Don Nelson/Keith Smart; George Blanda; Cal Athletics; Jeff Tedford/Kevin Riley; Raiders QBs
THE INEVITABLE has finally been announced: Keith Smart is taking over for Don Nelson as Warriors coach.
At the Warriors Media Day on Monday, general manager Larry Riley said he’d been talking to Nelson about this since February. What took so long? Riley didn’t say, but I’m sure Nelson wanted to make certain he’d be paid for the final year of his contract. I don’t blame him. He’s done a lot for the franchise, and he deserved that final year.
(An explanation: I was at the Media Day because the Examiner sports editor wanted me to write on it for Tuesday’s paper. That seemed reasonable but not long after I got there, Rich Lieberman came up to me and said, “Have you heard that Jimmy Raye got fired?” I hadn’t because I hadn’t been listening to the news before I came to the Warriors thing, but as soon as I heard that, I made a phone call and got my assignment switched. I knew that would be the only sports story that mattered in the Bay Area in the next 24 hours.)
Nelson has also been a lot of fun, with his constantly changing lineups and strategic matchups. In the playoffs, it was always fun to watch him matching wits with opposing coaches – and often beating teams which were physically superior.
But Nelson always had an Achilles heal: He didn’t really understand the “bigs.” He should have paid more attention to his Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who could be very critical of some players – including Nelson – but never, ever criticized Bill Russell. He knew how counter productive that would have been. Instead, he praised Russell constantly and the Celtics won nine championships in 11 years, the last one with Russell as a coach.
When Nelson drafted Chris Webber, a player with great talent but a fragile ego, he rode him constantly.
In the offseason after Webber’s rookie year, I talked to Dan Finnane, then a co-owner and the president of the team, and asked him what the problem was. “It’s Nellie,” he said. “I told him he should meet with Webber in the offseason and smooth things out, but he won’t.:
Of course, that never did get smoothed out. When Chris Cohan bought the team, he sided with Nelson and traded Webber, and the Warriors started their slide downward. They’ve had only one playoff team since.
When Riley took over as general manager, he was assumed to be Nelson’s pawn – as Riley alluded to Monday – because he’d been an assistant coach under Nelson. But, he’s been anything but. He started to try to re-make the team in his first year, and the transformation is almost complete now.
At a pre-draft meeting with writers this spring, Riley said bluntly, “We’re planning for long term, not just this year.” That was the first public sign that Nelson would be leaving.
Then, he started to put together a team that is the anti-Nellie, a strong defensive/rebounding team. It will still have scoring potential, but you won’t see an offense dependent on shooting 3’s.
The new coach is quite comfortable with that. Smart followed Nelson’s philosophy when Nelson missed games with physical problems – “As an assistant coach, my job was to implement the ideas of the head coach,” he said Monday. As a head coach, though, he’ll follow a more traditional path. I was amused by questions about how the players would adjust to his style. For openers, there’s been so much turnover, that most of the players on the roster have never played for Nellie. And, even for those who have, returning to a style which they’d all played before coming to the Warriors will come very naturally to them.
The elevation of Smart was applauded by Jim Barnett, who once played for the Warriors and is a long-time broadcaster for them. “He’s absolutely the right choice,” said Barnett. “He’s a good guy, a smart guy. Players like him and they’ll play for him.”
He’s also a former NBA player, which is a primary requisite for success for an NBA coach. If a coach hasn’t played in the league, players don’t respect him and he doesn’t understand them.
Case in point: Mike Montgomery. As a college coach, Montgomery is the best I’ve watched closely since Pete Newell, and I’m delighted that he’s at Cal now. But when he was named Warriors coach, I wrote that he would fail – and he did.
“One time, we were playing in New Orleans,” Barnett remembered, “and he scheduled a morning practice. We lost the game that night.
“After the game, he complained to me, ‘These players stay out late and then, they’re not ready the next day.’”
“I told him, ‘Mike, NBA players like to stay out late and screw women. That’s who they are. They hate morning workouts.’”
You can bet Smart won’t make that mistake.
LINE OF THE WEEK: The SF Giants, one of the most offensively-challenged teams in baseball, will play the similarly afflicted San Diego Padres this weekend with the NL Western Division title on the line. This could be the first MLB playoff spot decided by penalty kicks.—Janice Hough, Palo Alto.
CAL SPORTS: The cutback in the Cal intercollegiate sports program was shocking – but not surprising. The football monster must be fed.
The working philosophy used to be that a winning football team would bring in enough money to cover at least most of the costs for the non-revenue sports, which is usually everything but football and men’s basketball.
No longer. Intercollegiate football has become like the arms race. When one program gets something, everybody else has to have it.
Who has the solution? I don’t, and certainly the new commissioner of the Pac-10, Larry Scott, doesn’t. His solution is to break up old rivalries and bring in two schools, Utah and Colorado, it what may even wind up being a losing proposition, because of the additional travel costs. Put on that dunce cap and go sit in the corner, Larry.
GEORGE BLANDA: Blanda and I came to the Raiders in 1967. For George, it was a means of extending a career that reached a record length. For me, it was the start of a career writing about professional football that is now in its 43rd year.
