboration from well-meaning observers. Coach Harrison was particularly susceptible to advice from alumni and felt that certain members of the Department of Athletics were his protectors.
What Harvard needs is a strong, independently-minded defensive coach, and if they get one, the Ivy League title will not be out of reach next season.