On a night when most eyes, rightfully so, were drawn to George Hill's game-tying three pointer, near triple double, and career-high 37 points, another team member's accomplishment came and went with very little fanfare. Overshadowed by the nature of Friday evening's heart pounding overtime victory against the Portland Trailblazers was Frank Vogel's 150th win as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
Following Monday's most recent blowout against the Denver Nuggets, Vogel, with 151 wins, sits at fourth amongst coaches on the Pacers' all-time win list behind only Slick Leonard (529), Larry Brown (190), and Rick Carlisle (181). While Coach Vogel has a long way to go to catch Slick's extraordinary record, his own milestone victory is an impressive feat considering the short leash executives hold coaches to in today's NBA. In fact, over the offseason, there was a record in coaching turnover across the league with 12 new hires. At a time when the hiring and firing of coaches seems relatively commonplace, the mere fact that Vogel, who was originally tagged as an "interim" coach, became and remains the head coach is impressive. He has not only stuck, he is thriving as the Pacers' leader with a career win percentage of .640.
To many, the Pacers' head coach is probably most known for his silver-lining coaching style. Where others may notice fault or shortcomings, he sees potential for improvement and maintains an optimistic vision for the future of the team. Notably, earlier this season, Larry Bird was asked by USA Today Sports to reflect on how he built the Pacers into a contender. When he recounted the moment he announced to the remaining staff that Vogel would assume the role of interim head coach, the Pacers' President of Basketball Operations spoke of his coach's perpetual state of positivity:
"(I said,) 'He's going to run the team but I want to tell all you guys right now, if I hear you say anything negative, other than coaching negativity about a bad pass or a bad screen, I'm going to fire you on the spot. I don't want any of that here. We're going to look at the future. We're going to be positive about the future.' "
According to USA Today Sports, Bird later added:
"I'd say Frank went a little overboard," he said. "He's been here what, three years, four years? I've still never heard him say anything negative. It worked. He's done an excellent job."
Well, Bird may never have actually heard it, but according to team-stabilizer, David West, Coach Vogel, in fact, did say something with a negative slant once.
Per USA Today Sports, the less than positive tirade occurred on February 12, 2012, when the then 10th best defensive team in the league, the Indiana Pacers, had given up 68 points to the Miami Heat and were trailing by 29 points at halftime on their home court. (It is important to note that the Pacers had already laid an egg against the reigning Eastern Conference champions in their prior match-up, getting throttled, 118-83.) David West subsequently spoke with USA Today Sports about the rare Vogel rant that occurred during halftime that night:
"Within the locker room, we didn't have the belief that we could compete at that level. But he did. So he came in at halftime, I remember, and he went Andrew Dice Clay on us. They were running over us, and he just lost it, just Andrew Dice Clay-ed it up."
West notes that Vogel's heated message to his team was meant to motivate his players to start believing in their ability to compete against the league's finest:
"He said, 'We can compete with them at every position, but we've just got to know it. We got beat, but we responded. We played better in the second half. I knew then - when he had that moment - that his belief in this group and in some of the younger guys who he had been around as an assistant, was strong. And we've just grown from that moment on."
Ironically, from West's commentary, it seems that one of Frank Vogel's finest coaching moments came not during any of his 151 victories; but, rather in the midst of an embarrassing loss.
Perhaps, it was during that halftime speech that Frank Vogel first uttered his famous declaration (originally credited to legendary football coach Bill Walsh) that can often be heard in his team's wired huddles on national television or via behind-the-scenes looks at Pacers' practices:
"Champions behave like champions before they're champions."
Defeat at the hands of the league's eventual repeat champions did not shake Coach Vogel's steadfast belief in his team's ability to win the title one day. Each season of his tenure, the Pacers have improved upon the prior one. First, they made the playoffs going down 4-1 to the team with the league's best record, the Chicago Bulls. The following year, they, rather unexpectedly, lasted six-games against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Last season, they were the Central Division Champions for the first time since 2004, and were just one victory (really one lay-up) away from the NBA Finals. Currently, they boast the league's best record, and are marching toward their ultimate goal of hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy and raising a banner in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
As successful as the players collectively and individually have been under Vogel, it seems there will always be debate amongst the NBA community as to which Pacer is the most-undervalued. The names mentioned most often are George Hill and David West. In contrast, their fellow starters, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, are being mentioned in conversations about various league awards. Analysts are including Paul George on the list of MVP candidates, Lance Stephenson as a serious contender for Most Improved Player, and Roy Hibbert as near lock for Defensive Player of the Year. With all of the hype surrounding the three of them, is it any wonder Hill and West often go unnoticed even on nights when the two of them contribute significant numbers such as the 67 points they combined for against the Portland Trailblazers.
Even so, it seems that the most unheralded person walking away from the team's victories is Coach Frank Vogel. Last Friday, he left Bankers Life Fieldhouse with his 150th win with little mention or accolades. This weekend, as the Eastern Conference's coach with the best record, he will coach the East's All-Star team. When commenting on the accomplishment, Vogel characteristically, respectfully stated, "My name is on the release, but this is recognition of our team's success." He wanted all of the praise to be focused on his team's achievements, rather than his own.
Knowing that the Indiana Pacers, under the leadership of Frank Vogel, have achieved undeniable elite status as the number one team in the league, begs the question, where would the they all be if, 44 games into the 2010-2011 season, he had not agreed to be the team's interim coach?
Over the years, he has successfully imparted to his players the first and, arguably, most important rule of basketball - believe. Vogel's positive approach to coaching and his contagious optimism make it easy for his players to buy into the idea that they can win the NBA Title and raise the banner in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With that as the team's primary 2013-2014 goal, Vogel has made it clear that the right combination of skill, preparation, assertiveness, trust and togetherness can lead to actually being the league champions after having confidently behaved like champions all along.