I didn’t know what to make of Blanda. Most of the Raiders players were younger than my then 32 years but not by much. We were contemporaries. Blanda was not. He was clearly from a different era. He was almost like a man of the frontier. It was easy enough to picture him living in the previous century and putting up a log cabin. Or, being a quick-draw sheriff fighting off the bad guys.
We had some run ins early. One time, when he had missed some field goals and I had criticized him in print, he said, “I should kick you over the goal posts.” I retorted, “The way you’re kicking, I’d be wide to the right.”
I soon realized that Blanda would never blame anybody else for a missed kick. “You saw it, you write it,” he’d tell writers asking about a missed kick. The problem was, we didn’t really see it. There were no TV monitors in the press box then to replay plays and focus on the essentials. We had to look at the play ourselves and, even with binoculars, we couldn’t often tell whether the snap was off or the hold bad. Most likely, it was one of the two because Blanda was very accurate from 40 yards in.
So, I learned that, if I had any questions about a missed field goal, I should talk to the holder and/or the snapper, not George.
Some of the Raiders were notorious drinkers and women chasers in those days, particularly in training camp, when they were away from their wives (most players were married). Blanda didn’t run with that group but he wasn’t a saint, either.
One time, I was chatting with him by the hotel pool when a young reporter came up and, trying to be flip, said to Blanda, “It must be hard to get laid and get back in time to make curfew.” Blanda just looked at him before saying, “Not really.”
With his teammates, he was both apart and together. As I said, he didn’t run with the younger crowd but he was friends with the ringleader, Ken Stabler, and gave him some valuable advice about quarterbacking.
But when they were playing poker on the team plane one trip and Stabler won several hands in a row, Blanda abruptly quit the game.
He was a great competitor. Though he was happy to continue his career by being the kicker, he was convinced he could still play quarterback. In the 1969 AFC Championship game, Daryle Lamonica hit his hand on the helmet of Kansas City defensive end Aaron Brown. That severely affected Lamonica’s throwing. Blanda tried to convince then rookie head coach John Madden that he should replace Lamonica, but Madden stayed with his starter – and the Raiders lost.
At the time, I thought Madden’s decision was the correct one, but the next season, Blanda played sensationally in relief of Lamonica, as a Raiders team that had seemingly grown old overnight needed his heroics to get to the AFC Championship game again.
Blanda was never a classic thrower, as Lamonica was, but he was very smart. He knew where everybody was on the field, and he got the ball out quickly. He was totally different from Lamonica. In baseball terms, it was like following Nolan Ryan with Kirk Rueter.
After he was cut by the Raiders in 1976, Blanda went back to Chicago, where he had started his career with the Bears. He worked for a trucking company and would sometimes get back to Oakland to visit his old teammates, but our paths didn’t cross.
Then, one day in the mid-‘80s, Sam Spear and I were laving lunch at The Grotto in Jack London Square, which had been a favorite of Raiders players before Al Davis foolishly moved the team to Los Angeles.
Restaurant co-owner Mike Stipic came over to the table and said, “George Blanda is here and wants to talk to you.” So, we invited him over. George sat down, after saying I was his favorite sportswriter (news to me!) and we had a very pleasant lunch, reminiscing about the glory days of the Raiders. I never saw him again.
I was saddened to hear of his death, but I’ve always said it’s not how long you live but how you live. George Blanda lived life by his own rules and succeeded magnificently. He’s unique in my experience of covering sports, and I think other writers would say the same. And I’m sure there will never be another athlete like him.
JUST WONDERING. . . if Jeff Tedford will use this bye period before the UCLA game to make a quarterback change.
Going into the spring workouts, Tedford told me there would be a real competition between Kevin Riley and Brock Mansion. But then Mansion got hurt and missed most of the spring, and Riley returned as the starter.
But Riley’s maddening inconsistency has not changed. He’ll make a great throw and follow it with a terrible one. Tedford has clearly lost confidence in him. He was content to settle for field goals when the Bears got close to the Arizona end zone in Saturday night’s game, and it ultimately cost him.
At one time, I thought Riley would be a great quarterback, but he’s far from that. The last thing Tedford wants to do is change quarterbacks, but it ay be the only way to save this season.
RAIDER QBS: Reader Steve Tripp points out that, when I referred to Bruce Gradkowski bouncing from team to team, that nobody thought highly of Rich Gannon when the Raiders got him.
Very true. Gannon wasn’t even regarded as a quarterback by man NFL people, who thought he was a good athlete who’d be better at another position, like defensive back. I didn’t know what to expect, only that he had to be better than Jeff (Tin Heart) George.
Jon Gruden saw something in Gannon, and the two worked together as well as Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Gannon didn’t have a great arm, but he had a knack for finding the open receiver. I likened him to a basketball point guard, the way he distributed the ball.
Gradkowski isn’t Gannon, but he gets the ball off quickly, uses his feet to buy time and moves the team. I question whether he can stay healthy the whole season, but he’s a much better choice at this time than Jason Campbell.
MEDIA TIME: I’ll be a guest on “Chronicle Live” at 5 p.m. Thursday on Comcast. That show will be done at AT&T Park, which should be interesting. At 9 a.m. Friday, I'll be a guest on Ken Dito's "Press Box" show on KTRB, 860 AM.
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